Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Year 1000

Along with the mistaken belief that medieval people thought the world was flat, one of the most persistent myths about the Middle Ages is that everyone thought the world was going to end in the year 1000.  This is, in fact, untrue.

For one thing, most people had no idea what year it was.  Without calendars, newspapers, cell phones that display the date, or the like, they would not have had any easy way of telling the year.  When the year 2000 came along there was a quite real possibility of messed-up computers on January 1, as everyone heard about in great detail, but there was nothing similar a millennium earlier.

For that matter, there was not even general agreement then on when the new year began.  Some places began the new year on January 1, which was the Roman norm.  Others began it on Easter.  This of course could create problems:  if Easter was early one year and late the next, a year might have two months of April, one at the beginning and a partial one at the end.  Others began the new year with the supposed date of the Incarnation, that is the conception of Jesus, March 25 of the previous year.  So different regions, even different cities, could easily be a year apart in what year it was.

And of course, even for those who tried to keep track of the year, without outside verification it was very easy to slip up (remember, they were using Roman numerals, always confusing).

The millennial event which medieval people did celebrate was 1033, the thousandth year after the Crucifixion, when, as one chronicler put it, "France was covered with a white mantle of churches."  No one expected the world to end--rather, they anticipated a spiritual awakening.  (The image above is of Tournus, an eleventh-century church in southern Burgundy, an example of what the chronicler meant.)

However, some nineteenth-century scholars read these accounts of 1033 and misinterpreted  them thoroughly.  There was not indeed any suggestion, either by people at the time or by historians, of the "terrors of the year 1000" until the nineteenth century.

These nineteenth-century scholars took as "proof" some preambles to charters, "We who live in the final days…"  There are two main problems with this "proof."  First, these charters, which are only found in one or two places, all date to about 950, two generations too early to suggest fear of the year 1000.  Secondly, and even more importantly, the scribes who wrote out these charters were using an old "formulary book," a handbook on what charters were supposed to look like.  This formulary book dates from the seventh century.  So the apocalyptic charter language which some thought "showed" that people feared the end in the year 1000 actually showed that at least one person feared it three centuries earlier.

In fact, there have been repeated predictions over the centuries that the world was about to end.  There certainly were charismatic preachers in the Middle Ages who announced the Second Coming was right around the corner, just not in the year 1000--and then as now, most people ignored them.

So far, the world has been very stubborn and persistent.  In the Middle Ages, as now, the response to a failure of apocalyptic prophecy was generally to slip quietly home and pretend one never believed it anyway.  Other possibilities included saying the end was still coming, but somehow the date had been miscalculated; here the difficulty was getting anyone to believe you next time.  More imaginatively, leaders could announce that the piety and prayers of their little apocalyptic group had "saved the world" from destruction, or, even better, say that the world really had ended, but everyone else was too stupid to notice.

The one year that there really was a belief in the imminent end was 1260, but that's a topic for another day.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014
For more on medieval life and religion, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Tomatoes and Potatoes

Tomatoes and potatoes are a major staple of the modern American diet.  It's September as I write, and the crops of both have just come in.  Between French fries, baked potatoes, mashed and boiled potatoes, some people eat potatoes every day.  Potato starch is found in many other prepared foods.  Tomatoes are now found in everything from salsa to salad to ketchup to pizza to spaghetti sauce.

And yet, as I noted in a previous post on the medieval diet, these foods were unknown in the Middle Ages.  They are native to South America, not Europe.  Yet they have become such an integral part of the European as well as American diet that it may be hard to realize what dinner might have been like without them.

Because tomatoes are related to deadly nightshade, the (quite logical) assumption was that they were poisonous.  They were introduced into Europe as an ornamental plant, with attractive red fruits, and it was a couple of centuries before anyone tried eating them.  Once it became clear, however, that one would not keel over from a bite of tomato, they became very popular.

But how, you ask, did the Italians eat spaghetti without tomato sauce?  They would have eaten it with olive oil, cheese, maybe some mushrooms or other sautéed vegetables.  Pizza was the same thing--a piece of bread dough topped with olive oil, maybe some olives and cheese.  In fact, in Italy even today, pizza is often such a simple dish.  The deep-dish, meat-lover's, extra-toppings, extra-cheese pizza is uniquely American.  (And don't even get me started on pineapple and chicken wings as pizza toppings.)

It did not take long, however, for Italians to recognize the possibilities of tomatoes in sauce, once they were proven non-poisonous.  Because the Italians had made much of their flour into pasta rather than bread, they saw potatoes, once they were introduced, as something else to top with an interesting sauce.  This means that Mediterranean dishes based on potatoes, even today, are more imaginative than northern European dishes.  There potatoes were seen as a substitute for bread, and once you put butter on them there wasn't much else to do (sour cream instead of butter is not a big difference).

Incidentally, there is a common myth that Marco Polo brought pasta back from China.  This is completely false.  Marco Polo, a late medieval Italian explorer, did indeed make it to China, where he commented, for example, that some of the Chinese he encountered did not seem to know at all about bread, subsisting solely on vermicelli.  The vermicelli, of course, were noodles, and Marco gave a common Italian term for them.  He and his compatriots knew all about noodles.  Because the word means, literally, "little worms," a joking reference to their appearance, he is highly unlikely to have said that the Chinese ate worms instead of break, much less have decided to introduce Italy to such worms.

The myth that he introduced Italy to pasta with a Chinese import was in fact created in the early twentieth century, when an American noodle company created this "hilarious" story as part of an ad campaign.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014
For more on medieval food, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Hunting in the Middle Ages

In the modern US, hunting is not considered an elite activity.  One tends to think of country folk and good old boys going hunting, often because they could use the food.  The last time hunting was considered something for the wealthy and powerful was back when it was considered appropriate to go to Africa or Alaska to shoot elephants or lions or polar bears in Africa or Alaska.

In the Middle Ages, in contrast, hunting was very much an activity for elites.  Nobles loved to hunt, to the the point that giving up hunting was a sign of serious penance.  Several saints started life as rich lords but were converted to the religious life when, on a hunting trip, they saw an animal carrying a cross.

