Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Medieval hair

Any trip to the drug store will demonstrate that people today spend a lot of effort on their hair.  Shampoos, conditioners, straighteners, products that are supposed to add curl, products that are supposed to add body, fill the racks.

Medieval people too were concerned about their hair.  Both hair and beards were markers of status and position.  If one did not wear one's hair in the latest, most fashionable style, everyone noticed.

Beards were for old, venerable men.  The Song of Roland from around 1100, for example, depicts Charlemagne as having a long white beard.  Young men, however, rarely grew beards.  A knight would not have a beard, because it could get stuck in his chain mail.  Both younger and older men normally grew their hair to a little above shoulder length, although the Normans were reputed to shave the backs of their heads.  Curly hair was considered very attractive, and the unkind accused elegant men of using curling irons--and thus being feminized.

Indeed, if one looks at a medieval illustration, it may initially be difficult to tell the young men and young women apart, as both have rosy, beardless faces.  The real clue (aside from the fact that women's outfits were ankle length, rather than knee length) is that women's hair was typically covered in illustrations.

The Old Testament talks about women covering their hair, and medieval people took this seriously--as the modern Amish still do.  A well-bred matron would not go out in public without her wimple, sort of a hood that covered her hair as well as her neck (traditional nuns still wear them).  Unmarried girls, however, would show their hair, which was supposed to be golden and curly for true beauty (a sentiment with which modern movies seem to agree).  Often a maiden would wear a chaplet or wreath of flowers to set off her hair, which would be at least shoulder-length.

Entering religion, as a priest, monk, or nun, entailed a radical change in one's hair.  Nuns had all their hair cut off.  A runaway nun would thus be very easy to identify.  A monk would receive a tonsure, where the crown of his head was shaved, leaving only a circle of hair.


The image here is a rather fanciful portrait of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and shows his tonsure.  Again, a runaway monk would be easy to spot.  The style is reminiscent of male pattern baldness, which it may have been intended to suggest, and required that the monks have the tops of their heads shaved weekly.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The holy greyhound

In an earlier post I noted that the well-educated in the Middle Ages were usually the most intensely religious.  Ordinary people would also consider themselves good Christians, but they would not get hung up on fine points of theology.

From the twelfth century on, the elite and ordinary people probably differed most markedly on how to decide if someone was a saint.  This was the period in which, for the organized church, becoming a saint was a regular process, requiring well-documented post-mortem miracles.  But an awful lot of people still figured that they knew a saint when they saw one.



This can be seen most clearly with the holy greyhound, Saint Guinefort.  The story was that some parents had left their baby in its cradle while running errands, leaving the faithful dog (Guinefort) to guard it.  (Sounds like the beginning of a good urban legend, doesn't it.)  Coming back a few hours later, they found the cradle empty and the dog's mouth all bloody.  Horrified, they immediately chopped off the dog's head.  Only then did they notice the body of the dead wolf/snake/boar (choose one), killed by the faithful dog, or find the perfectly intact baby in the corner, where it had been thrown during the fight between Guinefort and the terrible monster.  Sorrowfully, the parents buried the brave dog.

From then on, Guinefort became a healer of children in his region.  Parents would bring sick babies to his tomb, hoping for a miracle.  A further refinement was that Guinefort would restore changelings.  That is, many a parent decided that a colicky, whiny, failing to thrive, unloveable child was not their real baby.  They would bring it to Guinefort's tomb and go away for a short while.  When they returned, the saint would have persuaded the elves/fairies/demons to take back the ersatz child and restore the real baby.

This of course sounds very weird to us.  But it was all according to normal medieval views of saints, except for the detail of Guinefort being a greyhound instead of a person.  Little offerings were still being made at his tomb into the twentieth century.

It is worth noting that no one was declared a heretic for honoring Saint Guinefort.  The organized church had far better things to do than to worry about the religious experiences of peasants, as long as they more or less kept in line.  They did however try to persuade the followers of Guinefort that they were mistaken, that Guinefort was really a person, not a dog, since dogs did not have immortal souls.  This had no effect whatsoever.  (See more here on dogs in the Middle Ages.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Epics and romance

As I have discussed elsewhere in the context of chivalry, how medieval knights and nobles would have liked to imagine themselves was presented in their own time in epics and romances.

These forms of literature began in the late eleventh or twelfth century (epics slightly earlier),  and were equivalent in some ways to what we now think of as fantasy:  larger than life characters having great adventures, with a serious admixture of the marvelous.  Then, this was literature, not just a genre.



The distinction between the two forms of literature (epic and romance) is really a modern one, because the categories were not entirely separate.  As a group, epics focused much more on battles and glorious deeds.  Wars, fights to the death, loyalty, and bravery in the face of overwhelming odds featured heavily.  The "Song of Roland" is probably the best known epic today, but there were plenty of others.

