Friday, January 18, 2019

More bawdy plays

In an earlier post I discussed some bawdy plays put on in the late Middle Ages.  There's been enough interest in the topic that I thought I'd share a couple more.

As I noted earlier, the same band of traveling players might put on religious ("mystery") plays and bawdy plays.  Whatever the audience wanted!  Both men and women appeared in these plays, and the women were uniformly agreed to be loose women and harlots--all the more reason to go see them.  (By Shakespeare's time, women's roles were played by boys, to try to decrease the harlot factor.)

In one play with a strong heroine, three friends all desire the same married lady, who has no interest in any of them.  When each one comes to her house in turn to beg to become her lover, she concocts a cunning plan.  She tells each that, because her husband is so jealous, they will have to come to an assignation with her in disguise--but don't tell your friends about the disguise!  She dresses one as a priest, one as a dead man (we'd say zombie), and one as the devil.  She tells them all to meet her one hour after sunset in the graveyard.  Each makes her a generous gift in anticipation of what they hope will happen.  Now of course she doesn't show up, but they all do, each makes out the other two through the dimness and is terrified.  Hilarity ensues, and they all race off, never to proposition her again.

What I'm calling bawdy plays did not always involve sex (though a lot of them did).  Some just mocked people, both the powerful and the weak.  These plays were definitely not concerned that they might appear insensitive.

In one play that mocked the uneducated, a country boy who has been a servant to a priest decides he wants to be a priest himself.  He travels to the University, presents his letter of introduction (which he is incapable of reading himself), and announces he is ready for the entrance exam.  But he falls down on the first question, which is supposed to show knowledge of French literature. "In the epic, The Four Sons of Aymo, what is the name of the father?"  (This is a twelfth-century epic about Aymo's sons having an extended conflict with Charlemagne.)  The answer should be as obvious as "Who is buried in Grant's tomb?" but our poor hero just can't answer it.

A number of these plays have been translated into modern English, suitable for performance, by Jody Enders, in The Farce of the Fart and Other Ribaldries (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).  (Enders has done such things as substitute modern topical references and catch-phrases for Old French ones, to get the modern audience a similar experience to the original.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Lapis lazuli

Medieval artists loved brilliant blue.  Stained glass windows included exquisite blue glass (due to trace amounts of copper and other minerals), and manuscript illustrations (called illumination) often included bright blue color.  The Madonna, for example, was routinely shown dressed in blue.

The problem for manuscript illumination was getting a pigment that would make that brilliant blue.  The only way they could do it at that time was to use lapis lazuli, a mineral mined in just one area of Afghanistan.  When ground up, this mineral would produce a color called ultramarine.  It was highly sought after in western Europe, meaning it had to be traded over several thousand miles.

Obviously this was far too expensive to use in other than very small amounts.  Clothing, for example, even expensive luxury clothing, could not be colored ultramarine.  Instead the best medieval people could manage for their clothes was indigo, dark blue, which could be made from certain plants.

Even though lapis lazuli was as valuable as gold, it was extremely desirable.  Recently archaeological excavations at a former nunnery at Dalheim, in Germany, has discovered miniscule traces of lapis lazuli on the teeth of a woman's skeleton.  (Her teeth actually look pretty good--no cavities!)

It is quite clear where the traces came from.  The nunnery, like most religious houses, copied and illuminated books.  Religious books would have luxurious illustrations that required bright blue.  An eleventh-century nun worked on a book's illustrations, doubtless bending close over the very small image she was creating, and kept licking her brush to give it a narrow point as she delicately painted the blue bits.  Tiny flecks of lapis lazuli became embedded in the plaque on her teeth, where she would not have noticed them (the modern archaeologists looked at her teeth with a microscope).

The nunnery of Dalheim and its manuscripts were destroyed long ago, probably during the Thirty Years War in the sixteenth century.  The foundations of its small church and the skeletons in its cemetery are about all that remain.  It is indicative of how little we know about the Middle Ages, in spite of everyone's best efforts.

