Monday, November 13, 2017


Nobody now thinks much about beads.  Beading (or making simple jewelry from them) can be fun, but it is not something we think of in terms of trade routes and great expense.  In the early Middle Ages, things were different.

Beads were considered a fine form of decoration for women and, to a somewhat lesser extent, to men.  In the late Roman Empire those in the West who could afford it wore necklaces of beads made from semi-precious stones.  Beads could also be made from amber, from non-precious stones, even from horn.  (Plastic was centuries in the future.)  But the most important kind of material was glass.

This changed in the seventh century.  With the rise of Islam and the resultant breakdown of Mediterranean trade routes, it became hard for the West to get glass.  Beads found in graves from that period tended to be made instead from bone, horn, even fired clay.

This changed with the Vikings.  As I have noted before, they established long-distance overland trade routes that reached all the way from Scandinavia to Byzantium.  One of the most important things that they brought to the west was glass.

A lot of the glass was already in the shape of beads.  Other glass could be melted down and shaped into beads (most commonly short tiny cylinders in shape, rather than the round form we take for granted).  The glass came in all sorts of different colors.

The Vikings, who set up trade colonies in the West by the ninth century, once the fun of constant raiding wore off (and they realized that one could make consistent money year after year through trade, whereas a raid usually couldn't be repeated), traded beads.  Beads made excellent trade goods, because everyone wanted some, they were (relatively) inexpensive per unit, so everyone could afford at least some, and they were fairly lightweight, making them easier to transport than say metal or stone.

Big heaps of early medieval glass beads have been found in Scandinavian harbors, presumably from a box being loaded that broke loose and dumped.  It would not have been worth it at the time to send divers down into the murky, icy waters to try to pick up beads one by one.

Do you find it hard to picture a Viking warrior wearing a necklace of glass beads?  Readjust your thinking.

Some of the ideas in this post were inspired by the work of Matthew Delvaux of Boston College.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Anglo-Norman Kings

One sometimes hears that medieval kingship was a simple matter of inheritance--the king was succeeded by his eldest son, and that was that.  The kings of England totally undercut that model.  From the middle of the eleventh century to the early thirteenth century, a grand total of 1 king became king by simple father-to-oldest-son inheritance.

These kings are usually called Anglo-Norman, because they had been dukes of Normandy (in France) before becoming kings of England and held onto the duchy.

William the Conqueror of course became king of England in 1066 by conquest (his nickname is a clue...).  When he died, he was succeeded not by his oldest son, Robert Curthose, but by his second son, William II, also called William Rufus.  Robert Curthose became duke of Normandy.  When William Rufus died without children in 1100, he was succeeded by his youngest brother, Henry I.

Robert Curthose was in Jerusalem at the time, on the First Crusade.  He was distraught, thinking that he ought to succeed as king.  He came back to Europe, fought Henry for half a dozen years, lost, and ended up imprisoned for the rest of his life.  So much for brotherly love.

Henry I had no shortage of sons.  He had over a dozen.  There was no problem there, except for one crucial issue.  All but one of them was illegitimate.  His one legitimate son was lost at sea (a group of young men trying to cross the English Channel during rough weather, all probably DUI).  There was no way Henry could make one of his other sons king, even though several of them became bishops, and all of them had comfortable lives.  So he chose his daughter Mathilda to succeed.

Mathilda was supposed to be king, not queen.  She in fact usually called herself Empress, because she had been briefly married to the Holy Roman Emperor, though he had died without them having children.  She had married a second time, to Geoffrey, count of Anjou.  The county of Anjou is next to Normandy, and the Angevins had decided Normandy was rightfully theirs.

The great Anglo-Norman lords hated Mathilda, partly because she was a woman, partly because they hated Geoffrey of Anjou.  They quickly declared they hadn't really sworn to support Mathilda and went instead for her cousin Stephen, son of a daughter of William the Conqueror.  England now calls Stephen the rightful king, so Henry I was succeeded by his nephew.

