Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Capetians

The Capetian dynasty is the longest line of kings in the world, with straight, father-to-son inheritance from Hugh Capet, king of the Franks in 987, through eight centuries of French kings, to the modern kings of Spain.  (The queen of England claims the ninth-century King Alfred and even the legendary Hengist and Horsa, leaders of the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain in the fifth century, among her ancestors, but there are a lot of detours in between.)

The Capetian family, who had originally held power in the Rhineland, gained power in France in the ninth century leading the resistance against the Vikings.  The Carolingians, the descendants of Charlemagne, provided little leadership (and the German branch of the Carolingians soon died out), so there were several kings in the family as well as counts and dukes before Hugh Capet was elected king of the Franks (see here for more on royal election).  Modern scholars call his family the Capetians in his honor.



Capet was later taken as a last name, but people did not have last names in the tenth century.  Capet was rather a nickname, to keep him distinct from other men named Hugh.  It means "little cape," and he had the nickname because he was abbot of the monastery of Saint Martin (yes, powerful laymen at this time often appropriated monasteries).  Saint Martin was the Roman soldier-saint who had supposedly seen a beggar cold and wet by the road and given him half his cloak (cutting it in two with his sword).  When the beggar transformed into Christ, Martin was understandably surprised and took up a religious life at once.  The monks of his monastery preserved the half a cloak he had left as a relic.

The Capetians had been counts of Paris before becoming kings, which is why Paris is now the capital of France.  Initially they had less power and property than a lot of their dukes, but they had ambitions.  At the end of the eleventh century King Philip I named his son Louis, which was a much more royal-sounding name than Hugh or Philip or Robert, which is what men in the family had previously been called (there was also a Megingoz back there, but let's not worry about him.)

Supposedly Philip I and his queen had been praying for a son, and a wise old hermit they visited blessed them, told them to expect a son, and gave them permission to call him Louis.  Louis was the name of Charlemagne's heir and also the name of the first king of France of the Merovingian line back in the fifth century (who is usually called Clovis in French or English--put C on the front of Louis and see what you've got--even though he probably called himself Chlovodech).  From then on until the French Revolution, almost all French kings were named Louis or Philip (especially Louis), with the exception of the occasional Charles or Frances or Henry.

Philip II (1180-1223) is now considered the creator of modern France.  Nicknamed Augustus, he drove the kings of England out of Normandy and consolidated royal rule.  He also got into major trouble for trying to divorce his wife, Ingeborg of Denmark, but that's a different story.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Charlemagne

Even if a person knows very little medieval history, they have almost certainly heard of Charlemagne.  "He was great or something."  (That's right, the name means "Charles the Great," the great-part from the Latin magnus, as in 'magnum'.)

The real Charlemagne was king of the Franks from 768 to 814, king not only of what is now France but also of much of western Germany and the Benelux countries.  He was also king of Lombardy (northern Italy) in at least his own mind, though the Lombards had doubts.  He is now imagined as "father of Europe," and there is a statue of him at the European Union headquarters.  Given that he became king of all these territories through conquest, and that his biographer was very irritated with the Germans who refused to stay conquered, maybe we shouldn't press this analogy too far.

In the year 800, Charlemagne was crowned Roman Emperor by the pope.  Now you'll recall from earlier posts that the capital of the Roman Empire had moved in the fourth century from Rome to Constantinople (what is now Istanbul, in Turkey).  There were intermittently independent emperors in Rome as well as Constantinople for over a century, but from the 470s on, the Roman Emperors, the heirs to the Caesars, were solely in the Greek East (Constantinople), where they remained until their empire finally fell to the Turks in 1453.

So how did Charlemagne get declared Roman Emperor?  (Usually modern history books call him "Holy Roman Emperor" to keep him distinct both from the Caesars and from the Greek Orthodox emperors in Constantinople, but the term "Holy Roman Emperor" wasn't used until the twelfth century.)

In part the popes owed him one.  Early medieval popes were quite weak and little respected, and the pope of 800 had been having terrible trouble with the Lombards.  He also had decided that the current Emperor in Constantinople was a heretic.  Irene, the emperor, was also a woman, which only made it worse.  She believed that the Ten Commandments forbidding "graven images" meant that one could not have images in the church and was thus an "iconoclast," one who broke up such images.  (This is very depressing to art historians.)  This was not at all how western theologians and the pope interpreted the Ten Commandments.

Feeling that the imperial throne was thus vacant, the pope announced that Charlemagne was the only true emperor and crowned him on Christmas Day 800 in the church of St. Peter's in the Lateran.



On the one hand, this was great, Charlemagne and his descendants (known as the Carolingians, from Carolus, the Latin version of the name Charles) got to call themselves emperors.  But a precedent had been set, that one was not really an emperor until crowned by the pope, which gave the pope power at least potentially.  The bases of the eleventh-century crisis of church and state were laid down.

A thousand years later, Napoleon remembered this all too well and refused to be crowned emperor by the pope, instead snatching the crown from the pope's hands and crowning himself.

Charlemagne himself had doubts about the whole procedure, mostly because he was concerned about the Greek Roman Emperors.  He seems even to have asked Irene to marry him, hoping to resolve it that way.  But she died quickly, and her successor, a man, basically told Charlemagne that if he wanted to call himself emperor in the God-forsaken northern European forests, where they didn't even speak Greek, he was welcome to do so.

The image is from one of his coins.  To the left, behind his head (crowned with laurel like a Roman), you should be able to read his name, Karolus.

Friday, December 12, 2014

End of medieval serfdom

In an earlier post, I discussed the origins and nature of medieval serfdom.  Here I discuss how it became less and less important, disappearing in some areas in the twelfth century.

Because serfs, "bound in the body," lived and worked next to free peasants--some of whom rented their land, some of whom owned their land outright--they always resented their status.  The easiest way out was to "forget" that they were serfs.  Because who was or wasn't a serf was rarely if ever recorded in writing, and because some of the things that really marked one's servile status (like restrictions on inheritance) came around only once a generation or so, serfs might be able quietly to pass for free.  The danger was being called on it by one's peasant neighbors.

Or one could just run away.  In an era without modern communication, no one would know where someone had gone, much less drag them back.  "City air makes free," went an old proverb, because with the growth of twelfth-century towns serfs had a place to go where they could get a job and live, where everyone (serf and free peasant alike by origin) was an immigrant from the countryside.

In France in the early twelfth century, a number of peasants painstakingly saved up the money they were able to make from sale of produce and bought their way out of serfdom.  A lord of the body would be quite happy to free a serf for twenty or thirty pennies, rather than getting one penny a year in head-tax.  By the 1120s, serfdom was essentially gone from most of France.