This case also is suggestive of the activities of medieval women.  It used to be thought that all women, even nuns, were passive and uneducated, and that all art and writing was done by men.  This is now known to be false, and the example of the eleventh-century nun (it's pretty easy to tell if a skeleton is a man or a woman) is a further indication of the artistry of medieval women.  It's too bad that we will never now be able to see the manuscript she was working on.

The discovery of the flecks of blue on the skeletal teeth was carried out as part of the larger project Science of the Human PastHere's the link to a news article about the discovery.

(For any readers just starting to look at my blog now, I've put in links above to a lot of other entries you may find of interest.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on medieval nuns, art, and so much more, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Monday, January 7, 2019

More medieval recipes

A little while ago I blogged about medieval recipes.  There's been enough interest that I've decided to add some more.  Note that these are not all everyday recipes; many instead are dishes for great feasts in great households, and measurements are extremely free form by modern standards.  For example, they usually didn't bother mentioning salt, because of course you would salt your dish.  But it's fun to see how medieval tastes differed from ours, and how medieval cooks tried to be imaginative with what we would consider a limited choice of ingredients.

Fava beans with herbs
Take some fava beans and use hot water to skin them, the same as you would with almonds.  Add some good broth and boil them long enough to be cooked properly.  Add some parsley and chopped mint and a little salted meat and boil together.  This should be a nice shade of green.  You can also make this dish with peas but do not skin them with hot water.

Chicken stew
Boil up your chickens and save the broth.  Cut up the chickens and cook the meat in lard.  Pound together the meat, the chickens' livers, some almonds, and a little broth.  Boil it with ginger, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, and grain of paradise [another kind of pepper].  Add a little vinegar.  Serve the meat in bowls, with the broth poured over it.
[medieval people preferred capons for dishes like this--a capon is a rooster castrated when young, so it grew up large but tender]

King Manfred's meat pie
Take chicken gizzards and livers and add pork belly.  Chop it all up with a knife.  Add pepper.  Fry it all up in a deep pan.  Let it cool and add eggs.  Meanwhile make a crust, and put the mixture in.  Bake it gently until done.

Stuffed eggs
Hard boil eggs and cut them in half.  Take out the yolks and mix with marjoram, saffron, and cloves.  For every 8 eggs, also mix in one beaten raw egg.  Mash in a little cheese.  Fry the eggs in pork fat and eat with verjuice.
[verjuice was made from partially fermented grape juice and crushed grape seeds boiled together]

A good source for medieval recipes is Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy, by Odile Redon, Françoise Sabban, and Silvano Serventi (University of Chicago Press, 1998).

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Messiah

Last weekend we went to a terrific performance of Handel's "Messiah" (not a singalong version).  The program had all the words with their sources.  Although officially the piece is about the birth of Jesus (which is why it's usually played at Christmas), most of the words are from the Old Testament, not the New.

This is because the idea of a Messiah did not start with Christianity.  The Jews had been looking forward to the coming of a Messiah for at least half a millennium before a decree went out from Caesar Augustus.  The so-called Old Testament prophets (Isaiah gets most of the attention, along with Jeremiah and Zechariah, plus a few others) wrote around the time of the "Babylonian captivity," when the Babylonians captured the city of Jerusalem and took a lot of Jews back home as slaves.  (The Jews got back to Jerusalem a generation or so later, after the Babylonians were in turn attacked by the Persians, but that's another story.)

The prophets wrote about how the Jews had brought it all on themselves through their sin and turning from God but also offered hope:  a Messiah would come, someone who would bring about peace and prosperity.  Indeed, there is some debate among scholars whether the book of Isaiah was written by one or two (or more) authors, the despairing, denouncing Isaiah and the hopeful Isaiah.