Mathilda spent much of the next two decades fighting Stephen.  She never won, but at the end of his life, when he had no children to succeed (what's with these guys? low sperm count?), he agreed that Mathilda's son, Henry II, would become king after him.  So Stephen was succeeded by a first cousin once removed, a man who was already duke of Normandy and count of Anjou.  Henry also acquired Aquitaine, essentially the southwest quarter of France, through his marriage.

Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had five sons.  (No low sperm count there!)  Though their oldest son, William, died very young, and the second, Young Henry, died as a young man while his father was still alive, the third son, Richard the Lionheart, was alive and ready to succeed when Henry II died in 1189.  This was the first time an English king was succeeded by his oldest surviving son since before the Conquest.

But Richard had no children, so he was succeeded by his younger brother, John.  When John died in 1216, his young son succeeded as Henry III, and (at least for a little while) there was a sense that this father-son inheritance should be the model.

Henry II and his five sons had not had a happy Dad-and-lad relationship.  Richard and Geoffrey (the fourth son) rebelled against their father.  They also did not get along with each other.  Geoffrey was killed in a tournament, and his young son, named Arthur, mysteriously vanished after visiting his Uncle John.  When Richard the Lionheart was preparing to go on the Third Crusade, he seems to have wanted to make John come with him, fearing that if John were left behind he would seize the English throne.

Although the King Arthur stories that developed in the twelfth century (which owe essentially nothing to the fifth century) cannot be seen as simple metaphor or roman-à-clef, there are similarities between the King Arthur of the stories and the real Anglo-Norman kings.  Arthur in the stories never had a legitimate son, like Henry I.  He was rebelled against by his son Mordred, like Henry II.  Mordred was the product of an incestuous union, Arthur's nephew as well as son, which made it worse--and evoked nephews in royal succession (at least none of the Anglo-Norman kings were thought to have had incestuous relations with their sisters).  The first people who heard the King Arthur stories saw parallels with their own line of kings.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017


Copper played a major role in the Middle Ages, both as part of the economy and as a marker of cultural exchange.  Copper of course had been mined and used for centuries.  Although not nearly as hard as iron and thus not as good for weapons (though copper can become hard and sharp if mixed with tin to become bronze), it is a very useful metal and relatively easy both to mine and to shape into tools.  It has been used for at least 10,000 years.

In the Middle Ages, copper was used for coins (coppers--modern pennies are an alloy today but used to be copper).  Silver was officially the main form of currency, but in practice most monetary exchange was in copper.  It was also used for all sorts of bowls, lamps, pots, pipes, jewelry, and the like, as well as for roofs and for decoration.  (Health tip:  a copper bracelet will not cure arthritis.)  It transmits heat very well (as well as electricity), meaning it's good for cook pots, and barnacles won't grow on it, meaning it is prized for cladding ships.

Sicily became a major medieval center of copper usage under Norman rule (eleventh-twelfth centuries).  Sicily itself did not have much in the way of copper mines--the main Mediterranean source of copper was Cyprus, which gave its name to copper (the Romans called the metal aes cyprium, the metal of Cyprus).  But the Sicilians both worked the metal extensively and imported all sorts of small useful objects from the Middle East, much of which they resold.

Arabic scientists had worked out a lot of the details on how copper could be worked and made into alloys.  The Sicilians both read these treatises and figured out on their own how to work and shape the metal.  They also absorbed a lot of Arabic ideas on alchemy.

Although we now think of "alchemy" as involving lead and gold, and being a bunch of nonsense, it was a major intellectual thread in Arabic and Christian thought in the Middle Ages.  It was a way of thinking about the nature of the physical world, how it's put together, how different kinds of material substances relate to each other.  (The word alchemy, like algebra, is from the Arabic, as are many other words that start al-.)

One of the ways that the Sicilians used copper was to make major decorated church doors, some of which still survive.  The Temple in Jerusalem was supposed to have had copper doors, and the idea had a great deal of appeal.  The Sicilian church doors were incised with alchemical symbols and ideas.