The former serfs still owed their rents, the combination of labor dues and produce that they and their ancestors had always paid.  But a number of lords became irritated at the difficulty of enforcing labor dues--workers grumbled about how far they had to come, tended to arrive late and leave early, and demanded lunch.  These lords "commuted" a number of labor dues to cash payments, so that peasants paid an annual fee instead of working the lord's land, and the lord would then hire laborers who knew they would not get paid unless they worked hard.

This was fine with everyone, including young men trying to save up money to buy property or get married.  That is, it worked until inflation set in, the inevitable result of a growing economy.  Workers started demanding higher wages whereas the fees-in-lieu-of-labor were fixed in perpetuity.  In the thirteenth century, landlords stopped commuting labor dues, and some even insisted that anyone who could be proven to have a servile ancestor had to come work for them.  This was not as successful as they hoped.

In England, meanwhile, serfdom did not die out quite as quickly, in part because of the developing common-law courts.  Only free men and women could sue or give evidence, and many a claimant won their case by arguing that their opponent was a serf and thus couldn't be in court at all.  This made it much harder for people to quietly forget their servile origins.

In Germany, when knighthood began in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the service knights (on whom see more here) were serfs, and indeed they continued to be serfs into the late Middle Ages.  They lived and acted like aristocrats, even becoming governors of regions of eastern Europe, yet still legally kept their servile status.  These "serf-knights" were known as ministeriales, those who served.

Although serfdom was at most a minor issue in the high and late Middle Ages in the west, it developed for the first time in Russia in the early modern period and persisted there until the nineteenth century.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Medieval serfdom

A student of mine once wrote on an exam that "surfs were tide to the land."  I like the maritime motif, but um, no.

A serf, servus in medieval Latin, was someone who was not legally free yet not a slave.  We now have trouble with such distinctions, but both ancient Rome and medieval Europe were fine with it.  Slavery means that someone is assumed to have no will of their own and are thus required to obey all commands, no matter how stupid, arbitrary, or harsh.  A slave can be bought and sold like an animal or any possession.

Serfs could not be bought and sold, and although they might have very heavy obligations, they were not subject to arbitrary commands.  They were still, however, assumed not to have complete freedom of will, so they could not give testimony in court or join the church, both of which required free oaths.  A serf was born into serfdom, under the authority of a "lord of the body."  Because they could not be sold, they could not be sent off their land (this is what "tied to the land" meant--it is sometimes described as a horrible condition, but in fact it was a protection).

Serfdom began in the sixth century, at the end of the Roman Empire.  Although the period is very badly documented, so the details are not clear, what appears to have happened was that as the Roman army stopped conquering and thus stopped bringing home hordes of new slaves, landlords became worried that their agricultural slaves would die and not be replaced, and they would have no one to do the work.  Hence, they allowed their serfs to marry, establish families (thus creating new workers), and have their own little plots of land so that they could support themselves, rather than having to be fed by the landlord.

Helping hurry the end of slavery was the spread of Christianity, which had always preached that all humans were equal in the eyes of God.  It was considered a "good deed" to free one's slaves.  Household slavery lingered in Europe until the eighth or ninth century, but agricultural slavery was gone by the seventh century, replaced by serfdom.  And of course there were always free peasants as well as serfs, on whom see more here.

Serfs were assumed to be born into serfdom; it was inherent in their bodies.  They owed heavy rents, especially labor dues, that is a certain number of days a week they were required to work on their lord's land rather than their own, but these rents were fixed, and the lord could not raise them.  Serfs also had other restrictions, such as who they could marry and who could inherit from them, and in some places they had to come before their lord once a year with a rope around their neck and a penny on their head, to indicate their subjection.

I will discuss the end of serfdom in a later post.  In the meantime, just don't call it feudalism.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Christmas trees

An old-fashioned Christmas, that's what we all say we want--but Christmas trees are part of everybody's definition of a "good, old-fashioned" Christmas, and they are a relatively recent development.

Nobody had Christmas trees in the Middle Ages.  They certainly brought trees into the house, but it was chopped-up trees for firewood (preferably aged hardwood), not a semi-living evergreen.  If you think about it, it indeed strange to cut down a live tree and bring it inside in order to express one's Christian piety.  There are all sorts of possible pagan overtones one can imagine about the renewal of life and hope at the darkest time of the year.



The medieval-favored plant for Christmas was holly.  Holly keeps its leaves green throughout the winter, as a symbol of rebirth, and the thorns and the red berries were seen as symbols of the Crucifixion--the thorns for the Crown of Thorns, the berries for drops of blood.  Wait, you say, these should be Easter symbols, not Christmas symbols.  But medieval Christians always thought of the beginning of Jesus's story--his birth--in terms of its end.  He was born to die.  What else do you think the myrrh was doing?  This gift from the Wise Men was an unguent used in embalming.

The first definite appearance of Christmas trees was in Germany in the late eighteenth century.  The story was that Martin Luther, over two hundred years earlier, had seen stars through the branches of an evergreen and been inspired to bring the tree indoors and light it with candles, but this story has its doubters.

Both England and the US first adopted trees during the nineteenth century, independently inspired by the Germans.  Queen Victoria, married to a German (Prince Albert), was apparently the first to have a Christmas tree in Britain, though the well-to-do British soon followed suit.  Originally trees were for the upper crust.  The beloved story "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens (the story with Scrooge and Tiny Tim) has no Christmas trees.

In the US, wealthy east-coast families were caught between, on the one hand, wanting a simpler, more "traditional" Christmas in a nineteenth century that was increasingly turning to factory-produced goods and commercialization, and, on the other hand, wanting to "make this the best Christmas ever" for their children.  (The focus of Christmas had already shifted from the drunken revelry of earlier times to the child-centered celebration of the home.)  Christmas trees met both these needs.

The first American Christmas trees were small, table-top trees, on whose branches were hung small presents like a toy boat or a candy cane.  A semi-living tree (or top of a tree, now cut and brought indoors) was certainly nothing like a factory.  And the children would, it was hoped, be very excited to see their gifts in a new arrangement (even if they were factory-produced).

For more on the history of Christmas celebrations, see my essay, "Contested Christmas."

Saturday, November 29, 2014

"In the Deep Midwinter"

We take calendars for granted.  These days, your cell phone will tell you what day it is.  And there's the calendar hanging on the wall, the announcement on the radio, the newspaper, etc.

But figuring out what day it was, or even what year it was, was not self-evident in the Middle Ages.  They were working with the Julian Calendar, one of the few things Julius Caesar was responsible for in the brief interlude between becoming emperor and being assassinated on the Ides of March, the assassins' unrealized intent being to restore the Roman Republic.

