Sunday, November 29, 2020

Medieval Church Officers

 We tend to think of the medieval church as monolithic, as a single, unified entity.  In fact, there were numerous different entities within it, as I have earlier discussed, popes, cardinals, archbishops and bishops, monasteries, shrines, houses of canons, nunneries, and they certainly did not always see eye to eye.

Even within a single entity there was a lot of difference and disagreement.  Cathedrals, for example, had a bishop but also a cathedral chapter.  This chapter had been separate from the bishop since the ninth century in most places, and the priests in it, who supposedly helped the bishop in administering the diocese, were quite jealous of their own prerogatives.  The property from which the chapter drew its revenue was different from the property that supported the bishop, and the chapter had its own elected officials who led them, often in opposition to the bishop.


The dean was the head of the cathedral chapter, but there were many other church officers, most connected with the chapter, some connected with the bishop.  Among the most important were the chancellor, who oversaw the chancery, where records were kept and documents written, and the provost, responsible for the land and other property belonging to the church.

(You will notice that dean, provost, and chancellor are still names for some of the major officers of a university, due to universities' origins in medieval cathedral schools.)

Also important were the sacristan, responsible for the bread and wine of the mass and for maintaining the sacred vessels and altars, and the cantor, who led the singing of the psalms.  By the twelfth century many dioceses were divided into what were called archdeaconries, with an archdeacon over each (you knew that was coming), someone who took responsibility for overseeing the various churches within that archdeaconry.

A monastery had many of the same officers, chancellor, provost, cantor, sacristan, but there was no dean.  This is because the monks did not constitute a separate institutional body from the abbot, even though the monks collectively were called a chapter, and they would have regular meetings in what was called the chapter house, to discuss issues and give erring brothers a chance to confess and mend their ways.  Unlike in the cathedral, where most of the officers were elected by the cathedral chapter, in a monastery most officers were appointed by the abbot.

Monasteries had always had schools, where boys who joined the house would be educated.  It was assumed that they would most likely grow up to be monks there.  From the eighth or ninth century on, cathedrals also had schools, to train the boys and young men of the diocese who hoped someday to become priests, although most would never join the cathedral chapter.  There was thus always a school master (school mistress in a nunnery), sometimes the same person as the chancellor.  A large monastery might have a separate Master of the Boys, someone who supervised them in areas other than their education, such as keeping them in line if they got too ramunctious, making sure they were properly clothed and fed, and arranging for them to have some exercise and time to play.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on the medieval church, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Friday, November 20, 2020

November in the Middle Ages

 It's November, a month that seems stuck somewhere between fall and winter, can't figure out which one it wants to be.  It's a month of major storms on the Great Lakes, as warm Gulf air comes up and meets Arctic air coming south, the "witch of November" as the weather pattern is called (referred to in the Gordon Lightfoot song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald").

The weather in November in the Middle Ages was moving toward what we would consider December weather, because they were on the Julian calendar, which had leap years every four years but didn't take account into the need to skip leap year on the century mark, so from our point of view they were 10 or 12 days further into winter weather than we are.

November was an important month for medieval people, even if they didn't celebrate Thanksgiving (which, in spite of all the talk about 1621, really only took the form we now take for granted at the end of the American Civil War).  Saint Martin's day (November 11) celebrated the saint, who had first introduced monasticism to the West at the end of fourth century and who had divided his cloak with a beggar (Christ in disguise), and also marked the day that a lot of rents came due.  Below is a famous El Greco (well post-medieval) picture of Martin (on the horse) and the beggar.

November was also the month to finish bringing in the crops and to round up the pigs, who had been running more or less wild all summer and fall.  We eat turkey for our big harvest-festival meal, a bird unknown in Europe before Columbus, but for medieval people, pork was the thing.  They ate as much fresh pork as they could at November hog-butcher time and salted and smoked the rest.  Europe's small Jewish and Muslim populations wouldn't eat pork, which everybody else thought just showed they didn't know a good thing.