Copper, which starts as almost golden in color and becomes green as it is exposed to oxygen (verdigris), was seen as a symbol of one important theological discussion:  the relationship of God to His creation.  It was argued by many that God had created the earth, set it in motion, then stood back to see how it would do.  Copper symbolized this, starting as bright and golden, like God's initial creation, then becoming green, like the earth covered with growing plants.  Medieval thinkers loved metaphors and analogies.

Note:  Many of the ideas in this post were inspired by the work of Robin Reich, of Columbia University.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Protestant Reformation

Last week was the official 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther (after whom the civil rights leader Martin Luther King was named, don't confuse them) nailed what he called "95 Theses" to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.  Although he had no idea at the time that he was starting a whole new branch of Christianity, in retrospect it was decided that this was the beginning of Protestantism.

(It's a little tricky to do modern "anniversaries" of long-ago events, because they were still on the Julian Calendar, rather than our Gregorian Calendar, which puts specific dates at a slightly different distance from the solstice.)

The 95 Theses were a list of things that Luther objected to in the church of his day, both theologically and practically.  He was himself a monk and a professor of theology at the local university, a member of the church.  Although the events of 1517 are now seen as a thorough break with medieval Christendom (one of the reasons the end of the Middle Ages is usually put around the year 1500), in many ways Luther was the last of the medieval reformers who thought the organized church was headed in the wrong direction and tried to drag it back.

Luther's main concern in 1517 was so-called indulgences.  People who worried about their sins (that is, almost everyone) were encouraged to show their penitence by making a gift to the church.  Their penitence would be rewarded by being "indulgently" granted a reprieve from much of their expected time in purgatory.  Luther thought the pope would agree that although this might make theological sense--popes had ruled that the saints had created a "treasury of merit," excess virtuous deeds on which ordinary Christians might draw--it had been seriously abused.  Pardoners were wandering through Europe, promising forgiveness for a payment, missing the whole nuance.  "As the coin drops in the box, the soul rises up!"

In practice, the pope was not impressed.  After councils and extensive discussion, Luther was excommunicated in 1521.  Rather than wanting to be rejoined to the church, Luther, like all good people who break with orthodoxy, decided that he was right and the organized church was the real heretic.  His real point, which he developed as his movement spread and gained many followers, was that people were saved by "faith," not by deeds.  That is, of course one had to try to be the best person one could, but one could not count on being saved just by doing rote activities, like buying an indulgence or taking part in sacraments.  One could not "earn" one's own salvation he argued, but rather had to receive it, if one were saved at all, as a gift from God.

Protestantism (so-called because the followers were "protesting" things in the organized church) spread rapidly, its ideas spread by pamphlets and leaflets printed on the recently developed printing press.  New versions of Protestantism quickly developed (such as Calvinism), theologically different from Luther's version.  In England, Henry VIII broke with the pope because he wanted a divorce, then essentially declared his own version of Protestantism (Anglicanism).  In Germany, which at the time was divided into many small principalities, the duke or count or prince of each territory declared which religion was to be followed in his region.  Protestants and Catholics went to war with each other, making the sixteenth century a particularly bloody time.  Everyone persecuted the Mennonites for being non-violent.

The big schism between the two versions of western Christianity was never healed, although they no longer treat each other as heretics.  Protestants still have many versions, but they differ from Catholics in reducing sacraments, allowing priests to marry (as they had in the early church--Luther himself went on to marry a former nun), rejecting purgatory, having people read the Bible in their own language (Luther translated the Bible into Latin, though Catholics stuck with the Latin Bible until the 1960s), and jettisoning most of the saints and relics.  One really only can speak of Catholicism in the aftermath of the rise of Protestantism, when it became the other version of western Christianity, to be distinguished from eastern (Greek) orthodoxy (and such versions as Russian orthodoxy).  In the aftermath of Luther, the Catholic church did a great deal of reforming itself (like getting rid of pardoners), even though never admitting Luther had a point.

