Monday, August 31, 2015

Cathedral chapters

What's a cathedral chapter, you ask?  It's the body of priests attached to a cathedral, who helped the bishop run the diocese.  As I noted in my post on bishops, they began as the head Christian of their region (diocese).  Administrative responsibilities meant that, essentially from the beginning, they needed priests to assist them.

By the ninth century, the cathedral chapter had gained a formal existence, with its own elected officers and its own property.  The property attached to the cathedral church, which could be fairly substantial, was divided in two, with the bishop administering half and the cathedral chapter administering half.

The cathedral canons, the members of the cathedral chapter, each received an individual stipend, called a prebend.  The number of canons was limited by the amount of prebends their share of the cathedral patrimony could generate.  Although the prebend was not personal property, so the individual canon could not sell it or bequeath it, he still had it for his lifetime.  Cathedral canons had individual houses grouped around the cathedral (in the "cathedral close") where they lived, supported by their prebends.

The cathedral chapter was made up of "secular" canons as they were called, in distinction to "regular" canons, those who (like cathedral canons) served a church in a body, reaching out to the broader community, but who followed a strict rule that required them to live in common, sharing their possessions, their dormitory, and their food.  (Click here for more on canons regular.)  Cathedral canons lived essentially pure lives, at least by the end of the eleventh century (earlier they had often been married, or at least had a live-in partner), but they did not believe in sharing.

One of the important functions of the cathedral chapter was running the cathedral school, where priests for the whole diocese would be trained.  Medieval universities grew out of a few of these cathedral schools.  Members of the chapter had almost always started as pupils at the cathedral school.  Once ordained as priests, they might be invited to join the chapter if there was a prebend vacant, and if they came well recommended.  Many cathedral chapters had virtual dynasties of uncles and nephews.

The most important officer of the cathedral chapter was the dean, elected by the canons.  He stood up to the bishop if he felt that the chapter's rights and privileges were being violated.  Other officers included the chancellor, responsible for the school and the archives, the provost, who oversaw the chapter's property, and the cantor, who led the singing in the cathedral--something cathedral canons did every Sunday, if not more often.

The example of the cathedral chapter suing the bishop--as indeed happened!--should dispel any lingering thought that the medieval church functioned as a monolithic unit.  (Click here for more on the medieval church.)

Friday, August 28, 2015

Miracles and faith

Medieval people believed in miracles.  So does modern society.

How many times have you heard someone say, "It was raining so hard the morning of my party, but it cleared up at noon, it was like a miracle," or "Every new baby is a miracle come into the world," or "His car was totaled, but he was fine, it was a miracle," or "At dawn the world is all still and bright, like a miracle."

A miracle literally means something marvelous and wonderful, which is how modern society usually uses the term.  Medieval people used it this way too.  For example, they would speak of a noble lord who had been stealing a monastery's flocks as "miraculously" repenting, or a church architect "miraculously" finding timbers just the right size for the new beams.

The word's more specific meaning, then and now, is something that cannot be explained naturally.  The modern Catholic church requires verified miracles to declare someone a saint.  That generally means a healing where the doctors have said there is no hope of a cure.  This criterion for sainthood came in during the twelfth century.  A person who had lived a saintly life would no longer be declared a saint (as s/he would have been for the first millennium of Christianity) without some well-documented post-mortem miracles.

As I discussed earlier, it is important not to label medieval belief in miracles "superstition."  People then certainly did not believe every purported miracle.  Some eventual saints, like Bernard of Clairvaux, took a while to be officially recognized because his supporters didn't have enough well-documented healings.

Although the assumption now is that "over-educated elitist university types" are least likely to have strong religious beliefs, which are found instead in the simple, hard-working folk of the heartland, this assumption was upside down in the Middle Ages.

Instead, it was the best-educated in the Middle Ages who clung the most strongly to religion and who battled most desperately any doubts that might come wandering in.  This is because the smartest minds of the age all went into theology.  Their religion and theology were certainly not simple, and nobody believed the Bible was meant to be read literally, but there are plenty of indications that the most devout churchmen and churchwomen intermittently found themselves wondering if God cared a farthing for His creation.

This carving, from the twelfth-century church of Saulieu, shows the story of Balaam from the Old Testament.  He was understandably startled when his donkey stopped dead and started to speak.  This is because the donkey, but not Balaam, could see the angel with a sword ahead of them.  Balaam was a doubter, the kind of doubter the monks wanted to remind themselves not to be.

