Sunday, May 20, 2018

Peasant Revolts

 There's an old, rather tasteless joke:  "The peasants are revolting!"  "Yes, I agree, they smell like cows."  This blog post isn't about the joke.  Rather, it's about fourteenth-century peasant reactions to oppression.

There had been very little of what we would call class consciousness for most of the Middle Ages; that is, people on a manor or in a village or city had thought of themselves as a unit, but they didn’t think of those living on the next manor or in the next village or city as being inherently similar to them.  This changed in the fourteenth century.

Now, for the first time, peasants in one area began to think they had more in common with peasants in another area than they did with the rich and powerful close to whom they lived.  And they were intensely angry at the rich and powerful.

The result was not just the kind of rebellion that had occurred intermittently, when for example peasants on a particular manor felt they were being treated grossly unfairly and fought back.  This was widespread revolution, where peasants across large territories decided they needed to work together.

The elites had brought it on themselves.  In response to crop failures and a decreased number of farm workers after the outbreak of the Black Death, landlords attempted to crack down, enforcing rents and labor dues and making new demands, such as freezing wages for day laborers.  Taxes were also being imposed throughout England to pay for the war with France.  The peasants, not surprisingly, were not about to put up with this treatment.  Questions began to be asked:  What gave the powerful the right to be powerful?

It had long been assumed theologically that a hierarchical social organization on earth mirrored that of Heaven (God, archangels, regular angels, and so on), and that divisions of power and wealth were a sad necessity due to humanity’s sinful nature, the only way to keep all that sinning in check.  But now some people started saying openly that such divisions of power and wealth were themselves sinful.

In England, where the revolts became the fiercest, a popular little ditty went around, “When Adam dug and Eve span [past tense of to spin], Who was then a gentleman?”

The biggest revolt started in in 1381 in southeast England, led by a firebrand named Wat Tyler and by a radical cleric, John Ball.  Peasants, villagers, and townspeople joined together, burning manorial rolls and court records.  They reached London, convinced that King Richard II (seen below, a teenager at the time) would sympathize with them if he only knew what was going on.

Initially the young king negotiated with the revolutionaries, though one must wonder how sincere he was.  Wat Tyler’s group killed a number of leading figures, including the archbishop of Canterbury, then supposedly used his head as a football.  Having had enough, the crown cracked down, and the rebellion was brutally crushed, and its leaders killed.

Although no further peasants’ rebellion was as big, there continued to be smaller ones.  They were all put down, but in response concessions were quietly made, as those in charge realized that maybe the rebels did have a point.  There were no more attempts to impose taxes on peasants to pay for the war.  By the late fifteenth century, English peasants were much better off than they had been earlier.

Note:  I believe in non-violence.  But one does indeed need to stand up to oppression.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Thursday, May 17, 2018


One of the loveliest medieval villages in France is Conques.  It was a major stop on the pilgrimage route from Vézelay to Santiago.  Efforts have been made to link the town's name to the cockle shell that was the emblem of pilgrims.  The medieval bridge at the bottom of the village's hill is still called the "Romey" bridge because pilgrims (locally called Romeys, even though they were going to Spain rather than Rome) headed (and head) across it.  (In fact, cars still use it.)

There are a lot of tourists and modern pilgrims in Conques, but once the tour buses leave it is still a stunning place.  The village is dominated by the old abbey church. The monks had the bones of Saint Foy ("Saint Faith"), supposedly a girl who was martyred by the pagan Roman governor because she wouldn't give up her Christian faith.

In fact, unlike most French churches, Conques still has the relics of their saint.  She was hidden during the French Revolution and is now in a little museum.  The golden reliquary is in the shape of a seated person, with a head that appears to be that of a man from Late Antiquity.  It is encrusted with semi-precious stones.

The monastery of Conques claimed to have been founded by Charlemagne (unlikely, as Charlemagne founded no monasteries), and "proved" it by carving Charlemagne on the front of their church.  They also had a curious silver object (probably really from around the year 1100) that I would say looks like the letter V, but they called "Charlemagne's A."  According to the monks, Charlemagne listed the 24 best monasteries in his empire (the medieval alphabet had 24 letters, not 26, because I and J were the same letter, as were U and V) and gave them each a silver letter to show it.  Conques naturally got the A, as best of all.  When asked why, if Charlemagne had been handing out letters, no one else seemed to have them, the monks responded by saying that other houses were too embarrassed to admit that were (for example) way down at X or Y, or even worse, not even on the 24-best list at all.

