Friday, July 31, 2020


They did not have corn in medieval Europe.

Wait! say my British readers (or those who have been reading books by British medievalists).  There are all these references to "corn"!  Yes, but they are using the word "corn" in its broad sense of "grain."  They certainly had grain (wheat, barley, rye primarily) in the Middle Ages.  But there was no maize, corn in the American sense, Zea mays to be scientific.

I thought I would blog about corn because it's an excellent example of how our diet and the diet of medieval people differed.  (They didn't have potatoes or tomatoes either, as I have previously discussed.)  Corn is a New World plant.

Both North American and South American indigenous peoples cultivated maize.  It is descended from a wild grass-like plant, teosinte, with which only a few mutations on key genes produced cobs rather than just little tufts of seeds, and didn't have the seeds scatter spontaneously when ripe.  It has been cultivated in Mexico for at least 9000 years, perhaps eaten originally as popcorn (though without "butter flavor" or movies).  It was well established throughout the Americas when Europeans first arrived.  For the Iroquois, it was one of the "three sisters," along with beans and squash, vegetables that they grew to supplement the wild animals they hunted.

In the Andes, almost as many varieties of corn were developed as varieties of potatoes.  They still have many not found in the US, such as purple corn or the very large-kerneled so-called Inca corn.  The picture below is from a produce market in the Andes.

Corn is now pervasive in the American diet.  You may start the day with corn flakes.  If you eat store cookies or drink soft drinks, look at the label--the chances are excellent that you will see corn syrup used as a sweetener.  (Medieval people didn't even have sugar for the most part, much less corn syrup.)  Puddings, sauces, and pie fillings are thickened with corn starch.  Corn tortillas of course are made of corn, and indeed tortillas were a part of the diet of Mexico and the American southwest long before the Spaniards arrived.  Corn, both the ears themselves and the stalks, are chopped and fed to cattle.  Most of our beef cattle are fed a heavily corn-based diet to fatten them up.  Corn is also used to make ethanol, which is added to most gasoline.  Right now fresh corn on the cob is just starting to appear in farmers' markets in the northern part of the US, but this is a tiny fraction of where corn ends up.

In the world overall, more corn is harvested by weight than any other grain.  It grows fast and can be cultivated in a variety of settings if one chooses the right variety, mountains, plains, northern climes, tropical climes....  Some people now may want to reduce the amount of corn in their diet, but it's hard.

When the Spaniards reached the New World they started eating corn (unlike tomatoes, which they initially considered poisonous).  However, they had serious doubts about corn flour as a substitute for wheat flour.  Priests said only wheat flour could transubstantiate in the mass, meaning you couldn't use tortilla chips for the wafer, and the army leaders feared eating corn would weaken them somehow, making them more like the natives.  Of course this issue was complicated by the fact that wheat is not native to the New World.

So as you munch your cornflakes, popcorn, store cookies, pudding, cola, and nacho chips, remember that medieval people would have had no idea what you were eating.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020
For more on medieval food, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Little lost monasteries

As I have discussed earlier, there were a large number of monasteries in the Middle Ages, houses where men (or women, though not both together) lived like a family, sharing their possessions, following a simple life cut off from the outside world (like in pandemic quarantine!), devoting all their attention to prayer and contemplation (not to Netflix binging).

Historians today tend to focus on the famous ones, like Cluny, whose church was the biggest in Europe, or Cîteaux, head of an order of austere "white monks" (so-called because unlike most monks they did not dye black the wool for their habits), or Fontevraud, where English kings and queens were buried.

But there were a whole lot of other monasteries, smaller for the most part, "lost" to historians today because most of their documents were lost, by the French Revolution if not indeed during one of the upheavals (or fires) of the preceding centuries.  Even their buildings have in many cases fallen into ruin, been deliberately destroyed, or sold.  During the Great Depression, some churches sold their buildings to American collectors.  The "Cloisters" in New York City, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, came from St.-Michel of Cuxa, in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Less well known are the remains of the monastery of St.-Laurent, in the Puisaye region of Burgundy.  But the large Romanesque portal of the church is now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where probably most people who see and admire the portal have never heard of the monastery.  The portal is shown below.

Portail de l'abbaye, musée des beaux-arts de Philadelphie (États-Unis). 

