Friday, July 31, 2020

Corn

They did not have corn in medieval Europe.

Wait! say my British readers (or those who have been reading books by British medievalists).  There are all these references to "corn"!  Yes, but they are using the word "corn" in its broad sense of "grain."  They certainly had grain (wheat, barley, rye primarily) in the Middle Ages.  But there was no maize, corn in the American sense, Zea mays to be scientific.

I thought I would blog about corn because it's an excellent example of how our diet and the diet of medieval people differed.  (They didn't have potatoes or tomatoes either, as I have previously discussed.)  Corn is a New World plant.

Both North American and South American indigenous peoples cultivated maize.  It is descended from a wild grass-like plant, teosinte, with which only a few mutations on key genes produced cobs rather than just little tufts of seeds, and didn't have the seeds scatter spontaneously when ripe.  It has been cultivated in Mexico for at least 9000 years, perhaps eaten originally as popcorn (though without "butter flavor" or movies).  It was well established throughout the Americas when Europeans first arrived.  For the Iroquois, it was one of the "three sisters," along with beans and squash, vegetables that they grew to supplement the wild animals they hunted.

In the Andes, almost as many varieties of corn were developed as varieties of potatoes.  They still have many not found in the US, such as purple corn or the very large-kerneled so-called Inca corn.  The picture below is from a produce market in the Andes.


Corn is now pervasive in the American diet.  You may start the day with corn flakes.  If you eat store cookies or drink soft drinks, look at the label--the chances are excellent that you will see corn syrup used as a sweetener.  (Medieval people didn't even have sugar for the most part, much less corn syrup.)  Puddings, sauces, and pie fillings are thickened with corn starch.  Corn tortillas of course are made of corn, and indeed tortillas were a part of the diet of Mexico and the American southwest long before the Spaniards arrived.  Corn, both the ears themselves and the stalks, are chopped and fed to cattle.  Most of our beef cattle are fed a heavily corn-based diet to fatten them up.  Corn is also used to make ethanol, which is added to most gasoline.  Right now fresh corn on the cob is just starting to appear in farmers' markets in the northern part of the US, but this is a tiny fraction of where corn ends up.

In the world overall, more corn is harvested by weight than any other grain.  It grows fast and can be cultivated in a variety of settings if one chooses the right variety, mountains, plains, northern climes, tropical climes....  Some people now may want to reduce the amount of corn in their diet, but it's hard.

When the Spaniards reached the New World they started eating corn (unlike tomatoes, which they initially considered poisonous).  However, they had serious doubts about corn flour as a substitute for wheat flour.  Priests said only wheat flour could transubstantiate in the mass, meaning you couldn't use tortilla chips for the wafer, and the army leaders feared eating corn would weaken them somehow, making them more like the natives.  Of course this issue was complicated by the fact that wheat is not native to the New World.

So as you munch your cornflakes, popcorn, store cookies, pudding, cola, and nacho chips, remember that medieval people would have had no idea what you were eating.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020
For more on medieval food, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.



Sunday, July 26, 2020

Little lost monasteries

As I have discussed earlier, there were a large number of monasteries in the Middle Ages, houses where men (or women, though not both together) lived like a family, sharing their possessions, following a simple life cut off from the outside world (like in pandemic quarantine!), devoting all their attention to prayer and contemplation (not to Netflix binging).

Historians today tend to focus on the famous ones, like Cluny, whose church was the biggest in Europe, or Cîteaux, head of an order of austere "white monks" (so-called because unlike most monks they did not dye black the wool for their habits), or Fontevraud, where English kings and queens were buried.

But there were a whole lot of other monasteries, smaller for the most part, "lost" to historians today because most of their documents were lost, by the French Revolution if not indeed during one of the upheavals (or fires) of the preceding centuries.  Even their buildings have in many cases fallen into ruin, been deliberately destroyed, or sold.  During the Great Depression, some churches sold their buildings to American collectors.  The "Cloisters" in New York City, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, came from St.-Michel of Cuxa, in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Less well known are the remains of the monastery of St.-Laurent, in the Puisaye region of Burgundy.  But the large Romanesque portal of the church is now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where probably most people who see and admire the portal have never heard of the monastery.  The portal is shown below.



Portail de l'abbaye, musée des beaux-arts de Philadelphie (États-Unis). 

