Monday, February 29, 2016

Medieval poverty

By modern standards, everyone was dirt poor in the Middle Ages.  Even the wealthiest lacked the "things" that everyone but the truly homeless now take for granted:  electricity, indoor plumbing, central heating and air conditioning, telephones, washing machines, automobiles.  There were no TVs or movies, no radios or CD players, no subways or buses, no supermarkets.

Nonetheless, there were always gradations of wealth, with some people considered very rich.  Their wealth was based more on the power to command than on their bank accounts, but those considered rich did have much nicer clothing (and more outfits), better houses and furniture, and on average better food than those considered poor.  Everyone, as is the case now, would have liked to be rich.

During the early Middle Ages especially, wealth was rare.  During this time holiness and wealth were often equated.  God was referred to as the King of Kings, and He was worshipped in churches that might, by later standards, be cramped and dark, but on the inside there was plenty of precious metal on the vessels and silken hangings on the walls.  Bishops lived like princes, which was considered entirely appropriate.

It was clearly understood by everyone that helping the poor was a good Christian duty.  There were however so many poor people that those with wealth essentially gave up.  When most of the population was trying to scratch out a subsistence living, it was hard to know where to start.

But with the economic upturn of the twelfth century, it actually became possible to climb out of poverty.  Merchants could make enough money to rival the nobility in their possessions and lifestyle.  Some peasants became wealthy enough to hire other peasants to do their farm chores for them.  Young men tired of trying to farm unsuitable ground could move to the rapidly growing cities to "make their fortunes" (or at least get a little ahead).

At this time, holiness became defined not with wealth but with poverty, in particular voluntary poverty. Monks had always lived more simply than bishops, but now the new monastic orders sought to give up all personal possessions and live austere lives:  vegetarian diets, undecorated churches, hard manual labor.  The King of Kings became instead the itinerant preacher of the New Testament, begging for a living.  The new monastic orders liked to point out that they were much humbler and poorer than bishops or older monasteries, and hence holier, even though (as they recognized themselves) it was hard to avoid being proud of how humble they were.

Older monastic orders, although not adopting poverty quite so radically, still sought to assure that their monks had only collective property, not individual property.  All of them continued gifts to the poor.  For example, any food left after the monks had eaten was distributed to beggars.  Some monasteries had a group of official poor people living outside the gates, to whom such alms were given and whose feet would be washed on Maundy Thursday.

Today no one voluntarily chooses to be poor (though you might think so, based on the punitive nature of some supposedly anti-poverty programs).  But voluntary poverty was greatly admired in the High Middle Ages (see more here).  The most extreme example was the thirteenth-century Saint Francis (whose name the current pope took), who urged his followers to live by wandering and begging, not even keeping an apple overnight to eat the next day--eat it if you're hungry, but otherwise give it away.  The Franciscan order, unable to maintain this rigor after his death, ended up living essentially like austere monks.

Poverty as a real threat, not just something to be avoided--or chosen--came back in the fourteenth century.  Europe was becoming over-populated, at the same time as the climate was worsening.  Famines broke out on a scale not seen for several centuries, and desperate bands of hungry people might roam the countryside, looking for food.

It was at this time that the distinction between "deserving" and "undeserving" poor was first made.  Now donors wanted to know if the poor they were asked to help really deserved it, were honest, hard-working people who had suffered disasters, or if they were shiftless bums (and probably drunks) who got what was coming to them.  This is a distinction the modern world still makes.

The fourteenth century was also the time of the Black Death and the outbreak of the Hundred Years War.  It was also the beginning of the Renaissance.  A bad time all around.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Winter Wonderland

To the modern person in the West, winter is both a difficult time and a delight.  Snow can be beautiful as it coats the trees.

(This is actually a color picture, although you might not know it.)

Snuggling inside where it's warm, or engaging in vigorous outdoor activities like skiing, sledding, skating, or building a snowman are happy events.  But they are happy because we have a warm place to go (plus hot chocolate).  We would think of them differently if inside were as cold as outside.

Medieval people certainly saw the beauty in snow-bedecked branches and appreciated being inside where it was warm, but when open fires and animal heat were the only sources of heat (as discussed more here), it was hard to keep the temperature up.

But they had advantages we do not have.  In the modern world, you are expected to get to work, almost certainly by driving.  A snowstorm has to be pretty severe to shut everything down.  So drivers have to make their way along slippery roads, hoping they don't end up in a pileup or in a ditch, assuming they don't just get mired in a drift.  Snowplow drivers have to keep plowing and salting to try to keep businesses open and cars moving.  (Thought to ponder:  How do the snowplow drivers get to work, given that no one will have plowed?)

