Thursday, July 31, 2014

Medieval Monasteries

What's monasticism?  The institution of monasteries.  What's a monastery?  It's a place where monks live.  So what's a monk?

Literally a monk, "monachus" in medieval Latin, was someone who lived by himself, solitary (from the root mono-, one).  And the first monks were indeed solitary men, hermits we would now call them, starting in the third century in Egypt.  At the time there were a number of comfortably settled Christian communities in Egypt, and Anthony, monasticism's founder, thought that it had become too easy just to be a "Christian on Sunday" and headed out into the desert in search of a simpler, purer, life.

The problem with hermits is that someone can just make up his own rules, and it can be hard for others to tell the God-inspired recluse from the crazed vagrant.  Quickly hermits started gathering in groups, where they could help and correct each other, under the authority of an elected leader, the abbot (from abba, meaning Father).  These were the first real monasteries.

The New Testament is full of radical calls to give up one's possessions and one's comfortable life.  For the last two thousand years, there have been periodic waves of enthusiasm for doing so.  In the Middle Ages, these most commonly led to new, stricter versions of monasticism.

At any self-respecting monastery, the monks gave up all the comforts and pleasures of ordinary life.  They lived in common, sharing their possessions rather than owning anything of their own--as the Bible says the original Apostles did.  They slept in a dormitory with skimpy bedding.  They all wore the same standard-issue robes and had their beards and heads shaved, leaving just a circle of short hair around a shaved crown.

They ate a vegetarian diet, with no meat, though they did have cheese and eggs and, occasionally, fish. They spent their days in prayer, in singing the psalms, and in reading and copying books, both religious books and books of history, including works of classical antiquity.  Indeed, we would know virtually nothing about classical (pagan) Rome if it were not for archaeology and for medieval monks copying their writings from fragile papyrus onto more durable parchment.

Although early monks were all men, women too soon wanted to become monks (as discussed more here).  Nunneries, monasteries for women (now often called convents), soon became established, although for most of the Middle Ages there were far more monks than nuns.  Men thought that nuns should have an easier regimen than monks, more blankets on the bed, a richer diet, less hopping up in the middle of the night for the liturgy.  The nuns disagreed.  If men could be strict, they wanted to be just as strict.

Both men and women gave up marriage, sex, and family in "converting" (as it was called) to the monastic life.  Once you'd made your vows, you couldn't pop home for a vacation or change your mind.  A runaway monk or nun, with a shaved head, was pretty obvious.

Parents might offer a child to a monastery or nunnery, knowing they might never see that child again.  One sometimes sees mistaken suggestions that parents disposed of excess children in this way, but in the relatively underpopulated Middle Ages, when all children were cherished, this was quite a wrench, done both as a sacrifice on the parents' part (a large gift was also expected to accompany the child) and to give the child a good shot at salvation.

People could and did convert to the monastic life as adults, often in widowhood, but sometimes in enthusiastic young adulthood.  If someone was married, the spouse also had to "leave the world" for the monastic life.

The wealthy who did not want to become monks and nuns themselves often made gifts.  "The monks are so holy, they lead such a simple life of poverty so far from civilization, I think I'll go drop in on them and make them rich presents."  The wealthy never understood why monks were not as enthusiastic about this as they were.

Click here for more on medieval Christianity and here for more on medieval monasticism.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

For more on the medieval church, see also my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Medieval Meals and Mealtime

We now think of three meals a day as the norm.  Everybody knows about breakfast-lunch-dinner, though the fast food industry has tried to sneak a "fourth meal" in, pizza-time, coming around 9 or 10 at night.  And of course there's British tea-time, which can come in late afternoon and may substitute for the evening meal.

But this was not the medieval norm.  In the morning, you got up and got to work.  No cereal and orange juice, no coffee or tea, no bacon and eggs, no blueberry pancakes.  At most one would grab a piece of bread and a mug of beer.

Now "morning" of course began at sun-up, which was, by definition, 6am.  By our standards, 6am moved around a lot, coming very early in midsummer, late in midwinter.  But this did not worry medieval people.

