Saturday, September 24, 2016


Both men and women could enter the convent during the Middle Ages.  As I discussed in an earlier post on monasticism, male monasticism came first, and until the late Middle Ages there were more houses for monks than for nuns.

Yet there were also nunneries in the West from the sixth century onward.  During the early medieval period, one would sometimes find double monasteries, with a house for men and a house for women next to each other.  Such a double house would inevitably be ruled by a woman, an abbess, rather than a male abbot.

Because the medieval view of women was that they were equal to men in the eyes of God, it was considered appropriate for them too to enter the monastic life, even though rules for women were less harsh than those for men, in the assumption that women's weaker bodies could handle less rigor.  On the other hand, their physical weakness was also considered a sign of spiritual strength, because they had more to overcome.

Due to the relative shortage of nunneries for much of the Middle Ages, women might be forced to set themselves up in little cells, perhaps next to a monastery, if they wanted to devote themselves to the religious life.

Whereas the majority of monks throughout the Middle Ages had entered the cloister as boys and grew up as monks, probably the majority of nuns, until the late Middle Ages, were adult converts.  Certainly a young girl could go off and join the nuns, but they were outnumbered by women who had been widowed and decided that they had had enough of dealing with men.  As well as widows, the adult converts included women whose husbands had decided to become monks--at least theoretically, if one spouse entered the cloister, both were supposed to.  Such women, experienced in the affairs of the world and often having managed a castle, were considered appropriate choices as abbesses.

Nunneries, like monasteries, might run day schools, where girls from the region would go to get an education.  These pupils might decide in their teens that they would like to become nuns, but most used their education in the secular world.  By the late Middle Ages, cities would normally have at least one nunnery, providing both education and a home for religious women.

One of the challenges for a nunnery was dealing with laymen.  The abbess would do so, although many of the nuns would never see a male again after taking their vows.  Most nunneries would have men who could act as their representatives in secular affairs where a nun would be at a disadvantage.  Another big challenge was the liturgy.  Because women could not become priests, an abbess would have to have a priest under her direction to say Mass.  The nuns, however, could and did sing the psalms, just as did monks.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Capitalism in the Middle Ages

People often assume that capitalism began in the Renaissance and early modern (post medieval) period. Marx famously assumed an "age of feudalism" was replaced by an "age of capitalism," something he dated around the time of the French Revolution (1789).  But in fact capitalism was alive and well in the Middle Ages.

The basic capitalistic ideas of investing money in something now in the hopes of getting a nice return somewhat later, and of buying low and selling high, were certainly present in the Middle Ages.  (And medieval scholars have found it much easier to understand the Middle Ages if one leaves out the confusing and contradictory label "feudalism," as I have discussed before.)  Here are some examples.

A landlord in a good wine-growing region (like Burgundy) would make a capital investment to get a new vineyard started.  He would buy rootstock of wine grapes and all the tools, trellises, and the like that growing grapes required.  But since he had no interest in working the vines himself, he would go shares with a peasant who understood wine grapes.  The peasant contributed his labor to go with the landlord's capital investment.  In this system, called complant, the two would share the vineyard's profits once it was producing, in three to five years.  (See more here on medieval wine.)

Similarly, an Italian merchant undertaking a trading expedition to Constantinople might not have enough money to outfit his ship.  He would also need cash to cover expenses on the route, much less to buy the luxury goods to bring back.  So he would encourage fellow citizens to invest in his ship and its future contents.  If he did well, bringing back lots of goods on which he made a tidy profit, they would see a nice return.  If the ship sank or was lost, they got nothing.  Just like the modern stock market.

So why do people now assume there was no capitalism in the Middle Ages?  As far as I can tell, it's because they assume that people centuries ago must have been crude and stupid and not have money, none of which of course is true.  Humans seem inclined to buy and sell even in the most difficult situations.  As Primo Levi recalled in his memoir of the concentration camps, Survival in Auschwitz, there was a strong black market in the camp, even if the only currency available was bread.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The English Language

The British Isles has had a number of different languages spoken in it over the last two thousand years. In fact, it probably had more different languages than the rest of western Europe.  The only ones that come close are the Mediterranean ones that experienced a mix of Latin, Greek, and Arabic before settling on their modern language.

Originally the islands were Celtic speaking.  Descendants of these languages persist in Ireland and Wales, and to a very small extent in Scotland and Cornwall.  Starting in the first century BC, however, when Julius Caesar conquered Great Britain, the predominant language became Latin.  Britain under the Romans was Latin-speaking and Christian, reading the Bible in Latin rather than the original Greek (much less the Hebrew in which the Old Testament was written before it became, in Greek, part of the Christian Bible--see more here on the Bible in late antiquity).

