Monday, August 21, 2017

Medieval eclipses

Today an eclipse was seen throughout much of the US, reaching totality in a coast-to-coast strip (we were in the 80% range).  So it seems like a good time to blog about eclipses.

These days astronomers can predict eclipses by calculating the paths of earth and moon.  (Eclipses of the sun are caused by the moon passing between us and the sun, eclipses of the moon by the earth passing between sun and moon.  But you knew that.)  There was no way for medieval people to make such calculations.  (The US is going to have another total eclipse of the sun in 7 years.  Plan ahead.)

Medieval people were therefore always surprised when an eclipse showed up.  Although there are plenty of modern notions that medieval people thought they were caused by demons, or thought a dragon was eating the sun (or moon), this is not true.  Medieval people knew perfectly well what an eclipse was, even if they couldn't predict it.  After all, even if you don't know that the earth goes around the sun, rather than vice versa, you could certainly understand how the moon could block the light of the sun or the earth the sun's light reflected from the moon.



Remember, medieval people assumed the earth was a globe, just like the moon.  The "earth was thought to be flat" fable was invented in the nineteenth century.

Some eclipses may well have passed unnoticed.  If it's a cloudy day, even an 80% eclipse of the sun won't look like much of anything.  And a cloudy night would mean you'd totally miss a lunar eclipse.  But medieval people saw and reacted to eclipses.

The usual explanation was that God had sent the eclipse to mark some major upcoming event.  After all, the normal understanding was that God was actively involved in His creation, even though they couldn't always figure out the hints He tried to give them.  If anyone important died shortly after an eclipse, then it was understood that the eclipse had been sent to warn about this event.  After the death of Henry I of England, many recalled a recent solar eclipse.

It is possible to calculate eclipses after the fact as well as ahead of time.  Astronomers have noted an eclipse that took place in the spring of the year we call 29 AD, which some have identified with the "darkness at noon" that the Bible says accompanied the Crucifixion.




Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Peasant Agency

Medieval peasants. it is often now assumed, had little opportunity to express their own ideas or to choose for themselves what to do.  This is actually not true.  Although some peasants were legally restricted by having servile status, being "serfs" (not the same as slaves), all of them had opportunities for independent action, or "agency" as the social scientists call it.

The term peasant means a country person, whose days are spent in farming, often paying rents and dues to a landowner who was supported and fed by the peasant's labor.  A peasant would live in a small village, not a town.  As much as we would all like to imagine we are descended from lords and ladies of the Middle Ages, most medieval people were peasants, and hence so were most of our ancestors.

These people, mostly being illiterate, did not produce written records, appearing instead either in the records of more powerful laymen or in records of the church.  Scholars thus long assumed they were marginal or even silent, at any rate not worth trying to study.  Interestingly, the same assumptions were once made about medieval women.  Once scholars stopped assuming "We'll find no information on women in the records" and thus didn't bother to look, and instead started looking, they found a lot.  The same is true of peasants.

Where peasants are seen most frequently is in legal disputes or in negotiations with their landlords.  Landlords were not in a position simply to impose whatever they wanted on their peasants.  Everyone believed in the value of tradition, meaning that sudden changes did not seem right, and even more importantly, peasants had a lot of leverage.  If a landlord gave them too hard a time, they could just leave.  No aristocrat wanted to end up walking behind his own plow or harvesting his own grain.

Peasants could also play different aristocrats off against each other.  Nobles wanted to be considered "defenders of the poor," and peasants knew that and could exploit it.  Where a serf had both a lord of the body and a landlord (different persons), he (or she) could appeal to one against the other.  Peasants could also appeal to the big regional courts.

In one well-known case, peasants appeared before the court complaining about a local noble, saying they were helpless, saying all they had was their "tormented voices."  They understood very well what all medieval people knew (though many moderns have forgotten), that professed weakness can be a real source of strength.  The court had little choice but to rule in favor of these "tormented" peasants.