One got the day's work in, then had "dinner" at "noon."  Now noon did not come in the middle of the day, as we think of it.  The word comes from the Latin "none," the ninth hour.  Because sun-up was, by definition, 6am, and sunset 6pm. the ninth hour was the middle of the afternoon, what we'd call 3pm at the equinox.  This was dinner time, the one big meal of the day.

(I do believe that our use of the term "noon" for midday is the result of trying to move dinner-time earlier and earlier.  Who wants to wait until 3pm?)

During the summer, of course, one might work what they'd call 9 hours and we'd call 12 hours or more before dinner time, so there might be a snack in there, but not a meal, at most another piece of bread and pull of beer.  Monks, whose daily work consisted of prayer and singing the psalms and reading and copying manuscripts, were warned against the "midday demon" of hunger, because they didn't get snacks, and the midday demon would make them think about food rather than what they were supposed to be thinking about.

Our word "dinner" comes from the French "déjeuner," to break one's fast, that is to end the long period (perhaps close to 24 hours) in which one had not eaten.  In American usage, the word "dinner" still means the big meal of the day (whether at 12 or 6), even if in the modern US we assume that we've broken our fast hours earlier with "breakfast." The French still have "déjeuner" at midday, preceded early in the morning by "petite déjeuner," the little breaking-of-fast, which while consisting of coffee and a roll rather than a mug of beer, is still pretty minimalist by American standards.

(In the last few decades, however, the French have been increasing the size of the "pj" to include juice, granola, yogurt, cheese, and ham, though still not anything hot beyond the coffee.)

After the big afternoon meal, medieval people would have their more relaxing part of the day.  The one big meal might hold them, or they might have a little soup for "supper" ("souper" in French) before turning in.

In the modern US, there are still familial and regional differences as to whether the evening meal should be called "supper" or "dinner," with some insisting that a "dinner" is a big noon meal, not an evening meal.  Mediterranean countries and France still tend to have the biggest meal of the day at midday.  The French refer to the evening meal as "dîner," which of course is from the same root as "déjeuner," but means something different.  In modern French, "souper" is what we'd call an evening snack, what one might have after an performance at the theatre before heading home.  In the twenty-first century, it is sometimes even pizza.

Click here and here for more on what medieval people ate and did not eat.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

For more on medieval food, see also my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Royal Divorce in the Middle Ages - part two

If you're the king, your private life becomes public knowledge.  In an earlier post I discussed some well-known royal divorce cases from medieval Europe.  Here I discuss two more.

One of the most significant for political history was the divorce of Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 1150s.  He was the heir to the French throne and she the heiress to the duchy of Aquitaine, essentially the southwest quarter of France, a very wealthy territory, so it seemed like an excellent match when they married back in 1137.  But they were related within the "forbidden degrees," being third cousins.  When after years of marriage they had only had a couple of daughters, Louis became convinced they were being punished by God for the sin of incest.  After all, one of the main duties of a king is to have a son to keep the line going.

They went on the Second Crusade together as penance, but the Crusade was a disaster.  On the way home, they stopped in Rome, where the pope formally forgave them for their "incest" and promised them a son.  The next year they had another daughter.

So Louis got the French bishops to annul their marriage (the pope was furious when he found out) and quickly married again.  He did eventually have a son, the future Philip II.  He seems to have expected Eleanor to retreat to a life of seclusion and contemplation.

Instead she too remarried.  Initially, on the way back to Aquitaine from Paris, she was pursued by half the unmarried nobles of France--and some of the married ones.  But she managed to outride them (think of the scene with Arwen and the Black Riders in the first "Lord of the Rings" movie).  But it was obvious she would only be safe if married.  She chose Henry, the young heir to Normandy and Anjou in western France, soon to become Henry II of England.  They went on to have five sons (and a couple of daughters), suggesting the failure of Louis and Eleanor to have sons was not her fault.

Politically, Aquitaine now was attached to the English crown, not the French one--an issue that caused tension throughout the rest of the Middle Ages, culminating in the Hundred Years War.  Interestingly, the new spouses Eleanor and Louis married after their divorce were also their third cousins.

