Saturday, February 28, 2015

Life in a Medieval City

Medieval cities, as I've discussed earlier, grew rapidly in the twelfth century (a little earlier in Italy).  They might go within a generation or less from a small religious and political center--home both of a bishop and a count, but with maybe one or two thousand people at most--to a metropolis of ten thousand people (or more!).

This was not because urban women were especially fertile.  Indeed, women were definitely in the minority in a medieval city.  Rather, most of the growth of the city was due to immigration from the countryside.  A city was an excellent place for a younger son to find work and try to make his fortune, for a young man fed up with the narrowness of village life to find opportunities, and for runaway serfs to pass as free.

Cities quickly became divided into several major sections.  The bishop's cité surrounded the cathedral and in France was often enclosed by the old Gallo-Roman walls.  Both the count's castle and any major monasteries outside the bishop's enclosure would have their own walls.  The merchants and artisans had their own area, called the burg (from which we get burger and bourgeois).

Not surprisingly, these different areas did not always see eye to eye.  Disputes often grew up, for example, over who had judicial authority over someone who had committed a crime--and hence who got to fine him.  Nonetheless, all the groups realized they needed to work together, and by the end of the twelfth century they often had mutually paid for walls to encircle the entire city, churches, burg, castle, and all.  The area within these walls (now often replaced by a ring road) is the "old city" section of a modern European city.



The burg wanted self-governance, and if the bishop and count would not grant a charter of liberties (as it was called), citizens of a French city would often petition (and pay) the king.  With their own city council and elected mayor, they would regulate building, paving, and sanitation, the same things a modern city government does, as well as regulate trade.  The guilds, with their own regulations (as discussed in the previous post), were very well represented on the city council.

Most city houses were wattle and daub (a less sturdy version of what we call half-timber), two or at most three stories tall, opening directly onto the street, with a little yard out back.  Here there would be the latrine, the kitchen, a small vegetable garden, and perhaps a few chickens or even a pig.  The heir to the French throne was killed in Paris in the 1120s while riding through the city, when a pig got loose and got tangled in his horse's legs, and the horse threw the youth.  (This was reported as a porcus diabolicus.)

Although modern movies show medieval people dumping slops into the streets, in fact city councils levied stiff fines against anyone throwing anything into the street.  Of course, given that most streets were dirt, and there were plenty of horses about, you would still not call the streets sanitary.  City councils were especially concerned about keeping the wells unpolluted.  Contaminated water, as they knew as well as we do, rapidly spread disease.

Fire was the other major threat, and medieval cities, full of wooden houses and thatched roofs, burned every generation or two.  Water barrels stood on every corner, and draining these fire barrels was almost as serious a crime as polluting a well.

Exciting as the city seemed, it was also considered unhealthy.  Children were generally sent to wet nurses in the countryside until at least a few years old.


Friday, February 27, 2015

Medieval Guilds

We tend to think of labor and management as two separate groups, groups that indeed are comparable from one locality to another.  That is why modern labor unions are national or even international.  But medieval guilds were different.

As cities grew in the twelfth century, a major component was the guilds, associations of artisans that all made the same sort of thing.  A guild included everyone from the masters down to the boys starting their apprenticeships, so labor and management were not considered separate categories.  There was no sense of solidarity between guilds making the same product in different cities; any member of the shoemakers' guild in one city would have told you that the shoemakers' guild in the next city over was well known for its shoddy products and high prices.

Although each guild set its own requirements, there were many similarities.  To become a member of a guild, one usually started young, around six or eight, the same age as a boy might be when sent off to the church or to begin his knighthood training.  One began as an apprentice, doing simple, low-level tasks in a shop, like sweeping up or carrying messages.  It helped to be from a guild family; some guilds were wary of letting in "outsiders."  Parents placing a boy in a shop as an apprentice had to pay a sizable fee, because the boy would have to be fed, housed, and clothed for years before he became an economic asset.

An apprentice advanced from simple tasks to slowly learning the trade.  At this point he would become a journeyman, someone who knew what he was doing and would be paid to do it.  (The word, by the way, doesn't mean someone taking a trip but rather someone paid by the day, journée in Old French.)  A journeyman typically moved out of the shop where he'd lived since boyhood, even if he still worked there.

Journeymen were hired by the masters, those who actually ran the shops.  All journeymen must have dreamed of becoming masters, but only a few could.  They would need enough capital to buy a shop--again, being from the right family helped a lot--and especially needed to produce a "masterpiece," something to prove to the other guild masters that they had become so good at their craft that they were qualified to join them.