The monks had Foy's bones because, they said, the (other) church that had had them since Late Antiquity didn't respect her properly.  The monks sent one of their number who pretended to join that church, stole the relics, and miraculously wasn't spotted as he fled (because of course she wanted to leave).

Because Foy was martyred as a girl, twelfth-century accounts say she still is playful and likes to play tricks on people who might not be properly reverent.  Her particular focus is eyes--she will blind evil-doers and restore the sight of those blinded by evil-doers.  If someone came to Conques to seek healing without bringing any of the jewels she expected in return, she might do something like make their hand swell the next time they wore the withheld rings.

Foy also was subversive (a truculent teenager?).  Any noble lord or high official in the church who did something that harmed a poor person was in trouble.  Even her own monks did not get off scot-free, according to twelfth-century accounts.  When they started locking up the church at night to keep out the pilgrims (fearing they would steal the golden reliquary), she broke the locks to let the pilgrims in.

Conques is definitely worth a visit.  Be sure not to miss the treasury/museum with Foy's reliquary.  I knew she was looking after me when my retina detachment surgery was scheduled for a Catholic hospital and the nurses made  me remove my rings before the surgery.  I didn't dare tell Foy I didn't believe in her until after I was healed (fortunately I got both my rings and my vision back). 

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Monday, May 7, 2018

Mystery plays

In the late Middle Ages, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, townspeople often watched plays.  Some were bawdy, some were religious.  In an era centuries before TV or movies, they were all highly entertaining.

There had been plenty of plays in the ancient world.  The Greeks had written them for religious festivals, retelling old legends or tales of the gods, sometimes as comedy, more frequently as tragedy.  The Romans had continued in the Greek tradition, although everyone now agrees their weren’t nearly as good (the Romans of course would have disagreed).

Plays disappeared in the early Middle Ages, but they started up again in the tenth century when a woman started writing them, Hrotsvitha of the German nunnery of Gandersheim.  Hrotsvitha wrote both poems and plays, as well as some historical works (such as how Gandersheim was founded).  Some of her plays were comedies, written in imitation of Roman playwrights (especially Terence), but most were religious.

These plays retold Bible stories or else presented moral stories, such as a young woman, who wanted to preserve her virginity for Christ, arranging for her would-be suitor to decide to become a monk himself.  Scholars debate whether Hrotsvitha’s plays were performed during her lifetime, but there is no reason to think that they were not, other than the assumption that nuns never did anything interesting.

For the next few centuries, there are infrequent mentions of modest plays, usually taking place in monasteries.  For example, on Easter morning a few monks might put on white veils, to suggest they were women, and act out going to Christ’s tomb and being told by an angel, “He is risen.” 

Sometimes these dramas would be acted for the congregation as well as the monks; if very popular they might even have to be moved outside, which bothered the bishops.

But in the late Middle Ages so-called mystery plays appeared, much more public events.  They were not “mysteries” in the sense of a whodunnit, but rather in the sense of revealing a great and marvelous religious event.  They were put on by guilds of players.  The English mystery plays are the best known, but they were found throughout Europe.

These plays might be put on over a period of days during great religious festivals.  They would retell a well known Bible story, such as the fall of Adam and Eve, or the life of Mary Magdalene.  They were written in the vernacular, so that everyone could understand them, and were generally in verse.  The plays added a human dimension to the basic biblical account.  For example, in the story of Abraham and Isaac, where Abraham has been told by God to sacrifice his son, young Isaac becomes understandably upset when he figures out what his father is planning (don’t worry, the story ends happily when an angel shows up with a sheep to be sacrificed instead).

Mystery plays were ended in England during the Protestant Reformation as “too Catholic,” but one must assume Shakespeare was influenced by them.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Thursday, May 3, 2018


Today I want to talk about a monastery that, unlike the ones I've been discussing recently, never became the head of a monastic order.  But it was and is an extremely significant one:  the Burgundian monastery of Vézelay.