Louis's son and heir, King Philip II of France, also had a messy divorce.  He went on the Third Crusade in 1189, got sick (perhaps malaria, there were lots of diseases in the Near East unknown in western Europe), and went home.  Shortly thereafter he married Ingeborg of Denmark, who actually was not his cousin.  But on their wedding night he took an inexplicable dislike to her, perhaps related to  his recent illness.

In the morning he declared they had not consummated their union and that the marriage should therefore be annulled.  Ingeborg, on the other hand, said that they had in fact performed the "copula carnalis" (on which click here), that she had been right there, it was not the sort of thing a girl was likely to be mistaken about.  The pope backed her up, but Philip refused to recognize her as his wife.  It took years, and France put under interdict, before they finally reached an amicable agreement and Philip married a different woman, who gave him a son.  This divorce case indicates the very strong medieval sense that marriage ought to be insoluble.

Interestingly, the church's emphasis from here on was on the permanence of marriage.  To avoid quite so many divorces like Louis's and Eleanor's, the number of "forbidden degrees" was reduced from 7 to 4 in 1214, meaning anyone related more distantly than third cousins could not claim divorce on the basis of incest.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

For more on medieval marriage and divorce, and so much more, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Royal Divorce in the Middle Ages

In a previous post I discussed medieval divorce.  Here I give a couple examples of famous divorces that helped shape medieval marriage and divorce law.

Marriage was just becoming a sacrament in the ninth century when King Lothar II decided to divorce his wife, Tetburgis, and instead marry Waldrada, his former concubine.  Tetburgis was of a much more powerful family than the relatively low-born Waldrada, so the marriage had made sense originally.  But after several years in which Tetburgis did not get pregnant--although Waldrada had produced a son for the king--Lothar decided to elevate the girl he'd always liked.

At this point the bishops jumped all over him.  Marriage was permanent, they said.  So Lothar had to find a way to get Tetburgis out of the way.  First she was bribed to say she wanted to become a nun and had never willingly given her oath of marriage in the first place, but this only worked until she changed her mind.  (Two centuries later, one spouse entering the church would have required both spouses to enter the church, but the ninth century was still figuring this out.)

Then Lothar accused Tetburgis of adultery.  When this did not win him the desired divorce, he upped it to incestuous adultery with her brother.  When even this didn't work, he tried incestuous adultery in an unnatural position which had made her give birth to a monstrous fetus, explaining why she couldn't get pregnant now.  Unfortunately, no one believed him.  The case involved bishops, the pope, other kings, and all the relatives.  Only Lothar's death ten years later ended the excitement.

Two centuries later, at the end of the eleventh century, King Philip I of France also ran into trouble when he tried to get a divorce.  He and his queen, Bertha of Holland, had successfully produced a son, the future Louis VI.  But then Philip took a dislike to Bertha and accused her of being "too fat."  This was rich, coming from Philip, who himself got so fat he was unable to ride a horse.  (Louis VI was later nicknamed "the Fat."  Hormones.)

Instead Philip hooked up with Bertrada, wife of the count of Anjou.  The count of Anjou was understandably furious and wrote a long treatise on the history of the counts of Anjou, whose subtext was that his family was wonderful and the royal line was degraded incompetents.  If this was supposed to win Bertrada back, it didn't work.  The bishops and eventually the pope also got on Philip's case.  He was even excommunicated at one point for refusing to listen to the church; being excommunicated did have the advantage of getting him out of going on the First Crusade.  Finally he promised the pope to give up Bertrada "right away."  In fact he did no such thing, but the pope was fighting the German king at this point and worrying about the Crusade, so he turned a blind eye, so Philip, Bertrada, and their children continued as a happy family.

Louis VI, who took over effective governance of France during the final years of his father's life, was not happy about this, however, especially since Bertrada apparently tried at one point to poison him.

Coming up soon, more royal divorces.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

For medieval marriage, divorce, and so much more, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Medieval Divorce

In a previous post I talked about medieval marriage.  Now I want to discuss medieval divorce.

