Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Magna Carta

This month, June 2015, is the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta.  Everybody has sort of heard of this "great charter," which has something to do with English liberties or something.  Well, sort of.

It starts with King John of England (not John I, just John, because he has been so reviled that no one wanted to be named for him).  His barons were enormously irritated with him.  His worst failing was that he had lost Normandy in a disastrous war with France.  The English nobility had, for the most part, also been lords of Norman lands, ever since the Norman Conquest of 1066, and now those lands were gone.

John was never supposed to be king.  He was the fifth son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Their oldest son (William) had died as a child, but four more grew to adulthood, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, and John.  But the next three died (mostly in battle) without surviving sons--Geoffrey had actually had a son, Arthur, but young Arthur had mysteriously disappeared, being last seen with his Uncle John, while Richard was king and Geoffrey was dead.  John didn't even get to have a good ancestral name, like his brothers, being named John only because he was born on Saint John's day (June 24).

John had also irritated both the barons and the bishops of England by making high-handed decisions without consultation, by seizing property of some people who bothered him, by imprisoning other people who bothered him, by initially not letting the new archbishop of Canterbury back into England after he visited Rome, by raising taxes, and by playing favorites with people the barons hated.  Enough was enough.  At a place called Runnymede, in June 1215, the archbishop and the barons forced John to sign a charter, the Magna Carta, listing all the things he wouldn't do anymore.

Understandably, John hated this.  He got the pope to declare it null and void by promising that he would treat England as a fief held from the pope and would go on Crusade very soon.  But John died the next year, and the barons had baby Henry III (John's son) sign it again.  Ever since then, Magna Carta has been taken as a symbol of English liberties.  Modern England doesn't have an actual constitution, as does the US and most other countries, but rather a series of documents that are considered to be "like" a constitution between them, and Magna Carta is the first one in the collection.  In a way this is rather ironic, because almost everything it says has been formally repealed.

So what is in it?  First of all, it has nothing to do with jury trials.  Secondly, it has even less to do with Parliament--Parliament, a more formal version of the councils all medieval kings were expected to call regularly, came along three generations later (see more here on Parliament).  Sorry to disappoint you.

A lot of Magna Carta (the part that no one pays attention to anymore) named specific people who the barons wanted to get out of the royal court, talked about navigable rivers, and regulated royal authority over heiresses too young to inherit.  Nothing in it discussed the "common man."  It did stress that the king could not imprison people on a whim (could not "deprive them of liberty" without "due process of law"), could not make important decisions without proper consultation, and especially was to leave both the Church and the city of London free to carry out their own business and make and follow their own laws.  This declaration of freedom for Church and London is still in force today.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Medieval bastards

It's probably due to the popularity of "Game of Thrones," but there has been a great deal of interest in how bastards were defined and treated during the Middle Ages.  As you have probably come to expect if you've been reading this blog for a while, it was complicated.

We now think of illegitimacy as simple: if the parents are married the children are legitimate, if not, not. But even now there's a lot of gray area.  These days many couples are living together, with their children, on an essentially permanent basis, but are not married.  The children are not mocked as bastards at school (or at least one hopes not).  Some children were born to married parents, but now the parents are divorced--does this change things?  Sometimes a man recognizes paternity and pays child support, even if he is no longer a couple with the child's mother, whom he's never married--how different is this from Divorced Dad?

There were at least four different categories of illegitimate children in medieval law.  A manzer, a term with Hebrew roots, was a child born to a prostitute or sometimes to an incestuous union, that is a child whose parents' relationship was considered morally wrong.  A nothus, a word with Greek roots, was the child of a married woman due to an adulterous affair, also morally wrong.  A spurius was the child of a couple who could not have been married, such as a citizen and a non-citizen (in those cities that regulated who citizens could marry), or a well-born man and a slave in late antiquity, or a married man and a concubine.  A naturalis was the offspring of a couple who could have married and indeed might do so in the future; this last category was treated fairly indulgently, the product of "young love" that got carried away.