It was a Benedictine monastery for men for most of the Middle Ages, but it began, interestingly enough, as a nunnery.  Count Girard and his wife, named Bertha, decided in 858 to found two monastic houses in Burgundy, one for men (Pouthières) and one for women (Vézelay).  The couple was buried at Pouthières (which you don't need to worry about, because it always stayed small and obscure).  The nuns at Vézelay soon decided life in a rural monastery was too scary and moved to town, being replaced permanently by monks.

By the eleventh century Vézelay was associated with the highly esteemed monastery of Cluny, but it always retained its own abbot, unlike many other houses in Cluny's order.  It really gained attention when it started asserting that it had the bones of Mary Magdalene.  Supposedly the "three Marys" (the Virgin, the Magdalene, and Mary sister of Martha) had all gotten in a boat after the Resurrection and headed west through the Mediterranean.  They got as far as the mouth of the Rhône, along the Riviera, and Mary Magdalene hopped out.

Though she died there in Provence, the monks of Vézelay wanted everyone to know, she was not happy with how she was treated by Provençal locals and appeared in a vision to the monks, asking to be moved to their monastery.  They were happy to oblige.  The house became a great pilgrimage center, both a place to revere the relics of Mary Magdalene and to begin the long pilgrimage to Santiago in Spain.

The church, built in the first half of the twelfth century, is considered one of the glories of Romanesque architecture.  One of its interesting features is that it is lined up along the axis of the sun, so that on the summer solstice light coming in the high side windows shines right along the church's central aisle, making a path of light.

In the image above, you can see that the choir end of the church, the part at the far end where the altar would have been, is just slightly crooked from the orientation of the nave (the main part of the church).  This is because the choir end was built first, and then the architect realized he needed a slightly different angle for the light-down-the-aisle effect.

At the winter solstice, the light instead would illuminate the capitals, the carvings of Bible scenes at the tops of the pillars.  Vézelay is noted for its striking capitals, as in the scene above showing the death of the rich man in the Dives and Lazarus story.

Vézelay was also the place where the Second Crusade was preached.  The Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux persuaded King Louis VII to go on what turned out to be a disastrous effort to retake part of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem that had recently been retaken by the Muslims.  Pilgrims still flock to Vézelay's hill today, though few seem inclined to take off for the Holy Land.  (Many however head for Spain.  I hear there's a bus.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Cistercians

 Earlier I posted about Cluny, the head of an important monastic order in Burgundy, founded at the beginning of the tenth century.  Today I want to discuss another important Burgundian monastic order, the Cistercians, founded two centuries later.  The Cistercians take their name from their first monastery, Cîteaux.  (I doubt that Cluny and Cîteaux both began with the letter C in order to confuse you.  Remember, the Carthusians also start with the letter C.  Try to keep them straight--they did.)

Cîteaux was founded in 1098, at a time when the economy had improved enough that poverty, rather than wealth, was considered holy.  Its founder was not a great duke but rather a monk.  Robert, the monk, had spent decades trying to find what he considered an austere enough monastery, moving from house to house.

Robert had eventually founded his own monastery, Molesme, in 1075, where he became abbot.  But even here he felt that many of the monks were not following a strict enough life, that they were too comfortable, not facing God’s commands starkly enough.  So in 1098 he and a handful of monks of Molesme who agreed with him headed off to an old hermitage, called Cîteaux (it was in a swampy area, the name is related to the word ‘cistern’).

The rest of the monks were distraught.  It was like waking up and discovering that Mom and Dad had run away from home because you had been so bad.  They sent a tear-drenched letter to the pope, who ordered Robert to return to Molesme, where his monks promised to be good.

But the monks at Cîteaux continued, electing a new abbot from among their number.  The house was from the beginning extremely austere, its church lacking any decoration, its way of life harsh, the monks originally doing their own agricultural work, rather than having peasant tenants, as did Cluny.  They did however soon adopt the practice of conversi, people from peasant backgrounds who wanted to be monks but lacked the educational background to become full choir monks.  The Cistercians seem to have gotten the idea for conversi from the Carthusians.

Neighboring aristocrats soon learned of these holy monks.  In 1113 Cîteaux’s success was assured when a whole band of knights arrived, fired with enthusiasm and ready to give up everything for Christ.