And then the Angles and Saxons showed up (on whom see more here).  They spoke a version of German.  In what is now England, named for the Angles (but not in the territories on England's margins or in Ireland, the same areas where Celtic languages still linger), both Latin and Christianity essentially disappeared, along with Roman culture.

But these Germanic speaking people were Christianized in the seventh century and by the eighth century were producing excellent scholars, very learned in Latin.  Because for them Latin was a learned language, not an everyday spoken language, they were very careful about things like declensions and case endings and verb forms.  Ironically, on the Continent, where Latin was still a spoken language, a lot of people thought they were speaking good Latin when, from a modern perspective, it was rapidly becoming Old French or Old Italian or Old Spanish.  When Charlemagne's royal court took on some Anglo-Saxon scholars, they were quick to point out the difference between real Latin and what people were speaking.

Anglo-Saxon continued as its own valid language, getting a good written collection of books, including translations of the Bible into Anglo-Saxon, writing down of ancient laws, and the like.  But everything changed abruptly with the Norman Conquest of 1066.

The Normans arrived speaking Old French, so Anglo-Saxon immediately became not a learned language but rather the language of conquered peasants.  For the next two centuries Norman French and Anglo-Saxon German existed side-by-side.  The same thing might be called two different things depending on who was talking about it.  A cow (a Germanic word, related to "cattle"), the creature being raised by a peasant, became beef, a French word, once it reached the lord's table.  (In modern French, boeuf still means both the animal and the meat.)

In the fourteenth century the two languages ended up merging, creating Middle English, the ancestor of modern English.  There were a number of different Middle English dialects, but Chaucer, for example, can still be read by modern readers if there are notes on some of the words.  Modern English, which has roughly as many words as modern French and German combined, came into its own in the so-called "Elizabethan age" on either side of the year 1600.  This is the age of Shakespeare, who can now be read more easily than Chaucer, and of the King James Bible, sponsored by Elizabeth's successor, King James.

The King James Bible is still the most frequently used Bible in English.  It was translated directly from the Hebrew (Old Testament) and the Greek (New Testament), without reference to the Latin (Vulgate) version that had been the standard in the Middle Ages.  (Contrary to popular belief, the Bible was not written in English.)  Once this language became the standard for religious service, the language stopped changing nearly as fast as it had earlier.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Medieval holidays

Since it's Labor Day weekend, I thought I should blog about medieval holidays.  (Hint:  there was no Labor Day in the Middle Ages.)

Medieval holidays were religious holidays--or at least religion was the excuse for a holiday.  Since every day of the year had been, at least since the seventh century, associated with one saint or another, every day was a saint's day.  If that saint was worthy of special commemoration, then there was a holiday (literally "holy day") in his or her honor.  The date for a saint's feast day would be associated with a special event, generally their death, less commonly birth or the date of translation of their relics from an old tomb to a new one.

Different localities would commemorate different local saints.  A founding bishop would, for example, generally be commemorated in a cathedral town, especially if he had been martyred for his faith.  Some saints, like Bercharius of Montier-en-Der, were scarcely known outside of their locales, but they were highly honored there.  The saint's annual feast day was quite literally that, a day of feasting and festivity.

Then there were the universal saints.  Saint Stephen protomartyr, the first Christian martyr, who is in fact recorded in the New Testament, had his feast day on December 26, for those who hadn't gotten enough celebrating on Christmas.  The Feast of the Wise Men comes along twelve days after Christmas, as a last chance opportunity.  The Assumption of the Virgin is still a big holiday in France today.  Easter was the biggest of all.

In practice, there were probably four or five holidays a month worth having a special celebration.  Work stopped on these days except for the most necessary chores (feeding the animals, milking cows).  Since peasants were not expected to be answering email on holidays (just for example), they really did get a break from work.

Sunday was also supposed to be a day of rest.  Medieval people did not treat this commandment quite as seriously as did the later Puritans, especially since a lot of people a lot of the time had no idea what day of the week it was.  But a Sunday and/or a feast day gave a break in the work and also provided an opportunity for reflection and planning, which is as important in farming as in any other business.  The Puritan idea of being very strict and proper on Sunday would have made no sense in the Middle Ages, where feast days were for fun.  After all, Christianity is supposed to bring good news.

Humans have probably always had festivals to mark special transitional periods.  In the Middle Ages, these were absorbed into Christian festivals:  Easter for spring, Christmas for darkest day of the year, and so on.  For more on Christmas in the Middle Ages, click here for my essay on Amazon.

Click here for more on the Feast of the Wise Men and here for more on medieval saints.