Fantastic stories often involved hunting, such as capturing a white (albino) hart or trapping a unicorn, as seen in this late medieval tapestry.

Probably the main source of meat on a noble table was from hunting, rather then livestock raising.  Nobles hunted various kinds of deer (hart, roe) and also boar, though boar were both rarer and a lot more dangerous.  Hunting was both sport--competing to see who could catch the most--and a chance to show off.

Until extremely recently, England had fox hunts, where well-to-do riders and their hounds chased foxes across the countryside, leaping hedges and having a great time.  This was the last vestige of the medieval style of hunting, though in the Middle Ages they preferred to hunt something worth eating.

Medieval men and women also hunted with hawks.  A "mews," where the hawks were kept, was found in every castle.  Training a hawk to fly off, catch a bird, and bring it back was an important and time-consuming skill.  A variety of hawks went to the hunt on a rider's (gloved) fist, including goshawks, that could take a full-sized goose.

Then as now, over-hunting will reduce the game.  Nobles thus did not want the peasants to hunt, though no one particularly cared if they trapped a few rabbits or caught song-birds using lime spread on twigs.  Great landowners created game preserves where only they could hunt.

The New Forest in England is not actually "new," being established as a game preserve in the late eleventh century by King William II ("Rufus").  Although we think of the word 'forest' as just a place with trees, it originally meant a place set aside.  The New Forest now is mostly known for its semi-wild ponies, to be feared for liking to eat an unattended picnic lunch.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014
For more on medieval life, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Medieval Medicine

As I noted earlier in my post on health and hygiene, we don't know how lucky we are to live in an era of modern medicine.  Essentially until the middle of the twentieth century, doctors essentially tried to keep people warm and dry and fed and hoped their immune systems would kick in soon.  (The image above is the thirteenth-century hospital at Tonnerre, where they sought to do the same.)  There were nineteenth-century advances like anesthetics and vaccination (thank you, Louis Pasteur), but until maybe seventy-five years ago medicine wasn't radically different than it had been in the Middle Ages.

The biggest difference was probably the difference in how medical workers were trained.  Medical doctors in the Middle Ages were trained at medical universities, Salerno and Montpellier, where they were given a largely theoretic training.  Some of what they learned came from the Arabs, but a lot (including a lot of the Arabic learning) came eventually from Aristotle, who seems to have based a lot of his own understanding of the human anatomy on pig anatomy.

The whole practice of medicine was based on the idea of "humors" and their relationship.  If your blood, bile, black bile, and phlegm got out of balance, all sorts of diseases were supposed to result.  Regular bleeding kept the blood from getting out of hand, and leeches might also be used in an infected area.

For practical, day-to-day medicine, one might prefer the barber-surgeons.  They had been trained as apprentices and journeymen to wield sharp instruments.  They would both shave people and perform surgery.  Things like a gangrenous hand would be cut off, with cauterization to stop the bleeding.  Medieval theologians routinely said that heresy was a "cancer" that would have to be "cut out," so medieval surgeons clearly operated for cancer, though one wonders with what success.  They would also cauterize skin lesions.

Midwives, not doctors, assisted in childbirth.  Women gave birth sitting up, not lying down, so that gravity would help.  They also did so without anesthesia.  Cesarian sections, which are now very common, were performed only as a last resort, to attempt to save the life of the child when it was obvious that it would be impossible to save the life of the mother.  Without modern sterile operating rooms and micro-clamps, the kind of abdominal surgery involved in Cesarians led almost immediately to death.

Medieval people, even without knowing about germs, understood the need for sterility--even if it was often hard to achieve.  Before cutting into someone, for example, a barber-surgeon would pass his knife through a flame.  Washing wounds in wine was common, and the alcohol may have helped against infection.

Every monastery would have a big herb garden and an infirmerian who knew herb-craft.  Some of the herbs may indeed have helped, though there were also all sorts of theoretic discussions which we would now reject--for example, if the Middle Ages had had kidney beans (which they did not), they would certainly have "known" they were good for kidney disease.  Remedies like mustard-plasters and steam for congestion can't have hurt.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014
For more on medieval health and medicine, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Medieval Heresy

The early church worried a great deal about heresy.  For most of the early Middle Ages no one gave the topic much thought.  But starting in the eleventh and twelfth centuries heresy again became an issue for western Christianity, indeed a burning issue by the thirteenth century (forgive the bad pun).

In its simplest form, heresy is a deviant belief by someone who ought to know better, not just a mistake or a misunderstanding, but something clung to in the face of trying to be talked out of it.  So Christianity and Islam are not "heresies" to each other, because they are actually different religions (even though they believe in the same God).  Heresy was considered dangerous, because the person who rejects the True Faith is certainly going to Hell, and he will take with him anyone he has infected with his false beliefs.

In the early church there were a number of heresies about the relationship between Jesus and God.  Was Jesus just an inspired man?  Or was he God wearing a human disguise but not human at all?  What exactly does the Bible mean when it says that Christ saves?  Can we make our own salvation?  If we need the sacraments (like baptism) to be saved, what happens if the priest who administers the sacraments is a secret sinner?  Most of these questions were never satisfactorily resolved before the rise of Islam in the seventh century, when a predominantly Christian Mediterranean world became predominantly Muslim, and the Christians had other things to worry about than heresy.

The heresies that got western Europe all excited in the twelfth century were different.  They were mostly dualist, that is heresies that preached that the universe was the scene of an eternal struggle between absolute good and absolute evil, that neither would win.  The physical world belonged to the forces of evil in this heresy, and only the spirit was good.

Now it may at first seem odd that this was a heresy, because Christianity has a lot of dualism in it.  But in all orthodox (non-heretical) versions of Christianity, then and now, God is more powerful than the Devil and is going to win eventually, and the material world is God's creation, not the Devil's.  In Christian theology, the human will is the source of sin, not the body itself, which is sort of along for the ride.