It was through negotiation that twelfth-century peasants managed to get out of some of their more burdensome obligations.  For example, one of the markers of servitude was having to pay an annual head-tax, usually a penny a head.  Peasants who had been selling their produce to the growing towns and had saved up could and did offer their lords of the body a fairly large one-time payment in return for not having to pay the head-tax.  The lords of course accepted, but this meant that there was no longer an annual ceremony indicating that these particular peasants were serfs.  In a generation, they would have "forgotten" that they and their ancestors had ever been other than free peasants.

As landlords opened up previously-uncultivated land for farming during this period, they needed to attract peasants, and thus offered them low rents and the opportunity to regulate themselves in what was known as a commune.  In some cases the peasants insisted on having this in writing; the local priest could read it for them.

Certainly being a medieval peasant would not have been an easy life. By our standards even the most well-to-do were desperately poor, with none of the material goods we take for granted, living in a rough house with a dirt floor, snuggled up to the cowshed.  There was always the worrisome question whether the harvest would come in this year (no peasant ever decided he needed to go on a diet), and the back-breaking work would have worn them out by the time they were in their fifties.  But they were smart, and resourceful, and entirely capable of outwitting those who considered themselves their betters.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Fourth Crusade

We use the term "crusade" these days to mean a moral struggle, people rallying themselves to fight for the right (for example, World War II is sometimes described as a "crusade").  But look at the word; at its root it's something to do with a cross.  Its core meaning is Christians fighting for Christ, which in the Middle Ages usually meant killing Muslims (it's too late now to tell them it was a very bad idea, but we're still dealing with the aftermath).

(Interestingly, what we call a crusade was in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries just called going to Jerusalem.)

The First Crusade was successful beyond anyone's expectations, leading in 1100 to the establishment of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem.  As I've discussed elsewhere, winning essentially ended after that.  One of the biggest disasters (though it's hard to choose) was the Fourth Crusade of 1202.

This was after the 1187 fall of Christian Jerusalem and the failure of the 1189 Third Crusade to get it back.  But by 1202 hopes were high for victory.  A big army was assembled.  Planning to go by sea (rather than overland, since after all Frederick Barbarossa had died trying to go overland in 1189), the main army arrived in Venice, which had been busy building ships for them.

Here the Venetians came up with a startlingly large sum for their ships.  (Part of the problem was that the Venetians had been told to build ships for about three times as many Crusaders as actually showed up--and had done so, and didn't want to get stiffed for all that inventory.)  The Crusaders didn't have nearly enough money, and it was going to take more than a couple of bake sales to raise it.  So the Venetians suggested a compromise:  they would take much less if the Crusaders would first sack Zara, a trading rival to Venice, located in Croatia on the opposite coast of the Adriatic.

Zara was Christian (indeed Catholic), but the Crusaders needed those ships, so they took the deal.  The pope, understandably, was distraught when he learned about it and told the Crusaders to come home and be excommunicated.  Instead, trying to make up for this inauspicious beginning, the Crusaders pushed on, sailing to Constantinople.

The plan was to hook up with the Byzantines and together attack the Muslims in the Holy Land.  Popes had been hoping for over a century that such joint efforts might reconcile Latin Christendom and Greek Orthodoxy (though you'd have thought by now they would have figured out that it wasn't working).  Meanwhile, political infighting was going on in Constantinople, and the Crusaders were met in early 1203 by a claimant to the imperial throne who asked for their help in getting his "rightful" rule.

They threw themselves into it with enthusiasm.  Although they got the claimant crowned, one thing led to another, and in 1204 the Crusaders ended up sacking Constantinople (the claimant had been murdered in all the excitement).  Then they looked around and realized they'd just slaughtered a whole lot more Christians.  Whoops.

Very delicately worded letters were sent to the pope, saying how delighted he'd be to learn that Constantinople was now fully committed to Latin Christendom, no more schism here!  The pope even wrote back with congratulations before figuring out what had really happened.