The Julian Calendar recognized, as previous calendars had not, that the year is not exactly 365 days long, but rather 365 1/4.  This is why we have "leap year" every four years, with an extra day.  Before the institution of leap year, the calendar would creep, getting 1 more day out of synch with the seasons every four years.  After a while, one starts to notice.  Ancient Egypt, that had a 365-day calendar, had had a long enough civilization for festivals to work their way all the way around the year twice.

The Julian Calendar was thus a great improvement.  But a year is still not exactly 365 1/4 days long.  To make it work just right, you have to skip leap year every 100 years, but have leap year every 1000 years (we had leap year in the year 2000).  So, although from the first century on they no longer had the problem of getting further out of synch with the seasons by one day every four years, they were still gradually getting out of synch by one day every century.

Thus, by the late Middle Ages, they were about two weeks off, with Christmas coming not within a few days of the winter solstice (shortest day of the year) but rather in what we think of as January.

Christmas carols from the Middle Ages and Renaissance have lines like, "In the deep midwinter, frosty winds made moan, earth as hard as iron, water like a stone."  It's still bitterly cold in January in the northern hemisphere (at least in those parts that get cold), but we now assume Christmas is earlier, at the beginning of winter.

The modern calendar is called the Gregorian Calendar, pronounced by Pope Gregory XIII, who was concerned at Easter's drift away from the equinox.  Protestant countries, including the American colonies, initially refused to recognize it, assuming it was some sort of papal plot.  When the American calendar was finally changed, in the late eighteenth century, a number of people were distraught over their "missing" weeks.

Click here for more on telling time in the Middle Ages.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Turkeys

The Middle Ages did not have turkeys, for they are found only in the New World.  For a big feast, they might have a duck or a goose, however.  Many people kept flocks of geese, valued for their feathers, their eggs, and their meat.  In addition, hunting provided wild geese and ducks for the table, as well as sport.

When white men first reached the Americas, they were impressed at the large and tasty local fowl, especially the southwestern turkey.  Natives in what is now Latin America had domesticated them, just as Europeans had domesticated geese.  The Spanish took some home in the sixteenth century.

From Spain, they quickly spread throughout the rest of Europe.  There was some disagreement at the time as to where these big, exotic birds had come from.  The Turks had recently taken over Byzantium and much of the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and anything exotic was routinely ascribed to them.  Thus the British called these birds "turkey birds."



When a century later, in 1620, the Puritans left England, seeking a place where they could impose their religion on everyone in sight without any of that pesky Church of England, they brought turkeys with them in cages on the deck of the Mayflower.  Imagine their surprise when they reached New England (as of course they called it) and discovered a wild version of what they had assumed was exclusively a Middle Eastern bird.

They hunted wild turkeys but did not try to domesticate them, already having domestic turkeys.  In the following centuries, wild turkeys declined rapidly due to loss of habitat and over-hunting, although in recent years they have made a substantial comeback.  The domestic turkey, meanwhile, has become extremely stupid, so that it could never take care of itself in the wild--and, it is said, they have even lost the ability to breed unassisted, which must certainly be a sign of major debility.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Medieval Banking and Money

Banking, along with so much else, was invented in the twelfth century.  The economy was a money economy, with gifts to monasteries, purchases of horses, and peasant rents all calculated in pounds, solidi (shillings), and pence.  The division of a pound into 20 solidi, each of which was divided into 12 pence, went back to late Roman times and was indeed the system of currency used in Britain until the 1980s.

A pound was, quite literally, a pound of silver.  As you can imagine, walking around with 100 pounds of silver, because one was going to make a generous gift or a substantial purchase, was not going to work very well.  Even bigger purchases would have been impossible if one had to pay in silver.  They used coins for small purchases, little silver pennies smaller than a dime as well as copper pennies, but for a bigger purchase one needed to write a check.  (There was not enough gold in Europe for it to be a normal form of coinage.)

For checks one needs banks.  The first banks were "benches," where money-changers sat at trade fairs (click here for more on these fairs), so that if someone came with the currency of one city in his pocket, he could get it turned into the local currency.  Every major city had its own solidi, which varied in value depending on the purity of the silver in them (everyone worked a little "base" metal into the silver at some point), so local merchants wanted local currency, to make sure they were getting what they were owed.

The money-changers had strong-boxes and lockups, to protect their coins, and they would take deposits, for a fee, so that someone coming to a trade fair with a lot of cash wouldn't have to worry about pickpockets.  Soon the bankers also were arranging short-term loans, so someone arriving with goods to sell could get some money upfront to pay for food and lodging until he had sold his goods.



The image is a silver penny, from thirteenth-century Burgundy.

Officially, according to the Old Testament, one was not supposed to charge one's "brother" interest.  The easiest way around it was for the bankers to be Jews, since neither they nor the Christians considered each other "brothers."  Alternately (and the Italian bankers became very good at this), one could charge a "late penalty fee" (defined as not-interest) or fiddle with the exchange rates, so that one borrowed money denominated in one currency and paid it back in another.

Very quickly banking houses became established, with branches in all the major commercial centers.  They would honor each other's checks, so that one could have hundreds of pounds in one's "account" without necessarily having any silver there at all.

We now, in the twenty-first century, tend not to think about how money works.  Money works because everyone tacitly agrees to believe in it, and things were no different in the Middle Ages.  Consider.  You go to the shoe store and give the clerk a piece of paper (a check) on which you have essentially written, "This piece of paper is worth $86.98."  It works because you signed it and it has a picture of a flower.  In return they give you real shoes.  But how about "real" money? you say.  You mean those green and gray rectangles of paper with a dead guy's picture and some little colored threads? maybe worth a nickel in actual value?

Money is anything we want it to be.  There have been countries that use counterfeit American currency, known to be counterfeit, because it's what they have.  In the concentration camps, they used pieces of bread.  As long as experts, the bankers, tell you this money-object has a value, and horses and clothes and electronic devices and everything else are also defined in terms of set values, it all works.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Keeping Warm in the Middle Ages

Without modern furnaces or space-heaters, there were only two ways to keep warm in a medieval winter:  fire and the animal heat of other living creatures.

We take fireplaces for granted, and indeed fireplaces were a medieval invention.  They came in originally during the twelfth century but did not become common until the thirteenth, and were very much something for the elite.  Before then, and for peasants throughout most of the rest of the Middle Ages, the normal source of heat was a fire pit in the middle of the room.  The smoke found its way out through small holes under the roof.