November's other chore was getting ready for winter.  There were going to be some long months where not that much was going on other than trying to keep warm.  Firewood had to be gathered, cut and stacked.  A fireplace in a big castle or manor house (from the thirteenth century on) could burn its way through an awful lot of wood, though a peasant house would have a firepit, where the heat and smoke would not go up the chimney--more efficient though a lot smokier.

 And of course enough grain had to be carefully stored away, where (one hoped) mice and rats wouldn't find it, to make bread to last until spring (along with the occasional piece of ham or bacon with a side of lentils or turnip).  It was five months until the dandelion greens would be ready to eat.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on the medieval round of the seasons, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020


 Mills were the equivalent of medieval factories, places where machinery provided a lot of the hard work that made it possible for people to do more than they could have through their own physical labor.  Although there were some precursors in the ancient world, mills, essentially in the form they kept through the nineteenth century, are medieval inventions.  (Below is a picture of a nineteenth-century water mill.)  Big electricity-generating windmills and water mills ("hydro power") show that mills are still very important, even though the technology has changed.

The Romans had had water mills, but they treated them as toys; none of them were more than miniature little mechanical contraptions that looked cute when water ran through them.  Windmills  appear to have developed originally in central Asia and spread very rapidly across Europe in the twelfth century.  (Contrary to what you may have heard, windmills do not cause cancer.)

Windmills predominated where there was strong and steady wind.  Water mills could be set up on any rapidly running stream, or, as in the picture above, a race could take water from a stream and funnel it to a mill, with a big drop (fall) to power the wheel.  Medieval streams were thick with mills, and there were always quarrels about people damming streams (to create the big drop of water) and depriving people downstream of water.  Along the coast there were tide mills.

If you have ever visited a historic mill, you have probably been impressed by all the gears.  The wind or water drives a shaft around and around, and gears and ropes take that power off for useful purposes.  Because, I have discussed earlier, bread was the single biggest item in the medieval diet, grinding grain into flour was the most important function of a mill.  In ancient Rome, it would take a slave all day with a hand mill to grind enough flour for the household for that day.  With a mill, you could grind a 50 pound sack of grain into a 50 pound sack of flour in half an hour.  Big millstones ground against each other to break the hard grains of wheat into flour.

It's actually possible to tell if a community had adopted mill-ground flour, because a tiny amount of stone dust gets into the flour and wears down people's teeth, which is evident in skeletal remains.

Mills had many other uses.  They could power hammers, used both in forging and in "fulling," the beating of woolen cloth to make it thick and tight (like what we call boiled wool).  They could also be used for sawing lumber, again making the work much easier for humans; we still speak of sawmills.  With all the ropes and gears mills could be dangerous places, but the miller was a highly revered member of the community.  Some lords and monasteries insisted that the local inhabitants grind their grain only in their mills (for a fee of course), to make back the substantial expense of building one.

As Americans moved west in the nineteenth century, one of the first things to be established in a new community was a mill.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

Read more about medieval food and technology in my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms. Also available in paperback!

Friday, November 6, 2020

Dialogue in historical fiction

When one is writing historical fiction (or fantasy, because let's face it, most fantasy is some version of historical fiction for the setting, with the addition of magic), a question is how to handle dialogue.

Should one's characters sound sort of medieval? (or to be more accurate, like Shakespeare).  Do you want them to say things like, "Zounds, thou hast e'en be-causèd me to besmircheth mine trew."  Okay, let's hope that no one would actually have a character deliver this line.  But the temptation is often strong to have dialogue reminiscent of the costumed performers at a Renaissance Faire.

Here it's important to realize that real medieval people (or medieval-style people in fantasy) were not wearing costumes.  They were just wearing clothes.  In the same way, they weren't speaking archaic English.  They were speaking their ordinary language.

The challenge is to give the characters dialogue that will allow the reader to have enough suspension-of-disbelief to imagine (without really thinking about it) that the characters are speaking an English translation of what they are actually saying.  (It's fiction, so with luck the readers are already prepared to suspend belief.)

I write fantasy set in an alternate version of medieval France in the Count Scar series, co-authored with Robert A. Bouchard, but you won't catch us having our characters say, "Franche contesse, Diex te puist consellier!  Iceste chose ne vuel plus respitier."  This is real twelfth-century Old French (it's from the epic Raoul de Cambrai), and it means, "Noble countess, may God guide you!  I do not wish to delay to do this any longer."  I sense our readers would abandon us if we started slapping Old French into our stories.