The leaders of the Crusade headed west to "explain" more fully what had happened and to take home some of the great relics they'd obtained. Meanwhile, since  the westerners after all now controlled the city, they declared a Latin Empire of Constantinople.  Multiple French lords competed for who got to be emperor.  This Latin empire lasted only two generations, before the Byzantines took it back in 1261.  The long-term effect was just to weaken Byzantium, although it managed to hold on against the Turks until 1453.  But the Fourth Crusade never got anywhere near Jerusalem.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Medieval boats

Boats were a major part of medieval transportation.  Without combustion engines or good roads, dragging loads along the land was very slow and inefficient.  Much more efficient was to float heavy goods on barges.  Every smooth-running river was full of boats and barges, carrying both people and goods.  Bridges had to be built high enough that boats could easily pass underneath.  The more expensive a trade good and the further distance it had come, the greater the chance that it had been on a boat.

Boats were powered either by manpower (rowing or poling), horse power (barges pulled along by a horse or mule on the towpath), or sail.  Sailing on the rivers was mostly to increase one's current-fueled speed and to improve steering.  Part of the reason the Burgundy region became a major center of wine-growing, even aside from its good soil and climate, was that it was easy to put wine barrels on barges and float them downstream to the large Paris market.

Sail really came into its own on the ocean.  Sailing ships had been found in antiquity, but there were many improvements to rigging and sails during the Middle Ages.  The boldest sailors, of course, were the Vikings.  They developed their longships in the late eighth century, ships that could be either rowed or sailed, were big enough to cross the open ocean, and shallow enough to row up Europe's rivers to find tempting targets to raid.  By the end of the tenth century, they had reached (progressively) Iceland, Greenland, and even what are now the Canadian maritimes.  (See more here.)



Other than the Vikings, most medieval sailors were hesitant about heading off out of sight of land.  Ships tended to hug the shoreline.  Those heading to the Holy Land from Western Europe on Crusade usually went by ship, as both quicker and (slightly) less dangerous, though shipwreck on the windy and treacherous Mediterranean was always a possibility.  At the beginning of the thirteenth century, when leaders of the Fourth Crusade were trying to book ship passage for their soldiers to get to the East, the Venetian ship-masters charged them such high prices that they had to accede to Venetian demands to sack one of Venice's trade rivals as part of the price.  (The Fourth Crusade was a disaster all the way around, but that's a different story.)

The biggest advance in ships in medieval Europe since the Viking longships came in the fifteenth century.  Prince Henry of Portugal, nicknamed "the Navigator," sponsored improvements in ocean-going ships that allowed Portuguese sailors to leave the well-known confines of Europe and the Mediterranean and start south along the coast of Africa.  Henry's purpose was to find a way to get to the Indian Ocean, where spices from the fabled Orient came on Arabic dhows (ships), to join trade networks that led to Europe.  He found Africa a lot bigger than he had anticipated, but quickly realized that trade and colonies in west Africa had a lot to recommend them in the meantime (ever wonder why Angola is Portuguese-speaking?).



It was of course due to rivalry with Portugal that led the Spanish kings Ferdinand and Isabella to sponsor Columbus and his crack-pot scheme to reach the East by sailing west.  So the integration of the New World into European culture owes a lot of fifteenth-century ship building.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Meat in the Middle Ages

Modern people in the West have an uneasy relationship with meat.  On the one hand, we love it.  The smell of hamburgers on the grill or turkey roasting gets everyone's attention.  It's obvious from our teeth and from archaeology that our Stone Age ancestors ate meat (normally cooked) as part of their diet.  Meat has more calories per volume than vegetables (generally), so if one is hunting and gathering it makes sense to hunt for meat.  Humans can eat pretty much every kind of animal, whereas an awful lot of plants are indigestible or just don't produce nutrients for us (grass won't work for humans).



On the other hand, there are a lot of things we think "bad" about meat.  Every recipe for a "healthy diet" starts by talking about cutting back on red meat with its saturated fat.  Many vegetarians and vegans believe it is not right to raise sentient creatures just to kill and eat them.  (I once saw a sign in range-country Wyoming, fighting back:  "Did you know that every day thousands of innocent plants are killed by vegetarians?  Eat more beef!")  This is further complicated by the popularity of things like gluten-free diets, the so-called "Paleo" diet (not clear where Paleolithic woman would have gotten the olive oil), and low-carb diets, where one tucks happily into meat.