The shops combined retail and work space on the street level.  Large, arched doors stood open except in the worst weather, letting in both light and customers.  The upper floors were where the master's family and the apprentices lived, somewhat above the noise and smells of the street.

Different shops in a guild would coordinate with each other and usually all be situated on the same street; they might even claim the local parish church as their church.  The messier guilds, like the leather tanners (who produced a lot of waste hair and flesh as well as unpleasant chemicals) would be on the downstream side of town.  Guilds regulated both quality and prices, so as not to undercut each other.  People shopping for a particular product would choose one shop over another for its features or personal service.

Guilds included everything from shoemakers to jewelry makers to masons to prostitutes.  The professors of a university belonged to the professors' union (universitas is indeed medieval Latin for what we'd call a guild).  Although most guilds were run by men, a few, like the ribbon-maker's guild, were all female.  Women might also become masters if they were the daughter or widow of a master and could prove they knew the craft.

For more on medieval city life, see the following post.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The World's Oldest Literature

Fantasy is now considered a sub genre of science fiction, sometimes dismissed as juvenile or "not really" literature.  People like Margaret Atwood who write what sure looks like speculative fiction deny vehemently that they are doing so.

But there is nothing to be embarrassed about in enjoying fantasy (or, for that matter, science fiction).  It is after all the world's oldest literature.

Think about what makes fantasy be fantasy (aside from the wizards and dragons).  It's about somewhat larger than life characters, having exciting adventures in a world imbued with the marvelous and supernatural.  This describes the Epic of Gilgamesh.  It describes the Iliad and the Odyssey.  For that matter, it describes the Bible.

The authors were able to make strong moral points without being pedantic.  One of their repeated points was that even the greatest heroes were flawed, which works better as a theme when the great heroes are larger than life, rather than just ordinary-joes trying to get by.



In the Middle Ages, fantasy took essentially the form it has today, because modern fantasy was created by writers steeped in real medieval literature.  (For more on medieval-themed fantasy, click here.)  Stories like the Song of Roland, all the King Arthur stories, and the other epics and romances all featured wonderfully brave and strong heroes (usually noble), lovely maidens, and a lot of supernatural feats.  Dragons (serpents) and weird monsters also put in an appearance.

Fantasy continued to be a major part of the literature of the early modern period.  Many of Shakespeare's plays (think Hamlet or Macbeth or The Tempest) have undoubted fantastic elements.  Milton's Paradise Lost is bubbling over with the supernatural.  As late as the nineteenth century and Faust (to say nothing of Wagner's Ring operas, based on the medieval Nibelungenlied), authors were happy to include gods, deals with the devil, and amazingly powerful heroes (with flaws).

Only in the twentieth century did mainstream literature decide that "fairy stories" were for children.  Tolkien described this as analogous to the adults deciding that the old living room couch would do for the children's playroom, not because it was inherently suited for little ones, but because they were just passing down something they didn't want anymore.

Now, I have read and enjoyed a great deal of modern, essentially realistic fiction.  But isn't it more fun to read about wizards than about somebody folding the laundry and wondering if they have enough quarters for the parking meter?

(Click here for further thoughts on fantasy and science fiction.)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Medieval brothels

Prostitution is often called "the world's oldest profession."  Although rarely found in rural settings, there have been women selling their bodies for money in the relative anonymity of cities for probably as long as there have been cities.  Mary Magdalene, who appears in the New Testament, is generally assumed to have been a prostitute (though the Bible is a bit vague on the topic).

In the early Middle Ages, after the breakdown of Roman urban civilization, there is very little sign of prostitution, probably because the culture was so overwhelmingly rural.  However, when medieval cities began to grow in the eleventh century, prostitution grew with them.

The organized church of course frowned on it, but many a city council, deciding it was better to regulate the practice than to drive it underground, established municipal brothels.  In late medieval cities, young women (generally from the countryside) who found no other way to support themselves might go into a brothel.

The house was supposed to be kept clean and free of disease and the prostitutes properly housed and fed.  In many cities the women would be regularly inspected to make sure they did not have infections.  (A lot of what we think of as STDs have New World origins, so there were fewer diseases to fear, and AIDS was centuries in the future.)  As deplorable as modern feminists rightly find prostitution, at least in an organized medieval brothel the women did not have to worry about maltreatment from their pimps.