The biggest doubters were among the peasants.  Such doubters appear in all the accounts mocking the saints, making fun of relics, saying, "How can some old bone heal, Mr. Monk?  I could get better results with a stone I picked up in the field!"  Then they'd laugh and try to steal the offering.

Because Christianity was the dominant belief system they'd essentially adhere to it, get their children baptized, try to get Grandpa last rites, but it was quite startling when they were told that they were supposed to go to church and partake in the mass at least once a year, whether they needed it or not.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Teenagers in the Middle Ages

Medieval people grew up fast.  We now think of the teen years as a stage between childhood and adulthood.  For medieval people, in many ways adulthood arrived then.

As I noted in discussing medieval seven-year-olds, birthdays and exact ages were less important in the Middle Ages than they are now, but one was assumed to know right from wrong at age seven and be ready to take on a lot of adult responsibilities at age fourteen, with twenty-one being the age when one had normally learned all that there was to learn.

Age fourteen was considered a suitable marriage age, although, in practice, most people married later than that.  It was also the official age of puberty, and in practice probably also the real age of puberty--as indeed it continued to be until a few generations ago.  We now hit puberty around twelve or earlier, but this is because we, as a group, are better nourished than our medieval ancestors and are exposed to more hormones in water and food.

Teenage boys undergoing knighthood training would complete their training in their mid to late teens and be ready to ride off to war or tournament or to hassle the neighbors.  Boys or girls who had been set into the monastery by their parents as children would decide around fourteen or fifteen if they wanted to continue in the cloister (as most did) or return to the secular world.

A boy who was going to go to the university (remember, girls couldn't go until the nineteenth century) would head off around age fourteen, rather than our age eighteen.  He might get both his BA and his MA by age twenty-one and be ready to teach the undergraduates.

A town boy who had been apprenticed to a guild master to learn a craft (such as leather working, gold smithing, wagon making, and so much more) would make the transition in his early teens from being an apprentice to being a journeyman, someone considered skilled enough at his craft to actually be paid for his labor.

By the time a peasant boy or girl was a teenager, they were taking on full responsibility for farm tasks.  This is still the case in many rural areas, where you will see fifteen-year-olds driving a tractor or a hay wagon.

There are numerous examples of medieval teenagers leading armies.  Both Charlemagne and Louis the Pious had sons who led rebellions against them before the boys turned twenty.  One of the most famous teenaged war-leaders was Joan of Arc, who first heard angel voices telling her what she needed to do when she was thirteen, who was leading men into victorious battle at seventeen, and was burned at the stake at age nineteen.

Joan of course was unusual by any definition, but really it was not considered odd before the twentieth century for teenagers to take on adult responsibilities.  Look at Mozart at the end of the eighteenth century, composing as a small child, taking musical commissions when still extremely young by our standards.

Medieval teenagers were presumably just as potentially surly, obnoxious, or reckless as modern teenagers.  But it was not a "stage" in which one was expected to be like that.  (Even the term "teenager" is very modern.)  Rather, these were traits that the real grownups wanted them to overcome as quickly as possible.

Monday, August 3, 2015


All medievalists love cartularies.  What's a cartulary, you ask, and why are they so lovable?

A cartulary at its most basic is a book ("codex") into which are copied many charters (a charter is a carta in Latin, as in Magna Carta).  When an institution (most commonly a monastery) had acquired a number of charters, it became clear that a big pile was unwieldy, to say nothing of difficult to save in case of fire or attack, when it would be easiest just to snatch up a book and run.

This was, remember, an era without a printing press, without copy machines, certainly without digital files.  An original document was the only version in existence unless it was manually copied.

Although monks had been organizing the documents in their archives from the time they first started acquiring them in any numbers, the golden age of cartularies was the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  A monk or monks would carefully sort through and organize what they had on hand and then copy the documents into a book.  The book, like the original charters, would be written on parchment.

Although to the modern eye the most sensible organization would be chronological, this was actually the least common way to organize medieval cartularies.  Rather, the scribes organized topically.  Often (although not always) he would begin with grants of privilege or immunity from popes, kings, and bishops.  After that the material was most commonly arranged geographically, so that a charter from the emperor Charles the Bald (ninth century) confirming a monastery's possessions in a particular area would be found next to a very recent one donating a piece of a field.  Every scribe organized the material slightly differently; there was no universal standard.