The majority of the monasteries about which little is known today seem to have had their origins in the Merovingian period, from the late sixth through the early eighth centuries.  Multiple small houses were founded then, many in cities.  Wealthy laypeople founded such houses and endowed them with property, and saints retreated to hermitages that became monasteries as the saints gained followers.  The monastery of St.-Laurent may have been one of them, if it can be identified with "Saint Wulfin's monastery" mentioned in the sixth century.

 But St.-Laurent (or St.-Wulfin) then disappears from the records, as do most other Merovingian-era foundations.  The following centuries were difficult ones for religious houses, between rapacious laymen appropriating monasteries as their own—the Carolingians, the family of Charlemagne, were noted for such appropriations, and many great dukes and counts followed suit—plus attacks by Saracens, Vikings, and Magyars.  Not until the eleventh century did these old little monasteries start to be reestablished.  New, rural monasteries, such as Cluny and Vézelay, were founded in the late ninth and tenth centuries, and during the eleventh and early twelfth centuries there was a concerted effort to reestablish the ruined Merovingian-era houses.

Most became houses of canons regular.  Such canons lived essentially like monks (sharing possessions, living simply in chastity and obedience) but they did interact with the outside world, saying mass for laypeople, baptizing and burying.  Because they were paid for such services, they could subsist on less property than could cloistered monks.  Old ruined monasteries in cities mostly became houses of canons regular.

So did St.-Laurent.  It was located on one of the major pilgrimage routes to Compostella, and it gained a good deal of attention and pious gifts, which was why it built so large a church, to serve both the canons and the pilgrims.  Never affiliated with any of the better-known monastic orders, it still commanded respect and admiration in its time, and it supervised the priests (and received the revenues) of a number of parish churches.  But like many other smaller medieval monasteries, it has few or no surviving records and is now essentially forgotten, except perhaps by the local historian of the village where the monastery once was established (St.-Laurent-l'Abbaye).

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on monasticism and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Summer in the Middle Ages

We think of summer as long, lazy days, time to relax and have fun.  That's because we're not farmers.  (And in fact the reason there's summer vacation from school is because, through the early twentieth century, it was assumed that kids would be needed in the summer to work on the farm.)

Medieval people did not think of summer as a time to relax.  It was time to get things done.  Since probably 90% of the population was engaged in agriculture, this was the time to plow and plant and weed and chase away critters and harvest.  It was assumed that during, for example, harvest time (winter wheat, planted at the end of autumn, would be harvested in July) everyone would set to work as soon as it was light enough to see and continue working until it was too dark to see.  This is why initially eighteenth-century factories believed in the 18 hour work day ("They work that long in the fields, they can work that long on the factory floor").

Below is a picture of a plowed field.  Even with a tractor, it's going to take you a while to work it.

Travel was far, far easier in the summer, in spite of the heat and muddy roads, than it was during the winter, when one was battling cold and snow and ice (and short days).  So the kings and great lords who traveled around to different parts of their realms did so primarily in the summer.  So did popes--and for the popes, getting out of Rome, which was then prone to malaria, made excellent sense in the summer.

Wars were also fought primarily in the summer.  This had always been true--the Bible talks about "May, when kings go to war."  An army needs forage for the horses and mules, which means waiting until the grass is growing, and it also prefers that the people they are going to raid have enough food on hand to make raiding worthwhile.

Even though winter was the time for story telling--there were a lot of long cold dark hours to fill--the stories were almost always set in the summer.  King Arthur stories typically started with the king at his mid-summer feast, hoping that something marvelous would show up.

Because the most common fabric for clothing was wool, one could get very warm in the summer without the lightweight cottons we take for granted (cotton only reached western Europe in the twelfth century and was expensive--the alternative was linen, also expensive).  Men could wear short sleeved tunics that were about knee length, and nothing underneath, but women were expected to wear long skirts, not shorts or mini-skirts.  They did tuck their skirts up when working in the field, but they were still more heavily dressed than the men.

Without electricity, no one before the late nineteenth century could have any kind of fan (other than one a human waved), much less air conditioning.  Northern Europe was still cool enough for most of the summer that it wouldn't become unbearable, but around the Mediterranean things definitely got toasty.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval life, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Medieval Communes

People sort of know what a commune is.  A group of hippies all living together in a big house, right?  And (in popular imagination) probably engaged in a lot more exciting activities than going to work and soaking the chick peas for supper, which surely occupied a lot more time, realistically.

The Middle Ages didn't have hippie communes but it certainly had communes, by which they meant sworn alliances of people governing themselves.  Working together as a community was an essential part of medieval society.  Monasteries, castles, and villages functioned in many ways like big families, and communes were part of this trend.