Although one would always reek of woodsmoke from such an arrangement (and probably wouldn't do one's lungs any favors), it was much more efficient in heating a building than was a fireplace.  A modern fireplace is very inefficient, with most of the heat going up the chimney along with the smoke.  It is pleasant on a cold night but not particularly warming--unless the furnace has quit and it's all one has.  Because making a good masonry fireplace and chimney that would not themselves catch fire was expensive, and because one needed a lot more wood to keep a place warm with a fireplace than with a fire pit, only the wealthy could afford one.

Other than fire, one had to rely on animal heat.  Even now, except in the coldest climates, barns are not heated, because all those animals close together can keep the place (reasonably) warm.  Medieval peasants typically had houses built right up to where they kept the animals.  The animals did not actually share their living space, but they were close enough to keep it from freezing.

Then there was snuggling up with other people.  Twin beds would have made no sense for ordinary people in the Middle Ages; you wanted to sleep close to other people, with or without the activities that "sleeping together" now implies.  Today those who enjoy winter camping have down sleeping bags.  The Middle Ages did not have Goretex but it certainly had featherbeds, wool blankets, and furs to keep them warm at night.  The temptation to spend much of the winter in bed must have been strong, especially for the peasants, who had few chores that needed doing in the coldest part of the year, other than seeing to their animals.

In monasteries, the monks did actually have separate beds and just a few blankets, deliberately kept minimal because one's life was supposed to be simple and hard.  Otherwise, how could one rise above luxuriating in things of the flesh?

We have no idea how lucky we are with modern high efficiency furnaces.  For that matter, medieval people would have killed for the wood stoves ("Franklin" stoves, invented by Ben himself) of the late eighteenth century.

See more here on winter in the Middle Ages.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Monasticism and secular society

In an earlier post, I defined medieval monasticism.  Here I shall give more detail on the relations between the monks and the powerful leaders of society.

First of all, it is crucial to keep in mind that "the church" and "secular society" were not separate, discrete units.  They constantly interacted.  Indeed, church leaders, the bishops and abbots, were frequently the brothers and cousins of secular leaders.  Those electing church leaders just took it for granted that those coming out of the leading families were more suited to command.

This did not however mean that church leaders were just the pawns of the powerful.  Instead, for much of the Middle Ages, it worked the other way.  A lord who misbehaved was likely to be subject to an extremely serious talk from an extremely close relative in the church.



Probably the majority of monks were also from the upper levels of society.  Monasteries normally expected an entry gift, to pay for the upkeep (for life) of the new monk, and peasant families would not have felt they could spare any children.  This did not mean of course that noble families were disposing of "extra" children, for giving a son or daughter to the church was always treated as a sacrifice, giving one's most precious possession to God.

These child offerings (called "oblates") were the most common sort of medieval monk or nun, brought up in the cloister, rarely if ever seeing relatives again.  But some twelfth-century monasteries did not take child oblates, requiring instead adults who made the decision themselves.

Young knights frequently joined such houses, filled with religious enthusiasm, as excited to be giving up everything for God as they might, in other circumstances, have been excited to go on Crusade or to a tournament or to war.  They would have to know Latin already to join, meaning a good education was required.  Young adult peasants might experience the same enthusiasm, but without an education they could only become sort of halfway monks, conversi as they were called, who ended up doing a lot of the agricultural work.

Few men "converted" to the religious life in their middle years, though women might if widowed.  (One spouse really could not enter the cloister while the other stayed in the world.)  In old age, both men and women often "took the habit" as they felt themselves dying, as a last attempt to atone for their sins.  Complications arose if they recovered from what they had thought was a fatal illness and decided they had changed their minds--for you could not change your mind about an oath to God.

As well as becoming monks and nuns themselves, nobles were the biggest donors to the monasteries, hoping to gain the favor of a monastery's saints through their generosity.  They might even found a brand new monastery.  The image above is of St.-Etienne of Caen, the monastery William the Conqueror, duke of Normandy, founded in the wake of his 1066 conquest of England, to try to make amends for the deaths of so many people.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dukes and Counts

The most important medieval nobles were the dukes and counts, that is regional authorities.  Let's start with the counts (and no, in spite of what Sesame Street may have told you, a "count" is not someone who can count from 1 to 10).

A count is the head of a county (there, wasn't that easy?).  In the US we still have counties as the basic geographic and governing units; we got them from Europe.  The word "count" comes originally from comes, meaning "companion," because the first counts, back in the sixth century, were the companions of the kings who appointed them.  Originally kings were careful to move these officers around, to keep them from building up too much local power, but counts became hereditary during the ninth century, well before the monarchs did.

Counts did not "own" their counties anymore than the modern county commissioner owns an American county, but they were the chief administrative officers, especially responsible for giving justice in their courts.  They also collected revenue and taxes for the kings and raised armies if armies needed raising.

For those of you following Downton Abbey, in England a count is generally called an earl (from the Anglo-Saxon eorl).  He's still a count the whole time, and his wife is called a countess, not an earless (you can see why).

A duke was a sort of high-level version of a count.  He was head of a duchy, which generally meant a group of several counties.  Eleanor of Aquitaine, who married successively Louis VII of France and Henry II of England, was duchess of Aquitaine, basically the southwest quarter of France, which contained multiple counties.



An especially large and important county might also be called a duchy.  Normandy was sometimes called a county, sometimes a duchy, but the dukes, who became kings of England as well in 1066, preferred the title of duke to that of count.  (The image is the castle of Gisors, in Normandy, built by the dukes shortly after they became kings of England.  It is now a municipal park.  Schoolchildren are brought there to learn about their patrimony.)

Although dukes and counts were fairly independent of the kings in the ninth through eleventh centuries, in the twelfth century all western kings all persuaded these great lords that they held from them in fief.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Gunpowder

We tend to think of medieval warfare as involving swords, battle-axes, archery, and catapults.  But late medieval warfare also involved cannons.

Gunpowder came originally from the Chinese, who had used it to make fireworks.  It took the Europeans to figure out that it could be used to kill people.  Gunpowder came into use in wars in the middle of the fourteenth century, at almost exactly the same time as the Black Death showed up for the first time in eight centuries.  The main war of the time is now called the Hundred Years War.  All in all, it was not a good time.

Gunpowder was far too likely, given the metallurgy of the day, to blow up in one's hands for medieval people to develop pistols, but they did have cannons, built massively thick (to keep them from blowing up).  Basically you stuffed gunpowder down the barrel, put a cannon ball on top, and lit the powder with a fuse.  When it exploded, it shot the ball out the front.  A cannon could not be fired very rapidly, but a row of them would have a devastating effect on the opposing soldiers.



