Sunday, October 24, 2021

American Medievalism

 I have blogged before about medievalism, the desire to re-create some aspects of medieval society and culture in the modern world.  A lot of make-quality-crafts-by-hand is explicitly inspired by medieval craftsmen, as of course is the Society for Creative Anachronism, to say nothing of fantasy stories set in a vaguely medieval world.


But why is America such a center of medievalism?  What we normally think of as medieval society took place in Europe, three thousand miles (or more) from the American east coast.  Medieval Europe was mostly made up of kingdoms, whereas the U.S. was founded on the premise of We Do Not Have A King.  During the Middle Ages no Europeans (other than the occasional Viking settler) knew the Americas even existed.  Europeans first reached the Americas to stay in 1492, one of the dates often chosen as the end of the Middle Ages.

So why this fascination with medieval Europe by a society so far from it politically, spatially, and temporally?  A big part of it is doubtless a highly romanticized view of a time when (supposedly) love and honor counted, people could make individual decisions without being forced into sameness, when people understood and appreciated their place in society, when objects were lovingly made by hand rather than being cranked out cheaply in a factory, when there were lots of colorful outfits and cool swords and handsome horses.

(You will notice that it is rare to imagine oneself being a peasant.  We all have decided we're knights and princesses.)

But even at the founding of the U.S. there was an attempt to invoke the Middle Ages as a model.  It was seen as a time of at least potential democracy, with things like the Magna Carta and the origins of Parliament, rather than the absolute monarchs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  The "manly" knight was considered far better than the dandies of contemporary royal courts.  The cramped (and stinky) cities of  eighteenth-century Europe were compared unfavorably with the supposedly wide-open rural landscape of medieval Europe--just like North America! (supposedly)

One of the chief manifestations of modern American medievalism is the spread of the Renaissance Faire.  Interestingly, it was originally going to be called a Medieval Faire, but sponsors thought the term "medieval" meant oppression and darkness, so the name was quickly changed.  But it never was about the Renaissance.

In spite of its name and often a vaguely Elizabethan look to some of the outfits the performers wear, it is really a celebration of medieval society.  None of the things that marked the real Renaissance appear, such as classical Latin, or gorgeous paintings inspired by Bible stories or by classical mythology, or gunpowder (though one can shoot at an archery range).  One doesn't even get to mimic going into quarantine from the Black Death.  It's true that tournaments featuring riders galloping at each other continued during the Renaissance, but the reenactors you see at a Renaissance Faire are usually wearing lighter weight medieval armor rather than the heavy plate of the sixteenth century (such as seen below).

Medieval scholars are of two minds about all this.  On the one hand, it seems excellent to us that people are seeing the Middle Ages as in some ways admirable, rather than dismissing the era we love to study as dark and backwards and superstitious and disgusting.  On the other hand, we are disturbed when white supremacists try to claim that the Middle Ages is their ideal society (listen up, guys, it was not a utopia of all-white all-Christian people).

There is a new book about American medievalism, called The United States of Medievalism (published by the University of Toronto), edited by Tison Pugh and Susan Aronstein.  It is a discussion of all the manifestations of medieval style in American culture, from churches meant to look Gothic to things like Cinderella's Castle in Disney World.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For real medieval social history, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Medieval gunpowder

Gunpowder, as I have noted before, came into use in Europe in the fourteenth century, radically changing the face of medieval warfare when it began to be used in cannons.  Cavalry charges, which had been in use since the late eleventh century, were much less effective now that cannon fire could decimate their ranks.  Castles, which had been nearly impossible to capture since the early twelfth century, could be taken if enough cannons shot against their walls.  Sieges which had taken months if they succeeded at all, due to having to starve out the defenders, could now be wrapped up in a week or two by taking out a few major walls.

So what was this gunpowder they were using?  The formulation had been worked out originally in China (for use in fireworks, not warfare), and consisted then, as it does now, of a mix of saltpeter (potassium nitrate), carbon (charcoal), and sulfur.  The saltpeter provides a rush of oxygen, the carbon and sulfur the fuel.  Between them, when exposed to fire or a sufficient spark, the result is explosive combustion.  A stone ball put down the barrel of the cannon would shoot out with devastating force (and a great deal of loud booming and black smoke).

There are a number of recipes that still survive from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, showing the various ways that gunpowder's ingredients were combined or had additives mixed in.  These are being studied by Dr. Dawn Riegner, a professor of chemistry at West Point.  Different recipes used different proportions for the main ingredients, as well as such add-ins as brandy, camphor, vinegar, quicklime, and varnish.  Dr. Riegner and her team are trying to measure which combinations would have worked best, by taking them out to the firing range and testing them.

(Don't imagine college professors are all quiet and stolid--blowing things up can be fun!)

