Friday, May 19, 2017

Religion as comfort?

These days most people who follow a religion find it comforting.  They take it as reassurance that, as bad as things may be here, a better world awaits.  It also tells them that the universe is not just a series of random events but has an overall plan, or at least direction, even if we can't always recognize the plan.

These days most Christians assume they will go to heaven when they die.  Studies suggest that most don't even really believe in the devil or in hell.  A lot feel assured that they are saved.

While medieval and modern Christian theology are actually not radically different, the way the religion was perceived and the message it conveyed were very different.  Medieval religion was not comforting.  It was scary.



No one would have tried to comfort someone whose family member had just died by saying they had gone to a "better place."  Instead they would offer to arrange for prayers for the soul of the deceased, to see if they could possibly get them out of purgatory, if not indeed hell.  The liturgy for the dead wasn't sweet songs about passing over to the "other side."  Instead it was the Dies Irae, a poem about the "day of wrath."  Judgment was coming, and everyone was in trouble.

No one would have assumed they were saved.  Instead they would have assumed they were damned.  This was, not surprisingly, very worrying.  Religion did not comfort.  Rather, it provided tools to use against the horrors that it also provided.  But everyone knew how weak these tools were.  Demons roamed the world, seeking the destruction of souls, and even the most holy person was never safe.

One had a better shot at salvation if one were a member of the organized church, as a priest, monk, or nun.  Medieval churches are still thick across Europe, many with very tiny congregations, if any.  But didn't they have a big medieval congregation? you ask.  No, not really.  The churches might minister to the locals, but for an awful lot of them, they primarily served the body of monks or nuns or canons who lived there and spent much of their day in liturgy and prayer. A much larger proportion of the population went into the church than is the case today.

Families who sent their sons (or to a lesser extent daughters) into the church weren't trying to get rid of excess mouths.  They were hoping to have an insider praying for them.  And a lot of people in the church had "converted" (as it was called) to the religious life by their own decision, often against parental wishes.

Protestants tend to think of Jesus as their savior.  Medieval Christians of course assumed that Christ dying on the cross gave them at least a shot at avoiding hell, but they held Him in too much awe to get "personal" about it.  Rather they turned to the saints, who might help them avoid hell, even though they all knew they deserved it.

Note that all these concerns were concerns of the well educated.  It was the uneducated peasant or urban worker who was likely to tell you they didn't believe in religion.  Marx in the nineteenth century called religion the "opiate of the masses," but he was definitely not talking about medieval religion.


Friday, May 12, 2017

Birds in the Middle Ages

We take birds for granted.  Some are domestic and get eaten (or their eggs are eaten).  Some are wild and are hunted for food.  Some are wild, and we give them something to eat in bird feeders.  We admire their flight and enjoy their songs.  It's not often that we treat them as partners.

Medieval Europe had the same birds as modern Europe (though not in the same proportions), but they had more hunting hawks, trained to be partners in hunts, just as a modern pointer or retriever (dog) can be a partner to their master in the hunt.  (Or not.  The Labrador retrievers I've known would either not figure out where the duck went or would carry it off for their own purposes.  Training is everything.)

Most farmyards had chickens, free range, that lived on spilled grain and insects.  Keeping down the insects was an important function, nearly as important as laying eggs  Eggs were an important source of protein in the medieval diet, and when a hen got too old to lay, she became dinner herself.  Geese and to a lesser extent ducks provided eggs and feathers (and dinner).  Geese also made excellent watchmen, raising a great honking if something untoward happened at night.


Medieval people also ate songbirds, ones we would consider too small to bother with (and you would not have caught a medieval peasant putting out their precious grain for the birds to eat).  The easiest way to catch them was to spread lime on a branch, so that when the bird landed on it, their feet would become stuck.  They did however appreciate songbirds for their songs as well as their bits of meat.  The nightingale especially appears in many a song and story, enchanting the lovers.  (The US doesn't have nightingales.  Our loss.  Nighthawks are not the same.)

