Saturday, September 19, 2020

Medieval soap

"Wash your hands!"  We've been told this since we were little kids, and in a time of pandemic it's especially important.  We assume (rightly) that soap is a crucial ingredient of the process.  Did medieval people have soap?  Yes indeed, though not our kind of soap, in handy wrapped bars or even decorative shapes, smelling delicately of verbena or sandlewood.

The ancient world had not been big on soap, although they knew about it.  Athletes had cleaned up after exercise by smearing themselves with oil and sand, then scraping off the sand with little scrapers, taking the sweat with it.  You can buy "olive oil soap" today, but it's not the same.

Soap is made from mixing rendered fat or oil with a "base" (a base as opposed to an acid, think back to high school chemistry).  Medieval people cooked down (rendered) the fat from meat, which we often throw away, and mixed it with lye made from mixing water with wood ash.  This made a powerful soap, good for dissolving dirt and killing bacteria (although they didn't know about bacteria, they recognized that cleanliness was healthier).  Soap usually didn't come in bars but was soft, more like liquid soap (but no handy pump-top dispensers), and had no delicate fragrance.  Lard-based soap could become more or less solid, though oil-based soap stayed more or less liquid.  This was the normal soap in Europe and the US until the mid-nineteenth century.

(One may note that lard, made from pig fat, is often still recommended for pie crusts, and you can buy it at the grocery store.  But I digress.)

This pre-modern soap would not be described as "gentle on your hands."  Farm families could and did make their own.  In medieval cities, however, soap-making could be a skilled profession, even sometimes a guild, with the different soap-makers promoting soap that came in balls rather than as a thick liquid (making it more convenient), even scented with minced lavender leaves or the like.

Between the difficulty of heating up enough hot water for a bath and not wanting to scrub too much lye-based soap on your delicate parts, medieval people did not bathe as often as the modern model.  They valued cleanliness, but some things are just not easy.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on health and hygiene in the Middle Ages, see my book, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available in paperback or as an ebook from Amazon and other on-line booksellers.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Medieval schools

It's back to school time!  Except for now, in the era of pandemic, a lot of schools are being delayed or carrying out teaching on-line (obviously impossible in the Middle Ages, or for that matter the twentieth century).  Did schools open in September in the twelfth century?

Short answer, no.  For starters, there were no public schools.  In fact, what we think of as normal, that is more-or-less universal education provided at public schools, appeared for the first time in the nineteenth century.  And it was not until the 1960s that a concerted effort was made to get everybody even in the US into school until they turned 18.

Now, in the midst of pandemic, there is a great deal of concern about the need for education, complete with dire threats about how children will be hurt if they can't get back in the classroom.  Medieval parents would have been surprised to hear that their children would suffer permanent harm by not attending school.

Medieval schools were all associated with churches. Monasteries and nunneries all had schools attached where children who joined, as their parents' offering to God, would get a good classical education.  They would need it when they grew up to be monks or nuns.  The less-strict monasteries, cathedrals, houses of canons regular, and nunneries would often offer an education to day-students as well, ones who did not intend to enter the cloister themselves but who wanted at least a little education.  These schools ran all year, rather than fall through spring.  It was of course expected that parents would pay for them.

As Europe was overwhelmingly Christian, these schools taught Christianity along with reading, arithmetic, and a little history and geography and music.  Europe's Jewish and Muslim minorities had their own schools.  There were no "atheist" schools.  Medieval people would not have understood why schools today can't teach religion, just as they wouldn't be able to grasp the separation of church and state.

Both aristocrats and well-to-do townspeople would send their children as day-students to these church-connected schools.  But this was usually not the children's first experience with education.  Mothers would teach their children the rudiments of reading and figuring when they were five or six, just as mothers still often do.  Note that this is one of many indications of the important role played in society then by medieval women.

