Sunday, September 10, 2017

Why do bad things happen?

Why do bad things happen to good people?  This is a vexing theological question if one assumes a loving God.  It has come up again in the aftermath of back-to-back hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, which did serious damage to the US and the Caribbean.  Most of the victims were doubtless good people.

In some ways this is what they call a "First World Problem."  People in much of the world even today, and people in most of the pre-modern world, wouldn't have had philosophical discussions about why bad things happen.  Bad things happen, they would say, because bad things always happen:  fire, flood, disease, accident, war, betrayal, hunger, quarrels, loss …  The list goes on for quite a while.

Even in the modern US, where most of us (when we are not evacuating from hurricanes) can imagine we're fairly good people leading fairly good lives, bad things happen to everybody.  One interviewer I heard said she can always get a perhaps reluctant person to talk by saying, "Tell me about a time you were treated unfairly."  Then she couldn't get them to shut up!

I guess if someone were born into privilege and had every want catered to, and died unexpectedly and painlessly before anyone they loved died, then maybe nothing bad happened to them during their life (until they died of course).

But it's still a good theological question.  Medieval thinkers in monasteries and universities came up with answers, as they did for so many other theological questions.  They may not be our answers, but these people were smart and tried to figure things out.



The most obvious answer was one derived from the Old Testament, that everyone was to be punished for the sins of the few.  Thus one reads in the Bible about "the sins of the father" being punished in all his descendants.  God destroying the earth with floods because of some bad actors, or wiping out Sodom and Gomorrah because some people there threatened His angels, certainly suggest that one can suffer for someone else's fault.  Even today, there is talk in some circles of God bringing about hurricanes because the US is not strict enough against sexual sinning.

Medieval thinkers, however, would not have agreed.  For the most part, they rejected the idea of the many suffering for the few.  Medieval Christianity put the New Testament ahead of the Old, with its emphasis on individual rather than collective responsibility.

So why did good people experience pain and sorrow?  The answer was easy to medieval theologians.  There were no good people!  Everybody was stained with original sin and deserved suffering in this life and damnation in the next.  Only because of God's completely undeserved mercy did anyone make it to Heaven at all.

(Medieval Christianity was not "comforting."  See more on this here.)

The only really good people were the saints, and they suffered the most of all.  All the early martyr-saints had had horrible things done to them for their faith, like being slowly cooked on a griddle (Saint Lawrence).  This suffering, for medieval theologians, burned away the sin in them, strengthening them and making it possible for them to become saints.  People who wanted to emulate the saints deliberately sought out extremely unpleasant experiences, if not actual martyrdom.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Olive oil and butter

People on diets these days (i.e. almost everyone, at least at some point) try to "cut back" their fat. Modern nutrition guidelines specify that only a certain percentage of one's calories should be from fat.  But in all premodern societies, including the Middle Ages, it was hard to get enough fat, which one actually needs (at least in moderation).  One also needs it for cooking, especially in a pre-Teflon era.

The main medieval choices were olive oil and butter.  There was no soybean oil, canola oil, or margarine.  Lard was the third way (and some cooks still insist lard is best for pie crusts--I wouldn't know.)

Olive oil had been the Roman choice, as it had been for the Greeks.  The "anointing with oil" events in the Bible were all examples of olive oil.  It could also be used to burn for light.  And athletes in antiquity, without today's "refreshing shower gel," got rid of the sweat by smearing themselves with olive oil, sprinkling on sand, and scraping it all off.

Olive trees grow well around the Mediterranean, providing both their fruit and oil.  Southern Europe continued throughout the Middle Ages to rely on olive oil as the major source of fat.



Olive trees, however, do not grow well further north, although the oil certainly traveled on the trade routes.  For northern Europe, butter (made from churning cream) was the chief source of fat in the Middle Ages.  If salted and kept cool, butter will keep quite a while.  In Scandinavia, butter might be stored for over a year.