In spite of medieval lawyers' efforts to create clear categories, the exact definitions of these four terms was fairly fluid.  A chronicler might decide to call the son of a lord and his concubine a manzer rather than a spurius if he disliked the son.  Someone showing off his Greek might call any child of an unmarried couple a nothus.  Whether the mother or the father was the highborn adulterer, some chroniclers would use nothus, some spurius.  By the twelfth century, the words illegitimus and bastardus were also in common use, meaning any child whose birth seemed somewhat irregular.

Even though there was an expectation that a bastard (especially a manzer) was more inclined to bad behavior than the average (we still use bastard to mean someone behaving especially badly, without necessary reference to his parents' marital status), in practice bastardy did not always carry a stigma.  Children of concubines might be brought up along with their half-siblings.  Fathers could and did legitimize illegitimate children.  Parents might be severely chastised for irregular unions, but the children generally got off easy.

The biggest concern was the inheritance.  Children of a married couple would automatically inherit, but it got tricky if the parents were not married to each other.  A nobleman might take a noble woman as his concubine as sort of a "test drive," then marry her when she got pregnant, and there would never be a question about their children's inheritance, but on the other hand the children of the same nobleman and a peasant woman didn't stand a chance--though they might get some nice gifts occasionally.

Some bastards did very well for themselves.  Charlemagne's grandfather, Charles Martel, was the product of a bigamous union.  William the Conqueror, who became king of England in 1066, was considered a bastard because his parents were not properly married.  Henry I of England had at least twenty illegitimate children, and many of the boys became bishops.  When King Philip II of France rejected his wife, he had several children with other women (during the time while his wife tried unsuccessfully to get back her position as queen), who were eventually legitimated and given comfortable lives.

Even in the stories, bastards might do well.  Sir Galahad, the peerless knight in the King Arthur stories who finally found the Holy Grail, was a naturalis, son of Lancelot and Elaine (whom he'd thought was Guinevere, it was dark, but that's another story).  Even in the Bible, King Solomon would have been a nothus by medieval law standards, son of David by an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Trial by ordeal

Medieval people totally believed in rule of law.  They were often making up the law as they went, but they really did believe that following the law was very important.  Trials were part of this.

Although modern society has (understandably) a rather negative view of trial by ordeal, it was based on the idea (that made perfect sense in the Middle Ages) that God knew who was innocent and who guilty, so they just had to get God to reveal His judgment.

Most obviously, in a trial by combat, the accused and the accuser would each have a champion who would fight for them.  The winner clearly was meant to win.  In trial by water, the accused would be dunked in a big tub.  If they floated, it meant they were guilty, because the water rejected them.  If they sank, they were innocent and had to be pulled out fast.  In a trial by fire, one would be burned (either by taking hold of a hot iron or by actually running through fire).  The burn, cleaned and bandaged, would be examined in a week to see if it was healing nicely, in which case the accused was innocent, or getting all infected, in which case he was guilty.

Medieval people certainly recognized the ambiguities possible in all this.  Everyone knew or had heard of cases where the obviously guilty party got off because he had a better champion to fight for him.  How nicely a wound was healing was certainly a matter of discussion.  Because of this, trials by ordeal were actually fairly rare.  Judges, who could be the local landlord, the local count, the sheriff in England, even the king, would hear witnesses and examine evidence.  But their principal role was not to rule definitively on guilt or innocence but rather to get the disputing parties to come to an agreement.  A major part of all medieval legal cases was having a big discussion.  The only sure way to get a definitive judgment was for one of the parties not to show up.

Curiously from a modern point of view, often an accused person would request trial by ordeal.  However, trials by ordeal were actually carried out far less frequently than they were proposed.  The accusers seem to have often worried that, if someone was willing to suffer a major burn (the most common kind of trial by ordeal) to demonstrate innocence, he might really be innocent.  More discussions would follow.

Not only people were tested by fire--so were relics.  If one had acquired a bone and were unsure whether it was a saint's or some old pig bone, one threw it into the fire (after a suitably reverent ritual).  If it hopped out, it was a saint's.  It all made sense.