Medieval people would have traveled by foot or horseback in snowy weather, or, more sensibly, just stayed home.  In Scandinavia, people would ski to get places (cross-country, not downhill).  For much of the population, winter was a time when there was little work to do, other than taking care of the animals, so it actually was possible to stay in bed when modern people would be out scraping ice off their cars and hoping they had enough tire tread.

A real concern for people in the Middle Ages was that the food not run out.  In the modern world fresh vegetables and meat are available year round.  In the medieval world, even for the aristocracy, there was always a question whether the grain for flour (for bread) would last until the next harvest.  Dried beans or lentils, onions, and the occasional piece of sausage might lose their appeal but they were better than not eating.  One could always look forward to the first dandelion greens.

Modern "snowbirds" who go south to avoid winter weather miss the beauty of snow.  Many medieval people would have liked to join them.

A final thought.  In the won "Winter Wonderland," there's a line, "Later on, we'll conspire, as we dream by the fire."  Would perspire make more sense?

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Medieval bathing

In the West in the twenty-first century, we take bathing for granted.  You step into the shower, turn a knob, and hot water appears.  There's an apparently unlimited amount, and it's all drinkable, so if you get thirsty during the shower you just open your mouth.  (It is hot, not a tall cool drink.)

We have no idea how lucky we are.  Until extremely recently, bathing was complicated and time-consuming.  Medieval people, like modern people, preferred to be clean and fresh-smelling, but it was a much bigger challenge to get there.  One will sometimes hear that "medieval people did not bathe," but this is simply not true.  (It's marginally true for the late Middle Ages, see below.)

Think about the effort of bringing water from the fountain or well and heating it up over a wood fire--for which you would have had to lug the wood.  The water could have been used instead for drinking or making soup, and the wood could have been used instead for heating or cooking, but you just used it to warm up your bathwater.  A big tub of warm water would be shared by multiple bathers.  This is no different from the US before the early twentieth century; the Laura Ingalls Wilder books talk about the whole family sharing a tub, taking turns from oldest to youngest.

Medieval people had soap, made from fat and lye, which would indeed get you clean, but it would never be mistaken for a floral-scented "body wash."  In monasteries, the Rule the monks followed anticipated a bath Saturday evening, in preparation for Sunday, and for much of the population the weekly bath was the norm.  The aristocracy would bathe more frequently if they could.

Hot spring were prized.  There are hot springs at Aachen, Charlemagne's capital, producing enough hot water for what we would call a swimming pool.  Charlemagne loved to swim and encouraged others to join him in the bath.

The Romans, who had also liked being clean, had built baths across their empire, fed by springs, with fire pits underneath.  These baths continued to be used in the Middle Ages.  Indeed, most medieval towns had municipal baths, where for a few pennies townspeople could come and get clean, though they would be sharing their water with everybody else.

Medieval bath houses were also commercial centers, where you could meet people for business deals, and buy food or trinkets.  They also sometimes were connected to the municipal brothel in the late Middle Ages, which is why there is still a British slang term, "stews," meaning a house of ill-repute (click here for more on medieval brothels).

In the late Middle Ages, after the bath houses were closed out of (justifiable) fear that they would spread the Black Death, aristocrats prided themselves on not bathing.  A sponge bath and hand-washing were about the limit.  Queen Isabelle (of Ferdinand and Isabelle fame) said proudly that she'd had two baths in her life, when she was born and the day before she married Ferdinand, and that she expected to have a third when she had died and was being laid out.  But peasants, getting dirty and sweaty every day, kept right on bathing.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Medieval Taxes

As we get our W2s and 1099s in the mail and realize tax time is coming soon, we get all grumbly about modern taxation.  In fact, there have been taxes as long as there have been governments and civilization.

The Roman Empire taxed its provinces, and there was always a great upheaval every year as the provincial governors tried to collect enough money to send to Rome.  Early medieval monarchs continued Roman taxation as well as they could, but it tended to fade away by the eighth century.

In Anglo-Saxon England in the ninth century, King Alfred established the Dane geld, a fee of one penny per household, collected to pay off the Vikings.  The English had been fighting them and had eventually worked out a treaty, whereby the Vikings stayed in the "Dane law" area (essentially Yorkshire) and would receive an annual payment every year in return for no more raids.

The Dane geld continued even after the Vikings had settled down and intermarried with the English.  How much "geld" each village owed was duly noted in the Domesday Book, compiled by the Norman kings of England in the 1080s (ironically, these kings were descended from Vikings, but ones who had settled in France, not England).

England, being an island, was also able to establish import tariffs and the like.  But most twelfth-century taxation was centered on cities.  The cities that hosted the Champagne trade fairs collected sales tax on every transaction, money used to maintain security.