Dualism became especially prevalent in southern France, where bishops, castellans, whole cities took it up, saying to anyone who would listen that they had finally figured out Christianity's true message.  Preachers trying to persuade them differently had no effect.  The eventual result in the thirteenth century was a war of northern France against southern France, the "Albigensian Crusade," blessed by the pope, who said that the heresy was a "cancer" that must be "cut out" before it spread further.

Southern France lost the war, and the heretics had to recant or go into hiding.  This was the war in which Simon de Montfort, the leader, famously said, when asked if they should massacre a whole town, "Kill them all.  The Lord will know His own."  It is still not a good idea to tell Simon de Montfort jokes in southern France.

The image above is the castle at Montfort in southern France, named for Simon (the castle has been rebuilt since his day).  The fantasy novel Count Scar that I wrote with my husband is a lightly fictionalized version of southern France in the aftermath of the Albigensian Crusade (available as an ebook at http://amzn.com/B0057CVI9S).

© C. Dale Brittain 2014 
For more on medieval religion, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Development of Castles

Most people, including me, identify castles with the Middle Ages, even though, as I discussed earlier, castles were really only a feature of the period of the eleventh through fourteenth centuries.

The earliest castles were largely wooden, but very quickly they began to be built instead in stone.  A wooden castle could be set on fire, but with a stone castle, all that would burn were the various stables, kitchens, barracks and the like inside the walls--and even those were soon being built of stone.

Originally castle towers were square and built of field stone, that is stone picked up and brought to the site.  They still look grim and forbidding, and they certainly did at the time.  Early castles were generally built by the very wealthy and powerful, such as the counts of Anjou, who built dozens of castles in the early eleventh century.  (These were however plastered and whitewashed, which might have made them look less forbidding, though rooms were still dark inside.)

The keep, the original big square tower with the great hall on its main floor, remained as castles were rebuilt in subsequent generations.  Both advances in military technology and changes in fashion meant that any castellan lord with any sense of self-esteem (or self-preservation) was always rebuilding.  New towers were often round rather than square in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, both because they thus would not have a corner that could be undermined, and because it was easier to see in all directions.  These towers were pierced with numerous arrow-slits, narrow on the outside to present a small target, but wide on the inside, so an archer could shoot in either direction.

By the middle of the twelfth century, castles were being built of quarried stone rather than field stone.  Limestone and sandstone were preferred as relatively easy to quarry.  Walls were built very thick, and passages and stairways were often built into the walls.

No two castles were alike.  Each one was suited to its site.  Natural rock outcroppings were incorporated if possible.  A sharp bend in a river was often chosen, as providing a natural moat.  A steep hill looked to medieval lords like the obvious place to put a castle.  The Auvergne region of central France still has a certain number of castles built (somewhat precariously) on the sharp cones of extinct volcanos.

Once gunpowder came in, toward the end of the Middle Ages, the dynamics of castle building changed, because castles no longer were the impregnable fortresses they had been earlier.  As long as walls could be taken down with cannons anyway, those rebuilding decided they might as well have nice windows and let in some light.

Most medieval castles are now in ruins.  They have been done in not just by time but also by deliberate efforts in the early modern period.  Louis XIV in the seventeenth century did not want castles where rebellious nobles might try to defy him, so he sent his minister, Vauban, around France with a number of cannons to systematically break down castle walls.  The English Civil War of roughly the same period had the same result.

Some European towns and villages now have a big empty plaza where a castle used to be.  In other cases, the castle is still there and has been incorporated into the local architecture.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

Friday, September 19, 2014

Was the World Flat?

You have certainly heard that "everyone" before Columbus thought the world was flat.  This is however not true.  It is in fact wildly false.  Everyone knew the earth was a globe.

(Well, maybe a few ignorant folks thought it was flat.  But no one paying attention thought so.)

The ancient Greeks had known it was a globe.  Aristotle in fact had attempted to measure its size and come up with a figure that was a little small but a good guess.  It was pretty obvious that it was a globe, after all.  The sun and moon and stars were assumed to go around the earth.  During an eclipse of the moon, when the earth's shadow moves across it, you see the shadow of a globe.  If you watch a ship sail out to sea, it goes "hull down," that is the hull disappears while you can still see the sails, as it goes over the earth's curve.

Medieval people speculated about the people who lived on the other side of the globe.  Some thought that down was absolute, so that people on the other side would have trouble not falling off.  They were depicted with giant feet and toes, good for holding on.

In addition, since medieval people knew that the climate got colder as you went north and hotter as you went south, they were concerned about how people could survive down in the southern hemisphere, close to the "Hot Pole."  But in all this, even though we know better than to think that one could fall off the bottom of the globe, or that there is a Hot Pole, or that the universe revolves around the earth, we can recognize that our ancestors knew they were living on a globe.

So where did the "flat earth" notion come from?  From Washington Irving, best known now as the creator of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.  In a comparable burst of imagination, he write a fictional story about Columbus at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella.  In this hilarious (?) and very anti-Spanish story, the Spaniards all believed in 1492 that the earth was flat and warned Columbus he would fall off the edge if he sailed west.

This story made its way into the Big Little Book of Racist Stories for Children (or whatever it was called) during the nineteenth century.  Everyone knew it was fiction.  But at some point it migrated:  out of the storybook and into the history book.  Now American children were being taught that Columbus was a great scientific thinker, the only one not to believe in a flat earth.  (Interestingly, in Europe, where Washington Irving was never in the school storybooks, no such nonsense was ever taught.)

The real Spanish court of 1492 certainly knew the earth was a globe.  They were however concerned that the globe was much too big to get to India by sailing west.  (Columbus was claiming he could find a shortcut to India and beat the Portuguese.)  They were, in fact, right.  But Columbus, using Aristotle's measurements and thinking that, since he would be sailing close to the North Pole, it couldn't really be far at all, set off west.  And right about the time he thought he should be reaching India, he bumped into Hispaniola.

The Spanish court immediately recognized that there was a whole continent between the Atlantic and the Pacific, when they'd always assumed it was all ocean all the way.  They and the Portuguese divided up the globe between them a few years later.  Columbus, however, kept going back again and again, denying that he'd found a New World and thinking the silk and spices had to be there somewhere.  He is responsible for us calling native Americans "Indians."  (See here for more on Columbus.)