To do any of this, of course, one needed to be sure that God was going to be passing the real judgment.  Thus one needed priests and blessings and oaths.  However, in 1215, eight hundred years ago this year, the church officially got out of the ordeal business.  Church lawyers felt that trials by ordeal "tested" God, forcing Him to reveal His judgment, which is actually against the Bible.  Without priests, it was a lot harder to do a decent ordeal.

More discretion thus went to the judges and, in England, juries.  Originally "juries" had not been those who decided guilt or innocence but rather witnesses.  The word comes from the Latin iurati, those who have sworn to tell the truth.  In fact, originally "trial by jury" was a form of ordeal, getting a dozen friends to all swear on holy relics that you were innocent.  If you weren't, usually about halfway through someone would break and blurt out the truth rather than perjure himself.

In late medieval England, jury trials started taking on the form they have now in England and the US, local people assembled to help the judge make decisions based on evidence and witnesses.  The main difference is that now we want the jurors to know nothing about the case ahead of time; then, the jurors came in extremely well-informed already.  (By the way, jury trials have nothing to do with Magna Carta, which does not mention them.  I'll discuss Magna Carta another day.)

Trials by ordeal continued at a low level, as long as one could find a cooperative priest, which became harder and harder.  In late medieval England, some people tried to get out of their obvious guilt by insisting on a trial by ordeal, knowing that that could mean no trial at all.  In response, judges took to making them lie down, putting a board on top of them, and starting to pile on stones, while asking if they had reconsidered what kind of trial they wanted.  At this point, most suddenly wanted a trial by jury.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Stained glass

People going into a Christian church expect to see stained glass windows.  The version we now have was a twelfth-century invention.

They didn't have the big sheets of plate glass in the Middle Ages that we now take for granted, so if you look at medieval glass, you will see that it is a series of fairly small pieces, with leading in between.  The different pieces would be stained different colors, and the glass painted in addition.  It was rare for medieval stained glass just to be done in decorative patterns; rather, the windows would tell stories.  Most common were Bible stories, followed by lives of the saints.

One has to assume that medieval people were far-sighted by our standards.  Modern people often need binoculars to get a good look at the details of stained glass, but medieval people apparently would be told the stories with someone pointing out the images that were meant to illustrate the various scenes.

The thirteenth century was the great century for stained glass.  The technique had been fully mastered, and the colors achieved were exquisite.  For many years modern artisans were unsuccessful in reproducing the blue of thirteenth-century stained glass, an intense, beautiful shade, celebrated especially at the cathedral of Chartres.  The modern artisans speculated that the secret might be "let it age for 700 years."  Recently, however, they have discovered that certain chemical impurities in the sand that went into the glass was the answer, and occasionally a modern church can come close to the colors of medieval glass.

The image above is from a window at Chartres.

The greatest achievement of stained glass workmanship was the Sainte-Chapelle, located in Paris, not far from Notre Dame.  Many tourists unfortunately miss it, because it is accessed through the modern Palais de Justice (national headquarters for the police), so you may pass handcuffed criminals while getting in line for the Sainte-Chapelle.

It was built by Louis IX (St. Louis) in the middle of the thirteenth century, as a suitable church for the Crown of Thorns, which had been "located" in the Holy Land and brought to France.  Don't worry too much about this.  Enjoy the glass.  The building is essentially built of glass, with only narrow panels of actual wall between the stunning windows.  During World War II the windows were disassembled and stored in the basement, to protect them from bombing, and there is a lively scholarly debate whether they were all put back in the right order.

A lot of medieval glass is unfortunately gone forever, smashed during the sixteenth-century wars of religion, the eighteenth-century French Revolution, and two world wars.  Notre Dame in Paris has very little of its original medieval stained glass, due to seventeenth-century priests of the church, who decided it was "old fashioned" and smashed it out, to replace it with "modern" clear glass.

And then there's modern pollution, which eats away glass.  Careful cleaning projects are being carried out.  The grime and badly-pitted surface are cautiously removed, and then the window is covered with plexiglass, separated from the medieval glass by a layer of mineral oil.  It seems to work pretty well.