Monday, October 30, 2017


All societies have to figure out what to do with the end-products of digestion.  We're not cows, who just let it fly wherever they are, or dogs, who won't foul their own den but consider the outdoors their rightful place to do what needs to be done (including making a scent-statement for other dogs).

(Interesting side point:  if beings from another planet were watching dog-walkers, and noticed that the dogs being walked just did what they wanted, while the humans cleaned up after them, who would the aliens decide was the true Master?)

The Middle Ages had chamber pots and latrines.  We have no idea how lucky we are to have city sewers and septic systems.  Push the flush lever, and you  never have to think about it again.  Medieval people didn't have it so easy.  They preferred not to think about such things, but being clean and odor-free was a lot harder.

On a farm, the manure pile would serve for the family's use as well.  In a town house, there would often be a privy in the back yard, built over a deep hole.  In a castle, there generally wasn't a handy manure pile, and you didn't really have the option of stepping out of the building.  (In fact the stables would have a manure pile, but the number of humans living in a castle would overwhelm the pile's ability to absorb human waste along with that of the horses.  And castle folk thought of themselves as much more refined than to use the manure pile anyway.)

Castles had latrines, located off main rooms, where one could go to do one's business and where chamber pots could be dumped.  They were rather discreetly located, and there were generally different sets for the noble family and for the warriors and workers.

Latrines might be built in the outer walls, letting things dribble down the wall, but from the thirteenth century onward castle builders were very careful not to put the latrines in any sort of defensible wall.  Everyone remembered what happened at Château Gailliard in Normandy (pictured below), where the attackers got into the castle by climbing up through the latrines.

In addition of course no one wanted their castle to be stinky, so things dribbling down a wall, especially an interior wall, would be frequently cleaned.  One sometimes hears that a castle's moat functioned as a sewer, but this is not true, although it would certainly not be savory.  Being surrounded by a sewer was not something any medieval lord would put up with (besides, most castles didn't have moats).

Alternately, a cesspit could be constructed within a wall.  It would be made with an easy way to clean it out.  Cesspits became the standard in cities during the early modern period, when urban growth made the backyard with its privy an expensive use of real estate.

The stench of a badly maintained latrine or cesspit was considered theologically a reminder of the weakness of human flesh, something that evoked both death and the powers of evil.  Miracle stories are full of demons lurking in latrines and emitting foul odors.

The picture below shows a high-end two-seater in a fourteenth-century castle.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Medieval travel and tourism

When people today are asked about retirement plans, they very frequently say, "I hope to travel."  Being a tourist, traveling around to interesting places, is considered fun and worthwhile, even if only really available to those with leisure time (one wonders if those whose jobs require a great deal of travel have the same attitude toward retirement).

As I have discussed previously, travel in the Middle Ages was a lot harder than it is now.  With human power (walking) the chief form of transport, much of the population might spend most of their lives within a twenty-mile radius.  Horses were for the well to do, and carts, made to transport goods, would have been very uncomfortable to ride in over any distance.

Yet people did travel.  The aristocracy especially traveled a lot.  It was easier to move people than to move food, so large courts would frequently move from place to place, eating up the food at one palace before moving on to the next.  Without modern communication, the only easy way to tell what was happening somewhere was to go there, so kings, dukes, counts, and landlords were constantly on the move, checking things out, passing judgments, hearing complaints, collecting revenue.  And of course you had armies marching back and forth and young men traveling to tournaments.

Tourism as we know it did not exist in the Middle Ages.  Our version really began in the nineteenth century, when well to do young men (rarely women) would undertake a Grand Tour.  Young English gentlemen would travel around the Continent for months, even a few years, picking up culture and art, admiring the scenery, and visiting places of historical significance.  The very word "tourism" comes from taking the Tour.