Every army quickly acquired cannons (including Joan of Arc's army, though the movies don't show it that way).  Cannons acquired personalities and names, like Big Bertha or Mad Margaret.  The Hussites beat the imperial armies in Bohemia in the fifteenth century by mounting their cannons on wagons so they could drag them through the woods, practicing guerrilla warfare.

Not surprisingly, cannons radically changed the face of warfare.  Knights quickly lost the predominance they had had since the eleventh century, since a cavalry charge could be stopped very effectively with a round of cannon fire.  More and more generals relied on foot soldiers, recruited almost at random, given little training and little if any pay, intended just to be cannon fodder.  With luck, after the first wave of foot soldiers were killed, pikemen could rush in and overpower the cannoneers before they could load again.

As this suggests, pikes and halberds continued to be important weapons even in an age of gunpowder.  Bows were also very important, because one could shoot far faster with a bow than a cannon.  But gunpowder just made the always hellish nature of warfare even worse.  Because a castle could not stand up to a bombardment with cannons, many lords, who had been defining themselves militarily since the eleventh century, gave up on defensible castles and built elegant palaces/châteaux instead.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Bad Spell in Yurt

I've always enjoyed fantasy as well as real medieval history.  So when the characters for what became my first published novel, "A Bad Spell in Yurt," showed up quite literally in a dream, I set the story in something that would at least remind people of the real Middle Ages.

Some of it, as I've discussed before, is more nineteenth century than medieval.  But there is no New World in the story, just an outer ocean that reaches west from Europe all the way around to Asia (as medieval people, including Columbus, assumed).  There are thus no New World foods like chocolate or turkeys or tomatoes or potatoes (on which see here).  The hunting scenes and the weapons and the castles are all authentically medieval (except that the castles have figured out how to have plenty of hot water).

The saints in the "Yurt" stories are all based on real medieval stories about saints, including the Cranky Saint of the shrine of the Holy Toe, though I may have gone a bit over the top on that one.  When my heroes go through Hell (quite literally) in the finale of the series, the Hell they encounter is based on pre-Dante visionary literature.  (And here I bet you didn't even know there was pre-Dante visionary literature.)




For those of you who haven't read "A Bad Spell," or who have friends who haven't, here's a special sneak preview (the image is from Amazon).  (If you have read it, be sure to continue the series with "The Wood Nymph and the Cranky Saint.")


PART ONE - YURT

I was not a very good wizard.  But it was not a very big kingdom.  I assumed I was the only person to answer their ad, for in a short time I had a letter back from the king's constable, saying the job was mine if I still wanted it, and that I should report to take up the post of Royal Wizard in six weeks.
It took most of the six weeks to grow in my beard, and then I dyed it grey to make myself look older.  Two days before leaving for my kingdom, I went down to the emporium to buy a suitable wardrobe.
Of course at the emporium they knew all about us young wizards from the wizards' school.  They looked at us dubiously, took our money into the next room to make sure it stayed money even when we weren't there, and tended to count the items on the display racks in a rather conspicuous way.  But I knew the manager of the clothing department—he'd even helped me once pick out a Christmas present for my grandmother, which I think endeared me to him as much as to her.
He was on the phone when I came in.  "What do you mean, you won't take it back?  But our buyer never ordered it!"  While waiting for him, I picked out some black velvet trousers, just the thing, I thought, to give me a wizardly flair.
The manager slammed down the phone.  "So what am I supposed to do with this?" he demanded of no one in particular.  "This" was a shapeless red velvet pullover, with some rather tattered white fur at the neck.  It might have been intended to be part of a Father Noel costume.
I was entranced.  "I'll take it!"
"Are you sure?  But what will you do with it?"
"I'm going to be a Royal Wizard.  It will help me strike the right note of authority and mystery."
"Speaking of mystery, what's all the fuzzy stuff on your chin?"
I was proud of my beard, but since he gave me the pullover for almost nothing, I couldn't be irritated.  When I left for my kingdom, I felt resplendent in velvet, red for blood and black for the powers of darkness.
It was only two hundred miles, and probably most of the young wizards would have flown themselves, but I insisted on the air cart.  "I need to make the proper impression of grandeur when I arrive," I said.  Besides—and they all knew it even though I didn't say it—I wasn't sure I could fly that far.
The air cart was the skin of a purple beast that had been born flying.  Long after the beast was dead, its skin continued to fly, and it could be guided by magic commands.  It brought me steeply up from the wizards' complex at the center of the City, and I looked back as the white city spires fell away.  It had been a good eight years, but I felt ready for new challenges.  We soared across plains, forests, and hills all the long afternoon, before finally banking steeply over what I had been calling "my" kingdom for the last six weeks.
From above there scarcely seemed to be more to the kingdom than a castle, for beyond the castle walls there was barely room for the royal fields and pastures before thick green woods closed in.  A bright garden lay just outside the castle walls, and pennants snapped from all the turrets.  The air cart dipped, folded its wings, and set me down with a bump in the courtyard.
I looked around and loved it at once.  It was a perfect child's toy of a castle, the stone walls freshly whitewashed and the green shutters newly painted.  The courtyard was a combination of clean-swept cobbles, manicured flower beds, and tidy gravel paths.  On the far side of the courtyard, a well-groomed horse put his head over a white half-door and whinnied at me.
A man and woman came toward me, both dressed in starched blue and white.  "Welcome to the Kingdom of Yurt.  I am the king's constable, and this is my wife."  They both bowed deeply, which flustered me, but I covered it by striking a pose of dignity.
"Thank you," I said in my deepest voice.  "I'm sure I will find much here to interest me."  The air cart was twitching, eager to be flying again.  "If you could just help me with my luggage—"
The constable helped me unload the boxes, while his wife ran to open the door to my chambers.  The door opened directly onto the courtyard.  I had somehow expected either a tower or a dungeon and wondered if this was suitably dignified, but at least it meant we didn't have far to carry the boxes.  They were heavy, too, and I had not had enough practice with the spell for lifting more than one heavy thing at a time to want to try in front of an audience.
The air cart took off again as soon as it was empty.  I watched it soar away, my last direct link with the City, then turned to start unpacking.  Both the constable and his wife stayed with me, eager to talk.  I was just as eager to have them, because I wanted to find out more about Yurt.
"The kingdom's never had a wizard from the wizards' school before," said the constable.  I was unpacking my certificate for completing the eight years' program.  Although, naturally, it didn't say anything about honors or special merit or even areas of distinction, it really was impressive.  That was why I had packed it on top.  It was a magic certificate, of course, nearly six feet long when unrolled.  My name, Daimbert, was written in letters of fire that flickered as you watched.  Stars twinkled around the edges, and the deep blue and maroon flourishes turned to gold when you touched them.  It came with its own spell to adhere to walls, so I hung it up in the outer of my two chambers, the one I would use as my study.
"Our old wizard's just retired," the constable continued.  "He must be well past two hundred years old, and when he was young you had to serve an apprenticeship to become a wizard.  They didn't have all the training you have now."
I ostentatiously opened my first box of books.
"He's moved down to a little house at the edge of the forest.  That's why we had to hire a new wizard.  I'm sure he'd be delighted to meet you if you ever had time to visit him."
"Oh, good," I thought with more relief than was easy to admit, even to myself.  "Someone who may actually know some magic if I get into trouble."
I took my books out one by one and arranged them on the shelves:  the Ancient and Modern Necromancy, all five volumes of Thaumaturgy A to Z, the Index to Spell Key Words, and the rest, most barely thumbed.  As I tried to decide whether to put the Elements of Transmogrification next to Basic Metamorphosis, which would make sense thematically but not aesthetically, since they were such different sizes, I thought I should have plenty of quiet evenings here, away from the distractions of the City, and might even get a chance to read them.  If I had done more than skim those two volumes, I might have avoided all that embarrassment with the frogs in the practical exam.
"You'll meet the king this evening, but he's authorized me to tell you some of our hopes.  We've never had a telephone system, but now that you're here we're sure we'll be able to get one."
I was flabbergasted.  In the City telephones were so common that you tended to forget how complicated was the magic by which they ran.  It was new magic, too, not more than forty years old, something that Yurt's old wizard would never have learned but which was indeed taught at the wizards' school.  How was I going to explain I had managed to avoid that whole sequence of courses?
He saw my hesitation.  "We realize we're rather remote, and that the magic is not easy.  No one is expecting anything for at least a few weeks.  But everyone was so excited when you answered our ad!  We'd been afraid we might have to settle for a magician, but instead we have a fully-trained and qualified wizard!"
"Don't worry the boy with his duties so soon," the constable's wife said to him, but smiling as she scolded.  "He'll have plenty of time to get started tomorrow."
"Tomorrow!  A few weeks!" I thought but had the sense not to say anything.  I didn't even have the right books.  If I did nothing else, I might be able to derive the proper magic from basic principles in four or five years.  I was too upset even to resent being called "the boy"—so much for the grey beard!
"We'll leave you alone now," said the constable.  "But dinner's in an hour, and then you can meet some of the rest."