Saturday, June 13, 2015


In the Middle Ages, as now, Christian children were generally baptized.  But this was not originally the case.  Baptism is in the New Testament.  John, called "the Baptist" (well, we could have guessed that), baptized Jesus with water from the river Jordan, in essence anointing him and declaring him the Christos, the Messiah, the anointed one.  Early Christians got to be baptized too, as a marker of being Christians, though they didn't get to be the Messiah.

Originally you had to be an adult to be baptized, to know what you were doing and choose deliberately to be Christian.  Early churches had big baptismal fonts, about the size of a 55-gallon drum, in which to dunk people.  Originally a bishop's church, the cathedral, would have a baptistry next to it, a church dedicated (no surprise) to Saint John.  However, once the original cathedrals started being rebuilt and expanded (eighth-ninth centuries), they generally incorporated the baptistry.  (The doorway below is from the ninth century.)

Because baptism was supposed to wash away "original sin" (the sin that has been with humans since our origins with Adam and Eve), many people put off baptism, to make sure that they had most of their sinning out of the way first.  It was grueling to atone for serious sins after baptism.  Constantine, the fourth-century emperor who was the first to tolerate Christianity in the Roman Empire, was also the first to be baptized, but he waited until he was dying.

The problem with waiting was that it became generally accepted by the fifth century that if you didn't have original sin washed away by baptism, you were going to hell.  Saint Augustine famously said that the floor of hell was paved with the souls of unbaptized children.  Parents, understandably worried, started baptizing their children at birth.  Because the only place to be baptized before the twelfth century was the cathedral, a big trip to town would be required.  Infants of course were not in a position to adopt Christianity, as they were not old enough to know what they were doing, so they had god-parents, adults who acted as proxy and who promised to teach them the religion they had (theoretically) accepted.  God-parents would also often choose names for the children.

Because baptism now only washed away original sin, not the normal sins of life, rituals had to be developed and become standard for confession, atonement, and especially for last rites, a final chance to get rid of one's burden of sin before it was too late.

During the Reformation era (sixteenth-seventeenth centuries), some Protestants looked at the history of Christianity and decided to return to adult baptism.  They were labeled "Anabaptists," meaning those baptized twice, though of course they were only baptized once, as adults.  Both Protestants and Catholics declared them heretics.  Because they also took very seriously all the parts of the New Testament that talked about non-violence, both Protestants and Catholics had even more reason to hate them during Europe's religious wars.  ("How can you be a pacifist?  Don't you know there's a war on?")  It's not surprising that the Anabaptists, most notably the Mennonites and the Amish, came to the US as soon as they could, to try to escape the persecution—for example, the Amish were probably the first white settlers in Ohio.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Grocery stores

Did they have grocery stores in the Middle Ages?  No, of course not.  A medieval person transported by time machine to a modern grocery store would be stunned.  It would be far beyond their most ambitious visions of miraculous plenty.

And yet we walk through such stores ourselves without giving it a second thought.  We get irritated at a wobbly wheel on a cart and don't even act amazed that strawberries are available year round, strawberries easily ten times the size of medieval strawberries.

(This strawberry is actually mutant, several berries that grew together.  Local strawberries, available only a few weeks a year, are stunningly better than those shipped in from great distances.  But strawberries never used to be available more than a few weeks a year.)

Medieval people generally grew their own food or bought it at the equivalent of a farmer's market.  A forward-looking city council would stockpile grain in case of a shortage.  "Farm to table!  Eat local!"  Everything old is new again.  The principal foods that one would buy in a store were bread and beer.  A bakery and a brewery were indeed often combined (see more here on beer in the Middle Ages).  A good sized town might also have a butcher, though most people ate little meat most of the year.

Inns would however sell prepared foods, at a higher price of course.  Their principal customers were travelers and people from out of town.  There was nothing like the modern fast-food place where people would stop to pick up a burger or chicken nuggets on the way home from work.

So next time you're in a grocery store, which has, literally, tens of thousands of different products (think about how many kinds of cereal, how many kinds of salsa, how many types of pickles, and I'm just getting started), imagine yourself with a medieval person.  He or she will be awe-struck.