When the Germanic people first came wandering into the Roman Empire, bringing their cows with them, the Romans reacted with disgust to this source of fat.  But then the Germans weren't totally impressed with olive oil.


Butter works well for greasing the pan, mixing with flour for baking, and making dry food more palatable.  But it doesn't work nearly as well for lamps, anointing, or scraping off the sweat.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Attitudes toward medieval poverty

There's being poor, and then there are attitudes about the poor.  Modern society hasn't exactly figured out the appropriate attitude, and neither did medieval society.  By modern standards, all medieval people were poor, lacking the material goods we take for granted, but people then didn't think so.  This meant those who considered themselves wealthy or at least well off had to decide what to think about poor people.

For starters, medieval people couldn't decide whether poverty was a sign of holiness or the result of sin.  As I discussed earlier, voluntary poverty was considered very holy in the late Roman Empire and in the High Middle Ages, times of (relative) economic prosperity and wealth, when renouncing wealth was a sign of devotion to God.  After all, the New Testament depicts Jesus as without possessions or even a house.  Many twelfth-century churches deliberately sought to be simple and undecorated--but not all, showing the basic division of opinion.  Saint Francis in the thirteenth century said he was wed to Lady Poverty.

But even at other times (the early and late Middle Ages), when life was a lot tougher for a lot more people and holiness became equated with wealth, poor people were not automatically spurned.  Although theologically it made sense that poverty was a product of sin, this did not mean then that poor people were specifically sinful.  Rather, Original Sin, everybody's sinful nature, meant that there was poverty in the world.  (Original Sin is a great explanation for all sorts of things.)  "The poor we have always with us," says the Bible.  This meant the wealthy were always responsible for trying to help them.

Giving alms, helping the poor, was considered a religious duty.  Both laypeople and churches sought to help poor people.  The wealthy in lay society and those monasteries that did not go in for extreme simplicity themselves would distribute leftover food at the back door after every meal.  The poor did especially well if there was a feast.

Some monasteries had what were essentially official poor people, those who were fed daily, got new clothes once or twice a year, and had their feet washed on Maundy Thursday.  In all of this, the emphasis was not on the poor people themselves.  The emphasis was on the wealthy or comfortable.  It was their Christian responsibility to help poor people, which meant they would establish official poor folks living nearby if they had to, so that they could help them.

There was still ambiguity about poor people.  Sure, you were supposed to help them, but suppose they were scary and dangerous?  Dirty, unkempt people are always scary, and it's easy to be dirty and unkempt if you have nowhere decent to sleep, no good clothes, and no way to bathe.  And yet the scariest people were not the poor but the powerful.  A knight might be clean and well-dressed, but he also had a sword and a short temper.  Overall, the poor were those to be pitied and helped.

Things changed in the fourteenth century, when over-population and a string of bad harvests (always a bad combination) led to famine.  Now there were a lot of poor people, most of whom were poor not for religious reasons but because they had lost their livelihood.  Their numbers overwhelmed the charities that had supported the poor for the last few centuries--after all, they too now had less food to distribute.

Really for the first time the well to do started making distinctions between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor, those who deserved to be helped and those who didn't.  Thieves and bandits could be easily classified as undeserving, even if they'd stolen only to keep from starving.  Children with big eyes got to be deserving.

The twenty-first century has the fourteenth century's distinction between deserving and undeserving poor.  But we draw the line somewhat differently.  The fourteenth century wanted to know if the poor people being helped were moral people.  Today the concern is that they not be goof-offs.  There is a very strong assumption that many poor people choose poverty so that they can avoid work and get freebies, which is why they have to be very carefully vetted before receiving benefits, and food stamps can't be spent on certain foods that they "don't deserve."  Many would change their attitude if they suddenly had nothing.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Medieval eclipses

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

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

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



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

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

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

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




Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Peasant Agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Fourth Crusade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Medieval boats

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

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

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



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

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



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