The "William of Orange" epics were very popular, based, as was "Roland," on some real figures of the ninth century who had been turned into legend--and who were depicted with twelfth-century armor and weapons and living in twelfth-century castles.  Although epics tended to be male-centered, in most of the "William of Orange"stories women played a major role, often being the only ones in sight with their heads on straight.

Romances, on the other hand, always featured women.  Although we now think of a romance as a love story, where the couple ends up happily ever after, a medieval romance was a story that did not focus almost exclusively on fighting.  (The modern French word roman, meaning novel, comes from "romance.")  The best known of these are the Arthurian romances of Chr├ętien de Troyes.  He essentially invented what we think of as King Arthur, including the love triangle with Lancelot, the quest of the Holy Grail, and the like.

As well as glorifying knights and nobles, epics and romances also critiqued them.  In "Roland," the hero (Roland) is undoubtedly brave and true, but his excessive pride loses the king half his army.  In "William of Orange," William would have been destroyed multiple times if not for women coming in to save the day.  Chr├ętien de Troyes condemned adultery even while introducing Lancelot's adulterous affair with Guinevere.  And in the "Romance of the Rose" the lovers enjoying themselves with fornication are clearly going to hell.

Medieval authors were subtle.  On the one hand, their stories were exciting and fun to read or hear.  On the other hand, the authors worked in all sorts of criticism of the aristocracy, if anyone was paying attention.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Romans and Anglo-Saxons

Britain was a part of the Roman Empire from the first century BC on.  Not only was the native Celtic population conquered by the Roman legions, but the conquerors settled down and established Roman culture.  Cities were quickly established with forum and amphitheater and temples and baths, like the Roman provincial capitals on the Continent.  Roman foods that had never been seen before in Britain were imported.

A lot of the imports were driven by the needs of the army.  Although Britain was a fairly small part of the Empire in terms of square mileage, it originally garrisoned a great many soldiers as a frontier territory, with unconquered people still there in Cornwall and Wales and wild Picts up in Scotland.  Hadrian's Wall (built under the emperor Hadrian) stretched across what is now northern England, designed to keep Picts out.

Wine and olive oil were imported for the armies--and adopted by the wealthy locals, who started adopting Roman ways.  Apples and pears, dill and coriander, chickens and pigeons, cabbages and daffodils were established and eaten in Britain for the first time.  (Yes, daffodils were eaten.)  The legions built straight, paved roads to travel on and worshipped warrior gods at Roman-style temples.



By the third century AD the wealthy of the original local population had thoroughly adopted Roman culture.  They built large, comfortable villas with mosaic tile floors and heated baths.  Even now, digging in much of England will turn up a lot of flat Roman bricks.  Even after the size of the stationed armies began to decline, as troops were needed off on the eastern frontier, and as imports dropped proportionately, the wealthy had local potteries produce tableware that looked a lot like what had once come in from the Continent.  These Romanized Celts, however, turned back to beer and butter once wine and olive oil stopped arriving on Roman ships.

The fourth century saw two major changes.  First, the Empire became Christianized, starting in the time of the emperor Constantine.  Roman Britain also became Christian, and the old pagan religions, a mix of local deities and imported Roman gods, moved to the margins.  By the middle of the fourth century Britain was so thoroughly Christianized that it even developed its own Christian heresy, Pelagianism, which essentially denied original sin and said that humans could avoid sin and create their own salvation without receiving (undeserved) grace.

Secondly, in the later fourth century most of the remaining Roman legions pulled out, to go fight in Persia or along the Danube.  As they left, the Angles and Saxons showed up.  These were Germanic peoples from what is now northern Germany (Saxony), who came across the North Sea and conquered, destroying much of Roman culture.  If school textbooks still talk about the Roman Empire "falling" to Germanic peoples, it is because this actually did happen in Britain, even if not in most of the rest of the Empire, where the Germanic people tended to settle down and become Roman (as in Gaul/France and Spain).

Last-ditch fighting by the Romanized, Christianized population was led by a war-leader (dux) named Arcturus.  He even was temporarily successful, enough that he became the King Arthur of much later legend (on which see more here).  But shortly after 500 the Angles and Saxons triumphed.  England is named for the Angles.  At least some of the Christianized population fled to the margins, although others just accepted their new rulers.

For about a century Britain was cut off from the Continent.  This time is called the Dark Ages by the British, because so little is known about it.  But starting around  the year 600 missionaries from Rome and missionaries from Ireland and Scotland began seeking to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxon kings, who had divided the island into a number of small kingdoms.  The missionaries' efforts were helped by the fact that a lot of these kings had married Christian princesses from the Continent.

By 700, Anglo Saxon England had developed literacy (in both Latin and Anglo-Saxon), written law codes, and a sturdy Christianity.  Yet its culture remained quite distinct from that of the Continent, where Roman culture persisted much more strongly, until the Norman Conquest of 1066.