Quickly Cîteaux began founding daughter houses, because there were now too many monks to all fit.  One of the most influential of these new houses was Clairvaux, headed by Bernard, who had been the leader of the converting knights.  Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) became the best known member of the Cistercians, counseling kings and popes, accusing Peter Abelard of heresy, pointing out to Louis VII that he was too closely related to his wife, helping found the Templars, of which his uncle was first Grand Master, and preaching the Second Crusade.

He also criticized the Cluniacs for being too lenient, rather than (metaphorically) cracking the whip over monastic behavior, and for building such beautifully decorated churches, where he said the carvings would distract one from prayer.  He mocked them for protesting that they ate eggs rather than meat, saying, Yes, but boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, poached eggs, fried eggs, baked eggs ...  He said that all novices ought to undergo strict noviciate training, even the elderly, though at Cluny elderly converts could skip becoming novices.  Bernard even chided the Cluniacs for wearing black habits, because black wool was more expensive—the Cistercians wore habits of undyed white wool.  Toward the end of Bernard’s life, however, he and the abbot of Cluny became friends.

Cîteaux quickly became the head of an “order,” a group of monasteries that all followed the monastic rule in the same way.  The Cistercians were tightly organized and uniform, with the abbots of all daughter houses meeting together every year to maintain this uniformity.  All members of the monasteries were adult converts; the Cistercians took no child oblates ("offerings").  The order soon had daughter houses all over Europe; the Cistercians in Yorkshire had huge sheep flocks roaming the moors.

The Cistercians also became major pawn brokers.  Nobles who needed money, especially for Crusade, but didn't want to sell their land outright, would lease it to the monks for a lump sum substantially less than the property's actual value.  If they could repay within six years, they got it back.  No interest was charged, though the monks usually got the "usufruct" (that is, the produce and income from the land during those years), described as a gift for the layman's soul.  In practice, since few people returned rich from Crusade, these pawned properties generally became the monks'.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Wednesday, April 18, 2018


I've posted before about medieval monasticism.  Today I want to discuss one particular monastery and its associated monastic order, that of Cluny.

Cluny was founded in Burgundy in 910 by the powerful duke of Aquitaine, who specifically said that neither he nor any other layman would meddle in the monastery’s affairs.  This was a big concession at a time, in the aftermath of the Vikings’ raids, when many French monasteries were abandoned, and a lot of dukes and counts acted as titular abbots of monasteries, taking monastic revenues for their own.

But Cluny quickly became well known as a holy house, where the monks lived separate from the sordid affairs of the world, even though a village quickly grew up adjacent to the monastery, and both regional landowners and aristocrats from further away came to the monastery to make generous gifts.  Donors admired the monks’ adherence to the Benedictine Rule, emphasizing common property, obedience, learning, and prayer.

In the politically unstable tenth century, Cluny avoided getting drawn into factional wars, due in part to the abilities of a series of long-lived and widely admired abbots (though one of these abbots had more adventures than he anticipated when he was briefly captured by bandits during a trip).

Laymen who controlled other, older monasteries that had either been abandoned or which no longer supported a rigorous religious life gave these houses to Cluny to reform--that is, to bring back to observance of the monastic rule.  The abbot of Cluny would become the abbot of these houses as well.  In some cases, after a few years (or at any rate when the abbot of Cluny died) the house would elect its own abbot, though retaining close ties to Cluny.  In other cases the house would now be headed by a prior, who would answer to Cluny's abbot.  These houses collectively were called the Cluniac Order, although there was no real orderly organization.  (Ordo just meant way of life.)

Cluny claimed (with only partial success) to be exempt from the oversight of its bishop, saying, for example, that the monks could choose any bishop they wanted for consecrating a new abbot.  The monks felt that they, living a life without luxury or even personal property (or even meat) were holier than bishops who might live like princes.  The bishops were some of the few who did not see the monks of Cluny as holy.

Most of Cluny's monks were so-called oblates, boys offered (by their parents) to the monastery.  (In Latin, the past participle of offero is oblatum.  You learn something every day.)  However, there were plenty of monks who had taken the monastic habit in their mature years, including one eleventh-century duke of Burgundy.  Cluny had a daughter house, Marcigny, specifically for women who became nuns when their husbands became monks.

In the twelfth century, some of the newer, more austere monasteries faulted Cluny for letting mature converts become full monks immediately, without spending a year in rigorous training as a novice.  Cluny's abbot said they did this out of love and mercy, as these old guys would probably be dead soon anyway (he phrased it more diplomatically).