Jewish hopes for a Messiah continued for the next 2500 years--indeed until now.  During the life of Jesus, many Jews had a more specific hope, that the Messiah would drive the Romans out of their land.  The group called the Zealots were especially eager to give the Romans a violent shove.  The Romans heard Jesus being hailed as the Messiah and decided he was a Zealot and put him to death as a traitor, one working against the Roman state.  (He wasn't, but that's also another story.)

One version of prophecies of the Messiah was that the Messiah indeed appears every generation, but if the people are not ready--not prepared to overcome their sinful ways--they will kill him.  That's why there's a lot in the Old Testament about the Suffering Servant, the innocent man on whom the stiff-necked people turn.  When Jesus was put to death, it appeared to be one more example of a Messiah the people rejected.

But in this case, his followers said that he had come back from death.  This was totally different.  Paul, the person who essentially started Christianity as its own religion (not just a sect of Judaism), understandably found this extremely significant.  His letters, the earliest part of the New Testament, are all about this.  "As in Adam all shall die, so in Christ shall all be made alive."  For Paul, the Messiah was to be understood not only as bringing about peace and prosperity, beating swords into plowshares and the like, but as bringing about triumph over death.

But He was still supposed to be the Messiah prophesied by the Jews centuries earlier.  The Book of Matthew in the New Testament is addressed to a Jewish audience, explaining how Jesus's birth, life, and death fulfilled all the prophecies.  The word 'messiah' by the way is from the Hebrew, which in the Greek in which the New Testament is written became the 'Christos,' the 'anointed one.'  (You didn't think Christ was a last name, did you?  Good.  I didn't think so.)

Once it was determined that Christians would adopt the Jewish Bible as their Old Testament (on which see more here), it became quite easy to interpret all Old Testament references to a Messiah as leading straight to Jesus Christ.  For medieval theologians, looking at a Bible that said all sorts of different contradictory things (not surprising, as it was written over a thousand-year period for a great variety of purposes), the goal was the interpret it all so that it all made sense, making a single, coherent statement.  It was like working with the universe's most complex puzzle, further complicated because not only did they have to make all the different parts of the Bible make sense, but they had to deal with earlier theologians, popes, and councils and their version of what it all meant.

Although the letters of Paul suggest that the glorious new world that the Messiah was supposed to bring in was thought to be imminent during his time, as the years and centuries went by the world we know continued to be as painful and stubborn as ever.  Quickly the coming of the Messiah (second coming in fact) and His glorious time of peace was put off further and further into the future, indeed into the time when death would be overcome, as He had already demonstrated possible.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

For more about medieval Christianity and so much more, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Jane Austen and the gentry

Jane Austen was not medieval.  Not even close.  She lived and wrote in the early nineteenth century, the century when, as I have discussed elsewhere, a whole lot of the things that we would now consider modern were invented, from electricity to indoor plumbing to factory goods to furnaces to telephones to being able to get quickly down the road by mechanical means (e.g. trains).

But the early nineteenth-century English world that Austen describes, at a time shortly before all these inventions took place, was, for the gentry (the well-to-do), sort of a half-way spot between aristocratic life in the Middle Ages and the modern age.

(If you haven't read any of Jane Austen's novels, I urge you to do so.  Start with Pride and Prejudice.  If they made you read it in high school I hope they told you that it is extremely funny.  Austen found all the silliness, greed, misplaced pride, and lack of education of many of her contemporaries hilarious.  If you have trouble getting into it--and you shouldn't--start by watching the BBC mini series with Colin Firth.)

Austen's gentry lived in large manor houses with servants, as the twelfth-century aristocracy would have lived.  They derived much of their income from agricultural rents and had their own "home farm" lands.  They valued music, art, and literature.  In this they were like medieval aristocrats.

Also like medieval aristocrats, they believed in love as a reason to get married, even though marrying someone from outside one's social class was unthinkable.  Austen's heroines still have their parents and guardians trying to arrange appropriate marriages for their children, as twelfth-century parents had done, though Austen suggests this often led to disaster.