Aristocrats, but not peasants, used hawks in hunting.  Training a hawk was a long and complicated process.  The thirteenth-century emperor Frederick II wrote a book on falconry that is still respected today (an image from it appears below).  The chief goal is to make the bird, from a very young age, think of the human as the source of food.  Every respectable castle or manor had a mews, where the hawks were trained and housed.  One could find baby birds and raise them oneself or buy them.  Trained falcons made good gifts.



In the mews, the hawk would be tied to its perch, usually hooded to keep it calm and in the dark.  Merchants might sew a hawk's eyes shut while transporting them.  Hawks have much better eyesight than humans and can adjust for closer or longer distance in a way that is the envy of everyone wearing bifocals.  But if they can't see, they tend to sit quietly, even if not happy about it.

Hawks had leather straps, called jesses, attached to their legs, which could be held (or grabbed).  Generally the jesses had a bell, to help one locate a hawk that had not come back when it was supposed to.  The way it was supposed to work was to ride out hunting with a hooded hawk sitting on one's wrist (the hand and wrist in a heavy leather glove because the talons are sharp).  Then one unhooded the hawk and freed the jesses to send it up after a bird one was trying to catch.  Theoretically the hawk caught the bird and brought it back, getting a treat as a reward.  There are enough descriptions of chasing the hawk by the sound of the bell, of whirling the lure that was supposed to attract it, and giving calls to which it had been trained, to indicate that coming back didn't always work out right.  This was part of the fun of the chase.

Birds caught with hawks became dinner.  Wild ducks were normally caught with hawks, not with archery (and of course double-barrel shotguns were centuries in the future).  Different hawks were used for different prey.  Sparrowhawks (kestrels) caught small birds, as the name implies, big goshawks could take a goose, and there were others in between.  Different kinds of hawks were considered more or less noble and thus more or less suitable for those different social station.  A good master of hawks was highly prized.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Chastity belts

The nineteenth century simultaneously discovered the Middle Ages, that "glorious age of chivalry," and decided that everything bad could be described as medieval.  If there wasn't enough bad stuff, they made some up.  Among these was the chastity belt.

The story, of course, was that when Crusaders left for the Holy Land they locked their wives into chastity belts to make sure that nothing untoward happened while they were gone.  The difficulty is that there isn't the slightest evidence of anything of the kind.

The only thing that could even vaguely be interpreted as supporting the existence of chastity belts (and probably where the nineteenth century got it) was the statement by some twelfth-century monastic leaders that knights should "put off the belt of war" [i.e. stop going to war with a sword strapped to their hip] and "put on" chastity and obedience as monks.  You notice they were urging men to live chaste, obedient lives as monks, not recommending a specific belt.  You also note they were addressing men, not Crusaders' wives.

The first actual thing that could be interpreted as a chastity belt was a fifteenth-century drawing of an iron contraption, in which a writer complained that Florentine women inserted themselves.  One wonders if in fact this writer was "getting no satisfaction" (to paraphrase the Rolling Stones).  You also note that this was long after the Crusades were over.

By the nineteenth century, people were claiming to have found chastity belts in women's graves.  One does of course wonder why a woman would be buried with such a thing.  After all, it was far too late to worry about keeping her chaste.  Some of these were put on display in museums but more recently quietly removed, because the contraptions appear to have been fakes, constructed in the nineteenth century.

Let's think about the image of chastity belts for a moment.  The idea is some sort of plate that went between women's legs, to keep them safe from adulterous activities.  For starters, it would be extremely uncomfortable.  And of course the woman would have to remove it to use the garderobe, or to clean herself up every month.  Otherwise, it would have been filthy in no time.  If a woman could remove it any time she needed, what was to keep her from removing it when a handsome young squire caught her eye?

The real question is what made people dream up chastity belts in the first place, or why they still have a hold on the imagination.  The Victorian era was fascinated with sex, which was supposed to be secret and forbidden and therefore twice as exciting as if it were out in the open.  A chastity belt allowed people simultaneously to talk about "sex is bad" (and the romanticized Middle Ages supposedly knew this!) and to get all intrigued by things between women's legs.

It always makes people feel better to think that earlier people did weird things.  It makes the weird things we do today seem almost normal.