The majority of the monasteries about which little is known today seem to have had their origins in the Merovingian period, from the late sixth through the early eighth centuries.  Multiple small houses were founded then, many in cities.  Wealthy laypeople founded such houses and endowed them with property, and saints retreated to hermitages that became monasteries as the saints gained followers.  The monastery of St.-Laurent may have been one of them, if it can be identified with "Saint Wulfin's monastery" mentioned in the sixth century.

 But St.-Laurent (or St.-Wulfin) then disappears from the records, as do most other Merovingian-era foundations.  The following centuries were difficult ones for religious houses, between rapacious laymen appropriating monasteries as their own—the Carolingians, the family of Charlemagne, were noted for such appropriations, and many great dukes and counts followed suit—plus attacks by Saracens, Vikings, and Magyars.  Not until the eleventh century did these old little monasteries start to be reestablished.  New, rural monasteries, such as Cluny and Vézelay, were founded in the late ninth and tenth centuries, and during the eleventh and early twelfth centuries there was a concerted effort to reestablish the ruined Merovingian-era houses.

Most became houses of canons regular.  Such canons lived essentially like monks (sharing possessions, living simply in chastity and obedience) but they did interact with the outside world, saying mass for laypeople, baptizing and burying.  Because they were paid for such services, they could subsist on less property than could cloistered monks.  Old ruined monasteries in cities mostly became houses of canons regular.

So did St.-Laurent.  It was located on one of the major pilgrimage routes to Compostella, and it gained a good deal of attention and pious gifts, which was why it built so large a church, to serve both the canons and the pilgrims.  Never affiliated with any of the better-known monastic orders, it still commanded respect and admiration in its time, and it supervised the priests (and received the revenues) of a number of parish churches.  But like many other smaller medieval monasteries, it has few or no surviving records and is now essentially forgotten, except perhaps by the local historian of the village where the monastery once was established (St.-Laurent-l'Abbaye).

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on monasticism and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.






Sunday, July 19, 2020

Summer in the Middle Ages

We think of summer as long, lazy days, time to relax and have fun.  That's because we're not farmers.  (And in fact the reason there's summer vacation from school is because, through the early twentieth century, it was assumed that kids would be needed in the summer to work on the farm.)

Medieval people did not think of summer as a time to relax.  It was time to get things done.  Since probably 90% of the population was engaged in agriculture, this was the time to plow and plant and weed and chase away critters and harvest.  It was assumed that during, for example, harvest time (winter wheat, planted at the end of autumn, would be harvested in July) everyone would set to work as soon as it was light enough to see and continue working until it was too dark to see.  This is why initially eighteenth-century factories believed in the 18 hour work day ("They work that long in the fields, they can work that long on the factory floor").

Below is a picture of a plowed field.  Even with a tractor, it's going to take you a while to work it.



Travel was far, far easier in the summer, in spite of the heat and muddy roads, than it was during the winter, when one was battling cold and snow and ice (and short days).  So the kings and great lords who traveled around to different parts of their realms did so primarily in the summer.  So did popes--and for the popes, getting out of Rome, which was then prone to malaria, made excellent sense in the summer.

Wars were also fought primarily in the summer.  This had always been true--the Bible talks about "May, when kings go to war."  An army needs forage for the horses and mules, which means waiting until the grass is growing, and it also prefers that the people they are going to raid have enough food on hand to make raiding worthwhile.

Even though winter was the time for story telling--there were a lot of long cold dark hours to fill--the stories were almost always set in the summer.  King Arthur stories typically started with the king at his mid-summer feast, hoping that something marvelous would show up.

Because the most common fabric for clothing was wool, one could get very warm in the summer without the lightweight cottons we take for granted (cotton only reached western Europe in the twelfth century and was expensive--the alternative was linen, also expensive).  Men could wear short sleeved tunics that were about knee length, and nothing underneath, but women were expected to wear long skirts, not shorts or mini-skirts.  They did tuck their skirts up when working in the field, but they were still more heavily dressed than the men.

Without electricity, no one before the late nineteenth century could have any kind of fan (other than one a human waved), much less air conditioning.  Northern Europe was still cool enough for most of the summer that it wouldn't become unbearable, but around the Mediterranean things definitely got toasty.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval life, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.