I had seen faces peeping out of windows as we went back and forth with the luggage, but no one else had come to meet me.  While I unpacked my clothes, I tried gloomily to think of plausible excuses why Yurt could not possibly have a telephone system.  Nearby antitelephonic demonic influences and the importance of maintaining a rustic, unspoiled lifestyle seemed the most promising.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Medieval Monarchs

Medieval kings and queens are often assumed to have been absolute, "divine right" monarchs.  But this is not true--such monarchs instead are found only in the early modern period, the Ancient Régime (sixteenth through eighteenth centuries).  Medieval monarchs were elected.

Elected? you say.  You don't mean peasants had access to the ballot box?  No, of course not.  When the US was founded, only propertied men could vote, and women got the vote only after World War I, after many decades of effort by people like Susan B. Anthony, who didn't live to see it.  The ability of southern blacks to vote was tenuous at best until the 1960s.  So we shouldn't expect medieval voting rights to match the twenty-first century.

If one wanted to be a king in medieval Europe, one needed both to be part of a family considered royal and to be elected by a council of the powerful.  In the Merovingian dynasty in early medieval France (fifth-eighth centuries), any male descended in the male line from Clovis, the first king, seemed to imagine he had the right to be king, regardless of details like illegitimacy or a plethora of brothers and cousins.  This led to some extremely nasty family feuds.  A would-be king needed at least some of the powerful to support, follow, and elect him.

The Carolingian dynasty, Charlemagne's family, started with his father Pippin, who deposed the last Merovingian king, had himself formally elected by his followers, and persuaded a bishop to anoint him.  To add to this, he got the pope to bless him and his children as indubitably royal.

In the next centuries, a number of people challenged Carolingian rule, in all cases assembling nobles and bishops who were supposed to "represent" the will of the people, in order to be elected by them.  (Our form of representative democracy derives from medieval forms.)  Once kings, of course, they wanted to make the position hereditary, but it was hard to do so.  And it was not automatic that the oldest son inherit.



In England, the duly elected Anglo-Saxon king was defeated in 1066 by William, duke of Normandy, now known as "the Conqueror."  William was succeeded as king by his second, not first son, William II; the oldest son got Normandy.  William II was succeeded by his younger brother Henry I.  Henry, whose only legitimate son died by drowning (legitimacy had become more important than it had been during the early Middle Ages), was succeeded by his nephew Stephen (son of a daughter of William the Conqueror).  Stephen in turn was succeeded by Henry II, whose mother was a daughter of Henry I.  Henry II had five sons, but three of them died before he did, and the fourth, Richard "the Lionheart," died childless and was succeeded by his younger brother John.

(Interestingly, one of the sons of Henry II who predeceased him, Geoffrey, had had a son named Arthur.  Young Arthur went to visit his Uncle Richard one day and was never seen again.)

For all of these successions, none of which match our vision of inheritance by oldest son, the great lords of England had to give their consent.  We are now up to the early thirteenth century, and, for the first time, both French and English kings started asserting that their oldest son would inherit, even if not formally elected.  But it took a long time to get there.

The castle in the image is Château Gailliard in Normandy, built by Richard the Lionheart.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Hallowe'en

Hallowe'en is often portrayed as some ancient pagan ritual.  In fact, in the form we know it now, it was created as a twentieth-century American ritual--and I do mean ritual, with very strict rules you have to follow.  And these rules must be taught to the young.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, on the eve of All Saints' Day ("All Hallows," November 1), when supposedly uneasy spirits roamed, young men and boys found it hilarious to do "tricks" like tipping over outhouses or rubbing soap on someone's window, tricks that could be blamed on the uneasy spirits.

But starting in the 1920s, there was a slow but concerted effort to make the holiday more about fun, especially for children, and less about nasty tricks.  By the early 1950s, it adopted the form it essentially has now.

Hallowe'en is a "backwards day."  Many cultures have a backwards day, where normal strictures are reversed, as an opportunity to let off steam but also to reinforce the norms, as the "opposite" version is recognized as unsustainable, indeed ridiculous.  One has to wear a costume to indicate that one has moved out of the normal into some strange alternate persona.