But in none of this, note, was there ever the slightest thought that the earth might be flat.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

For more on medieval understanding of the world, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Christmas in the Middle Ages

Although medieval people celebrated Christmas with gusto, their celebration was very different from what we now take for granted.  There were no Christmas trees, no Santa equivalents, and no presents!  They did however celebrate with singing.  The time for presents was New Year's, when gifts might be exchanged between lovers, or a lord might distribute small gifts to his faithful followers.

Although children did not get presents, they did have their own holiday, the Feast of Fools, halfway between Christmas and New Year's.  This was often celebrated as an upside-down day, when children got a chance to boss the grownups.  On a more serious note, the Feast recalled the slaughter of the Innocents, the babies Herod killed when trying (unsuccessfully) to kill the baby foretold to be a greater king than he.

I've just written a short book on Christmas, entitled Contested Christmas, combining the history of the celebration (and of Santa) with commentary on the modern holiday.  It has just been released as an ebook on Amazon on Friday: http://amzn.com/B00N099HX4.

Keep reading for a sneak preview of the opening:

Ah, the “true meaning of Christmas.”  Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s one hears the term constantly, on everything from made-for-TV movies playing essentially non-stop, to exhortations that we all wish each other Merry Christmas rather than Happy Holidays, to websites devoted to tips on crafting handmade ornaments.
But the “true meaning of Christmas” is highly contested.  Most would agree that over-commercialization is ruining Christmas, even as great piles of expensive and beautifully wrapped presents, to make children’s eyes glow with excited anticipation, are considered part of the season’s true meaning.
Magazine articles in November and December routinely urge readers to simplify their holiday celebrations to avoid stress and over-spending, even while other magazines—and often the same ones!—show elaborately decorated interiors, provide recipes for lavish feasts, and contain ads promoting luxury purchases.
Christmas is supposed to require snow, even though in the US, where the song “White Christmas” is recorded by dozens of artists, the majority celebrate the holiday with no snow on the ground.  And in the southern hemisphere, including Australia, Christmas comes in the middle of the summer.  (December snow, interestingly, puts one in the Christmas spirit, while January snow makes one yearn for Florida.)  Family, faith, and friendship are identified with 4H and with Kwanzaa, yet are also considered true aspects of Christmas.
Part of the true meaning of the Christmas season revolves around its (relative) shortness, extending only from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.  During a period of not much over a month, it is expected that we will pack in a good six months’ worth of shopping, decorating, eating, socializing, worshipping, and attending concerts—not to mention relaxing and taking it all in.  Everybody knows about the Twelve Days of Christmas, which traditionally began on Christmas Day and ended on January 6, the Feast of the Wise Men.  But in practice the US has forty days or so of Christmas, and the season is definitely over well before Twelfth Night.
(New Year’s both recapitulates the gaiety and celebration that are supposed to define Christmas and marks the end of the season.  It’s easy to tell what Christmas is over.  It’s when the TV news anchors and sports commentators remove the poinsettias from their desks.  This happens January 2.)
The holiday comes laden with powerful and conflicting expectations, expectations that require a great deal of work, organizing, and spending in order to achieve the simple joys that are supposed to convey its true meaning.   The season is intended to be one of mirth and joy, and so we set to work with grim seriousness to make sure that the mirth’s meaning is properly joyous.  As everyone strives to make this the best (and doubtless truest) Christmas ever, it is worth pondering:  why is Christmas the only holiday that gets to have a true meaning?
It certainly isn’t the religious aspect that makes Christmas special.  You never see a heart-warming TV movie about a family discovering the true meaning of Easter.  Yet Easter is a much more important Christian holiday than is Christmas.  Easter has been celebrated since the earliest church, but Christmas began only as a fourth-century reaction to pagan efforts to make December 25 a birthday for the sun-god Apollo.  After all, anyone can have a birthday, but rising from the dead has got to be special.
Incidentally, the winter solstice on December 21, Christmas (and Apollo’s birthday) on the 25th, and New Year’s are now spread out over a ten day period, but originally they were all celebrations of the darkest day of the year, the solstice, and the beginning of the sun’s return as the days start to grow longer.  Keeping track of that pesky leap year, celebrated every four years except when it’s not, messes calendars right up.
The darkest days of the year were an important time for celebration long before the spread of Christianity.  The Romans, the Greeks, the Babylonians, everyone had one or more holidays or feasts around that time, times for food and drink, for merry-making with friends, for gifts, and often for a fairly raucous breakdown of normal social conventions.  It is perhaps ironic that many of these ancient pagan aspects are continued in what is supposed to be a thoroughly Christian holiday.
Comparing the celebrations of Christmas and Easter indicates how differently the holidays are viewed.  When was the last time you saw a billboard, “Keep Christ in Easter”?  Probably never.  How many singers bring out an Easter album?  Remarkably few.  How many radio stations blast the airways with Easter songs non-stop all during Lent?  None at all.  Compared to big discussions of whether Santa Claus is a jolly old elf, a saint, or a satanic being (in Dijon in 1951, the cathedral priests burned Père Noël in effigy on Christmas Eve as a pagan impostor), the Easter Bunny gets off remarkably easy.  For a great many people, Easter means chocolate eggs and new spring outfits, and maybe that annual attendance at church.

Perhaps it is not worth thinking too deeply about rabbits, a symbol of promiscuity in most cultures, laying little brown pellets that children are encouraged to eat.  Sex and coprophagia, not a good combination.  At least the rabbits do not represent any “true meaning.”

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Heirs and heiresses

Medieval parents, like modern parents, assumed that their children would inherit what they had.  Indeed, because husbands and wives did not inherit from each other, everything normally went to the children, although a widow or widower might keep a life interest in property.

For servile peasants (on whom see more here), lords might insist on the children of the deceased paying a fine in order to inherit, if they were not living at home when a parent died.  But since most of them were indeed living at home, they would just take up the house, the land, and the rents and labor dues their parents had paid.