Generous gifts paid for first a second, larger church to be built to replace the small one of the early tenth century, and then in the late eleventh century Cluny III as it is known, a triumph of Romanesque architecture.  The new abbey church, finished around the year 1100, was the biggest church in Christendom (until the sixteenth century, when Saint Peter's in Rome surpassed it) and was richly decorated.

The image should give you some sense of the size of this church (now a museum).  This is one of the transepts (crossings).  Unfortunately, this is about all that is left.  During the French Revolution, the church (as with all French churches) became officially the property of the state.  Napoleon dismantled it, using the nicely quarried limestone to build the stud stables for his cavalry.  (There is still an equestrian center in the village of Cluny.)  Napoleon has a lot to answer for.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

For more on medieval monasticism and so much more, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other on-line bookstores.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Templars

So far I've been able to avoid a certain topic which seems to inspire conspiracy theories about the Middle Ages.  But it's time.

The Templars have received far more excited attention that they deserve.  They began with the success of the First Crusade, founded as a cross between a monastic order and a group of knights.  That is, they lived like monks, chaste, sharing everything, with no personal possessions, obedient to a Master.  And yet rather than spending their days in prayer or copying manuscripts or doing useful chores around the monastery, they spent their days riding out to protect pilgrims.

The image below, of two knights riding one horse, was also used for their official seal.  It emphasized both their military prowess and their poverty--they could only afford the one horse.

There were two of these Crusading Orders, the Hospitallers and the Templars, the first attached to the “Hospital” of Saint John (we would call it a hostel rather than a hospital) and the latter having their headquarters near the ruins of Solomon’s Temple (on Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the ruins are the so-called Wailing Wall).  For whatever reason, the Templars get all the attention.

The Templars came out of the idea that knights could use their knightly skills to save their souls rather than to lose them, if they used these skills properly in defending Christians.  The idea was pushed by the influential Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, who also got the Second Crusade off the ground.  The first Master of the Templars was Bernard’s uncle.

After the fall of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187, the Templars, along with just about everybody else, headed back to western Europe, primarily to France (a few lingered for another generation or two).  The Templars established houses, essentially monasteries (though called commanderies), extremely austere.  Here, rather uneasily, they settled down to become monks, but they never quite succeeded at being monks.  They were still knights, and they would go after bandits and try to protect travelers.  But without Muslims to fight they rather lost their mission.

However, they soon found a new mission, becoming bankers.  By the late thirteenth century they had banking houses all over western Europe and were reputed to be extremely wealthy.

In the early fourteenth century, King Philip IV “the Fair” of France decided that some of that wealth would suit him just fine, especially as he was fighting the English and needed money for his armies.  (Philip is called the Fair for his hair color, not his temperament.)  He trumped up some heresy charges against the Master of the Templars, tried him, and, what a surprise, found him guilty, even though the Master refused to confess.

The charges against the Templars included that they denounced God and spat on the cross, that they engaged in homosexual behavior, and especially that they had a disembodied head in a box which talked to them and from which they sought counsel, clearly something demonic.  Some Templars confessed to these things under torture, which made a sensation.

The pope, who at this point wanted to be the little friend of the French king, officially dissolved the Templars in 1312.  In 1314, the Master died under torture, and a number of other Templars were burned at the stake, in spite of recanting their earlier confessions.  King Philip went to seize all the Order’s wealth, and was grievously disappointed to find there was extremely little there.  There have been rumors ever since of vast “Templar treasure” hidden someplace or other.

Another story is the curse that the dying Master of the Templars supposedly put on Philip as he was being tortured, that the king’s line would end with him.  Philip laughed this off, because he had three sons.  But in fact his three sons each became king in turn and died without sons of their own.  The Capetian line thus officially came to an end, and the throne went to Philip’s nephew (his brother’s son), first of the Valois line.

The Templars have continued to excite the imagination ever since.  Several modern groups (like the Masons) consider themselves the heirs to the Templars, though it’s hard to account for a gap of well over 400 years.  It is nothing but a fantasy that the Templars continue the secret blood-line of Jesus and Mary Magdalene (if you think this, you’ve been reading too much Da Vinci Code).

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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