One of their interesting discoveries is that from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century the various recipes burned progressively less hot, though with continued explosive power.  This made them at least marginally safer for the gunners loading and firing the cannons--exploding cannons were one of the downsides of relying on cannon fire in a battle (and there were as yet no handheld guns--no one wants their hand blown off).


Dangerous cannons continued to be a problem, however.  King James II of Scotland was killed in 1460 when he stood too close to a cannon while it was being fired, and it exploded.  (This was during the long wars between Scotland and England.)  The young king (he was only 29 when he died) had always loved artillery.  He had married a niece of the duke of Burgundy a decade earlier and had received a cannon from the duke as a wedding present.  This huge cannon, nicknamed Mons Meg (or Monstrous Margaret) (see above), was installed in Edinburgh castle, where it still is today.  Tourists can climb on it or have their picture taken with it.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

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

Sunday, October 10, 2021

The Peasant Bodo

 Peasants keep appearing in this blog, for the excellent reason that they were by far the bulk of the medieval population, maybe 90%.  Today I want to discuss one particular peasant, named Bodo, who has become (and he'd be shocked to learn it), the "Standard Medieval Peasant."  I am discussing him because he provides a good starting point for pointing how how unfounded are many of the sweeping assumptions modern folks have about medieval people.

Bodo was a real person.  He lived in the early decades of the ninth century on a manor belonging to the Parisian monastery of St.-Germain-des-PrĂ©s.  He is known because the monastery did an inventory of all its manors, including this one (located outside of Paris), listing the tenants by name and detailing how much each owed in rent.  Bodo was required to work a certain number of days a week on the fields belonging to the big manor house.

The monastery's records about Bodo are extremely skimpy, not much more than this, though noting he had a wife, Ermentrudis, and three (unnamed) children.  In 1924 the historian Eileen Power wrote a book, Medieval People, designed  to give ordinary people more of a role in accounts of the Middle Ages--at the time most historians were focused on institutions, great men, and the rise of the nation state.

This was laudable of course, but she made some great leaps in fleshing out Bodo's story.  She described Bodo's manor as looking like what Charlemagne had, two generations earlier, said he wanted a royal manor to look.  (One must wonder if a monastery had the same idealized vision as a king, much less whether any of Charlemagne's manors ever looked the way he envisioned.)  She added in detail from Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England, plus even some manorial rolls from the end of the Middle Ages.  She also gave Bodo and his wife three named children as well as an ox.

The real problem with this "artist's conception" of Bodo is that he has become the standard version of every medieval peasant.  Because Power did not describe any peasants from later centuries, Bodo has come to stand for every medieval peasant, giving a timeless quality to descriptions of peasant life.  Every popular account of "life in the Middle Ages" includes something like the image below, with a castle or manor house, a grouping of peasant houses and a church, and the fields stretching off in all directions.  Although not in this particular image, it's also common to show a barefooted peasant with an ox.  (It's Bodo!)

(Actually I think I see Bodo over near the left, leading his ox, who is bringing a cartload of, I assume, food to the castle/manor house.)

 See original image 

The problem is that Bodo and his manor are typical only of great ninth-century manors with their tenants.  Especially as the economy improved and new lands were cleared for agriculture in the eleventh-thirteenth centuries, due to peasant initiative, this "typical" arrangement became less and less typical.

 Most peasant villages had neither a castle or a manor house.  Many of the peasants might be tenants of a monastery or a secular lord, but he (or she or they in the case of a monastery) lived some distance away.  And a lot of peasants were what is called allodists, that is they owned their property outright rather than being tenants.

Even the tenants owed much less in labor dues by the twelfth century than they had in the ninth century.  Peasants had been able to negotiate their way out of them, usually for a monetary payment.  The landlord found it easier to hire workers than to try to force unwilling peasants to work.  These payments were fixed in perpetuity, which meant that the amount the peasants had to pay declined in value, while wages for hired labor went up.  "Works for us!" said the peasants.  Bodo would have been jealous.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

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

Monday, October 4, 2021

"Unheard of" violence

 Medieval Europe was violent, which should not be surprising, given that pretty much all societies are if a lot of people live close to each other (including ours).  It of course didn't help that macho swagger among the well-to-do required walking around with a sword on one's hip.

But violence was neither considered normal nor acceptable in the high Middle Ages.  In fact, the most common characterization of violent acts in twelfth-century chronicles was that they were "unheard of," inaudita.  That is, when describing some act of violence a chronicler would want readers to know that such acts were unusual, in fact so unusual that no one had ever heard of such things before.

This made for excellent rhetoric.  In refusing to accept violence as normal, the chroniclers were telling their contemporaries that it was never acceptable.  Now in fact they did recognize some violence as acceptable.  Self-defense was fine, and so was protecting the weak, generally characterized as women, churchmen, and the poor.  But in all these cases the other guy, the bad guy, had started it.