It was more complicated for aristocrats, because, from the eleventh century onward, the lord of a castle generally owed allegiance to someone more powerful, and that powerful lord wanted to be sure that whoever inherited was in a good position to be helpful in providing that allegiance.  If a castellan lord died with a son who was at least a "youth" (mid-teens), all was fine, the heir would swear allegiance and take up lordship of the castle.

But if the heirs were children or there was only a female heiress and not a male heir, it would get more complicated.  In England, if any of the great barons who owed allegiance directly to the crown died without a suitable heir, the king would treat the girl or young boy as his "ward," taking care of the land and castle and collecting its revenues.  The king would make sure an heiress married someone of whom he approved, who would be properly obedient, and might resist recognizing a young man as mature enough to take over.

The French king wielded less authority over his counts and dukes, and in many cases if a count died while his children were young, his wife would act as regent until they grew up.  Such important counties as Flanders, Champagne, and Nevers were run by women regents for much of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Although the oldest boy, it was assumed, would take over his father's castle, younger brothers and sisters were not excluded from the inheritance.  They however seem often to have believed that they were entitled to more than they got, and younger brothers might try to find an heiress of their own.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Falling in Love

In the second half of the twentieth century, the popular songs were all about love.  From "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah," to "Paint it black," to "Leader of the pack," they were about falling in love, being in love, losing one's love.  In spite of some modern rap songs about going out and shooting people, love still dominates the airways.

This focus on love seems so normal that it may be hard to realize how unusual it is.  But in fact the twelfth century and the twentieth century have been the predominant times in the West when love dominated popular culture.

Vernacular literature, that is stories written in the everyday language rather than in learned Latin, had its start at the beginning of the twelfth century with the epic "Song of Roland."  But this epic, in which the only appearance of love is when (spoiler alert!) Roland's fiancée faints and dies after hearing of his death, was quickly joined by romances, in which falling in love drove the plot.

The romances both glorified and critiqued love--never following any set "code" such as one might now mistakenly call "courtly love."  King Arthur stories were a creation of the twelfth century, and love dominated these stories, but very often it was forbidden, adulterous love.  Both the love between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, and the stories of the love between Tristan and Isolde which inspired the Lancelot stories, are descriptions of sin.  The characters, the authors, and the audience all knew this.  It could be fun, but you were going to hell.

In twelfth-century epics (after "Roland") and romances, the women were all very active participants.  In some cases they led men astray, but more often they saved the day.  In "Guillaume de Dole," the heroine personally pleads her case in court and ends up tricking the man who untruthfully boasted that he had had an affair with her into confessing.  In the epic "Raoul de Cambrai," even though most of the men end up killing each other, it is clear that their problem was that they did not listen to the women.

The romances that glorified love suggested that it was a reason to get married.  Now it had always been assumed that husbands and wives should love each other and be true to each other (see more here on medieval marriage and medieval sex), but for the first time in the twelfth century falling in love came first, as a reason to get married rather than something that came after the wedding.

In practice, no aristocratic parent was going to allow their teenage children to wander around the countryside, find an appropriate partner, fall in love, and then get married.  Marriage alliances were too important to allow that kind of randomness.  But that is what happened to the heroes and heroines of medieval romance.  Interestingly, they generally fell for someone who it was right that they should marry anyway.

Twelfth-century courts, where unmarried men and women mingled, must have been full of meaningful glances, stolen kisses, passed notes, and broken hearts.  The romances described the symptoms of falling in love as fevers and burning aches.  The adults appear to have tolerated such behavior as long as everything stayed platonic--and a medieval castle would have had very few opportunities for privacy.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Medieval saints

Although of course in medieval Christianity (as in modern Christianity) God the Father was the judge and God the Son was the savior, in day to day religious practice the saints got a lot more attention.

Originally there was no procedure for becoming a saint.  If one had lived a holy life, being recognized as a "living saint," and then worked miracles after death, one was a saint.  These are indeed the criteria still used, but before the twelfth century these determinations were made locally, whereas since the twelfth century they have been centralized in Rome.

Western Europe was Christianized slowly, as indeed was the whole Roman Empire, but by the fifth century all provincial capitals in the Empire had bishops.  However, the west had very few saints.  The city of Rome had by far the most, for its catacombs were full of bones, many of which were identified as Christians put to death under pagan emperors like Nero and Aurelian.  (Early Christians had indeed met for religious service in the catacombs.)

Europe's shortage of saints was solved by the sixth century, for not only were there a number of fifth-century holy bishops who could be declared saints, as well as such holy women as Genovefa of Paris, but Europe's bishops were constantly finding new ones!  Cemeteries outside of town (where the Romans had always put their dead, as discussed here) were as full of bones as were the catacombs.  A few visions would identify a set of bones as someone who had been martyred back in the second or third century while trying to spread Christianity, and once the bones started working miracles, their identity was proven.

Soon churches began being dedicated to saints, as they had not been earlier, and all churches needed relics, bits of bone of a saint, although in some cases a piece of clothing might do.  The cathedral of Chartres, for example, had the "chemise" of the Virgin Mary, the nightgown she was supposedly wearing the night she gave birth to Jesus.

One should of course be very careful, even if one does not believe in saints oneself, in calling them "superstition," as discussed more here.  Medieval people did not automatically believe in every story of a saint.  Bones about which there was doubt would be scientifically tested, as for example being thrown into a fire.  If they jumped back out, they were clearly saints' bones.  Saints were also not some manifestation of "folk" religion, for they were discovered, validated, and promoted by the elite.  They were also not polytheism in disguise, because all agreed that God gave them their power, as His agents.

Although there were some "universal" saints, like the Virgin or Stephen, who appears in the New Testament being put to death for his faith, most saints were local.  They were closer to the people of the region than some universal saint, much less God (who could be frightening), more likely to listen to their concerns.

Saints could be subversive.  They blasted anyone who harmed "their" churches--which usually meant the wealthy and powerful.  They also provided hope--no matter how horrible you had been, if you completely changed your ways, did penance, and made restitution, saints could help you achieve salvation.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

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

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What would you like to see?

So far I've had about fifty posts about medieval life (including a few on my novels).  So I ask you, the readers of this blog, what would you like to see next?