We think of medieval aristocrats as living in castles, and indeed many did, but a castle was too expensive for everyone to have one, so a lot of them lived in large and elegant houses, like their nineteenth-century descendants.  The castles not destroyed during the early modern period would still have had wealthy owners in the nineteenth century, but the interiors had been transformed to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ideas of comfort.

Manor houses were thick on the ground in Austen's day, but by a century later (the time of Downton Abbey if you watched that show), it became hard to maintain them, and many were turned into institutions (nursing homes, schools, hotels, etc.) or torn down.

Like aristocratic households of the twelfth century, the nineteenth-century gentry's big meal of the day, called dinner, was in what we would call late afternoon, around 4 or 5 o'clock.  But whereas medieval people would have been up at dawn, maybe had a quick bite then, worked till dinner, and then relaxed for a short period before going to bed (with or without an additional quick bite of supper), Austen's gentry liked to stay up late.  (See more here on medieval meals and meal-times.)

The nineteenth-century gentry breakfasted at 9 or 10, then had their "morning," which lasted until dinner time (ever wonder why a performance at 1 o'clock is called a matinée?).  After dinner there were many more hours of socializing, playing music, and the like, broken at some point by tea.  The after dinner period was called evening.  This is when one had parties and dancing, and many stayed up until midnight.  A party would be expected to include a light supper.

The gentry provided a lot of military leaders for England, as the medieval aristocracy had defined themselves militarily, but wars were far away, and most young men did not take part in military exercises.  There were still knights, or at least men called Sir, but unlike medieval knights they never charged into combat with long lances and swords at the ready; nineteenth-century knighthood was primarily a matter of status.

The gentry still learned to fence, and an insult might end in a challenge to a duel.  Duels were officially illegal but happened anyway, men without shields or armor fencing with foils (light weight swords) until one yielded or was killed or at least injured.  A medieval challenge to single combat in contrast would have required horses, lances, armor, shields, and serious swords, and nobody would have considered it illegal.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

For more about life of the aristocracy, fighting, knights, and so much more, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Sixth-Century Disasters

There have been plenty of low points in European history (think, the first half of the twentieth century).  But one of the definite low points was the sixth century.

As I have discussed previously, one cannot really speak of a “fall” of the Roman Empire.  But the empire certainly lost its power and authority, with economic slowdown evident from the third century on, and an end to expansion and even winning by the fourth and fifth. The disasters of the sixth century broke down the empire's urban structure and communication networks.  The rise of Islam in the seventh century, leading to major loss of Roman territory in North Africa and the Middle East, pretty much finished it off.

Historians and scientists have identified two especially bad years in the sixth century, the volcano of 536 and the plague of 542.  There have been plenty of studies, based on pollen deposits and tree rings, showing a chilling of Europe’s climate in the first half of the sixth century, and now scientists studying particulate matter deposited in glaciers in the Swiss Alps have been able to pinpoint a volcano in 536 that sent so much dust and debris into the air that sunlight was blocked, and there were several “years without a summer.”  Debris in the glaciers indicates the volcano was in Iceland, then uninhabited (the Vikings came later).

(For those who think hopefully that maybe we can stop global warming with a volcano, be careful what you wish for.)

As a result of the volcano, there were massive crop failures and famines.  Urban culture disintegrated, because cities can’t survive without food imports, which means the countryside has to be producing a surplus, which it wasn’t.  Then the weakened population (the parts that had survived so far) was hit six years later by an outbreak of the bubonic plague (Black Death).  It reached Europe from Byzantium (and eventually central Asia).  Justinian was emperor then (headquartered in Constantinople, although he sometimes visited western Europe), and the devastating plague was sometimes referred to as “Justinian’s flea.”

Having killed off a sizeable chunk of the population (maybe half?), the Black Death did not return to Europe for 800 years, when the plague returned, marking both economic collapse and the beginning of the Renaissance.