When students got to school, initially all learning was in Latin.  At a minimum they would be able to read Latin; the best-educated would also be able to write.  Note that being able to read and able to write are two different skills, even though we now group them together (see more here on medieval literacy).  By the late twelfth century, a lot of schooling started taking place in the vernacular, Old French, Old Italian, Middle High German, or whatever.  Young aristocrats seem more inclined to be able to write in their normal spoken language than in Latin (not surprising).  Many composed stories and poems.

But how about the great mass of the population that was not aristocratic and did not intend their children for careers in the church?  They never went to a formal school or learned to read and write.  Modern schools have summers off, which is left over from nineteenth-century efforts to get the farmer's children to attend (children were needed to help on the farm in the busy growing season).  If medieval peasants had to agree to a formal agreement, they would make a mark on the parchment in place of a signature, usually an unsteady short line.

This did not mean that they were ignorant.  They might have quite advanced technical skills.  Farming is hard.  So is being a miller, a baker, a brewer, a blacksmith, a wheelwright, a mason, or the other skilled trades that a peasant village needed.  These people would know basic figuring and would know how to keep track of things (like money), even if they knew no Latin.

Education expanded in the late Middle Ages, especially in Renaissance Italy, but it was still something for townspeople, not for peasants.  Parents would send their son off to school with a servant, who was supposed to learn along with the boy and beat him if he didn't do his homework.

Starting in the twelfth century, the ambitious young man (not woman) might want to continue his education at a university.  Basic schooling would be over by age 14 or so, and it was off to the university, to learn complicated subjects, like theology or Roman law or medicine, and to drink and have fun.  University students were primarily from families of well-to-do townspeople.  The Sorbonne in Paris, pictured below (though this is a post-medieval building), was the most prestigious medieval university.  (See more here on medieval universities.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval social 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.

Monday, August 24, 2020


Now there's a curious word.  Like Egypt, it looks like it has too many descenders (letters with tails that hang below the line).  But it's a perfectly good word.  Polyptyque means a survey of people and property on a manor.

Polyptyques were an invention of the ninth century, and although a few were created in later centuries, the ninth century was their golden era.  They appear to have begun with Charlemagne ordering inventories of property and payments both on his own lands and on the lands of the great monasteries of his realm.

That's an image of Charlemagne on one of his coins.  You'll note that he is portrayed like a Roman emperor.

Anyway, there is some thought that Charlemagne considered all the Frankish monasteries his property, which is why he wanted to know what was on their manors.  The royal polyptyques do not survive, but there are still maybe a dozen monastic ones, plus fragments of others.  They are a major source of information on the rural economy of the period.

For each manor (and a monastery would typically own dozens of manors), the polyptyque would list how much revenue was expected.  Often the names of the tenants would be given, but a polyptyque was not intended to be a a census of people, so one cannot determine total population of a manor.  The legal status of the tenants might be specified, using such terms as hospes, colonus, mancipius, or ingenuus.  Although those composing the polyptyques clearly knew what was meant by these terms, scholars today have had serious debates over their meaning, and the twelfth-century successors of those who composed them seem to have had even less idea.

The tenants were sometimes although not always listed by name.  The overwhelming majority of these names are male, which led a few decades ago to a scholar who should have known better claiming this showed that ninth-century peasant families killed baby girls.  Now one would have thought that something as serious as infanticide would be mentioned in other sources if it was indeed practiced—it isn't.  Even more basically, the lists of tenants just gave the name of the head of the household, not of spouse and children, and, as in the US through the twentieth century, the man was considered the natural head of household.  Thus there is no reason to use the polyptyques to argue for female infanticide.

Most polyptyques do not survive on their original ninth-century parchment, but only as copied into cartularies in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  Here's a picture of a cartulary, a collection of documents all carefully copied into a single book.

Enough had changed in the rural economy and manorial organization between the ninth century and the twelfth or thirteenth centuries that the cartulary scribes often had trouble figuring out what the polyptyques meant.  Sometimes property enumerated in them had been lost to the monastery for generations.  The ninth-century handwriting was clear enough three centuries later, but the vocabulary had changed.  Yet clearly these lists of manors and dues were an important part of a monastery's history.  The scribes abbreviated heavily and hoped for the best.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on monks, kings, and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other major ebook platforms.  Also available in paperback!

