Sunday, June 25, 2017

Meat in the Middle Ages

Modern people in the West have an uneasy relationship with meat.  On the one hand, we love it.  The smell of hamburgers on the grill or turkey roasting gets everyone's attention.  It's obvious from our teeth and from archaeology that our Stone Age ancestors ate meat (normally cooked) as part of their diet.  Meat has more calories per volume than vegetables (generally), so if one is hunting and gathering it makes sense to hunt for meat.  Humans can eat pretty much every kind of animal, whereas an awful lot of plants are indigestible or just don't produce nutrients for us (grass won't work for humans).



On the other hand, there are a lot of things we think "bad" about meat.  Every recipe for a "healthy diet" starts by talking about cutting back on red meat with its saturated fat.  Many vegetarians and vegans believe it is not right to raise sentient creatures just to kill and eat them.  (I once saw a sign in range-country Wyoming, fighting back:  "Did you know that every day thousands of innocent plants are killed by vegetarians?  Eat more beef!")  This is further complicated by the popularity of things like gluten-free diets, the so-called "Paleo" diet (not clear where Paleolithic woman would have gotten the olive oil), and low-carb diets, where one tucks happily into meat.

As I discussed in an earlier post on the medieval diet, medieval people had a lot fewer foods to choose from than we do, because they didn't have New World foods like corn and chocolate (much less processed foods or fruits and vegetables out of season).  For them, the majority of their daily calories came from bread.  "Give us this day our daily bread" was not spoken metaphorically.  However, they loved meat and ate it when they could.  They couldn't have cared less about saturated fat.

Meat was expensive, rare, and hard to keep fresh centuries before refrigeration.  For most medieval people, pork was the most common meat, but it was only eaten fresh in the fall, at the time of the big pig roundup and slaughter.  Everyone at their fill, then the rest was smoked and salted to last the winter as an occasional treat.

The aristocracy hunted for deer and went hawking for birds, but over-hunting then, as now, can drastically reduce the population of hunted creatures, so the powerful tried (without overwhelming success) to restrict the right to hunt to themselves.

For most people, beef was eaten only when the old dairy cow was no longer producing, and chicken when the hen stopped laying, though young bulls and cockerels might be harvested out of the flock.  Songbirds and rabbits provided additional sources of meat.

Red meat was considered to make one lively and lusty.  Monks considered this bad, so they normally ate no red meat at all.  (It all made sense in terms of Humors.)  To lead a pure and simple life, breaking away from material things, they had to give up meat.  Meat broth might be allowed, however, if a monk were ill, and there were always stories (about other monasteries, of course) about monks who feigned almost constant illness so they could live in the infirmary and have meat.

For a special guest (like a bishop or a great lord), the abbot would be expected to serve something better than the bread and vegetables on which the monks normally lived (with maybe some eggs).  So they would serve fish or maybe cheese (but preferably fish), not red meat but a little classier than regular monastic fare.

This idea that fish was a semi-penitential food, halfway to being a vegetable and certainly not to be considered red meat, gave rise to the assumption that Catholics should eat fish rather than meat on Fridays during Lent.  (It used to be every Friday, but it's just been Fridays-in-Lent since the 1960s.)  These days, however, eating fish (generally more expensive than hamburger) has lost a lot of its penitential aspect and seems more a ritual act.

Our grocery was advertising "crab legs for Lent."  Let's not go into detail on that one.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

Medieval artists

The stereotype of an artist today is someone starving in a garrett, probably wearing a beret, maybe smoking a cigarette and drinking absinthe.  This stereotype probably derives ultimately from the opera La Bohème (a great opera, but not a particularly informative work of social history).  Were medieval artists like this?

No!  (You knew I'd say that, didn't you.)

Medieval artists were not free-spirited individuals creating art in solitude and following their own muse (and starving), but rather professional artisans, employed (and paid) to produce art.  The distinction between art and architecture which we make really didn't make sense.  The majority of medieval art was religious, and a lot of it was produced for churches.

The people who employed artists were often religious leaders (bishops, abbots) but might be wealthy lay people, especially in the late Middle Ages.  Art included illustrations in Bibles and religious books (called illuminations), statues big and small, crucifixes and other liturgical objects, carvings on the fronts of churches or on the capitals at the top of pillars, and wall paintings.