Somehow sixth-century Europe staggered on after its back-to-back disasters, although with a much smaller population and seriously disrupted trade and communication.  Long-distance luxury trade continued, even if at a reduced level.  Once the volcano settled down it began to be possible to grow crops reliably again.  The economic collapse began to turn around in the first half of the seventh century, after a hundred years or so of very hard times.  One of the markers of the improved economy, also found in the Swiss glaciers, is particles of lead.  Lead is used in smelting silver, in making coins, a clear indication that trade within Europe had picked up, though the urban economy did not fully recover until the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

For more on medieval society and economy, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Medieval Recipes

It's Thanksgiving time in the US, the time when people who don't cook much for most of the year feel compelled to pull out the old recipe cards and the roast pan.  You can certainly eat Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant, but this is considered second best.  It's a home event.

The old recipe cards often include things no one would be caught dead eating the rest of the year, like canned green beans mixed with canned mushroom soup and topped with canned onion rings, or canned sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows.  Both of these are baked, but unfortunately not enough to reduce them to a cinder.

But I digress.  Medieval homemakers for the most part didn't have cookbooks and stained recipe cards for the excellent reason that most of them couldn't read.  (They also didn't have turkeys, but that's a separate story.)  Meals were normally cooked at home, because restaurants weren't an option.  Bread and beer could be bought, but villages wouldn't have other sources of prepared foods.  The inns in the cities (and occasionally at crossroads) catered to travelers for the most part, not the locals.  So we know what medieval people ate but not necessarily how it was prepared (well, how many ways can you cook lentils and onions?).

But we do have some medieval recipes!  These were written for cooks at great aristocratic households toward the end of the Middle Ages.  For the most part they give us an insight into foods prepared for great feasts, not for everyday consumption.  But Thanksgiving is a great feast too, so that's okay.

Medieval recipes were far less exact than modern recipes.  Indeed, the idea of having exact measurements for ingredients is really only a little over a century old, having started with Fanny Farmer and her Boston School Cookbook.  Before then there was a great deal of "stir in a heaping spoonful of this or that" and "cook for an hour or so."  Medieval recipes were even more free-form.

The reason of course is that they were aimed at people who already knew how to cook and who had a pretty good idea when something was done or if it needed a little more or a lot more seasoning.  Even now, Chinese recipes, written for Chinese people, just list the ingredients, because of course you'll know what to do next.

Even when medieval recipes call for a "quart" of this liquid or a "pound" of that solid, it's hard to know if their pounds and quarts correspond to ours.  Medieval eggs, we know, were substantially smaller than ours, so you'll want to reduce their number.  So it's fun to experiment with medieval recipes, especially since it's interesting to see ingredients combined in ways that wouldn't have occurred to us, but the key term is "experiment."  Here are a couple to get you started, straight out of medieval cookbooks.

Chickpea soup (this would have been a good everyday supper)
To make eight bowlfuls, take a pound and a half of red chickpeas and wash them, drain them, and put them in the pot where they will be cooked. Add half an ounce of flour, some good oil, a little salt, about twenty crushed peppercorns and a little cinnamon.  Mix with your hands.  Then add three measures of water, along with a little sage, rosemary, and parsley root.  Boil until it is reduced to eight bowlfuls and add a little more oil.  If making for an invalid, leave out the oil and spices.

White cheese tart (this is a dessert, using sugar, which came into Europe at the end of the Middle Ages)
Take a pound and a half of good fresh cheese, chop it fine and pound it well.  Now take twelve or fifteen egg whites and mix them very well with the cheese, adding half a pound of sugar and half an ounce of white ginger.  Also add half a pound of good pork fat and some milk, as much as is needed.  Then make the pastry crust, as thin as it ought to be.  Put in the cheese mixture and bake it nicely, until the top is slightly browned.  Put a little sugar and good rose water on top.

Here are some more medieval recipes if you enjoy these.

A good source for medieval recipes is Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy, by Odile Redon, Françoise Sabban, and Silvano Serventi (University of Chicago Press, 1998).

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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