I've had posts on sex, on childhood, on castles, on Christianity, and so much more.  I of course could keep going indefinitely, but if there are specific topics you're hoping I would cover, either add a "comment" at the end of this post or get hold of me through my website (www.Daimbert.com).

So far, I've barely touched on saints or medieval theology, have just given passing attention to agriculture, have a whole lot more I could say about monasticism, and have just hinted at criteria for kingship.  And that just scratches the surface!  So if you want to see something addressed sooner rather than later, let me know!

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sex in the Middle Ages

There is a common misconception that sex was always considered bad in the Middle Ages, but this was certainly not the case.  Connected to this is the common assumption that medieval thinkers thought the body was bad and the spirit good, but this is equally mistaken.

Sex was certainly considered wrong outside of marriage.  But then, modern social norms say pretty much the same thing.  Everyone agreed then, as they do now, that adultery, having sex with one person while married to another, was Wrong.  After all, it's forbidden in the Ten Commandments.

Fornication (as opposed to adultery), that is sex among the unmarried, was frowned on more severely then than it is now, especially for upper-class women, who really were supposed to be virgins before marriage.  But no one got too concerned about unmarried upper-class men, as long as they were discreet.  And everyone recognized that sex could be the product of falling in love.

(The image above is an old medieval church in Dijon, not used as a church anymore, instead used as a theatre.  They were putting on a play with Adult Content.)

The purpose of sex was procreation, so sex within marriage was fine, as long as one did not indulge in it for pleasure alone.  Even in Eden before the fall, theologians argued, Adam and Eve would have had to have sex in order to be fruitful and multiply, as they were supposed to do.  Couples were supposed to refrain on Sundays and important holy days, however, in order to focus instead on spiritual thoughts.

If one thought that the body and sex were altogether evil, one was a heretic.  After all, it was very clear in Genesis that God had created the physical world.  It was fallen, but it could still be redeemed.  The will, not the body, was considered the chief source of sin.  And, all medieval thinkers agreed, when one rose again at the Last Judgment, one would rise in one's physical body--improved certainly, but still physical and still one's own.

As I discussed earlier, marriage required physical consummation.  Even a royal wedding was supposed to be completed with sex.  A great many couples living together today, who have promised to stay together indefinitely and have consummated their union, would be surprised to learn that, by medieval standards, they are in fact married.  Because their promises/oaths were not given before witnesses, they have done it wrong (and should probably do penance), but their marriage is still valid.  Peasant couples in the Middle Ages would similarly make their oaths before a few witnesses and move in together.  Sooner or later a priest would come by and bless their union.

There were certainly misogynists in the Middle Ages who would say that it was all women's fault if men had inappropriate lusty thoughts--as there are today, as one will learn listening to talk radio.  But most medieval thinkers blamed the one who had the lusty thoughts, not she who inspired them.

By the way, gay sex was not considered particularly worse than heterosexual fornication.  Monasteries worried about it, but that was because, when the male monks did not see women for months or years at a time, it was the only kind of sex worth worrying about.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Below the Wizards' Tower

For this post, I'm going to promote my new book shamelessly.

It's a novella (short novel), intended both to introduce new readers to my Royal Wizard of Yurt series and to offer something to my long-term fans who keep asking for more stories.  As I've noted before, I'm a fantasy writer as well as a medieval historian.  It's available exclusively as an ebook from Amazon, available here.

The story tells how Daimbert, royal wizard of Yurt, visits the wizards' school in the great City by the sea to see his old teachers.  But something is wrong.  Everywhere he goes, people seem to think he's already been there.  Does he have a doppelgänger?  And when he is attacked, does he have an enemy, or is it a horrible case of mistaken identity?  To make it worse, there are hints that the shadowy figure behind it all may have his sights set on the destruction of institutionalized wizardry.

If you read it and enjoy it, I'd appreciate it if you could leave a review on Amazon, to help future readers.

The following is the first chapter, to whet your appetite.  Enjoy!