By far the majority of charters dating from before the twelfth century are now found only in cartularies, not as originals.  Thus we would know substantially less about the early Middle Ages if it were not for these volumes.

Once a charter was copied, the original loose piece of parchment became much less important, which could lead to loss.  Sometimes the original was on papyrus, disintegrating badly by the time it was copied.  Where comparisons can be made, it is clear that most cartulary scribes were very conscientious, carefully copying what was before them.  The first few dozen folios of a cartulary are always done very carefully and fully.  At a certain point, however, enthusiasm might begin to flag, and the scribe would begin to abbreviate.  But out-and-out forgery was extremely rare (unless, of course, the document the scribe was conscientiously copying was itself a forgery).

So why do medievalists like cartularies so much?  It is because here is a record of important transactions at the monastery, revealing much about secular society as well as the religious house--most charters record the interaction of laymen and churchmen--and also revealing what the monks wanted to have remembered, and how.  Social historians and historians of religion all use cartularies extensively.

For example, a charter reveals much about family structure if the donor lists all his relatives for whom he wants the monks to pray.  It suggests power relationships if the donor's lord is expected to come and agree to a gift.  Sales of property to the monks, land leased or exchanged, all suggest the complexities of the medieval economy.

And in reading through an actual twelfth-century cartulary, the modern medievalist can better understand the scribe eight or nine centuries in the past, whose handwriting becomes sloppy at the end of the day, who discovers he hasn't left enough room and has to squeeze the last few words in, who draws a finger in the margin pointing at an especially important transaction.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Medieval beds

Everybody likes a nice, cozy bed, and people in the Middle Ages were no different.  As I noted in a previous post on medieval night, since most people then went to bed and got up with the sun, one would spend an awful lot of time in bed in the winter.  (For one thing, it was warm.)

So what kind of beds did they have?  Not innersprings and memory foam, of course.  The simplest bed was a pile of straw, not very comfortable because it was prickly, but one could throw a sheet or blanket over it.  Anyone who could afford it had a real bed.

A bed started with a bed frame, as it does now and indeed has since classical antiquity.  One would string ropes back and forth for the "springs" (as we would now call it).  This was standard through the nineteenth century.  On top goes the mattress.  This would be a linen bag stuffed with straw (worst), or grass (better), or bedstraw (a herbaceous plant widely gathered for stuffing beds in Europe, hence the name), or wool (pretty good), or feathers (best of all).  Bedstraw is illustrated below.

On top went pillows (smaller versions of the "mattress"), linen sheets if possible, wool blankets, and quilts.  In the stories, elegant nobles had silken coverlets.  Beds would normally have curtains to help hold the heat in and provide a modicum of privacy.  In some cultures beds would be in cupboards, for even more privacy and freedom from drafts.

In a medieval castle or manor house, the lord's bed was placed in the middle of the great hall.  Most of the rest of the castle's male inhabitants slept on pallets on the floor around the bed, which certainly emphasized solidarity and togetherness.  During the late Middle Ages, the lord's bed slowly retreated into a room of its own, then into a smaller room off the lord's private room.  By the seventeenth century, a powerful lord's bed was at the end of a long string of rooms.  A castle's few women (other than the lady of the castle, who shared the lord's bed) would always have had a private room.

As now, a bed was considered an appropriate place for sex--newly married couples were tucked in together, and a priest would bless the bed.  But people also slept together with nothing sexual involved. For one thing, someone else in the bed makes it much cozier, important in an era without furnaces.  Monks each had their own, individual bed, to assure nothing naughty could happen, but adult men routinely slept next to each other without anyone assuming anything might be going on.

For one thing, sharing a bed was a sign of friendship.  Henry II of England was encouraged that peace might be achieved between France and England when he heard that his son, Richard the Lionheart, was sharing both a dinner plate and a bed with Philip II, the young king of France.  Henry's pleasure at the news was in no way diminished by thoughts of homosexuality, even though he had, very recently, enforced a whole lot of anti-gay laws.  He just assumed that nothing like that was involved, because twelfth-century men routinely slept next to their friends.  (Click here for more on medieval attitudes toward gays.)