But modern tourism essentially began with the automobile, after World War I.  It is much, much easier to go visit interesting places when one can hop in the car.  In France, after the Armistice, people wanted to visit the battlefields where so many of their young men had died.  The automobile made this possible, and Michelin especially (maker of car tires) started putting out helpful booklets to let people figure out where to go and what to see.

So modern tourism is a combination of "broadening one's mind" by being exposed to different scenes and ideas, of entertainment by seeing lovely and interesting places, and of education, by learning about history and other useful subjects.  The museums where all this educational information was made available developed along with tourism.

Something that looks like tourism certainly existed in the Middle Ages, but its purpose was very different from broadening one's mind or being entertained or educated.  It was called pilgrimage.

One traveled places to improve one's soul, and the difficulties of the journey were supposed to help improve it, by shaking one out of lethargy or luxury.  The best pilgrimage goal was always Jerusalem, the scene of the Crucifixion, but most Europeans would choose more accessible places to go.

Rome was always a place for pilgrims, full of the bones of early martyrs, the graves of Saints Peter and Paul, and of course the papacy.  Many other spots became pilgrimage centers, from Vézelay in Burgundy (pictured above) to Santiago in northern Spain (and a pilgrimage route ran between these two).  Pilgrims were always interested in lovely architecture, important relics, and holy men (hermits could be visited as part of the pilgrim experience), but they do not seem to have paid as much attention to scenery.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Black and white in the Middle Ages

Medieval people would most certainly not be considered inclusive and welcoming of diversity by today's standards.  Anyone who wasn't an orthodox Christian (i.e. not a heretic), or who didn't know how to speak the local language, was treated at best with suspicion.  But skin color was not nearly as big a factor as it is in the modern US.

In part this was because western Europe had a great range of skin and hair colors anyway, with more light-skinned blonds in Scandinavia and Celtic areas like Ireland, and more swarthy skin and black hair along the Mediterranean.  The Mediterranean had been a melting pot since at least the early days of the Roman Empire, with African, Middle Eastern, and European ethnic groups all intermixing.  In the late Empire, a freed slave became a citizen, and his children might marry the descendants of people who had never been slaves.  Frescos from ancient Rome show a progressive darkening of Romans' skin over the generations, as more African genes mixed with the original Roman Celtic genes.

Spain and Italy especially had populations that mingled genes from all over the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as from northern Europe.  Think about "Spanish eyes," dark and flashing.  They didn't get them from the Visigoths.

So medieval Europeans were happy to deal with people with a great range of skin tones without trying to identify them by "race."  Blond and blue-eyed, however, remained the default definition of beauty, as indeed it still is the US—notice how actresses and even TV personalities are far more likely to be blond than the frequency of light hair in the general population would warrant.

Light skin was not just a marker of beauty but a marker of wealth and status.  These days, when most people have indoor jobs, getting a tan makes a Caucasian stand out among the pale-skinned.  In the Middle Ages, when most of the population was involved in farming and thus were outdoors a lot, having pale skin was good, because it meant you weren't a peasant.

(In the modern US, it seems that getting a tan from a day at the beach or from a tanning salon is good.  Getting a tan from your ancestral genes is bad.  I don't get it either.)

It was very rare that a European saw a sub-Saharan African, someone with very dark, essentially black skin.  They knew however that such people existed.  The Romans had mentioned them, and the Queen of Sheba in the Bible was described as "dusky."  (It seems most likely that she was from what is now Ethiopia.)

In the medieval story of "Parzival," Parzival father had lived in the Middle East for years with a woman as dark as the Queen of Sheba.  He never married her, however, according to the story, not because of her skin color but because she was not a Christian.  They had a son who eventually came to Europe and met Parzival, his half-brother.  This mixed-race son was described as spotted, black and white.

Medieval people didn't think through where the range of European skin tones had come from.  But they knew that if you bred a black and a white cow, or a black and a white horse, you'd get offspring with black and white spots.  Humans must be the same.  It all made sense.