Sunday, August 16, 2020


Today I want to talk about Suger, one of the most important political and ecclesiastical figures of twelfth-century France (c. 1081-1151).  And no, his name is not Sugar, it's Suger, pronounced soo-zhay.  Here's an image of him from a stained glass window.

Suger is best known now as a counselor and biographer of King Louis VI (1108-1137) and as abbot of the monastery of St.-Denis.  He was a lifelong friend of the king, because back when Prince Louis was attending school in Paris, young Suger was also.  Schools were run by churches, and although the majority of the young men attending expected to have a career in the church, lay people might also attend as day students, as did Louis.

Suger became a monk at the abbey of St.-Denis, located not far outside of Paris.  (You can get there on the metro.  Be sure to get off at the "basilica" St.-Denis stop, not the "stadium" St.-Denis stop.  France's biggest soccer/football stadium is right down the road from the old abbey.)  This was considered a royal monastery, and many kings and queens of France were buried there, going back to the Merovingians.

It was dedicated to Saint Dennis, the supposed first bishop of Paris way back around the second century, who had been beheaded by the Romans for refusing to worship the pagan gods.  He was martyred on Montmartre ("mountain of the martyr") but then, to everyone's surprise, he picked up his head and started walking.  He'd gotten out to the suburbs before collapsing.  The abbey was built over his remains.  (One doubts he had gone out to catch one last football game.)

When the old abbot of St.-Denis died, Suger was elected abbot in 1122, presumably with some friendly hints from the crown.  Although the monastery was never known for its austerity, unlike the new monastic orders such as the Cistercians, it was free from scandal, and the monks prayed and were serious, even if well-fed.

Suger's major accomplishment as abbot was to rebuild his abbey's church.  He described the process proudly, including his miraculous discovery of enough old-growth oaks for the roof beams, when everyone told him there were no big trees left in the region.  (Notre-Dame, built a generation later, had to get their roof beams--burned in 2019--from all over and float them down to Paris.)  St.-Denis is considered the first Gothic church, marked by tall, thin walls and pointed (rather than rounded) arches.  It was dedicated in the presence of the king in 1144.    (Suger actually just rebuilt the western facade, seen below, and the choir at the opposite end, leaving the eighth-century nave in place, to finally be rebuilt a century later.)  His abbey church looks rather sad today, but it went through a lot in the French Revolution (including having all the kings and queens buried there dug up and tossed out).

After the death of Louis VI, Suger wrote an admiring biography of his old friend, usually translated today as "Deeds of Louis the Fat."  Well, it's not quite fair to think of Louis only in terms of his weight, because he was indeed a very effective and beloved king.  His father, Philip I, had toward the end of his life been said to be too fat to ride a horse, which is something.  Philip had also repudiated Queen Bertha, Louis's mother, because he said she was "too fat."  Hormones.  Louis didn't stand a chance.

When Louis VII (king 1137-1180), son of Louis VI, decided to go off on Crusade in 1147, Suger became regent of France.  At this time usually wives acted as regents for absent husbands, but Louis VII's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, accompanied him to the Holy Land.  But that's another story.

When Suger died, he had started a biography of Louis VII, obviously not completed as the king outlived him by almost thirty years.  But Suger's name was permanently associated with the French kings.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on monks, kings, and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other major ebook platforms.  Also available in paperback!

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Christ Stopped at Eboli

Lately I've been working on a book about medieval peasants.  So I've been looking at medieval documents in which peasants appear (there are a lot more such documents than has generally been assumed) and also at scholars' attitudes toward peasants.  If one assumes (as has too often been done) that peasants were silent, marginal, and passive and thus did not appear in the documents, then of course one will not look for them.  (As you probably guessed, I argue instead for active peasants.)