The above image is a capital at the top of a pillar, showing the story of David and Goliath.

There were standard ways of depicting certain people and events; Saint Peter, for example, was always shown with enormous keys.  But the artists had a great deal of latitude in how they worked with the standard expectations.  Artists were given a lot of room for creativity, so that even though a particular image might look at first glance a lot like others, the individual artist would make it his (or hers).

It used to be believed that medieval artists worked anonymously, but in fact the best ones had excellent reputations, and artists often signed their works.  A lot of these signatures have been worn off over the centuries, but if you look carefully at the tympanum over the front door of Autun cathedral, you will see the words "Gislebertus hoc fecit" right under Christ's feet, meaning, "I Giselbert made this."  Giselbert was rightly proud of his work.


(The above image may be too small for you to see the words, but they're there.  See detail.)



Art was valued both for its beauty and for the value of the materials as well as the quality of craftsmanship.  Illuminations in Bibles, for example, often included gold leaf.

During the Renaissance (which is really another term for the late Middle Ages in Italy, as I have discussed elsewhere), artists started to produce portraits of lay people, which had not really been found earlier, other than a few kings.  Again, the artists were commissioned (and paid).  They often worked  in ateliers, with masters and apprentices.  The great majority of Renaissance art, however, was religious.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Are the Amish medieval?

Are the Amish living in a modern version of the Middle Ages?  Short answer, No.

The Amish are living in twenty-first-century America, just a somewhat different version than most Americans.  But they would not be able to live as they do if not surrounded by the modern, commercial US.

Let's start with a few obvious differences between modern Amish life and medieval life.  The Amish are now found exclusively in the New World, mostly North America, not Europe.  And their religion is a version of Protestantism, not Catholicism.  They reject violence, which medieval Christianity was able to deal with at least in some circumstances, and they baptize adults, not infants, as did both medieval and most modern Christians.  During the sixteenth-century wars of religion, both Catholics and Protestants decided they were heretics and persecuted them mercilessly.  No wonder they still try to stay out of the limelight.

It's generally known that the Amish live a consciously simple life, without electricity, without automobiles, without fashionable dress.  But where do they get all the things they need for this simple life?  From the rest of us.

Well-water is pumped not by an electric pump but by a windmill.  Did an Amish man cut down a tree and carefully carve the vanes from wood?  No, he ordered a metal windmill.  A Rodeway truck brought it to the farm.  Amish clothing is homemade.  Did an Amish woman spin and weave her own cloth?  No, she bought factory-made cloth, often dyed fairly bright colors (suitable for teenage girls) as well as black and navy.

(Fun fact:  You can tell an Amish woman and a conservative Mennonite woman apart at once, even though they wear the same overall style of dress, because the Mennonites always wear prints, to distinguish them from the Amish, who never do.  The Amish will however use prints in quilts.)

The Amish drive buggies rather than cars, buggies often made in an Amish workshop--but in many cases made of fiberglass.  The buggies are essentially nineteenth-century in style, not medieval; there were no buggies in the Middle Ages.  And the brakes are modern, and on New Order buggies there's a battery to run the headlights and taillights.  The horses who pull the buggies are often retired race horses.  Bicycles are fine in many Amish communities, and they buy their bikes the same way the rest of us do.  They use money and checking accounts the same as anyone else.

How about food?  The Amish certainly grow a lot of their own.  But they also buy a lot of groceries, flour and canned goods and cookies and other processed foods unknown in the Middle Ages.  And of course they eat all the foods found in the modern world but not in medieval Europe, such as tomatoes and potatoes and chocolate and corn.  They can a lot, using techniques developed in the nineteenth century.

How do they access cloth stores and grocery stores?  If they live close by, they can drive their buggy.  Otherwise, they will hire a driver and a car or van.  The Amish won't have a phone in their house, but they may have a phone booth out by the road, for use in emergency or for use in business.  Cell phones have been making headway in the Amish community.

Inside their houses, the Amish will have modern plumbing and a modern kitchen.  The stove and refrigerator run off propane, rather than electricity or piped-in gas, and the light is Coleman lanterns rather than overhead electric lights, but they aren't cooking on an open fire by candle light.

