Monday, August 24, 2020


Now there's a curious word.  Like Egypt, it looks like it has too many descenders (letters with tails that hang below the line).  But it's a perfectly good word.  Polyptyque means a survey of people and property on a manor.

Polyptyques were an invention of the ninth century, and although a few were created in later centuries, the ninth century was their golden era.  They appear to have begun with Charlemagne ordering inventories of property and payments both on his own lands and on the lands of the great monasteries of his realm.

That's an image of Charlemagne on one of his coins.  You'll note that he is portrayed like a Roman emperor.

Anyway, there is some thought that Charlemagne considered all the Frankish monasteries his property, which is why he wanted to know what was on their manors.  The royal polyptyques do not survive, but there are still maybe a dozen monastic ones, plus fragments of others.  They are a major source of information on the rural economy of the period.

For each manor (and a monastery would typically own dozens of manors), the polyptyque would list how much revenue was expected.  Often the names of the tenants would be given, but a polyptyque was not intended to be a a census of people, so one cannot determine total population of a manor.  The legal status of the tenants might be specified, using such terms as hospes, colonus, mancipius, or ingenuus.  Although those composing the polyptyques clearly knew what was meant by these terms, scholars today have had serious debates over their meaning, and the twelfth-century successors of those who composed them seem to have had even less idea.

The tenants were sometimes although not always listed by name.  The overwhelming majority of these names are male, which led a few decades ago to a scholar who should have known better claiming this showed that ninth-century peasant families killed baby girls.  Now one would have thought that something as serious as infanticide would be mentioned in other sources if it was indeed practiced—it isn't.  Even more basically, the lists of tenants just gave the name of the head of the household, not of spouse and children, and, as in the US through the twentieth century, the man was considered the natural head of household.  Thus there is no reason to use the polyptyques to argue for female infanticide.

Most polyptyques do not survive on their original ninth-century parchment, but only as copied into cartularies in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  Here's a picture of a cartulary, a collection of documents all carefully copied into a single book.

Enough had changed in the rural economy and manorial organization between the ninth century and the twelfth or thirteenth centuries that the cartulary scribes often had trouble figuring out what the polyptyques meant.  Sometimes property enumerated in them had been lost to the monastery for generations.  The ninth-century handwriting was clear enough three centuries later, but the vocabulary had changed.  Yet clearly these lists of manors and dues were an important part of a monastery's history.  The scribes abbreviated heavily and hoped for the best.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on monks, kings, and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other major ebook platforms.  Also available in paperback!

Sunday, August 16, 2020


Today I want to talk about Suger, one of the most important political and ecclesiastical figures of twelfth-century France (c. 1081-1151).  And no, his name is not Sugar, it's Suger, pronounced soo-zhay.  Here's an image of him from a stained glass window.

Suger is best known now as a counselor and biographer of King Louis VI (1108-1137) and as abbot of the monastery of St.-Denis.  He was a lifelong friend of the king, because back when Prince Louis was attending school in Paris, young Suger was also.  Schools were run by churches, and although the majority of the young men attending expected to have a career in the church, lay people might also attend as day students, as did Louis.

Suger became a monk at the abbey of St.-Denis, located not far outside of Paris.  (You can get there on the metro.  Be sure to get off at the "basilica" St.-Denis stop, not the "stadium" St.-Denis stop.  France's biggest soccer/football stadium is right down the road from the old abbey.)  This was considered a royal monastery, and many kings and queens of France were buried there, going back to the Merovingians.

It was dedicated to Saint Dennis, the supposed first bishop of Paris way back around the second century, who had been beheaded by the Romans for refusing to worship the pagan gods.  He was martyred on Montmartre ("mountain of the martyr") but then, to everyone's surprise, he picked up his head and started walking.  He'd gotten out to the suburbs before collapsing.  The abbey was built over his remains.  (One doubts he had gone out to catch one last football game.)

When the old abbot of St.-Denis died, Suger was elected abbot in 1122, presumably with some friendly hints from the crown.  Although the monastery was never known for its austerity, unlike the new monastic orders such as the Cistercians, it was free from scandal, and the monks prayed and were serious, even if well-fed.

Suger's major accomplishment as abbot was to rebuild his abbey's church.  He described the process proudly, including his miraculous discovery of enough old-growth oaks for the roof beams, when everyone told him there were no big trees left in the region.  (Notre-Dame, built a generation later, had to get their roof beams--burned in 2019--from all over and float them down to Paris.)  St.-Denis is considered the first Gothic church, marked by tall, thin walls and pointed (rather than rounded) arches.  It was dedicated in the presence of the king in 1144.    (Suger actually just rebuilt the western facade, seen below, and the choir at the opposite end, leaving the eighth-century nave in place, to finally be rebuilt a century later.)  His abbey church looks rather sad today, but it went through a lot in the French Revolution (including having all the kings and queens buried there dug up and tossed out).