There has also been an assumption that peasant life was unchanging, that it has been the same for thousands of years.  I have also been reading Carlo Levi's classic book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, which makes this assumption.

Levi was an interesting person, a doctor and painter who got on the wrong side of the Fascists under Mussolini.  In 1935 he was sent into political exile from his native Torino to a little village way down in the foot part of the "boot" of the Italian peninsula, and he spent a year there, among those he called "my peasants."

He was pardoned after a year and hurried back to northern Italy.  But because he was Jewish, he was soon in trouble again and had to go into hiding.  While in hiding he wrote a memoir of his year in a peasant village, published in Italian in 1945 right at the end of the war, and translated into English in 1947.  It is still in print, in Italian, English, and many other languages.  His depiction of the very harsh life of southern Italian villagers brought their plight to the attention of the post-war Italian government, which sought to improve things.

The memoir is called Christ Stopped at Eboli NOT in the rather sweet, sentimental sense of "Jesus stopped off in Eboli for the night and did some miracles while he was there."  Rather, it means that Christianity and civilization got as far south in Italy as Eboli but didn't get any further.  Eboli is about two-thirds of the way down the peninsula, a short distance south of Naples, and at that point the train lines that had been following the coast south turned east instead, ignoring the south.  Here's how Levi defines it:

"We're not Christians," they [the peasants] say.  "Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli."  "Christian" in their way of speaking means "human being." ...  We're not Christians, we're not human beings; we're not thought of as men but simply as beasts, beasts of burden.  ...  Christ never came, just as the Romans never came, ... nor the Greeks.  ...  None of the pioneers of Western civilization brought here his sense of the passage of time, the deification of the State.  ...  The seasons pass today over the toil of the peasants, just as they did three thousand years before Christ."

This is certainly evocative.  But were the villagers among whom Levi lived for a year leading a life unchanged from the Middle Ages, much less the Bronze Age?  One would have to say NO.

To begin with, they were Christian.  There was a church in the village with a priest.  When Levi arrived they took their sick children to him, not because there was no other doctor, for there were in fact two other doctors, both trained at the University of Naples, a university that did not exist in the Middle Ages.  But both the villagers and Levi considered these men grossly incompetent, and the villagers added that the doctors were not "Christian."  So they did indeed use the term Christian to mean a competent human, but their use of the term here certainly indicates they believed themselves good Christians in contrast.

And the State had reached their village.  There were carabinieri, the national police.  The whole idea of political prisoners requires a state and politics—and there were several other political prisoners there besides Levi.  The mayor was proud of how Fascist he was; a medieval village might well have had a mayor but nothing comparable to positioning in a political party.

Some of the material culture of modernity had also reached the village.  Levi was brought there in an automobile.  There was electricity, even though he said dismissively it might be a single bulb hung from the ceiling.  Most of the villagers could read and write; there was a public school, where among other things they learned standard Italian, so Levi could talk to them without understanding their local dialect.  There was daily mail service, even if brought in on a mule.  There was even a public restroom with running water, though he claimed he was the only person ever to use it.  The villagers grew and ate tomatoes, which their medieval ancestors would not have done, as they are a New World food.  Some people from the village had moved to America.

This was not a land untouched by time.  Back in the early nineteenth century one might have been able to make such a case a bit more plausibly, but these villagers were living in the twentieth century, even if a different version of the twentieth century than Levi's friends back in Torino.  (In the same way, the Amish today are living in the twenty-first century, even if they don't have TV or drive cars.)

So what did the villagers mean when they said that Christ stopped at Eboli?  Levi thought it meant that they considered themselves inferior, scarcely human.  Given the grim conditions under which they lived (as he described it), my own interpretation of what he called a "proverbial phrase" is something closer to that song in the show Paint Your Wagon, "I'm so lost, so goldarn lost, not even God can find me."  They weren't saying they were inferior.  They were saying everyone had forgotten about them, even Christ.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

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

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 or put "maple flavored" syrup on your pancakes, 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 bread is made of corn meal.  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 now 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.