Attacks by the powerful against the weak, bullying writ large, were especially "unheard of."  Chroniclers would really emphasize all the horrible things the malefactor had done to peasants or artisans or churchmen or women, justifying their brutal slaying in retaliation.  Unfortunately some modern scholars seem to have missed the inaudita, arguing that such attacks on the weak must have been everyday events, or they wouldn't keep showing up in the chronicles.

Epics and sagas from the Middle Ages are sometimes read as glorifying violence. And they do have a lot of people whacking away at each other.  But these stories always end up demonstrating that violence is not the answer.  When the hero ends up dead and everyone else in the story is grief-stricken, that's usually an indication that the author is saying that violence is a bad idea.  A lot of epic authors tried to work their moral in delicately, portraying all the great deeds of knightly violence (against other knights only, however) to draw in their audience before showing them that peace-making was the better way.

These days in the US one tends to fear the poor.  One is told not to go into "certain" neighborhoods.  This idea was upside down in the Middle Ages.  Then the violent people one feared were the elite.  Let's face it, a lot more damage can be done with a sword than a simple club.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on medieval knights and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other online bookstores.  Also available in paperback

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Medieval vegetarianism

 Medieval people ate a largely vegetarian diet.  Unlike modern vegetarians in the West, who usually choose vegetarianism primarily because they think it wrong to kill and eat animals, or else because they believe a vegetarian diet is healthier, medieval people for the most part did not have nearly as easy access to meat as we do.

Raising meat for food is always going to be more expensive than raising vegetables or grains, because you have to grow the food for the animals first, and a lot of the calories in that animal feed are going to be spent in having the animal grow and run around before you can eat it.  Hunting animals that feed themselves in the wild solves part of this problem, but over-hunting can quickly reduce the number of potential game animals.

Hence for most medieval people for most of the time one's principal foods were bread and vegetables.  In a recent post I discussed the fruits and vegetables medieval people grew.  There were a lot of them, although of course the emphasis was on those that could be dried and stored (like peas and beans) or that would keep for a long time anyway (like onions and turnips).  Lettuce could be eaten all summer long, but forget having a salad in the winter.  The same was true of most fruits, though some, like apples, will keep at least a little while.  They did not of course have the New World vegetables we now take for granted, most notably potatoes, tomatoes, corn, and winter squash.

 Between the turnips, the radishes, the beans, the zucchini, the leeks, and the sauerkraut, there was at least some variety in the vegetables to be eaten.  I've read that the single most common vegetable eaten in the US now is the potato, and that mostly eaten as French fries.

Still, medieval people liked their meat.  Because most of the population was not vegetarian out of principle but rather because meat was hard to get, they ate it whenever they could.  Indeed, meat was considered a health food.  If someone was sick, they were given meat broth.  The wealthy ate meat when they could get it, putting restrictions on hunting to keep the peasants from getting all the wild animals.  Everyone ate pork in the fall, when the pigs, who had been running wild for months, were rounded up and slaughtered.

Even if mostly vegetarian, medieval people were not vegans.  They were happy to have milk, butter, and especially cheese.  Eggs were also fine.  The most determinedly vegetarian people were monks and nuns, who gave up meat along with other pleasures of the flesh, in order to focus more on spiritual matters.  They were still generally fine with eggs and cheese, and, depending on the monastic order, they might have fish once a week.  If someone in the monastery was sick, they got beef broth.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on medieval food and other aspects of medieval social history, see my book Positively Medieval, available either as an ebook or a paperback, from Amazon and other book sellers.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Descended from Charlemagne

 It has been suggested that everyone with European ancestry is descended from Charlemagne.

You remember Charlemagne.  He was crowned Roman emperor by the pope in the year 800, the first independent western Roman emperor since the late fifth century--although there continued to be emperors in Byzantium (basically modern-day Turkey) who were considered Roman emperors until the fifteenth century.

Charlemagne's empire is sometimes called the Holy Roman Empire to keep it separate from the empire of antiquity, and the European Union considers him (in some sense) their founder.  He had France, western Germany, and, he thought, Italy, though Italy tended to disagree.  France claims him as theirs, as the nineteenth-century statue shown below seeks to "prove," whereas the Germans call him theirs.  (The Italians figure you can have him.)


So how did we get to where everybody in the west is considered to be descended from him?  Well, all of Europe's royalty were.  He had multiple wives, multiple concubines, and multiple children, including a whole lot of daughters.  As long as one counts (as one should!) one's descendants through the female as well as male line, and the illegitimate as well as legitimate line, it is clear that his descent quickly spread throughout Europe's leading families.  Those who were kings of France, Germany, and Italy in the tenth century were all descended via women from Charlemagne.  So are all of today's European royalty, including King Juan Carlos of Spain and Queen Elizabeth of England.