After the death of Louis VI, Suger wrote an admiring biography of his old friend, usually translated today as "Deeds of Louis the Fat."  Well, it's not quite fair to think of Louis only in terms of his weight, because he was indeed a very effective and beloved king.  His father, Philip I, had toward the end of his life been said to be too fat to ride a horse, which is something.  Philip had also repudiated Queen Bertha, Louis's mother, because he said she was "too fat."  Hormones.  Louis didn't stand a chance.

When Louis VII (king 1137-1180), son of Louis VI, decided to go off on Crusade in 1147, Suger became regent of France.  At this time usually wives acted as regents for absent husbands, but Louis VII's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, accompanied him to the Holy Land.  But that's another story.

When Suger died, he had started a biography of Louis VII, obviously not completed as the king outlived him by almost thirty years.  But Suger's name was permanently associated with the French kings.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on monks, kings, and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other major ebook platforms.  Also available in paperback!

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Christ Stopped at Eboli

Lately I've been working on a book about medieval peasants.  So I've been looking at medieval documents in which peasants appear (there are a lot more such documents than has generally been assumed) and also at scholars' attitudes toward peasants.  If one assumes (as has too often been done) that peasants were silent, marginal, and passive and thus did not appear in the documents, then of course one will not look for them.  (As you probably guessed, I argue instead for active peasants.)

There has also been an assumption that peasant life was unchanging, that it has been the same for thousands of years.  I have also been reading Carlo Levi's classic book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, which makes this assumption.

Levi was an interesting person, a doctor and painter who got on the wrong side of the Fascists under Mussolini.  In 1935 he was sent into political exile from his native Torino to a little village way down in the foot part of the "boot" of the Italian peninsula, and he spent a year there, among those he called "my peasants."

He was pardoned after a year and hurried back to northern Italy.  But because he was Jewish, he was soon in trouble again and had to go into hiding.  While in hiding he wrote a memoir of his year in a peasant village, published in Italian in 1945 right at the end of the war, and translated into English in 1947.  It is still in print, in Italian, English, and many other languages.  His depiction of the very harsh life of southern Italian villagers brought their plight to the attention of the post-war Italian government, which sought to improve things.

The memoir is called Christ Stopped at Eboli NOT in the rather sweet, sentimental sense of "Jesus stopped off in Eboli for the night and did some miracles while he was there."  Rather, it means that Christianity and civilization got as far south in Italy as Eboli but didn't get any further.  Eboli is about two-thirds of the way down the peninsula, a short distance south of Naples, and at that point the train lines that had been following the coast south turned east instead, ignoring the south.  Here's how Levi defines it:

"We're not Christians," they [the peasants] say.  "Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli."  "Christian" in their way of speaking means "human being." ...  We're not Christians, we're not human beings; we're not thought of as men but simply as beasts, beasts of burden.  ...  Christ never came, just as the Romans never came, ... nor the Greeks.  ...  None of the pioneers of Western civilization brought here his sense of the passage of time, the deification of the State.  ...  The seasons pass today over the toil of the peasants, just as they did three thousand years before Christ."

This is certainly evocative.  But were the villagers among whom Levi lived for a year leading a life unchanged from the Middle Ages, much less the Bronze Age?  One would have to say NO.

To begin with, they were Christian.  There was a church in the village with a priest.  When Levi arrived they took their sick children to him, not because there was no other doctor, for there were in fact two other doctors, both trained at the University of Naples, a university that did not exist in the Middle Ages.  But both the villagers and Levi considered these men grossly incompetent, and the villagers added that the doctors were not "Christian."  So they did indeed use the term Christian to mean a competent human, but their use of the term here certainly indicates they believed themselves good Christians in contrast.

And the State had reached their village.  There were carabinieri, the national police.  The whole idea of political prisoners requires a state and politics—and there were several other political prisoners there besides Levi.  The mayor was proud of how Fascist he was; a medieval village might well have had a mayor but nothing comparable to positioning in a political party.

Some of the material culture of modernity had also reached the village.  Levi was brought there in an automobile.  There was electricity, even though he said dismissively it might be a single bulb hung from the ceiling.  Most of the villagers could read and write; there was a public school, where among other things they learned standard Italian, so Levi could talk to them without understanding their local dialect.  There was daily mail service, even if brought in on a mule.  There was even a public restroom with running water, though he claimed he was the only person ever to use it.  The villagers grew and ate tomatoes, which their medieval ancestors would not have done, as they are a New World food.  Some people from the village had moved to America.

This was not a land untouched by time.  Back in the early nineteenth century one might have been able to make such a case a bit more plausibly, but these villagers were living in the twentieth century, even if a different version of the twentieth century than Levi's friends back in Torino.  (In the same way, the Amish today are living in the twenty-first century, even if they don't have TV or drive cars.)

So what did the villagers mean when they said that Christ stopped at Eboli?  Levi thought it meant that they considered themselves inferior, scarcely human.  Given the grim conditions under which they lived (as he described it), my own interpretation of what he called a "proverbial phrase" is something closer to that song in the show Paint Your Wagon, "I'm so lost, so goldarn lost, not even God can find me."  They weren't saying they were inferior.  They were saying everyone had forgotten about them, even Christ.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

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