In the fifteenth century in Florence, the city needed money for security, for wars with other city-states, for judges and street paving and upkeep of the walls and everything else a municipality needs money for.  Someone local to each quarter of the city would figure out how every household was doing and, based on his best estimate, issue them an assessment.

But in the 1420s the Florentines decided to make this more rational and logical.  They spent a year doing a property assessment for every household in the city--how much furniture they had, how much in municipal bonds, how many spoons, and the like.  The resulting catasto is a goldmine for modern historians wanting to learn about life in Renaissance Florence.  Based on the catasto, every household was assessed a flat one-half of 1 percent property tax.

More than three-quarters of all resulting assessments ended up being renegotiated.  Many of course claimed (with varying degrees of plausibility) that, since the assessors had been around, they'd lost their shirt in an investment, broken a leg and been unable to work, had a fire, and so on, reasons why they couldn't be charged so much.  Perhaps surprisingly, many also wanted to pay more.  The city had decided that the poorest wouldn't have to pay anything, but the poorest insisted they could scrape up a few pennies at least, because if you didn't pay taxes, you couldn't participate in city government.  Florence gave up and went back to their old ad hoc system.

As we pay taxes, it's important to realize what we get in return.  If we paid no taxes, we'd have to fight our own wars, catch our own criminals, put out our own fires, teach our own children, pave our own roads, plow those roads ourselves, work out legal disagreements ourselves, determine ourselves if our food and water are safe, take care of the elderly and destitute ourselves, and rebuild unaided from natural disasters.  Some of this can in fact be done in very small communities, with everyone working together.  But as much as people hate paying taxes, they should realize that government is everybody working together.  We disagree a lot on what we need to work on.  That's why we're a democracy, so we can vote on what we want.

See more here on medieval taxes.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Medieval transportation

We take transportation for granted.  Need to pick up a few things at the store?  Jump in the car.  Want to get to Europe?  Get on a plane, and you'll be there in the morning.  Even in the nineteenth century, when you got on a train you could be as far away from where you started in an hour as you would be after a long day on a horse.

Transportation in the Middle Ages, however, required animal power, not machines.  For most people, the way they got from one place to another place was by walking.  Armies always had large foot soldier contingents, which meant they traveled no faster than someone could walk carrying a pack.  For the Hundred Years War, where we know in some detail about military movements, soldiers would hike 20 miles in a day plus fight a battle.  They were tough.

Once stirrups and saddles and horseshoes were developed, the well to do would ride.  You could cover a lot more distance on a horse than on foot in the same amount of time, so riders would also need pack horses to make sure their supplies arrived at the same time they did.  Riding is of course much more tiring than sitting in a car, so the aristocrats who rode across Europe (as they did) would also have had to be tough.

Draft horses, that is horses that would draw carts or plows, really only came in at the end of the Middle Ages and were too expensive for most.  So carts and wagons were pulled in most cases by the faithful ox.  A donkey or mule might also sometimes be used (the donkey if the wagon were light).  The faithful ox was very strong but also slow; in the nineteenth-century US, when covered wagons were usually pulled by oxen, the wagons would be happy to make 10 miles a day.

The wagons, used in the Middle Ages to take produce to market and the like, did not have the springs or brakes of modern wagons.  You probably would not want to ride in one for more than short distances.  Buggies and carriages, then unknown, would have seemed very luxurious to a medieval peasant.  On the other hand, unlike modern drivers who, with few exceptions, have no clue how their car actually works ("You turn the key and push these pedals!"), medieval peasants knew all about their wagons.

As all of this suggests, going more than five or ten miles from home was a major enterprise.  It is thus somewhat surprising how often and far some people traveled.  Even if one had a good horse, a big challenge was the roads.  Most roads were dirt, which meant very uneven and potentially very muddy.  There was nothing like a modern road map or modern road signs, much less GPS.  Routes did not have numbers.  You had to know where you were going.  There were handbooks that told one landmarks to watch for, but there was also heavy reliance on stopping and asking people.

The best medieval roads were the Roman roads, still in use, cutting straight across the landscape, paved in stone that might have heaved and buckled some over the centuries but was still a lot better than muddy tracks.  Some of these Roman roads even had occasional road signs, This way to Alesia.  These roads did not always go where medieval people wanted to go, however, because the population centers had shifted since late antiquity, and some previously important Roman towns were now tiny hamlets, if that.

One of the challenges for any road was getting across a river.  Building bridges, as I have previously discussed, was an important economic activity for medieval towns, to make sure people and goods could reach them easily.  A surprising number of these old bridges are still in use.

The easiest way to transport heavy goods was by water.  Wine, for example, would be floated downstream, the barrels loaded on a barge.  Water transportation was slow, but it required far less energy, because the river provided much of the momentum, and a boat will hold a much heavier load than you could put in a cart that you were going to try to drag down a muddy road.