He was backlit against the ocean, the spray flashing in the late afternoon sun and the salt wind tugging at his clothes.  From a distance, and without detail, there was no way that I could identify him.
And yet he looked oddly familiar.
He gazed out to sea as though deep in thought.  Gulls soared high against the sky, and several heavy-laden ships were heading out with the tide.  Heading for the Far Islands, I thought, with a twinge of nostalgia I did not want.  Once I would have known what was on those ships, but that was before I gave up being a merchant to become a wizard.
After only a moment’s hesitation I hurried on.  It had been a long time since I was last in the great City by the sea, and the man at the shore was doubtless someone I used to know.  It would be embarrassing if he remembered me.
Besides, I was meeting Titus for dinner and I didn’t want to be late—especially as he had said he was buying.
The seafood restaurant was packed, full of conversation and the clink of forks and glasses and the smell of clam chowder.  Titus spotted me and waved me to a tiny table in the corner.
“This place is new since I was last in the City,” I said with a smile, slipping into a chair and shaking out my napkin.  “It seems very popular.”
The master of magical creatures for the wizards’ school smiled back.  “They always make a table available for me.  Good thing—I’m not as elegant as most of the people in here, but I really do get tired of the school cafeteria.”
The elegant townspeople, dressed in bright colors, laughed and gestured with their forks as they ate.  Business must be booming here in the City, I thought.  Back when I was growing up, before I entered the wizards’ school, our wholesale wool business had never produced enough income to afford regular dinners in a place like this.
“Their lobster is very fresh,” said Titus, studying the menu.  “I’ve never tried the crab-stuffed mushrooms, though I hear they’re good.  Did you want to start with oysters?”
It was going to be hard to choose.  I had grown up eating fish most days even if it was usually cod, but the kingdom where I was now Royal Wizard was too far from the coast for seafood.
My contemplation was interrupted.  “Well, hello, stranger!  What’s it been, a year?”
I looked up, startled.  A waitress in a starched black uniform stood by our table, grinning.  Red curls tumbled out from under a little white cap.  “You should have warned me you were back in town!”
“No, excuse me, miss,” I stammered.  “You must have confused me with somebody else.”
She made a sound between a laugh and a snort, green eyes dancing.  “Somebody else, indeed.  Are you on a secret mission, and I’ve just ruined your disguise?  The white beard looks very authentic by the way, though I like you with a brown beard better.”
“My white beard is authentic,” I said, striving for dignity.  It had turned white overnight some years ago, resulting from certain hellish experiences, but I wasn’t going to go into detail.
She turned to Titus.  “If he’s on a secret mission with you, forget I said anything!  I’ll be right back to take your order.”  And she hurried off, still laughing.
“So,” said Titus with interest, “you say you’ve never been here, but you’re already good friends with the prettiest waitress in the place!”
“No!” I protested.  “She really has confused me with someone else.  She must see dozens of people every day—it would be easy to get them mixed up, especially in dim light.”
“That’s right, Daimbert,” he said indulgently and returned to the menu.  “I’m going to start with half a dozen oysters.  How about you?  And I really do want to hear from about those magical creatures of the East.”
The waitress kept a straight face while she took our orders, but as she was leaving she whispered, “Meet me after my shift.  You remember where.”
Titus heard her.  “You don’t want to disappoint a pretty girl like that,” he said, one eyebrow raised.
“It would help,” I said coldly, “if I had ever met her before.”  But then I shook my head and smiled.  “If I tell her I really have no idea what she means, she’ll realize her mistake, and then she’ll be mortified.  Best to say nothing.”
The oysters came, and we drizzled on vinegar.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had had oysters.
But I certainly would have remembered a pretty girl like the waitress.
And why was she so convinced that I was someone she knew?
Titus and I talked while we ate.  Ever since graduation, a good decade ago, I had been quietly irritated that the school masters never seemed able to make up their minds, whether we school-trained wizards were on our own or whether they should keep a close oversight over us.  Most of the time we were on our own—especially, it seemed, when we could have used some help.  But at other times they wanted all the details.  The spires and great tower of the wizards’ school cast their shadow even when I was nowhere near the City.
I had taken a very long trip with my king to the fabled East, during which time the school had not worried about me at all.  But now, six months later, I was summoned down to give an account of all I’d seen, as though the masters had been interested the whole time.
(Well, not really summoned.  Summoning involves tremendously powerful and explicitly forbidden spells.  But called.)
“So you saw an Ifrit,” said Titus with enthusiasm, easing the backbone out of his fish with practiced ease.  “You know, I’ve been up to the northern land of wild magic multiple times, and I’ve seen all sorts of creatures there—even dragons—but I’ve never seen an Ifrit.  Are they as big and powerful as they say?”
“Bigger,” I said, cracking a lobster claw.  “More powerful.  More terrifying.”
Vaguely human in shape, capable of changing reality with a single word, they were creatures who I fervently hoped stayed very far from the Western Kingdoms.
“I’ve read that they’re essentially immortal,” Titus continued, “that they may even have helped shape the earth originally.”
“This one claimed to remember Solomon.  I didn’t quiz him on what else he might remember.  I was too busy trying to stay alive.  The most dangerous part is that they’re really very stupid and don’t like to be reminded of it.”
“Maybe a few of us should organize an expedition to the East,” said Titus thoughtfully, “get a better sense of what Ifriti are really like.  And I’m sure there are other creatures there too that never make it to the West.  We tend to focus on field trips to the north.”
“Ever since I got home to the kingdom of Yurt,” I replied, starting work on the lobster tail, “I’ve been very happy to stay right here in the West.  You can tell me all about your expedition if—I mean when—you get back.”
“I expect it would be too much to hope to be able to capture an Ifrit,” he continued, paying no attention.
“And do what with it?” I said irritably.  “Put it down in the cellars under the school with the other magical creatures and hope it stays captured?”
At this he did pay attention.  “No,” sharp and serious.  “I’m not putting anything more down in the cellars.  And I’m going to try to arrange to move out some of the creatures already there—or at least the less dangerous ones.  How can we teach the students if the creatures are inaccessible?”
I remembered then.  Titus hated tunnels and enclosed spaces.  If he ever managed to capture an Ifrit it would not be down in the cellars with their centuries-old protective spells, but right up in the school.
Fortunately, I tried to persuade myself, he was never going to capture one.  “Well,” I said in mollifying tones, “the spells used by the mages in the East are different from ours, but the creatures there are almost the same.  Desert foxes have very long ears compared to foxes around here, but I wouldn’t call them magical.

In spite of having unpleasant memories revived, dinner was very enjoyable.  I untied the lobster bib at last with a happy sigh.  The red-haired waitress took Titus’s money without any of the suspicion City merchants always showed to student wizards and their (potentially) illusory coins.  Being a master and a regular must have advantages I had not appreciated in the days of subsisting on a slim student stipend.
“So, shall I see you later?” she asked me quietly, smiling.
I shook my head, ignoring Titus and what was probably supposed to be an encouraging expression.  “I’m sorry, but I think it would be better not.”
“Not even for old time’s sake?”
“Not even for old time’s sake.”
“Still, Marcus, it’s been good to see you.”
Since that was not my name, at least I could dismiss the half-formed thought that I really had known her and yet had somehow, inexplicably, forgotten.  “Good to see you too,” I mumbled.
I watched her as she crossed the crowded room, moving gracefully between the tables, giving other diners friendly nods.  She did not look like the kind of girl one would forget.
“You know, Daimbert,” Titus said dryly as we walked out into the evening, “even though we wizards never marry, we are allowed to look at pretty girls.”
“Of course I know that,” I said crossly.  Evening bells were ringing from the cathedral tower, their note not quite concordant with the bells on the harbor buoys.  The lamplighters had been out, so the streets were mottled with light and shadow, but the wizards’ school was a dark shape looming against the darkening sky.  “But it doesn’t seem fair to her when she thinks I’m someone else.”
And I wasn’t going to mention it, but I was already in love with a woman much more beautiful than the waitress:  the queen of my kingdom of Yurt.  Not that she had ever given me a second thought, having eyes only for her her husband the king.  But hopeless as my love was, it did reduce any interest in other romantic encounters.