Now some accuse the Amish of hypocrisy, claiming they aren't as "simple" as they purport to be.  But such an accusation is based on a serious misunderstanding.  The Amish aren't trying to live in the Middle Ages.  They aren't even trying to live in the nineteenth century, though a lot of their farming techniques went out of style a century ago.

Rather, they are trying to follow a lifestyle that is humble rather than showy and is focused on home and family.  The problem with electricity for them is that if you're on the grid, you are making people work on Sundays to get you your electricity 24/7.  Same with the gas lines or the phone.  The phone can also disrupt family time, making the home accessible to people far away.  The car can get you very far away very quickly, whereas with a buggy you won't ever be far from home, and everyone who sees you knows where you're going.

The Amish prefer farming as a family-centered activity, but they aren't medieval peasants.  For one thing, they don't have landlords.  They all have a basic education and tend to get newspapers and read a lot.  And whereas leaving one's family for life in town was a difficult and wrenching decision for a medieval peasant, Amish youth can and do leave the Amish life and still stay in regular contact--as long as they do so before being baptized.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Religion as comfort?

These days most people who follow a religion find it comforting.  They take it as reassurance that, as bad as things may be here, a better world awaits.  It also tells them that the universe is not just a series of random events but has an overall plan, or at least direction, even if we can't always recognize the plan.

These days most Christians assume they will go to heaven when they die.  Studies suggest that most don't even really believe in the devil or in hell.  A lot feel assured that they are saved.

While medieval and modern Christian theology are actually not radically different, the way the religion was perceived and the message it conveyed were very different.  Medieval religion was not comforting.  It was scary.



No one would have tried to comfort someone whose family member had just died by saying they had gone to a "better place."  Instead they would offer to arrange for prayers for the soul of the deceased, to see if they could possibly get them out of purgatory, if not indeed hell.  The liturgy for the dead wasn't sweet songs about passing over to the "other side."  Instead it was the Dies Irae, a poem about the "day of wrath."  Judgment was coming, and everyone was in trouble.

No one would have assumed they were saved.  Instead they would have assumed they were damned.  This was, not surprisingly, very worrying.  Religion did not comfort.  Rather, it provided tools to use against the horrors that it also provided.  But everyone knew how weak these tools were.  Demons roamed the world, seeking the destruction of souls, and even the most holy person was never safe.

One had a better shot at salvation if one were a member of the organized church, as a priest, monk, or nun.  Medieval churches are still thick across Europe, many with very tiny congregations, if any.  But didn't they have a big medieval congregation? you ask.  No, not really.  The churches might minister to the locals, but for an awful lot of them, they primarily served the body of monks or nuns or canons who lived there and spent much of their day in liturgy and prayer. A much larger proportion of the population went into the church than is the case today.

Families who sent their sons (or to a lesser extent daughters) into the church weren't trying to get rid of excess mouths.  They were hoping to have an insider praying for them.  And a lot of people in the church had "converted" (as it was called) to the religious life by their own decision, often against parental wishes.

Protestants tend to think of Jesus as their savior.  Medieval Christians of course assumed that Christ dying on the cross gave them at least a shot at avoiding hell, but they held Him in too much awe to get "personal" about it.  Rather they turned to the saints, who might help them avoid hell, even though they all knew they deserved it.

Note that all these concerns were concerns of the well educated.  It was the uneducated peasant or urban worker who was likely to tell you they didn't believe in religion.  Marx in the nineteenth century called religion the "opiate of the masses," but he was definitely not talking about medieval religion.


Friday, May 12, 2017

Birds in the Middle Ages

We take birds for granted.  Some are domestic and get eaten (or their eggs are eaten).  Some are wild and are hunted for food.  Some are wild, and we give them something to eat in bird feeders.  We admire their flight and enjoy their songs.  It's not often that we treat them as partners.

Medieval Europe had the same birds as modern Europe (though not in the same proportions), but they had more hunting hawks, trained to be partners in hunts, just as a modern pointer or retriever (dog) can be a partner to their master in the hunt.  (Or not.  The Labrador retrievers I've known would either not figure out where the duck went or would carry it off for their own purposes.  Training is everything.)