As I discussed in an earlier post on the medieval diet, medieval people had a lot fewer foods to choose from than we do, because they didn't have New World foods like corn and chocolate (much less processed foods or fruits and vegetables out of season).  For them, the majority of their daily calories came from bread.  "Give us this day our daily bread" was not spoken metaphorically.  However, they loved meat and ate it when they could.  They couldn't have cared less about saturated fat.

Meat was expensive, rare, and hard to keep fresh centuries before refrigeration.  For most medieval people, pork was the most common meat, but it was only eaten fresh in the fall, at the time of the big pig roundup and slaughter.  Everyone at their fill, then the rest was smoked and salted to last the winter as an occasional treat.

The aristocracy hunted for deer and went hawking for birds, but over-hunting then, as now, can drastically reduce the population of hunted creatures, so the powerful tried (without overwhelming success) to restrict the right to hunt to themselves.

For most people, beef was eaten only when the old dairy cow was no longer producing, and chicken when the hen stopped laying, though young bulls and cockerels might be harvested out of the flock.  Songbirds and rabbits provided additional sources of meat.

Red meat was considered to make one lively and lusty.  Monks considered this bad, so they normally ate no red meat at all.  (It all made sense in terms of Humors.)  To lead a pure and simple life, breaking away from material things, they had to give up meat.  Meat broth might be allowed, however, if a monk were ill, and there were always stories (about other monasteries, of course) about monks who feigned almost constant illness so they could live in the infirmary and have meat.

For a special guest (like a bishop or a great lord), the abbot would be expected to serve something better than the bread and vegetables on which the monks normally lived (with maybe some eggs).  So they would serve fish or maybe cheese (but preferably fish), not red meat but a little classier than regular monastic fare.

This idea that fish was a semi-penitential food, halfway to being a vegetable and certainly not to be considered red meat, gave rise to the assumption that Catholics should eat fish rather than meat on Fridays during Lent.  (It used to be every Friday, but it's just been Fridays-in-Lent since the 1960s.)  These days, however, eating fish (generally more expensive than hamburger) has lost a lot of its penitential aspect and seems more a ritual act.

Our grocery was advertising "crab legs for Lent."  Let's not go into detail on that one.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

Medieval artists

The stereotype of an artist today is someone starving in a garrett, probably wearing a beret, maybe smoking a cigarette and drinking absinthe.  This stereotype probably derives ultimately from the opera La Bohème (a great opera, but not a particularly informative work of social history).  Were medieval artists like this?

No!  (You knew I'd say that, didn't you.)

Medieval artists were not free-spirited individuals creating art in solitude and following their own muse (and starving), but rather professional artisans, employed (and paid) to produce art.  The distinction between art and architecture which we make really didn't make sense.  The majority of medieval art was religious, and a lot of it was produced for churches.

The people who employed artists were often religious leaders (bishops, abbots) but might be wealthy lay people, especially in the late Middle Ages.  Art included illustrations in Bibles and religious books (called illuminations), statues big and small, crucifixes and other liturgical objects, carvings on the fronts of churches or on the capitals at the top of pillars, and wall paintings.


The above image is a capital at the top of a pillar, showing the story of David and Goliath.

There were standard ways of depicting certain people and events; Saint Peter, for example, was always shown with enormous keys.  But the artists had a great deal of latitude in how they worked with the standard expectations.  Artists were given a lot of room for creativity, so that even though a particular image might look at first glance a lot like others, the individual artist would make it his (or hers).

It used to be believed that medieval artists worked anonymously, but in fact the best ones had excellent reputations, and artists often signed their works.  A lot of these signatures have been worn off over the centuries, but if you look carefully at the tympanum over the front door of Autun cathedral, you will see the words "Gislebertus hoc fecit" right under Christ's feet, meaning, "I Giselbert made this."  Giselbert was rightly proud of his work.


(The above image may be too small for you to see the words, but they're there.  See detail.)



Art was valued both for its beauty and for the value of the materials as well as the quality of craftsmanship.  Illuminations in Bibles, for example, often included gold leaf.