Urban communes developed at the same time as cities started growing in the twelfth century--the eleventh century in Italy.  A tiny city that had been dominated for centuries by count and bishop would, as it grew in population and became the home to many merchants and artisans, have its citizens decide they needed to be self-governing.  A commune would be set up, sometimes with the support of count and/or bishop, sometimes against their opposition.  These three major entities (count, bishop, merchant/artisan commune) would then have to work out some sort of agreement among themselves over issues like judging and tolls.

In France, the kings often supported the foundation of communes in various cities.  There are clear indications that money changed hands in the process.  It would be hard for a local authority to try to dissolve a commune when they had a royal charter.  The French kings, however, never allowed a commune in Paris.

Communes started with city councils, to make important decisions, and with judges or magistrates, to judge disputes between townspeople and punish malefactors.  Judges would be citizens of the city.  By the late twelfth century, most cities also had a mayor, a single elected individual who would be able to make decisions on crucial issues more expeditiously than could the whole city council.

Although city communes have gotten most of the scholarly attention, peasant villages had them too.  Here the beginning was the village of Lorris, not far from Paris, where the local landlord wanted to attract new settlers to his land and promised them a commune in return for settling there.  The "customs of Lorris" were approved by King Louis VI at the beginning of the   twelfth century and reconfirmed by his son and grandson in the following generations.  These customs were seen by all parties as symbols of liberty, because they gave the peasantry the authority to regulate disputes themselves and specified that the landlord could expect certain annual payments but not impose what the villagers considered arbitrary demands and taxes.  The customs of Lorris were widely copied in other villages.

This demonstrates what can be called peasant agency, the ability of peasants to make their own decisions or, at a minimum, fight back against what they considered oppression.  Medieval peasants might have lived in what we would now consider intolerable conditions (dirt-floored huts, no modern sanitation or modern medicine, back-breaking work), but they were neither silent nor passive.

In one well documented quarrel between the count of Nevers and the abbey of Vézelay, in Burgundy, both sides turned to the peasants and villagers of Vézelay for support.  The count, weeping what a monk of the abbey called obviously false tears, said that he was saddened to see the peasants so oppressed by the vile abbot, and he promised them a commune if they would forswear allegiance to the abbey and be his men instead.

(The image above is the interior of the church of Vézelay, as it would have looked at the time.)

The abbot in turn made a number of insulting remarks about the count and reminded the peasants that they had promised to be faithful to him.  Nonetheless, lured by the promise of a commune, the peasants threw their allegiance to the count, who promised to protect them from the "evil" abbot and who appointed magistrates and city council members from among their numbers.

The quarrel continued for a year, with many twists and turns, the intervention of two cardinals delegated by the pope, councils, threats, the abbot sneaking out of Vézelay claiming his life was in danger, various excommunications, and the like.  It was finally settled by compromise (as were most medieval disputes), with the peasants giving up their commune but getting the abbot to agree to drastically roll back what he had been demanding in dues.  The point is that peasants and townspeople were entirely capable of making the powerful pay attention to them and make concessions to them.  After all, they outnumbered them.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval peasants and townspeople, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Robert of Arbrissel

Although Cluny and Cîteaux, as I have discussed earlier, are now the best known French monasteries of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there were plenty of other houses, not associated with either of these great monasteries, where the monks tried to follow a pure life, and where laypeople came seeking prayers for their relatives and themselves.

One of the most significant of these was Fontevraud, founded in the early twelfth century in the west of France, on the border between Anjou and Poitou.  It was patronized by great kings, including Henry II of England and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had already been queen of France before marrying Henry.

The above is Eleanor's tomb at Fontevraud.  (It was added well after her death.)

But Fontevraud had a distinctly non-royal origin.  It was founded by a man named Robert of Arbrissel (c. 1045-1116), so-called because he came from the village of Arbrissel, in Brittany.  He joined the church as a young man and became a priest.

He was very interested, as were many other well-educated men in the eleventh century, in trying to find a life that matched that of the early apostles.  In his early 50s he retreated to the forest of Craon, near his home village, to become a hermit.  There were actually quite a few hermits there already, men living alone, devoting their days to prayer and contemplation, living from offerings of people who came to seek their wisdom and from small vegetable gardens.

It would be difficult being a hermit.  On the one hand one didn't want to starve, and thus pilgrims bringing small offerings were good.  On the other hand, how can a hermit focus on spiritual matters if people keep showing up and asking all sorts of things?