Many "Magdalene houses" were founded to urge women to "give up their life of sin" and come away from the brothel.  The assumption was then that women had gone into the profession out of unrestrained lust, even though now it sure looks more like economic desperation.  Churches sponsored these Magdalene houses, which in practice provided a useful half-way house for young women who had saved up enough from their "life of sin" that they wanted to separate themselves from it and, with luck, get married with their savings as dowry.

Saint Nicholas societies provided money for dowries to poor-but-honest working girls so that they could get decently married without having to sell themselves.  These were particularly common in late medieval/Renaissance Italy, where dowries were essentially obligatory.

Often municipal brothels were connected with the municipal bath houses.  People would bathe, and while all warm and naked would start to have other thoughts as well, which could be satisfied right nearby.  In modern Britain brothels are still sometimes referred to as "stews," because of their association with bath houses.

In fact, when the Black Death showed up in western Europe in the fourteenth century, one of the immediate results was closing down the municipal bath houses, because it was assumed (correctly) that disease would spread easily there.  However, the municipal brothels just became even more closely regulated.  City councils recognized that people will, if frightened of dying, give up bathing, but they won't give up sex.

Incidentally, until the fourteenth century most people had believed in the weekly bath (on which see more here).  After that, aristocrats, who did not get all dirty and sweaty in their daily activities, prided themselves on not bathing.  Sponge baths and hand-washing were about the limit.  (Peasants, not having much choice, continued bathing if they could.)

Medieval municipal brothels continued until the sixteenth century, when the religious ferment of the Reformation finally led to their demise.


Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Holy Grail

These days, everybody knows what the Holy Grail was.  It was the cup the Jesus used during the Last Supper, right?  After all, that's what an Indiana Jones movie said it was, so it must be true.



Well, no.  The first time that a "grail" shows up in the records is in the stories of Chrétien de Troyes, who wrote what are now considered the first "Arthurian" stories in the 1180s.  In his Perceval, a story he never finished, young Perceval visits a mysterious castle where he sees a procession, a maiden carrying a "grail" and a boy carrying a bleeding lance.  At this point it isn't called a "holy" grail, although the Christian symbolism of the bleeding lance seems undeniable.

(The chalice pictured above is from eleventh-century Spain and is not the holy grail.)

In Chrétien's story, it turns out that the grail is a platter, carrying the wafer of communion (so it is at least sort of holy).  This wafer is all that the wounded Fisher King eats.  Young Perceval in the story is amazed at the sight but doesn't say anything, though it later turns out that he should have asked what it was, and that his asking would have healed the Fisher King, who is actually his uncle.

Okay, this seems somewhat obscure.  The fact that it is theoretically set in Britain, though Chrétien probably never left France, doesn't exactly clarify.  Shortly thereafter, the German writer Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote his own version, and now the grail is a miraculous stone.  Wolfram did finish his version, and his Parzival finally gets back to the grail castle, asks what is going on, heals the wounded king, and is reunited with his beloved wife.

Around this time the grail stories got drawn into Joseph of Arimathea stories.  A British writer said that Joseph, who is in the Bible as providing a tomb for Jesus after the Crucifixion, had come to Britain toward the end of his life, bringing the cup of the Last Supper, and converted the island to Christianity.

This did not settle things on the Continent, where the "Quest of the Holy Grail" stories have it a rather undefined object that flies around healing people if they deserve it.  The questers have adventures and repent of their sins until they are worthy to see the grail.  Here the Fisher King's daughter (unnamed) is the woman with whom Lancelot accidentally had a hot affair, resulting in the birth of Galahad.  (You had to be there.)

Some people have tried to connect the Holy Grail with some sort of ancient pagan Celtic stone, but the story is too confusing already without bringing in pagan details that all medieval grail authors would have rejected.  (See more here on the historical (?) Arthur.)

Friday, February 13, 2015

Jews in the Middle Ages

Christianity of course began as a sect of Judaism, with Jesus and his original apostles all Jews.  The first gentiles (non Jews) to become Christians were in the 40s and 50s AD, inspired by the apostle Paul.  When the Romans crushed the Jewish uprising of 70, destroying the Temple in Jerusalem and taking over direct rule of Palestine, rather than letting it be a Jewish client state, both Jews and Christians fled to other parts of the Empire.

Many Jews ended up in western Europe, where they functioned as a more-or-less tolerated minority for most of the early Middle Ages.  Although Judaism had originally celebrated the pastoral life (wandering with one's herds of sheep and goats), almost all of Europe's Jews were city-dwellers.

