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.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Religion as comfort?

These days most people who follow a religion find it comforting.  They take it as reassurance that, as bad as things may be here, a better world awaits.  It also tells them that the universe is not just a series of random events but has an overall plan, or at least direction, even if we can't always recognize the plan.

These days most Christians assume they will go to heaven when they die.  Studies suggest that most don't even really believe in the devil or in hell.  A lot feel assured that they are saved.

While medieval and modern Christian theology are actually not radically different, the way the religion was perceived and the message it conveyed were very different.  Medieval religion was not comforting.  It was scary.



No one would have tried to comfort someone whose family member had just died by saying they had gone to a "better place."  Instead they would offer to arrange for prayers for the soul of the deceased, to see if they could possibly get them out of purgatory, if not indeed hell.  The liturgy for the dead wasn't sweet songs about passing over to the "other side."  Instead it was the Dies Irae, a poem about the "day of wrath."  Judgment was coming, and everyone was in trouble.

No one would have assumed they were saved.  Instead they would have assumed they were damned.  This was, not surprisingly, very worrying.  Religion did not comfort.  Rather, it provided tools to use against the horrors that it also provided.  But everyone knew how weak these tools were.  Demons roamed the world, seeking the destruction of souls, and even the most holy person was never safe.

One had a better shot at salvation if one were a member of the organized church, as a priest, monk, or nun.  Medieval churches are still thick across Europe, many with very tiny congregations, if any.  But didn't they have a big medieval congregation? you ask.  No, not really.  The churches might minister to the locals, but for an awful lot of them, they primarily served the body of monks or nuns or canons who lived there and spent much of their day in liturgy and prayer. A much larger proportion of the population went into the church than is the case today.

Families who sent their sons (or to a lesser extent daughters) into the church weren't trying to get rid of excess mouths.  They were hoping to have an insider praying for them.  And a lot of people in the church had "converted" (as it was called) to the religious life by their own decision, often against parental wishes.

Protestants tend to think of Jesus as their savior.  Medieval Christians of course assumed that Christ dying on the cross gave them at least a shot at avoiding hell, but they held Him in too much awe to get "personal" about it.  Rather they turned to the saints, who might help them avoid hell, even though they all knew they deserved it.

Note that all these concerns were concerns of the well educated.  It was the uneducated peasant or urban worker who was likely to tell you they didn't believe in religion.  Marx in the nineteenth century called religion the "opiate of the masses," but he was definitely not talking about medieval religion.


Friday, May 12, 2017

Birds in the Middle Ages

We take birds for granted.  Some are domestic and get eaten (or their eggs are eaten).  Some are wild and are hunted for food.  Some are wild, and we give them something to eat in bird feeders.  We admire their flight and enjoy their songs.  It's not often that we treat them as partners.

Medieval Europe had the same birds as modern Europe (though not in the same proportions), but they had more hunting hawks, trained to be partners in hunts, just as a modern pointer or retriever (dog) can be a partner to their master in the hunt.  (Or not.  The Labrador retrievers I've known would either not figure out where the duck went or would carry it off for their own purposes.  Training is everything.)

Most farmyards had chickens, free range, that lived on spilled grain and insects.  Keeping down the insects was an important function, nearly as important as laying eggs  Eggs were an important source of protein in the medieval diet, and when a hen got too old to lay, she became dinner herself.  Geese and to a lesser extent ducks provided eggs and feathers (and dinner).  Geese also made excellent watchmen, raising a great honking if something untoward happened at night.


Medieval people also ate songbirds, ones we would consider too small to bother with (and you would not have caught a medieval peasant putting out their precious grain for the birds to eat).  The easiest way to catch them was to spread lime on a branch, so that when the bird landed on it, their feet would become stuck.  They did however appreciate songbirds for their songs as well as their bits of meat.  The nightingale especially appears in many a song and story, enchanting the lovers.  (The US doesn't have nightingales.  Our loss.  Nighthawks are not the same.)

Aristocrats, but not peasants, used hawks in hunting.  Training a hawk was a long and complicated process.  The thirteenth-century emperor Frederick II wrote a book on falconry that is still respected today (an image from it appears below).  The chief goal is to make the bird, from a very young age, think of the human as the source of food.  Every respectable castle or manor had a mews, where the hawks were trained and housed.  One could find baby birds and raise them oneself or buy them.  Trained falcons made good gifts.



In the mews, the hawk would be tied to its perch, usually hooded to keep it calm and in the dark.  Merchants might sew a hawk's eyes shut while transporting them.  Hawks have much better eyesight than humans and can adjust for closer or longer distance in a way that is the envy of everyone wearing bifocals.  But if they can't see, they tend to sit quietly, even if not happy about it.

Hawks had leather straps, called jesses, attached to their legs, which could be held (or grabbed).  Generally the jesses had a bell, to help one locate a hawk that had not come back when it was supposed to.  The way it was supposed to work was to ride out hunting with a hooded hawk sitting on one's wrist (the hand and wrist in a heavy leather glove because the talons are sharp).  Then one unhooded the hawk and freed the jesses to send it up after a bird one was trying to catch.  Theoretically the hawk caught the bird and brought it back, getting a treat as a reward.  There are enough descriptions of chasing the hawk by the sound of the bell, of whirling the lure that was supposed to attract it, and giving calls to which it had been trained, to indicate that coming back didn't always work out right.  This was part of the fun of the chase.

Birds caught with hawks became dinner.  Wild ducks were normally caught with hawks, not with archery (and of course double-barrel shotguns were centuries in the future).  Different hawks were used for different prey.  Sparrowhawks (kestrels) caught small birds, as the name implies, big goshawks could take a goose, and there were others in between.  Different kinds of hawks were considered more or less noble and thus more or less suitable for those different social station.  A good master of hawks was highly prized.