But does this mean that characters should just talk like twenty-first century people?  No, that doesn't work either.  I try especially to avoid idiomatic expressions that are based on things foreign to medieval people.  For example, baseball has added a lot to our turns of phrase.  "He really struck out on that."  "He couldn't get to first base with her."  "I try to be fair, I just call the balls and strikes as I see them."  But even though modern baseball has medieval roots, as I've discussed previously, medieval people would not have used such expressions.

Football and basketball phrases don't work either.  "He shoots, he scores!"  "They're just going to run out the clock."  "He's trying to defend from his own five-yard line."  "They're trying a Hail Mary pass."  And of course the latter only works if you've got Christianity in your fantasy world.

Then there are expressions that go back to nineteenth-century clipper ships.  "He's a loose cannon."  "He's three sheets to the wind."  "All hands on deck!"  Well, maybe you could use them if your fantasy has something like a "Pirates of the Caribbean" setting.  But not pseudo-medieval.

In the same way, there are hordes of informal phrases that would just strike a jarring note.  "The joke made her crack up."  "This is one hot mess."  "Hey, don't freak out."  "Give me a break!"  Many are catch-phrases that got their start in popular movies or TV ads.  "The good, the bad, and the ugly."  "Shake and bake."  "Where's the beef?"  "Houston, we have a problem."  "Rinse and repeat."  "A few French fries short of a happy meal."  "That chick is toast!"

I try to make people speak sort-of formally but not archaically.  If you want to use catch-phrases, make some up!  If you have dragon-riders in your fantasy, surely that experience would have generated sayings or expressions.  Same thing for the people on intergalactic space ships in science fiction.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on medieval social history (and its modern descendants), see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback!

Tuesday, October 27, 2020


 Last week I blogged about anti-popes, that is men elected as pope but who are not ultimately recognized as real popes.  Real popes were those men elected as pope who were indeed ultimately recognized.  When you have both real popes and anti-popes (and you generally don't have an anti-pope without a pope), you have a schism, a split in the church when some people follow one pope, some the other.

The Great Schism involves late medieval popes.  The story starts at Avignon, a pleasant city in southern France.  Below is a picture of the town's medieval bridge.  There is a little French children's song, "Sur le pont, d'Avignon, on y danse" (On the bridge of Avignon, people are dancing).

Avignon originally had nothing of the schism about it.  In 1303 the pope died, just as the king of France was announcing he was going to arrest the pope and try him for heresy.  (Yes, if you thought medieval people lived in fear of the pope, you are mistaken.)  The cardinals, wanting to keep on the good side of the king, elected a Frenchman as pope in 1304.  He started toward Rome but got no further than Provence, that is the southeastern corner of France.  Avignon seemed like a nice place, so he stopped there while sorting out some issues but somehow never got moving again.  He and his successors just stayed in Avignon.

They built a lovely large palace (which is still there), planted vineyards (think Châteauneuf du Pape), and proved themselves serious administrators, not inspiring but not corrupt.  Avignon was a good choice, because even though it really was French, politically it was just within the border of the Holy Roman Empire, and thus the popes could say plausibly that they weren't really in the French king's pocket.

But everyone said they should get back to Rome. Somehow it never quite happened, for three-quarters of a century.  Finally in 1378 the whole papal curia got themselves together at last and headed off to Rome.  What a mess!  Nobody had cleaned up the place in generations.  The pope announced he was heading home to Avignon but instead he died.

The Roman mob demanded the cardinals elect an Italian, which the terrified cardinals did.  But when the new pope started throwing his weight around, the cardinals decided they had only elected him "under duress," which didn't count, and raced back to Avignon where they elected a different pope.  The Great Schism was on.

Earlier schisms had been cleared up within a generation, but this one dragged on, with the Roman pope and the Avignon pope both getting supporters (respectively the English and the French king, who were having the Hundred Years with each other), and both excommunicating the others' adherents.  Everyone agreed this was horrible, and a big council seemed like the only solution.