They were especially active as merchants and money-lenders.  The Old Testament forbids charging interest ("usury") to one's "brothers," but Jews and Christians decided they were not each other's brothers, so it was all right.  All commercial enterprises require access to credit, so they were needed.  Many major banking houses throughout the Middle Ages were run by Jews.

And yet Jews also faced intermittent discrimination.  Medieval theologians called Jews "Christ-killers" (a position, interestingly, which the modern Catholic church has rejected).  When faced with discrimination, Jews would move on, from the Mediterranean regions where they remained most numerous into Germany.

Real attacks on Jews began at the end of the eleventh century.  At exactly this time Europeans were also beginning to worry much more about heresy and to find it offensive that the Holy Land was ruled by non-Christians (Muslims).  When the First Crusade was launched in 1095, some knights decided to get a head-start on killing "enemies of Christ" by attacking Jews in the cities of the German Rhineland.

Some were horribly slaughtered.  In other cases, however, the merchants, even the bishops, stepped in to protect the Jewish populations of their cities, and Christians hid their Jewish neighbors.  But from then on, attacks on Jewish communities became more frequent.  Again, persecuted Jews found it easiest to just move on.  Most of the important rituals and holidays of Judaism are practiced in the home, with the family, so it was easier to keep the traditions alive than if they had required organized churches.

Stories sprang up in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that Jews killed Christian babies and used their blood for secret incantations.  If a well went bad, it was easy to accuse the Jews of poisoning it.  Jewish communities kept moving from western Germany, off into the thinly populated stretches of eastern Europe.  Many Jews from what had been a major Jewish intellectual and merchant center of Speyer (in Germany) ended up in the Russia/Poland area and were referred to as Shapiro (guy from Speyer).  Here in eastern Europe Yiddish developed, a mix of German and Hebrew and some terms from the local Slavic languages.

By the late Middle Ages Jewish communities were more and more frequently persecuted.  Several of Europe's kings took out massive loans from the Jews and then drove them out of the country, so as not to have to repay.  In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabelle of Spain drove both Jews and Muslims out of Spain. Many went to what is now Turkey, where the Muslim rulers who had recently taken over the last of the Byzantine empire were happy to welcome them.  Others "officially" converted to Christianity but continued their Jewish rituals at home, rituals continued long after their descendants forgot that they had ever been anything but Christian.  (Click here for more on Ferdinand and Isabelle.)

The Jews are designated a Chosen People in the Bible.  Between the Babylonians, the Romans, medieval discrimination, later pograms, and eventually the Nazis, they may (to repeat an old joke) have often wished God would choose somebody else for a change.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Dogs in the Middle Ages

Today there are a bewildering array of different breeds of dogs, some tiny (so-called teacup poodles almost would fit in a teacup), some enormous (think Newfoundland dogs that could easily pass as friendly bears).  There was also a great variety of dogs in the Middle Ages, if not quite so many kinds.

Dogs' chief purpose then, as throughout human history, was to hunt or guard or herd.  Every hunting party was accompanied by hounds, to sniff out the game and to chase it down.  Every castle had a master of hounds whose responsibility was to train the hounds and make sure they were properly fed and treated. Bigger dogs would be used if one were hunting bear or boar than hunting deer or rabbits.  It was expected that the hounds would get to eat part of whatever game they helped catch.

Mastiffs stood guard in castles, and villages would be guarded (sort of) by village dogs.  Peasants would probably not have pet dogs, but every village would have at least a couple of dogs roaming around, eating whatever they could find.  They would certainly start barking if anyone or anything strange entered the village.  In Africa today, many villages have village dogs, that may not belong to any individual but who live next to the villagers, and medieval villages would have been the same.

Armies also might have dogs to bring down opponents.  The Vikings most notably brought dogs on their raids.  A ninth-century prayer went, "God preserve us from the Northmen and their terrible dogs." The Vikings' dogs were the ancestors of the modern Great Dane.  Think about a Great Dane, enormous but sort of clumsy and goofy.  Now imagine it fierce and focused rather than clumsy and goofy.  Now the prayer makes more sense.



Dogs have been used in herding since humans first domesticated sheep, far back in antiquity.  Shepherd dogs as a group are very intelligent, able to follow commands and use their own initiative to round up flocks and keep the straying in line.  All medieval human shepherds would have had dogs to assist them.

And then there were the pet dogs.  These were only possible for the wealthy, because a dog needs at least some meat, and a dog that isn't helping catch its own food has to be fed with meat that otherwise would go into a human's mouth.  (Kibbles were centuries in the future.)