Theoretically one didn't get divorced in the Middle Ages,  However, it certainly happened.  Although all societies have formal ways for a couple to swear to be true to each other forever (e.g., marriage), they also all have ways to get out of a marriage that is, for whatever reason, just wrong.

In ancient Jewish law, adultery or barrenness in a woman were grounds for divorce.  In Roman and early medieval law, one could get out of a marriage if one's spouse dabbled in forbidden magic or was a despoiler of tombs.  A man could also divorce his wife for adultery, though it would be harder for her to bring similar charges against him.  You will note that "irreconcilable differences" was not grounds.  In fact, it did not become grounds until late in the twentieth century.

By the ninth century, churchmen had decided that marriage, as a quasi-sacrament (it did not become an official sacrament until the thirteenth century), ought to be permanent, insoluble.  The sacramental aspect of marriage was the oaths, swearing on all that was holy to stay together "till death do us part."  You don't just change your mind about an oath like that.

Oaths were supposed to have witnesses, to avoid denials later.  A couple who secretly swore their oaths to each other were still validly married, but because they had married in an illegal way, they had to do penance.

Thus the only way out of marriage was the discovery that you had not been validly married in the first place.  (Modern Catholicism still follows some version of this.)  If one of the couple's oaths was forced, not a free-will decision, then it didn't count (the so-called "shot-gun wedding" would not have been valid in the Middle Ages).  If it turned out that one of the pair was already married to somebody else, then the marriage was similarly annulled.  If the couple had not consummated their union physically, then they weren't really married. If someone had not been heard of for seven years they were presumed dead, and the spouse could remarry (though this was officially not divorce, but being assumed to be widowed).

But the easiest way out of marriage was to discover that a couple were actually cousins.  Also in the ninth century, when marriage was decided to be insoluble, churchmen decided that it would be incestuous to marry someone more closely related than "seven degrees," that is someone who shared any ancestors with you going back seven generations.  In practice, of course, everyone in the aristocracy, that is those likely to actually know who their ancestors were, was related to everyone.  Thus consanguinity ("shared blood") meant that an aristocratic couple determined to get a divorce could probably find some common ancestors and announce, with nicely modulated shock, that they had to split up.

For peasants, divorce was a lot easier.  You just moved out, and then everyone related to either half of the couple got involved in bitter wrangling.  As long as neither half of the couple remarried--or at least not without moving very far away first--the church neither knew nor cared.

Coming up soon--some celebrated medieval divorce cases.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

For medieval marriage & divorce and so much more, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Medieval Marriage

Modern assumptions about marriage were created in the Middle Ages.  Ancient Judaism had assumed a powerful man would have multiple wives and probably a few handmaiden/concubines, but Christianity settled on one spouse per person.  But the idea of a Christian marriage really only developed in the sixth century.

Before then, Christians continued to follow Roman marriage practices, which assumed marriages were arranged by the male members of the family, and the wedding itself was a big, drunken party (we still have that part).  The chief way for the Romans to distinguish a wife from a concubine (concubines were fine) was that a wife brought a dowry to the marriage, and a concubine didn't.

By the ninth century, Christian marriage settled into the form it would keep for the next millennium.  Concubines were decided to be just wrong.  Once married, one was supposed to be married for life.  The only times divorce (really annulment) was allowed were when the couples hadn't "really" been married in the first place, if for example one of them was already married to somebody else, or they had been forced unwillingly into marriage, or, the biggie, they were too closely related.

"Too closely related," from the ninth century to the thirteenth, meant not sharing any ancestors seven generations back.  Since one's ancestors double with each generation, in practice this meant that everyone in roughly the same social circles was related to everyone, and the aristocracy could essentially get divorce on demand by comparing family trees.  Among the peasantry, however, no one really cared as long as the couple were more distantly related than first or second cousins.

Among the aristocracy, marriages were often arranged for political reasons, such as to cement alliances.  Among the peasantry, economic considerations played a big part.  But even if the couple's families had decided on the marriage, the couple did have to agree, and once married they were expected to love each other and stay true to each other.  Even men, who it was assumed would fool around before marriage and if widowed, were not supposed to cheat on their wives.