In 1408-9 a great council was held at Pisa.  Both the Roman and Avignon popes were denounced as schismatic heretics and formally deposed.  The council elected a new pope to replace them.  You can probably guess what happened.  Now there were three popes.

You  might have thought the failure of the Council of Pisa would have turned everyone against councils, but it was really their only option.  In 1417 the Council of Constance, announcing that a general council held its power only from God, deposed all three popes, and the Great Schism was over.  There have been a few anti-popes since, but none ever got much support.

But in the meantime the papacy had pretty much lost all respect.  The popes settled down to be one more Renaissance tyrant, and the Reformation was only a century away.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on the medieval church, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Monday, October 19, 2020


 What are anti-popes?  They are people elected as pope, in defiance of other people electing someone else as pope, who are later decided not really to have been popes at all.  How can you tell the difference?  Well, at the time it's hard to say.  But the ones who won are, by definition, the real popes, and their opponents are the anti-popes.

As I've discussed earlier, the popes were mostly considered irrelevant until the second half of the eleventh century.  Once they became relevant, recognized as the real heads of the church hierarchy, anti-popes began to be elected.  (I guess it shows the importance of the papacy that it was worth having a big argument over who was really pope.)

Sometimes popes were elected as part of political quarrels, such as the quarrel between Gregory VII (pope 1073-1085) and Henry, German king and Roman emperor, where the two were engaged in the Investiture Controvery over whether pope or emperor was the ultimate authority in a Christian empire.  Henry chose an anti-pope and the pope chose an anti-emperor, and things went downhill from there.  That's an image of Pope Gregory VII below.

 Sometimes there would be a disagreement within the college of cardinals itself over who to elect.  The cardinals have been the official only people to elect popes since the 1050s.  They are a "college" not like a university but rather in the word's original meaning, a collection of people making decisions (think Electoral College).  For example, in 1130 the electors split between two powerful cardinals, the one elected as Innocent II and the other elected as Anaclete II.  Both took the names of semi-legendary popes of the first centuries of Christendom (popes have, since the early Middle Ages, chosen new names that are intended to be significant).

Things were ugly for a while (Anaclete was accused of being Jewish, among other things), but most of Europe followed Innocent, including the French king.  This split was finally resolved when Anaclete died (1138), and his followers made their peace with Innocent.  This was the normal pattern:  one side or the other would lose support, and there wouldn't be more than one anti-pope before reconciliation.

But the biggest split was in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when during the Great Schism there were first two and then three popes, at Rome and Avignon and Pisa, over a period of close to forty years.  Stay tuned for more details.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on the medieval church, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Bees in the Middle Ages

For most of the Middle Ages, the only sweetener available (other than the naturally occuring sugars in fruit) was honey. Honey could be gathered from wild hives if one were lucky (and avoided being stung), but medieval people also domesticated and kept bees. The honey bee, so necessary to pollination of fruits in North America, is descended from the medieval domestic bee. Note bee in the image below.
(Honey bees, and with them the crops they pollinate, are in danger today due to so-called hive collapse, due to climate change and probably a mite, but that's a separate story.)

Bee-keeping was actually quite similar in the Middle Ages to what is done now, hives tended by someone wearing protective gear who knows how to keep the bees from getting too excited (domestic bees are a lot calmer than wild bees or wasps or hornets). Monasteries and manors all had hives. The honey was used for sweetening, the wax for candles, and the bees themselves to pollinate orchards.

Bees were considered busy and industrious creatures. They were often found in bestiaries, books about different kinds of animals and their habits. It was often said that they were called bees (apies in Latin) because they had no feet (a- plus pedes, meaning feet). Now of course bees have perfectly good feet, as everyone knew, so the story was they were born without feet and that's why they got their name. (Talk about implausible folk etymology.)

Jeweled bees were found in the tomb of King Childeric (5th century, father of Clovis), probably symbolizing hard work and attention. Napoleon, trying to identify hiself with a millennium and a half of French rule, also used bees as a symbol.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval agriculture, see the ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other on-line bookstores. Also available in paperback.