Most farmyards had chickens, free range, that lived on spilled grain and insects.  Keeping down the insects was an important function, nearly as important as laying eggs  Eggs were an important source of protein in the medieval diet, and when a hen got too old to lay, she became dinner herself.  Geese and to a lesser extent ducks provided eggs and feathers (and dinner).  Geese also made excellent watchmen, raising a great honking if something untoward happened at night.


Medieval people also ate songbirds, ones we would consider too small to bother with (and you would not have caught a medieval peasant putting out their precious grain for the birds to eat).  The easiest way to catch them was to spread lime on a branch, so that when the bird landed on it, their feet would become stuck.  They did however appreciate songbirds for their songs as well as their bits of meat.  The nightingale especially appears in many a song and story, enchanting the lovers.  (The US doesn't have nightingales.  Our loss.  Nighthawks are not the same.)

Aristocrats, but not peasants, used hawks in hunting.  Training a hawk was a long and complicated process.  The thirteenth-century emperor Frederick II wrote a book on falconry that is still respected today (an image from it appears below).  The chief goal is to make the bird, from a very young age, think of the human as the source of food.  Every respectable castle or manor had a mews, where the hawks were trained and housed.  One could find baby birds and raise them oneself or buy them.  Trained falcons made good gifts.



In the mews, the hawk would be tied to its perch, usually hooded to keep it calm and in the dark.  Merchants might sew a hawk's eyes shut while transporting them.  Hawks have much better eyesight than humans and can adjust for closer or longer distance in a way that is the envy of everyone wearing bifocals.  But if they can't see, they tend to sit quietly, even if not happy about it.

Hawks had leather straps, called jesses, attached to their legs, which could be held (or grabbed).  Generally the jesses had a bell, to help one locate a hawk that had not come back when it was supposed to.  The way it was supposed to work was to ride out hunting with a hooded hawk sitting on one's wrist (the hand and wrist in a heavy leather glove because the talons are sharp).  Then one unhooded the hawk and freed the jesses to send it up after a bird one was trying to catch.  Theoretically the hawk caught the bird and brought it back, getting a treat as a reward.  There are enough descriptions of chasing the hawk by the sound of the bell, of whirling the lure that was supposed to attract it, and giving calls to which it had been trained, to indicate that coming back didn't always work out right.  This was part of the fun of the chase.

Birds caught with hawks became dinner.  Wild ducks were normally caught with hawks, not with archery (and of course double-barrel shotguns were centuries in the future).  Different hawks were used for different prey.  Sparrowhawks (kestrels) caught small birds, as the name implies, big goshawks could take a goose, and there were others in between.  Different kinds of hawks were considered more or less noble and thus more or less suitable for those different social station.  A good master of hawks was highly prized.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Chastity belts

The nineteenth century simultaneously discovered the Middle Ages, that "glorious age of chivalry," and decided that everything bad could be described as medieval.  If there wasn't enough bad stuff, they made some up.  Among these was the chastity belt.

The story, of course, was that when Crusaders left for the Holy Land they locked their wives into chastity belts to make sure that nothing untoward happened while they were gone.  The difficulty is that there isn't the slightest evidence of anything of the kind.

The only thing that could even vaguely be interpreted as supporting the existence of chastity belts (and probably where the nineteenth century got it) was the statement by some twelfth-century monastic leaders that knights should "put off the belt of war" [i.e. stop going to war with a sword strapped to their hip] and "put on" chastity and obedience as monks.  You notice they were urging men to live chaste, obedient lives as monks, not recommending a specific belt.  You also note they were addressing men, not Crusaders' wives.

The first actual thing that could be interpreted as a chastity belt was a fifteenth-century drawing of an iron contraption, in which a writer complained that Florentine women inserted themselves.  One wonders if in fact this writer was "getting no satisfaction" (to paraphrase the Rolling Stones).  You also note that this was long after the Crusades were over.

By the nineteenth century, people were claiming to have found chastity belts in women's graves.  One does of course wonder why a woman would be buried with such a thing.  After all, it was far too late to worry about keeping her chaste.  Some of these were put on display in museums but more recently quietly removed, because the contraptions appear to have been fakes, constructed in the nineteenth century.