Starting in the twelfth century, the romances were all about love, about people meeting a (socially suitable) person of the opposite sex, falling in love, and getting married.  Not surprisingly, this ideal conflicted with what the parents had in mind.

By the twelfth century weddings were usually held on the church steps (not in the church itself), though marriage did not officially become a sacrament until the thirteenth century.  The couple would give their oaths, before witnesses, to stay true to each other for life and exchange rings as a symbol of this.  (This looks a lot like a modern wedding.)  They would then generally proceed into the church for the nuptial mass, the first time a priest was involved.

But the couple was not really married before the "copula carnalis," actually consummating their union.  If one skipped this step, it was grounds for annulment.  Wedding guests might "help out" by shouting tips through the window after the new couple was tucked in together.

(Click here to find out about medieval divorce.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

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

Saturday, July 5, 2014


To a modern American, the Crusades were something very long ago and far away.  For those in the Middle East today, they are an ongoing issue.

With the rise of Islam in the seventh century, effectively ending the Roman Empire, the Middle East, north Africa, and the Spanish peninsula, all of which had been under Rome, became controlled by Muslim emirs and caliphs.  A century or two later, Christians in Spain slowly began trying to conquer the peninsula, working from the north to the south, a process not completed until 1492.  In the meantime, Christians and Muslims got along fairly well in Spain when they weren't fighting each other.

But it seemed disturbing to Europeans north of the Pyrenees (who didn't really worry about Spain) that the Holy Land was not under Christian control, as it had been until the seventh century.  Pilgrims had always been able to visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but by the eleventh century this didn't seem like enough.

The First Crusade was launched in 1095.  Originally the pope who called for the expedition to the Middle East was just responding to a request from the Byzantines, the Greek Orthodox Christians in what is now Turkey, for mercenaries to fight the Turks.  But in urging knights, uneasy about how killing people might imperil their souls, to go fight Muslims, he gave them a way to save their souls by using their fighting skills in the Middle East.

To everyone's surprise, including theirs, the First Crusade was a success, capturing Jerusalem and establishing the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem.  It lasted until 1187, when Turks under Saladin conquered it.  The Third Crusade was launched in 1189 as a failed effort to get it back.

King Richard the Lionheart of England was on that Crusade and loved every minute of it.  The image above is of his castle of Château-Gailliard in Normandy, the construction of which (after he got home) was inspired in part by castles in the Middle East.

Today, to modern Americans, the word "Crusade" means a moral struggle.  But to Muslims in the modern Middle East, it means Christians invading Muslim territories.  In the aftermath of 9/11, President George Bush announced a "Crusade" against terrorism, which made perfect sense to Americans, it meant we were going to stand up to terror.  But to Muslims, it meant Christians planning to kill Muslims.  (A former graduate student of mine is working for the National Security Agency.  She got to President Bush just too late.  He never used the term again, but the damage was done.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

For more on Crusades and so much more, see my ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Medieval Peasants

Life for a peasant in the Middle Ages was, not surprisingly, more difficult than life for an aristocrat.  A student once asked a colleague of mine, "Why would anyone choose to be a peasant?  Was it a bad high school counselor?"

Um, no.  You would be born a peasant.  Although most of us can imagine ourselves as medieval knights and ladies, in fact, let's face it, our ancestors were peasants, along with a good 90% of the population.

Basically a peasant was a country person, someone who farmed.  Although in the modern US only about 3% of the population lives on a working farm, in the Middle Ages, before modern hybrid seed and fertilizers, a farmer would raise barely more food than needed to feed his family, meaning that almost everyone was out working the soil.  As any modern farmer will tell you, it's very hard work, and you're subject to random, uncontrollable events like storms, drought, and insect invasions.  Famine sat at the shoulder of every medieval peasant (as is still the case in much of the Third World).