Robert, because of his learning and wisdom, soon attracted a following, and disciples began assembling around him.  In essence, his hermitage became a monastery.  And with his disciples around him seeking his spiritual insights, Robert seems to have decided within a year that his real vocation was in preaching, spreading God's word.  The pope was visiting France, and he gave Robert an official "license to preach."  For the next twenty years, until his death, Robert wandered around, preaching and gathering followers.

He appealed especially to women.  He would come into town, preaching God's word, and when he left, a number of women would go with him.  Now without modern forms of entertainment and communication, a wandering preacher was much more exciting at the beginning of the twelfth century than it is now.  And one can certainly see that women would have been intrigued by the possibility of leaving a dreary life behind.  But walking cross country, living on hand-outs, and sleeping in fields was not going to be "fun" for long.  The women kept on, at least some of them, convinced they were drawing closer to God.

The bishops were distraught.  What was this old guy doing, wandering around with a lot of women?  One bishop accused him of looking like the village idiot, going barefoot and dressed in shabby clothes.  He even accused him of practicing some strange exercise in self-control, in which a man would deliberately sleep next to women without any sexual activity, to test their ability to resist temptation:  but, he said, this never worked, "as the cries of babies show us, if you get my drift." He told Robert that he had to found a nunnery and put all these women in it.

Robert rather reluctantly established the monastery of Fontevraud in 1101 for the women.  But it was not just for women.  Under the authority of one woman, an abbess, there was a house for women, a house for men, and a leprosy, a house for lepers.  Fontevraud immediately became known for its holiness of life, which is why it gained so much attention in the following generations, including from kings and queens.  The bishop expected Robert would stay there, but he kept right on wandering and preaching.  He would promise to stay put "this time" and head right out again as soon as the bishop's back was turned.  His followers considered him a saint after his death, for his humility and holy wisdom, but he has never officially become a saint, probably because of his failure to follow the rules.

The monastery is still there, all the different components surrounded by a long wall, though it is now a museum, without monks or nuns or lepers.  The former leper house is now a luxury hotel.

Two "lives" of Robert were written shortly after his death by men who had known him, translated into English by Bruce L. Venarde, as Robert of Arbrissel:  A Medieval Religious Life (Catholic University Press, 2003).

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on monasticism and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other e-tailers.  Also available in paperback.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Know Your Self Publishing

I've got a new book!  It's called "Know Your Self Publishing:  Everything You Wished You Knew Before Publishing."  This one's different from what I've published before.  It's helpful tips for independent publishing.  I figure a lot of people who read my blog would like to become published authors themselves, so I've compiled some ideas to get you underway.

 Know Your Self Publishing: Things You Wished You Knew Before Publishing by [C. Dale Brittain]

"Reports! Sales! Royalties! Book Reviews! And what about all those pirates trying to steal my book?
There's a lot for the new self-publishing author to keep track of. Here an experienced self-publisher answers many of the questions that keep coming up, even questions someone may not even have known to ask, in a light-hearted Q&A format."  That's the book description.

Here's the link on Amazon, available either as an ebook or a paperback.  It's aimed particularly at those self-publishing through Amazon's KDP program for ebooks and paperbacks (it stands for Kindle Direct Publishing).  These days, ebooks by "indies" (independent publishers) sell far better than paperbacks, but you can do either.

The key is that an indie isn't just a writer.  She also has to be a publisher, meaning she has to understand sales figures, how royalties are calculated and paid, how to have the book reviewed, and how to make sure people even know your book exists.  Many say that writing the book is far easier than becoming the publisher.

So these are the issues my new book addresses.  I haven't talked about formatting, which is a major issue in itself, but which a lot of other guides address.  Amazon KDP has step by step instructions for getting your book formatted and ready to publish.  I also touch only in passing on marketing and advertising.

But the book addresses concerns that new publishers often have, which don't seem to have obvious answers when they look around, such as How many books can I expect to sell? or If I publish my book will other people steal it? or Why won't Amazon let Mom write a glowing review of my new book? or Will Fred's Corner Bookstore carry my book?  Even Can I quit my day job? (short answer, no).  It's about 100 pages long, available as an ebook that can be read on your computer, a tablet, a Kindle, or your phone.

I've updated the cover.  The new one, done by Brad, is shown below.  Which one do you like best?