Normally children are shielded from death.  "Grandpa is sleeping.  That's why he can't come for Thanksgiving this year."  Yet on Hallowe'en children are exposed to skeletons, ghosts, and ghastly creatures rising from the graveyard.

Normally children are not supposed to be out after dark and are not supposed to approach strangers, especially not to take candy from them.  Yet on Hallowe'en they are supposed to go up to strange houses, in the dark, and ask for candy.  Candy of course is something that normally children are supposed to have only in small amounts, yet now they are expected to accumulate a whole bagful.

You would think that if parents wanted a child to have a big pile of candy, they could go to the store and get a lot of Hershey bars and just give them to the kid.  But no.  This would not fulfill the ritual.

The ritual requires that the child don a costume, go to a stranger's house, say the ritual phrase, "Trick or Treat," and receive the ritual object, the small wrapped candy bar.  People in those strange houses will insist on the ritual phrase before handing over the candy, "So what do you say?"

Small children must be taught the ritual.  A toddler, wearing an adorable ladybug costume that Mom spent a week making, which he has already wet through and will never wear again, is tired and cranky from being out after his bedtime. "No, Daddy, I'm scared, I want to go home!"  No matter.  The child must go to a stranger's house, must be induced to to say the ritual phrase ("Tickum tweet" is probably close enough), and receive a candy bar that will doubtless be confiscated later by the parents.

The ritual object, the small wrapped candy bar, is by definition bad food, not something good for you.  (This is part of backwards day.)  If nice old Mrs. MacGillicutty gives the child (say, a twelve-year-old) an apple or an oatmeal cookie, something actually wholesome, the parents are instructed to throw it out at once as dangerous.  Newspapers, radios, warnings sent home from school all insist that apples and oatmeal cookies are full of razor blades and needles.

In fact, there is not a single documented case in the US of apples and homemade cookies being tampered with like this on Hallowe'en.  It is an urban legend.  Like all urban legends, its purpose is to reinforce certain behaviors.  In this case, the behavior is to acquire only wrapped candy bars.  (But think about.  Wouldn't it be easier to conceal a needle in a candy bar's wrapper than in a crumbling cookie?)

If you're interested in my take take on this holiday's rituals, wait until you see what I have to say about Christmas.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Vikings

Everybody loves the Vikings.  Or at least everybody does now.  Back in the Middle Ages, it was an entirely different story.

There had been Germanic peoples settled in Scandinavia since the time of the Roman Empire.  The Romans never tried to conquer them, but traded them with them for things like walrus tusks and amber. They scraped out a living farming the narrow fields along the fjords and fishing.  In the eighth century, they developed the long ship, that could be either sailed or rowed, and decided it would make excellent sense to go raiding.  ("Viking" is actually a verb.)

Raiders, usually led by an out-of-favor chief or deposed king, attacked villages and monasteries in western Europe, carrying away loot.  The Vikings were terrifying fighters.  Some monks had to flee repeatedly, because Europe's rivers made excellent transportation networks for the shallow long ships.  A common prayer was, "Preserve us from the Vikings and their terrible dogs."  Imagine Great Dane dogs that were fierce rather than friendly and a bit stupid.

The Vikings (who never wore horned helmets, contrary to Hagar the Horrible) also established some trading colonies in western Europe, realizing one could only raid an area once but could make a profit in trade every year.  They also explored to the east, establishing what later became Russia and continuing all the way overland to Constantinople, where the Byzantine emperors hired these tall, powerful fighters as their so-called Varangian guard.

All during the ninth century Vikings attacked England, France, and what are now the Benelux countries.  In England, King Alfred the Great fought back and eventually forced and bribed them to settle only in what was called the Danelaw region of northeastern England, where they gradually intermarried with the locals and adopted Christianity.

In France, King Charles "the Simple" granted them the region now known as Normandy in the early tenth century (it was named for the Norsemen).  Again, they settled down, started speaking Old French, and became Christians--even if always very lively Christians.

Many Norsemen stayed in Scandinavia.  They explored westward, settling in Iceland and Greenland, even briefly reaching the Canadian maritimes.  Iceland was run by an elected assembly.  Around the year 1000 they voted to convert to Christianity.

We still have a number of sagas and legends they wrote down once they became Christian, some of which, like the Saga of the Volsungs or the Poems of the Elder Edda, referred back to their pagan gods and myths.  Most of the sagas, however, were tales of relatively ordinary Icelanders who ended up killing their relatives.  All the sagas were written in Old Norse, which is extremely close to the language still spoken in Iceland (though they have added words for things like TVs and cars of course).



I have written my own epic saga, Voima, available as an ebook from Amazon, http://amzn.com/B004ZGI3Q8, as well as from other e-tailers.  It combines elements of the sagas with elements of the Finnish Kalevala, which, both the Icelanders and the Finns will tell you, are very different.  The Finns are an entirely different ethnic and linguistic group than the other Scandinavians, being close only to Hungarians.  But from an Anglophone perspective, they both look like good traditions from which to borrow.

I've got dragons, long ships, pagan gods, and wars.  It's my version of what Norse legends might be like if they were still being written.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Medieval (?) Movies

I have problems with movies supposedly set in the Middle Ages.  They get so many things wrong.

For example, almost invariably a movie set in the early Middle Ages will have knights wearing plate armor.  Plate really only came into style in the fourteenth century.  It required great advances in metallurgy, and, because it was heavy and expensive, even then was usually reserved for the most powerful.  The full tournament armor one sometimes sees in museums dates from after the Middle Ages and was meant solely for tournaments, where one would be winched up onto one's horse, not for battle.

And then there's the movie version of the King Arthur story made maybe a dozen years ago, supposedly set in the late Roman Empire, where the "knights" (knights of course not coming into existence for another five centuries) wore both medieval chain mail and Roman protective gear.  They also rode around using modern western saddles and had stirrups (not invented for another four centuries).  The movie claimed to be based on true archaeological finds.

It's just a story! you say.  Yes, and for that reason I have no trouble whatsoever with things labeled fantasy, even if they are set in an essentially medieval world.  The "Lord of the Rings" movies are among my favorite movies, and I'm a fan of the "Game of Thrones" TV series (as well of course of the books).  Here one can enjoy the slightly larger-than-life aspect of powerful individuals and the opportunity to be truly distinctive that actually were part of medieval elite culture.

But I continue to have problems with any movie that claims historical accuracy.  If they want to be accurate, they had better be accurate.  There were a few old movies that did this just fine (I'm thinking of "Lion in Winter" and "Becket"), where the emphasis was all on the characters' emotional interactions, not on the armor or siege weapons.  (Peter O'Toole starred as Henry II in both these movies, once as young Henry and once as old Henry.  The movies are still good.)