It was considered appropriate in the Middle Ages (as is still the case) for great nobles to marry great nobles.  (The reason Prince Charles married Diana Spencer was because she was of noble ancestry, descended from an illegitimate child of King Charles II.)  Although the actual medieval kings and queens quickly became too closely related to keep on marrying each other, due to prohibitions on consanguinity, there were plenty of rising lords for them to marry.  The great counts and dukes then quickly passed royal blood to their children, who in turn passed it to their children, often offspring of lesser lords.

You can see that in the 1200 years since Charlemagne there has been plenty of opportunity for his descendants to spread out.  If someone has multiple children, and they have multiple children, one can come up with a whole lot of descendants very quickly.  There was a proud announcement in our paper the other day of a couple welcoming the birth of their 100th great-grandchild.  And this is far from the record, even for a couple, much less for someone with many wives and/or concubines.

Cystic fibrosis, which has a strong genetic component, seems to have originated about 1200 years ago in the European population.  Did it begin with a mutation in Charlemagne's genes?  Intriguing thought.  The leading families of Europe can trace their family trees with excellent documentation right back to the eighth century.  The rest of us can just imagine a lot of those entries in the family tree.

Before anyone reading this blog becomes too excited about having imperial blood, let's think about how ancestry works.  You've got two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents, and so on.  Just mathematically by the time you get back to the late Middle Ages you have more European ancestors than there were people in Europe then.  Okay, all of us have ancestors who may pop up on more than one line of descent.  And we all have to take a deep breath and recognize that the majority of our European ancestors were peasants.  But it's pretty clear that everyone is related to everyone.

And if you've had your "DNA done" you'll find that you have maybe 1 or 2% of something you had no idea about.  (Where did that Middle Eastern or South Asian descent come from?  I thought we were lily-white!)  And even the nationality or ethnic group that's responsible for your last name may only be a minority of your DNA.  So we may all be "blood of kings" (as well of course "blood of peasants").  Pro tip:  If you're visiting Charlemagne's palace in Aachen, don't announce that you are the returning heir.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

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

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Exotic Birds

 The wealthy in the Middle Ages liked luxury goods—as of course do the wealthy in the modern world.  Something unusual, rare, exotic, and gorgeous, which also cost a whole lot, was both something to enjoy and something to show off to other people.

Rare and unusual animals were real luxury items, both because they were expensive and because the proper care and feeding were complicated and expensive.  Both Charlemagne at the beginning of the ninth century and the emperor Frederick II in the first half of the thirteenth century had elephants, given to them as gifts from distant rulers in the Middle East/North Africa--who of course would have had to obtain them from sub-Saharan Africa, making them even more of a novelty.

Frederick II also had a cockatoo.  Wait, you say, I thought cockatoos were native to Australia, and Australia was totally cut off from the rest of the world until centuries later.  So how did he get it?  Was it really a cockatoo?

Yes, it was really a cockatoo.  He wrote a book, which we still have, about birds.  Most of it was about training hawks (the art of falconry), but he also described other birds, and there are several very detailed descriptions and drawings of his cockatoo.

Although cockatoos are most commonly found in Australia, they are also found in Indonesia and parts of the Philippines.  So the emperor's bird almost certainly started life in southeast Asia.  Then, as now, wild-caught chicks were raised in captivity, so they would be used to humans (they do not breed well in captivity—trade in wild-caught chicks in some areas today threatens the wild population).

It would have then passed through many hands before ending up in the emperor's court in Sicily, being bought and sold for increasing sums of money as it traveled across the Indian Ocean or across central Asia, on the spice routes, and fetched up in the Middle East.  There it was acquired by the Egyptian ruler (referred to as the Sultan of Babylon in the Sicilian records), who made a gift of it to Frederick.  He was also the source of Frederick's elephant.  Being able to give someone a rare luxury item was even more of an opportunity to increase one's prestige than just owning it.

Although this is the only cockatoo we know about in the thirteenth century, medieval wealthy people sometimes had other exotic birds, especially parrots.  These were African parrots, and they too reached Europe via a long, complicated road.

Another cockatoo shows up in a Renaissance painting, done by the artist Mantegna and commissioned by the Gonzaga family that ruled Mantua in the fifteenth century.  The main picture shows the duke kneeling at the feet of the Madonna, and up at the top are all sorts of decorative motifs, including an extremely lifelike cockatoo.  Although there is no written record of either Mantegna or the Gonzaga family acquiring the bird, the inventory of the artist's possessions does include a large and extremely elaborate birdcage, which could have been the bird's home.  Was he given it in partial payment for the painting?

The cockatoos in medieval Europe are an indication that Europe was never completely cut off from the rest of the world.  Trade continued to tie different areas together, and both spices and exotic birds were considered worth the expense.

An article in the New Yorker by Rebecca Mead, July 5 2021, discusses the original identification of the cockatoo in Mantegna's painting.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

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