Click here for more on what medieval people ate.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Three Orders

Many a textbook will confidently tell you, "In the Middle Ages, society was divided into three orders." If you've been reading this blog, you will have long ago figured out that a lot of what the textbooks tell you is completely wrong, either based on the assumption that people were simpler (and stupider) in the Olden Days, or else derived from a radical simplification of history--or often both.

So it will come as no surprise to faithful readers that "the three orders" did not exist!  Is this going to be an extremely short blogpost, you ask?  Well, there's actually more to it.

Humans like to categorize.  Everyone "knows" that modern American society is divided into upper class, middle class, and working class, even though pretty much everybody will tell you they are middle class, and the borders between the classes (if any) are hard to define.

In the same way, medieval thinkers would periodically come out with grand schemas to categorize their society.  A popular schema was so-called secular clergy (bishops and priests), monks and nuns, and laypeople (that is, people not in the church).  Another was the virgins, the unchaste, and the married.  These were all based on ideas of "three."  Three is a good number.  That is why we have "three classes" in the US.  That is why the three bears' porridge was either too hot, too cold, or just right.

Around the beginning of the eleventh century, a bishop came up with a categorization that may seem closer to what the textbook meant by "three orders."  He said that society was divided into "those who pray, those who fight, and those who work," and that each of these groups should stay in their proper place.  He was addressing the then French king, telling him that the monks who had been advising the king, "those who pray," should stay in their own place, not interfere with "those who fight," which included the king.  Interestingly, this bishop, by his own definition, was one of "those who pray," but that, of course, was totally different (in his own eyes).  He should advise the king.

This definition, problematic from the beginning, got little attention.  And in fact it was a very inaccurate characterization of society.  The "workers" would have to include everyone from serfs up through wealthy merchants and artisans.  "Those who pray" would have to include everyone in the church, monks, nuns, bishops, priests, and university professors, though these were often at odds with each other.  The "fighters" would have to include everyone from kings to service knights—and where are the noble women supposed to fit in?

In practice, young men from peasant backgrounds constituted the first, eleventh-century knights.  Wealthy townsmen would educate their children as aristocrats.  Church leaders and leaders of secular society (castellans, duke and counts) came from the same families.  Nothing kept the ambitious from trying to be socially mobile—though whether they succeeded or not was a different question, as it is in the modern US.

The supposed "three orders" only became semi-official at the beginning of the fourteenth century, with the establishment of the Estates General in France.  This was a council that was supposed to advise the king, made up of representatives of the church, the nobility (including knights), and "everybody else," basically wealthy townsmen (no peasants need apply).  In practice the Estates General rarely met, and its greatest moment was starting the French Revolution in 1789.

Interestingly England's Parliament, a generation older than the French Estates General and much more influential, had (and has) two chambers, not three.  Church leaders (bishops and abbots) were grouped with the Lords (greatest nobles), while the Commons included both knights and wealthy townsmen.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Fantasy book covers

These days, all books need a cover image.  Fantasy books especially are expected to have a fantastic looking cover (in the full sense of the word).  I've gotten a new, professional cover for my ebook, "The Starlight Raven" (you can see the original cover here; I made it myself with some clipart).

Below is the new cover, made by Dane of "EbookLaunch."  If you haven't had a chance to read it yet, it's available as an ebook on Amazon and other e-tailers for $4.99.  It's also available as a paperback (see more detail here).  Tell your friends!

A lot of readers (myself included) get irritated when the cover seems only tangentially related to the book, for example if the heroine is a shy teenager yet shown on the cover in a flamboyant pose, wearing a stainless steel bikini.  But, strictly speaking, the cover is not an illustration of the book but rather an ad for it.  That is, the purpose of the cover is to make people want to pick up a physical book and look at the first few pages or click the "look inside" feature of an ebook.

Then the purpose of the first few pages is to make the reader decide to read the whole thing and proceed to checkout.  If this happens, the cover has done its job by getting the process started.