Now if one wants to retell the King Arthur story to make it "a story about today," that's fine.  That's what medieval authors did.  The twelfth-century stories made Arthur a glorified version of a twelfth-century king, and in the fourteenth century he had become a fourteenth-century monarch.  All historical fiction, after all, is really a story about the author's "today," as much as about the time period in which the story is set (and medieval authors made no efforts for historical accuracy).  But make it clear that that's what you're doing.

Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't.  In the 90s there was a Richard Gere movie, called, I believe, "Lancelot First Knight."  Aside from the fact that Lancelot looks nothing like Richard Gere, it was mildly amusing in a very 90s way.  Guinevere was a tomboy and she and Lancelot practiced safe-sex in a 90s way, never getting past a kiss.  Lancelot was a rugged individual, from a poor background who rose due to his skills (including scrambling through some weird and anachronistic machine).  Malory rolled in his grave.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Medieval Books

Books as we know them (rectangular pieces of paper, attached along one edge, ready to be read by turning the pages) first appeared during the Roman Empire.  In the ancient world, the standard had been the scroll, a continuous sheet of writing material that could be rolled and unrolled as one read.

(There used to be a hilarious video on YouTube, "medieval help desk," originating in Scandinavia, showing a monk upset because he couldn't figure out how to work a book, rather than a scroll.)

Medieval books were normally made of parchment.  Parchment is sheep skin, carefully treated and bleached until it looks and feels like what we would call heavy paper.  Parchment lasts very well across the centuries; I have seen and handled parchment over 1200 years old.  As long as one's hands are clean, the oil in one's fingers is actually good for the parchment.  Ink was made of a mix of oak gall and lamp black.  For most of the Middle Ages, ink was more brown than black, though late medieval Italy was proud of its dark black ink.

All books were copied by hand, because the printing press was not invented until the fifteenth century, at the end of the Middle Ages.  This meant that no two books were exactly alike.  Because parchment is fairly thick, big books (like the Bible) were generally done in several volumes.  Between the cost of the parchment and the slowness of copying, books were very valuable.  Copying books was one of the works that monks undertook.  A monastery with a very big library might have a hundred books.  Books were regularly borrowed and handed around.



For most of the Middle Ages, most books were in Latin.  A library might include various volumes of the Bible, many works of theology by the Church Fathers, philosophical works from classical antiquity, histories (Bede was quite popular), and collections of charters all copied into a single book.  The latter was called a cartulary.  Above is an image of a thirteenth-century cartulary.

Starting in the twelfth century, works of popular fiction, written in the vernacular (that is, Old French, Middle High German, and the like), might also be found in a library.

Paper was invented by the Arabs and first appeared in southern France in the thirteenth century.  But it did not become common until the fourteenth century.  Then, however, it was widely adopted.  Medieval paper was "all rag content," much higher quality than modern wood-pulp paper.  Late medieval paper is often in better condition than a twenty-year-old modern paperback.

Because paper was much cheaper and easier to produce than parchment, the price of books went down.  Scribes also became sloppier, often writing in cursive rather than the carefully printed "book hands" of much of the Middle Ages.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fiefs

In an earlier post, I discussed "feudalism" and why medievalists no longer use the term.  (Short version:  It has taken on so many disparate and indeed contradictory meanings as to have become meaningless.)  Today, as I promised then, I want to discuss fiefs.

Fiefs were in fact real, even though much less tidy than textbooks would like you to believe, and even though really limited to the eleventh through thirteenth centuries.  In brief, a fief was a piece of land belonging to one lord but granted to be held by another person, also a noble or knight (not a peasant).  The person receiving it promised fidelity but did not pay rent.  It was a lifetime grant, needing to be renewed in every generation.

In medieval Latin, a fief was most commonly referred to as a feudum, which is where the word "feudalism" came from before it acquired all its additional meanings.  Fiefs, knights, and castles all first appeared in France together, around the year 1000.  This is not accidental.



Once the counts (heads of counties) started building castles, defended by knights, they needed to be sure that the men they put in charge of these castles (castellans) would continue to be loyal to them.  It would be too easy for someone safely behind high walls to "forget" what he owed the lord who had put him there.  The counts therefore demanded mighty oaths of loyalty from the castellans.  The castellans in turn demanded oaths of loyalty from their knights.

Fief-holding was initially extremely ad hoc. Someone might hold in fief from multiple lords.  Two powerful men might even settle a quarrel by agreeing that each would hold in fief from the other.  There was no tidy pyramid, and the kings were not even initially involved.

When William the Conqueror, duke of Normandy, took over England in 1066, he declared that the great lords who had accompanied him must hold from him in fief, and granted them land scattered all over Britain (so that they could not consolidate power).  In the middle of the twelfth century, both the French and German kings announced that their dukes and counts had really held from them in fief the whole time and had gotten centuries behind in their oaths of loyalty.  For the most part, the counts and dukes took a deep breath and accepted this version.  (It became highly problematic when the French kings began loudly pointing out that the kings of England, in their role as dukes of Normandy and Aquitaine, owed them fidelity.)

By the late twelfth century, fief-holding became a little more systematic.  The person receiving the fief, the vassal as he was called, did a ceremony called homage, in which he promised to be the faithful man (homo) of the lord granting the fief.  He went down on his knees and held up clasped hands.  The lord put his hands around the vassal's hands, drew him up, and kissed him.  The ceremony thus symbolized both the vassal's subject position and the fundamental social equality between lord and vassal.

Interestingly, it was at this point that the modern "attitude of prayer" began, on one's knees with clasped hands, indicating that one was God's vassal (although probably not expecting to be drawn up and kissed).  Before then, one prayed lying on one's face, or else standing with head bowed and arms extended.

Normally a vassal was expected to fight on his lord's behalf for forty days a year.  In England, vassals promised to help pay for the knighting ceremony of the lord's oldest son and wedding of his oldest daughter.  Vassals were also expected to help ransom a captive lord.  Because a noble might end up doing homage to several different lords for different fiefs, lords often insisted on "liege homage," where homage to them took precedence over homage to anyone else.

In the thirteenth century, Italian lawyers at the University of Bologna, irritated at the messy, ad hoc nature of fief-holding, tried to create laws and regulations, using various events that had involved fiefs as the basis of precedent law (most medieval law was based on precedent, as was Roman imperial law).  But by the fourteenth century fief-holding became much less common, just as it became more rigid.  The Italian lawyers' version was what was discovered in the seventeenth century and labeled "feudalism."