A peasant might be completely free, owning his or her own land.  Or a peasant might be personally free yet rent land from a landlord (probably the most common situation).  Or he might be a serf.  A serf was not a slave, as agricultural slavery had disappeared in the sixth century with the breakdown of the Roman Empire (click here for more on the end of imperial Rome), but he or she was considered "bound in the body" to a "lord of the body."  This meant a serf could not give testimony in court or become a priest, as he or she was not considered to have the ability to make free-will oaths.  On the other hand, not being a slave, a serf could not be bought or sold and was not subject to arbitrary commands.

In practice there were a great many varied statuses for peasants, including many varieties of serfdom, depending on location and whether one was a descendant of slaves or a descendant of someone who had commended himself to a lord of the body in return for protection and support.  In a village, every family probably had a slightly different status and owed different rents to different people.  All of this was kept track of orally, which meant that slippage was always possible.

Anyone who rented land owed rents, of course, whether a free peasant or a serf:  usually some combination of money rents, rents in kind (a certain number of chickens or bushels of wheat a year), and days a week in which the peasant was obligated to work on the landlord's fields, raising food for the landlord.  These rents were (theoretically) fixed, not a percentage of the crop.  Serfs as a group generally (though not necessarily) had higher rents, and in addition they owed servile dues, generally a few pennies a year, more symbolic than anything--but humiliating if, as in many places, the serf was required to approach his lord on his knees, pennies on his head.

Although a serf might have both a landlord and a lord of the body, and one would think this would make life very difficult, in practice it could be an advantage, as a serf could use one against the other.  Serfdom ended in France and Italy in the early twelfth century, although it lingered longer in Germany and Britain.  Russia acquired serfs for the first time after the end of Europe's Middle Ages.

Peasant houses were very simple, at most a few rooms, generally built right up against the cowshed (this can be an advantage in the winter--cows keep you warm).  Their diet was also very simple, mostly bread and whatever vegetables might be available.  Meat was an extremely unusual luxury.  (Click here for more on the medieval diet.)

(Click here for more on medieval peasant farming, and read my post here on the word 'feudalism' before you use it to refer to medieval peasants.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

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

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Medieval Death

Part of life in the Middle Ages is death in the Middle Ages.  Modern society essentially deals with death through denial.  "As long as I eat healthy and exercise, nothing bad will happen to me."  Most people die in the hospital, accompanied by last ditch efforts to give them a few more moments of life.

Humans haven't figured out yet what to do about death.  The medieval response, not being able to deny it as we do, was heart-breaking:  they embraced death.

This did not mean they wanted to die, because they didn't.  But they insisted, loudly and repeatedly, that death was good.  You could go to heaven, be reborn in an improved version of your own body, and be very happy.  The saints were dead, but that didn't keep them from being an active part of people's lives.

Alternately, of course, you could go to Hell.  Just as most modern Christians don't worry very much about Hell, most medieval people didn't either, unless they realized they had committed some major sin or were actually dying.  Priests tried to remind them, and the frequency and enthusiasm with which they were reminded suggests few were paying attention.

The requiem mass included the "Dies irae," a poem about God's wrath and begging for mercy.  It's a terrific poem, with a strong melody, composed by an unknown author, incorporated shamelessly into more recent Requiems such as Mozart's and Verdi's.

Dies irae, dies illa,
Favet saeclum in favilla,
Sicut David et Sibilla.

That's the first verse.  It basically can't be translated into English.  In translation it goes, "Day of wrath, on that day, Heaven and earth shall pass away, as David and the Sybil say."  See what I mean?  (The Sybil was a Greek prophetess who, a couple of centuries AD, was supposed to have predicted all the events of the New Testament.)

But in practice medieval Christianity asserted that the dead were not in Hell but were their friends.  This was very different from pagan Rome, which feared the dead and made sure to bury them outside the city walls, so they couldn't sneak in at night.  Above is an image of a sarcophagus, a stone coffin from the early Middle Ages.  Hand-carved from a single piece of stone, a sarcophagus probably cost as much as we'd pay for a Buick.  And it was not just the elite who wanted such a coffin.  Medieval churches were surrounded by them and often built literally over dozens of sarcophagi in their crypts.

Click here for more on medieval Christianity.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014