As a former student of the school, I had been given a room closer to the masters’ rooms than the pupils’.  From my window I could look out at the harbor far below.  The long evening of late spring was drawing to a close at last.  Lights glowed from windows along the wharf, and the waves flashed phosphorescent.
Who, I wondered, could the waitress have imagined me to be?  I had grown up a City boy, but since entering the wizards’ school twenty years ago, I had mostly associated with magic-workers.  They would never have mistaken me for someone who was not a wizard, so for all I knew this Marcus could have been in town quite a bit without anyone at the school commenting, “That man looks just like Daimbert!”
And because I had visited the City only rarely since becoming Royal Wizard of Yurt, this Marcus, whoever he was, could have won the hearts of a dozen waitresses without any of them confusing me with him.
I tried to dismiss him from my thoughts but felt too restless for bed.  Titus had gone back to his chambers, pleading the need to prepare for tomorrow’s classes.  I went out into the hall and wandered toward the library.  As a student, I had probably not spent nearly as much time there as I should have, but my feet still knew the way.
The library was dim and quiet, lit during the day by tall windows filling one whole wall, but now just by a few magic lamps.  It smelled of paper and old leather.  No one appeared to be studying late.
On three sides of the long room books were shelved from floor to thirty-foot ceiling.  Once student wizards learned to fly, well along in the program, they could fly up to the shelves and find the books they wanted.  Until then, they had to use the tall, creaky ladders.  I had never liked those ladders.
Wide oak tables, some scattered with forgotten notes, were separated by stands holding still more books.  I wove my way between them, back toward the section of the library on magical creatures.
The books on the lower shelves were mostly on dragons.  Not a surprise—as very large and unpredictable creatures, not to mention deadly, they certainly attracted one’s attention.  As I scanned the shelves, I thought that I probably should have paid more attention in school to the accumulated wizardly wisdom on dragons.  I had only ever met one once, a memorable occasion—one never forgets one’s first dragon—and had been remarkably short on wizardly wisdom.
I pulled a few volumes off the shelf and glanced inside, but they mostly seemed descriptive.  If generations of wizards had found a way to master dragons, they were not sharing.
But I wasn’t looking for dragons anyway.  I rose slowly toward the upper shelves, bringing a magic lamp with me.  It looked like someone else was researching magical creatures, for there were several gaps.  Lamp light flickered across books on giants, on wood nymphs, on nixies, on purple flying beasts.  But nothing on Ifriti.
Well, this section focused on the northern land of magic, not the East.  I floated back to the floor and considered.  I wasn’t even sure I wanted to learn any more about Ifriti, having had more than enough up-close contact with one.  Instead, I wanted to learn more about Eastern magic.
Here at the school, studies focused on the spells that the wizards of the Western Kingdoms had developed and refined over the centuries.  But our trip had taken us through the Eastern Kingdoms, where the dark wizard-princes practiced the magic of blood and bone, even before we reached the great cities and empty deserts of the true East, where the mages worked from entirely different principles.
Although, as I had told Titus, the East didn’t have much in the way of different magical creatures—other of course than Ifriti—the magic itself was inherently strange.  I had stumbled my way through it with only the slightest idea of what was going on, but perhaps it was not too late to find out.

Where in the library would I find books on eastern magic?  I couldn’t remember ever seeing such a section.  Once again I wove my way between tables and book stands.  One of the corners of the room seemed more brightly lit than the rest.  I came around a freestanding set of shelves to see, sitting at a table surrounded by open books—Elerius.

End of the first chapter!  For more detail on my books, visit my webpage.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

Friday, September 5, 2014

Children in the Middle Ages

One periodically sees the suggestion that medieval parents did not love their children.  This ridiculous and patently false notion is based on the fact that the rate of childhood mortality was substantially higher than it is now, and the assumption that parents therefore must have become callous to childhood deaths.

In fact medieval sources are full of parental laments for dead children.  Those who could afford it would make substantial gifts to churches to benefit the souls of their children.  If the choice was to be callous or be sad a lot, parents went for being sad a lot.

(After all, our primate relatives, monkeys, apes, lemurs, mourn for dead infants.  It would be bizarre if humans didn't.  For that matter, childhood mortality rates in the US were substantially higher before WW II than they are now, and yet no one says twentieth-century parents didn't love their children.)

Childhood was however looked at rather differently than it is now, and, by our standards, kids had to grow up fast.  Even though exact ages were not nearly as important for medieval people as they are for us, and no one had birthday parties, there was a sense that one's childhood was divided into 7-year sections.

Up until age 7 one was an infant, below the age of reason, not yet knowing wrong from right.  Children were baptized at birth, because everyone agreed that the unbaptized went to Hell (baptism wiped away original sin, which otherwise would send you there), and they thus needed godparents, who would act for the infant.  From 7 to 14 one was a child, knowing wrong from right but not legally able to enter into binding agreements or give oaths.

"Youth" set in at age 14.  One was not fully an adult, but one could get married, give legal consent, and the like.  It was convenient that this was the age of puberty, more or less.  (Modern puberty shows up earlier, doubtless due both to our substantial diet and to hormones in the water.)

The age of 7 (or so) would be the age at which boys might start knighthood training (see more here), or be sent off to a monastery (see more here).  The age of 14 (or so) would be when boys might head off to the university (see more here).  Boys and girls who had grown up in a monastery would take their final vows not long after they turned 14.

We treat 21 as the age of majority, of full adulthood.  It is the only age we have left from the medieval configuration, but, curiously, it was much less important for them than it is for us.  "Youth" might continue for boys until they were in their 30s and ready to settle down, if a young knight went on Crusade or enjoyed the tournament circuit while waiting to inherit.  Or "youth" might be over substantially earlier for someone who married in her teens.

Certainly teenagers (a recently coined word) were assumed to be much more responsible then than they are now.  Young men routinely went off to fight, and Joan of Arc was in her teens when her visions told her to free France from English domination (which she then did).  Among the peasantry, children would be helping farm from the time they were tiny--as is still the case among the modern Amish.

(Click here for more on medieval life expectancy.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2014
For more on medieval life, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.