Elegant ladies often had small fluffy dogs, like modern King Charles spaniels or pugs, that they would carry around.  Dogs were symbols of faithfulness and devotion, so a puppy made an appropriate gift between lovers.  In the late Middle Ages, a tomb carved with the image of a noble lady would often show a faithful little dog at her feet.

Click here for more about medieval domestic animals.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Medieval Church

In an earlier post, I discussed medieval Christianity in broad outlines.  But religion (Christianity in this case) is not the same as the institution (the church) whose purpose is to support that religion.  This is why, for example, one can still be a good Catholic in the modern world even if deploring some things that some priests have done.

Medieval people made the same distinction.  From the middle of the twelfth century on, there were always plenty of people--people who considered themselves good Christians--who mocked priests, bishops, monks, anyone who they themselves did not think was behaving as a good Christian should behave.  Wealthy churchmen frequently came in for criticism in the late Middle Ages.  Martin Luther's criticism came out of a long tradition.

For that matter, "the medieval church" was not a monolithic entity.  One cannot speak of the medieval church any more than one can now speak of the government.  (Though some try!)  First question:  which one do you mean?  Federal government? state? local?  If federal, which branch, executive, legislative, judicial?  If executive, the president himself or the civil service?  If legislative, House, Senate, or the staffers?  And so on.



In the medieval church, there were many different individuals and groups, all of which had their own agenda.  Most notably, bishops and monasteries were often at odds.  The bishops had been established by the fourth century in most cities of the old Roman Empire, and they considered themselves to have "apostolic succession."  That is, a bishop would have been consecrated by another bishop, himself consecrated by an earlier bishop, and so on, supposedly back to Saint Peter.  So bishops felt that cities were their cities, and that they were firmly in the tradition of Jesus's first followers.

The monasteries saw things differently.  Although they had been established more recently--rarely before the sixth century in the West and often much later--they believed that they, and only they, were truly "apostolic," because they tried to follow the life of the apostles as described in the New Testament Book of Acts.  That is, they gave up all personal possessions and shared everything in common.

(Sounds communist, doesn't it!  It's also biblical.)

Monasteries resented bishops, who might live like lords, coming around to "correct" the life of monks who felt that the only person who needed correcting was the wealthy and powerful bishop himself.  Monks and bishops did try to get along in a spirit of Christian charity, but monasteries might try to free themselves legally from their bishop's oversight.  The cathedral and the chief monastery in a town were often in competition as to who had the best, most impressive church.

And then there were the popes, basically ignored in practice (though honored in theory) throughout the early Middle Ages, until they abruptly made themselves the head of the church hierarchy in the eleventh century (click here for more details).

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Wizards and Dragons

How can you tell science fiction from fantasy?  Short answer:  Science fiction has space ships.  Fantasy has wizards and dragons.

Okay, it's not quite that simple.  But it's certainly true that a great deal of modern fantasy set in a more-or-less medieval world features wizards and dragons.  Tolkien's Lord of the Rings did.  (Though there are more dragons in The Hobbit than the actual LotR.)  George Martin's Song of Ice and Fire does.  (Though his wizards are sort of weird and marginal.)  (Click here for more on medieval-themed fantasy.)



My own fantasy features wizards and dragons, as seen in the above image.  The artist is Darrell Sweet.  Well, it isn't strictly speaking a dragon, it's the skin of a purple flying beast, but people in the story often mistake them for dragons.  (Shameless plug:  Get the story to read on your Kindle here.)

But did the literature of the Middle Ages feature wizards and dragons?  Actually much less than you might have expected.  Since magic was always viewed with suspicion during the real Middle Ages, in the assumption that it was fueled by demons, you would not have wizards as heroes.  We now associate Merlin with King Arthur stories, but the early King Arthur stories had no such person in them.  Merlin appears in the fifteenth-century versions, but he disappears quickly, captured by a nymph.

Modern versions of wizards are mostly derived from Tolkien's Gandalf, a very powerful and wise person who just shows up, and who is semi-immortal.  But for a lot of modern authors (including JK Rowling and me), wizardry is something to be studied and learned.  (Rowling had the equivalent of the British "public" school or the American prep school, I the equivalent of graduate school.)

Dragons are quite rare in medieval literature.  They were often indistinguishable from serpents.  The best-known dragon is in Beowulf, who (spoiler alert!) ultimately kills the hero.  A dragon also features in the Nibelungenlied, where it turns out it had originally been something almost human, and where Siegfried kills it.  In both of these the dragon is associated with a golden horde, which it guards jealously, a motif Tolkien picked up.  The gold, not surprisingly, is cursed.