Let's think about the image of chastity belts for a moment.  The idea is some sort of plate that went between women's legs, to keep them safe from adulterous activities.  For starters, it would be extremely uncomfortable.  And of course the woman would have to remove it to use the garderobe, or to clean herself up every month.  Otherwise, it would have been filthy in no time.  If a woman could remove it any time she needed, what was to keep her from removing it when a handsome young squire caught her eye?

The real question is what made people dream up chastity belts in the first place, or why they still have a hold on the imagination.  The Victorian era was fascinated with sex, which was supposed to be secret and forbidden and therefore twice as exciting as if it were out in the open.  A chastity belt allowed people simultaneously to talk about "sex is bad" (and the romanticized Middle Ages supposedly knew this!) and to get all intrigued by things between women's legs.

It always makes people feel better to think that earlier people did weird things.  It makes the weird things we do today seem almost normal.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Voluntary poverty

Everyone today, except for the truly homeless, would be considered rich by medieval standards, because of everything they own or have access to, from electricity to plumbing to furnaces/air conditioning to cars to TV to refrigerators to phones.  But as I discussed earlier, there were plenty of people considered wealthy in the Middle Ages, and gradations of wealth down to the destitute.

Too often today one hears suggestions that those poor in the modern world somehow chose not to have enough money, being lazy and shiftless people who prefer to survive with handouts.  This isn't particularly true now, but in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there really were people who deliberately chose to be poor and to live by handouts.  They were considered holy.

In the New Testament, Jesus is described as wandering from place to place, without having any sort of permanent home, preaching as he went and accepting food and hospitality.  The apostles followed him, and indeed the Bible notes that Jesus said that others should do the same.  Now I personally (but I am not a minister!) think a person can be a good Christian without wandering barefoot around the Sea of Galilee, but the Bible is remarkably explicit on this point.

Following this example, there were a number of people in the High Middle Ages who deliberately gave up all material possessions and comforts, either to live a life of prayer as hermits separate from the world, or, increasingly commonly, to wander around and preach.  Monks had been around in the West since the fifth century, people who lived in groups and who shared all their possessions (following the Acts of the Apostles) while leading deliberately simple lives.  Hermits were rarer but still found, men who lived a solitary life of simplicity and prayer, far from human habitation, although they had to be close enough to humans for people to come and make offerings.

But wandering preachers were different.  They were disruptive and meant to be.  They considered themselves to be following the New Testament, including all the indications that Jesus was considered threatening by the well-established religious leaders of his time.  For that matter, the secular governors (the Romans in first-century Palestine) considered him disruptive enough to execute him.

With any self-proclaimed holy disruptive person, the question is always are they genuinely inspired by God or genuinely a crackpot.  The bishops of the twelfth century tended toward the latter explanation.  Wandering preachers would come into town, preaching about salvation and damnation, and leave with a new group of followers, often disproportionately women.  Now a lot of these new followers would quietly return home within a couple days, realizing that not having much to eat and sleeping out in the rain was not a comfortable lifestyle in spite of the promised salvation.  But some would stick it out.

The bishops wanted these preachers to settle down and become monks, and especially they wanted to make sure they got a good religious education, because it was unclear what their message of salvation and damnation was based on.  Some of these preachers spent much of their lives skating along the edge of heresy, promising to settle down and be monks and then heading off cross-country as soon as the bishop's back was turned.

But absolute poverty and wandering preaching became officially accepted by the organized church with the Franciscans (founded by Saint Francis), recognized by the pope in 1215.  They took voluntary poverty to a new level, living entirely by begging, refusing to touch money, not even saving an apple over from one day to the next--eat it if you're hungry, if not give it to someone who is.  People were stunned by their holiness and similarity to Christ and the original apostles, a connection made explicit when Francis received the stigmata.  The absolute poverty he adopted started being modified shortly after his death—it really was an almost impossible standard.  Later in the thirteenth century, those Franciscans who said they were sticking with Francis's original message got embroiled in an apocalyptic heresy, which sort of ended that branch, but the ideal of holy voluntary poverty long persisted.