During the Renaissance (which is really another term for the late Middle Ages in Italy, as I have discussed elsewhere), artists started to produce portraits of lay people, which had not really been found earlier, other than a few kings.  Again, the artists were commissioned (and paid).  They often worked  in ateliers, with masters and apprentices.  The great majority of Renaissance art, however, was religious.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Are the Amish medieval?

Are the Amish living in a modern version of the Middle Ages?  Short answer, No.

The Amish are living in twenty-first-century America, just a somewhat different version than most Americans.  But they would not be able to live as they do if not surrounded by the modern, commercial US.

Let's start with a few obvious differences between modern Amish life and medieval life.  The Amish are now found exclusively in the New World, mostly North America, not Europe.  And their religion is a version of Protestantism, not Catholicism.  They reject violence, which medieval Christianity was able to deal with at least in some circumstances, and they baptize adults, not infants, as did both medieval and most modern Christians.  During the sixteenth-century wars of religion, both Catholics and Protestants decided they were heretics and persecuted them mercilessly.  No wonder they still try to stay out of the limelight.

It's generally known that the Amish live a consciously simple life, without electricity, without automobiles, without fashionable dress.  But where do they get all the things they need for this simple life?  From the rest of us.

Well-water is pumped not by an electric pump but by a windmill.  Did an Amish man cut down a tree and carefully carve the vanes from wood?  No, he ordered a metal windmill.  A Rodeway truck brought it to the farm.  Amish clothing is homemade.  Did an Amish woman spin and weave her own cloth?  No, she bought factory-made cloth, often dyed fairly bright colors (suitable for teenage girls) as well as black and navy.

(Fun fact:  You can tell an Amish woman and a conservative Mennonite woman apart at once, even though they wear the same overall style of dress, because the Mennonites always wear prints, to distinguish them from the Amish, who never do.  The Amish will however use prints in quilts.)

The Amish drive buggies rather than cars, buggies often made in an Amish workshop--but in many cases made of fiberglass.  The buggies are essentially nineteenth-century in style, not medieval; there were no buggies in the Middle Ages.  And the brakes are modern, and on New Order buggies there's a battery to run the headlights and taillights.  The horses who pull the buggies are often retired race horses.  Bicycles are fine in many Amish communities, and they buy their bikes the same way the rest of us do.  They use money and checking accounts the same as anyone else.

How about food?  The Amish certainly grow a lot of their own.  But they also buy a lot of groceries, flour and canned goods and cookies and other processed foods unknown in the Middle Ages.  And of course they eat all the foods found in the modern world but not in medieval Europe, such as tomatoes and potatoes and chocolate and corn.  They can a lot, using techniques developed in the nineteenth century.

How do they access cloth stores and grocery stores?  If they live close by, they can drive their buggy.  Otherwise, they will hire a driver and a car or van.  The Amish won't have a phone in their house, but they may have a phone booth out by the road, for use in emergency or for use in business.  Cell phones have been making headway in the Amish community.

Inside their houses, the Amish will have modern plumbing and a modern kitchen.  The stove and refrigerator run off propane, rather than electricity or piped-in gas, and the light is Coleman lanterns rather than overhead electric lights, but they aren't cooking on an open fire by candle light.

Now some accuse the Amish of hypocrisy, claiming they aren't as "simple" as they purport to be.  But such an accusation is based on a serious misunderstanding.  The Amish aren't trying to live in the Middle Ages.  They aren't even trying to live in the nineteenth century, though a lot of their farming techniques went out of style a century ago.

Rather, they are trying to follow a lifestyle that is humble rather than showy and is focused on home and family.  The problem with electricity for them is that if you're on the grid, you are making people work on Sundays to get you your electricity 24/7.  Same with the gas lines or the phone.  The phone can also disrupt family time, making the home accessible to people far away.  The car can get you very far away very quickly, whereas with a buggy you won't ever be far from home, and everyone who sees you knows where you're going.

The Amish prefer farming as a family-centered activity, but they aren't medieval peasants.  For one thing, they don't have landlords.  They all have a basic education and tend to get newspapers and read a lot.  And whereas leaving one's family for life in town was a difficult and wrenching decision for a medieval peasant, Amish youth can and do leave the Amish life and still stay in regular contact--as long as they do so before being baptized.