Covers also convey a subtle message about what kind of book it is.  If you read a lot in a particular genre, you'll notice that many covers look a lot alike.  A romance will have a couple looking passionate.  Science fiction will have space ships and/or celestial objects like the rings of Saturn.  Fantasy will have medieval-like settings, often with swords or castles.  A western will have a cowboy.  Even the type-face has to match--vaguely medieval for fantasy, jagged and modern for science fiction, and so on.

A tendency which I don't quite understand in modern literary fiction (also called main-stream fiction, stories about people living here and now) is to have no actual human face on the cover.  Instead, you will see a person from the back, or somebody's torso doing something (say, knitting).  People who read mainstream fiction may not even realize this, but it sends a subtle message that this is not fantasy or science fiction or romance or westerns.

Sometimes (as in the cover above) a graphic artist paints a picture that becomes the cover.  These days, a lot of graphic artists start with a photograph or photographs and then use Photoshop to blend them together or to alter them to fit the book's theme.  There are many sites where photographers can put what are called "stock photos," photos of generic scenes (a tulip garden, a family having a picnic, a placid cow, etc.) which graphic artists then license for use in magazine ads, book illustrations, or covers.

One advantage of publishing ebooks as an "indie" (as I'm doing) is that one has much more control over the covers.  A traditional publisher seems to assume that the author is the last person on the planet with helpful insights into what the cover should look like.  My "Starlight Raven" cover, my only professionally-made cover (it's an experiment), is at least based on my ideas.  For most of my books I use my own photographs of castles and the like, rather than stock photos.

Monday, June 1, 2015


Medieval Christianity was run by its bishops, as indeed was the organized church from the beginning.  So, what's a bishop? you say.  He was the head Christian of a region (there are now female bishops in some denominations, but there were not any in the Middle Ages).

The early Christian communities were self-governing.  The local Christians elected their leader, the bishop.  (Modern Amish communities still do the same thing.)  The word comes from the Greek, as do all words from early Christianity, episkopos, meaning someone in charge, an overseer (think of the root epi-, as in epicenter, plus "scoping things out").  The word became episcopus in Latin; take the -e- off the front and you'll see where we get the word 'bishop'.

Early Christian bishops tried to coordinate, but no one was in charge of the others.  Any sort of dispute or question would be settled by a council, where the bishops would meet, discuss, and vote.  One of the most important early councils was Nicaea of 325, which determined the nature of the Trinity.  At this point, the Emperor Constantine was beginning to tolerate Christianity (he was baptized on his deathbed), so bishops were able to make their religion and their flocks more public and start building churches.  A cathedral (on which see more here) is a church for a bishop.

Each bishop was in charge of a diocese, his region, which in the old Roman Empire corresponded to the pagus, the basic geographic unit of imperial administration.  In the west, counties, headed by counts, also corresponded to the pagus, creating tensions between bishop and count throughout the Middle Ages.

Early bishops were married, with families, though by the sixth century western bishops generally were single or widowed—or adopted separate bedrooms.  In Byzantium, however, where early Christianity evolved into Greek Orthodoxy, bishops still married.  Modern Protestantism, self-consciously following the practice of the early church, returned to married bishops.

By the fifth or sixth century, it came to be taken for granted that five bishoprics were "first among equals," those of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria (a great learning center in Egypt), Jerusalem, and Antioch (Peter's city, according to the New Testament).  They were honored with the title 'papa', meaning (naturally) Daddy.  With the rise of Islam in the seventh century, all of these cities except for Rome and Constantinople had Christianity essentially disappear, leaving only the bishops of Rome and Constantinople, the forerunners of the pope and the Greek Orthodox patriarch (see more here on early medieval popes).

In practice, bishops, not popes, continued to run Christianity between them until the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as discussed more here.  Bishops held councils to decide any important issues and were still locally elected, by both powerful lay people and by the priests of the diocese.  During the twelfth century, however, election was restricted to the cathedral canons, the priests who served the cathedral and helped the bishop run the diocese.  In the thirteenth century, popes began insisting that they, and only they, could choose bishops.