Know Your Self Publishing: Things You Wished You Knew Before Publishing by [C. Dale Brittain]

©  C. Dale Brittain 2020

Monday, June 8, 2020

Alaric the Goth

Medievalists have embraced Late Antiquity.  This is the period, roughly third or fourth century AD to the seventh or eighth century, that might be seen as lying between Antiquity and the Middle Ages.  Classicists, those who study ancient Greece and Rome, cover lots of fields, language and literature, art, and archaeology, as well as ancient history.  Usually they lose interest around the fourth century, once the Roman Empire's capital moved from Rome to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and the Empire became officially Christian.  So medievalists have taken up Late Antiquity and reconceptualized it, not as the era of the "fall of Rome" but rather as the beginning of the Middle Ages.

After all, medieval society is generally seen as developing from a mix of Roman culture, Germanic culture, and Christianity, so we might as well embrace the centuries where those got all mixed together.

One of the major figures in Late Antiquity was Alaric the Goth.  The Goths were a Germanic people who had lived at the eastern edges of the Roman Empire and had been wandering in during the fourth century.  The Romans had recruited a number of their young men into their armies.  The Goths were not an organized "tribe" but rather a large group of people who shared a lot of language and culture.  There were two main subgroups, the Visigoths (meaning western Goths) and Ostrogoths (meaning, as you probably already guessed, eastern Goths.)  In the late fourth century, the Visigoths lived in the Balkans.

(And no, the Goths did not wear heavy eye makeup and black fingernail polish.  They also had nothing to do with Gothic architecture.  One word, many meanings.)

And here we meet Alaric of the Visigoths (c. 375-411).  He was recruited into the Roman army as a young man and helped the Romans defeat the Franks, another Germanic tribe (which eventually settled in the Empire, in what is now called France for them, but that's another story).  He did not receive the accolades and rewards he felt he had been promised and left the army.  But he gained a high position nonetheless in becoming king of the Visigoths in 395.  (Guess Rome was showed!)  (You note he's still only about twenty.  This is a world of young men.)

 The above is a nineteenth-century German picture of what Alaric might have looked like.  Because he was Germanic, the nineteenth-century Germans liked him, as they tried to assemble a national identity.

He and his people were recognized by Rome but not given much respect.  A recent author has tried to draw parallels between the Goths being treated as second-class by Italians, and modern African-Americans being discriminated against by mainstream American culture, but I think he's overdoing it (though I'm glad he's concerned about modern African-Americans).  The leaders of the Roman Empire treated everybody like that.  They were a slave society.  Anyone who wasn't them was considered a lower being.

So I wouldn't call Alaric's concern a desire for his civil rights.  After all, he spent most of his years as king plundering Roman territory.  He had seen how wealthy the Romans were, and he went from plundering Greece to plundering Italy.  It's an incredibly complicated story, involving rival emperors, imperial usurpers, treaties made and broken, ransoms promised and reneged on.  It puts Game of Thrones to shame.  It didn't help the Romans in the long run that they captured and killed a lot of the wives and children of the Goths during some of the wars' twists and turns.

In 410 Alaric and his Goths decided to sack the city of Rome itself.  This was as you can imagine a shock to the citizens of Rome.  The city had not been effectively attacked for half a millennium.  But the Goths came through and seized everything that wasn't nailed down.  One of the prizes Alaric took with him was the emperor's sister (who eventually married Alaric's brother, but that's another story.)

 Above is a nineteenth-century French depiction of the sack of Rome.  Visigoths are preparing to topple a Roman statue.  It's unclear why they've decided to do so in the nude.

Now this was not the "fall of Rome."  Several years later the city had rebuilt so successfully that Romans boasted you could hardly tell anything had happened.  There continued to be, at least intermittently, Roman emperors in Rome, as well as the main emperors in Constantinople, for several more generations.

Alaric himself did not survive a year after the sack of Rome, dying probably of a fever.  The story is that a stream was diverted from its course, and he was buried in the stream bed with suitable amounts of loot, and then the stream was allowed back into its banks, to conceal his final resting spot.  To be sure, the slaves who had done the digging were all executed.

But the Visigoths, carrying lots of excellent loot, headed west, eventually settling in southern France and the Spanish peninsula, which was also part of the Roman Empire.  They had picked up a variant of Christianity, Arianism (officially a heresy, it denies the divinity of Christ, calling Jesus just an inspired teacher).  There they ruled until the rise of Islam two centuries later.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval social and political history, see my book, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other e-tailers, either as an ebook or in print.