Thursday, October 30, 2014


Hallowe'en is often portrayed as some ancient pagan ritual.  In fact, in the form we know it now, it was created as a twentieth-century American ritual--and I do mean ritual, with very strict rules you have to follow.  And these rules must be taught to the young.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, on the eve of All Saints' Day ("All Hallows," November 1), when supposedly uneasy spirits roamed, young men and boys found it hilarious to do "tricks" like tipping over outhouses or rubbing soap on someone's window, tricks that could be blamed on the uneasy spirits.

But starting in the 1920s, there was a slow but concerted effort to make the holiday more about fun, especially for children, and less about nasty tricks.  By the early 1950s, it adopted the form it essentially has now.

Hallowe'en is a "backwards day."  Many cultures have a backwards day, where normal strictures are reversed, as an opportunity to let off steam but also to reinforce the norms, as the "opposite" version is recognized as unsustainable, indeed ridiculous.  One has to wear a costume to indicate that one has moved out of the normal into some strange alternate persona.

Normally children are shielded from death.  "Grandpa is sleeping.  That's why he can't come for Thanksgiving this year."  Yet on Hallowe'en children are exposed to skeletons, ghosts, and ghastly creatures rising from the graveyard.

Normally children are not supposed to be out after dark and are not supposed to approach strangers, especially not to take candy from them.  Yet on Hallowe'en they are supposed to go up to strange houses, in the dark, and ask for candy.  Candy of course is something that normally children are supposed to have only in small amounts, yet now they are expected to accumulate a whole bagful.

You would think that if parents wanted a child to have a big pile of candy, they could go to the store and get a lot of Hershey bars and just give them to the kid.  But no.  This would not fulfill the ritual.

The ritual requires that the child don a costume, go to a stranger's house, say the ritual phrase, "Trick or Treat," and receive the ritual object, the small wrapped candy bar.  People in those strange houses will insist on the ritual phrase before handing over the candy, "So what do you say?"

Small children must be taught the ritual.  A toddler, wearing an adorable ladybug costume that Mom spent a week making, which he has already wet through and will never wear again, is tired and cranky from being out after his bedtime. "No, Daddy, I'm scared, I want to go home!"  No matter.  The child must go to a stranger's house, must be induced to to say the ritual phrase ("Tickum tweet" is probably close enough), and receive a candy bar that will doubtless be confiscated later by the parents.

The ritual object, the small wrapped candy bar, is by definition bad food, not something good for you.  (This is part of backwards day.)  If nice old Mrs. MacGillicutty gives the child (say, a twelve-year-old) an apple or an oatmeal cookie, something actually wholesome, the parents are instructed to throw it out at once as dangerous.  Newspapers, radios, warnings sent home from school all insist that apples and oatmeal cookies are full of razor blades and needles.

In fact, there is not a single documented case in the US of apples and homemade cookies being tampered with like this on Hallowe'en.  It is an urban legend.  Like all urban legends, its purpose is to reinforce certain behaviors.  In this case, the behavior is to acquire only wrapped candy bars.  (But think about.  Wouldn't it be easier to conceal a needle in a candy bar's wrapper than in a crumbling cookie?)

If you're interested in my take take on this holiday's rituals, wait until you see what I have to say about Christmas.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

Sunday, October 26, 2014


Everybody loves the Vikings.  Or at least everybody does now.  Back in the Middle Ages, it was an entirely different story.

There had been Germanic peoples settled in Scandinavia since the time of the Roman Empire.  The Romans never tried to conquer them, but traded them with them for things like walrus tusks and amber. They scraped out a living farming the narrow fields along the fjords and fishing.  In the eighth century, they developed the long ship, that could be either sailed or rowed, and decided it would make excellent sense to go raiding.  ("Viking" is actually a verb.)

Raiders, usually led by an out-of-favor chief or deposed king, attacked villages and monasteries in western Europe, carrying away loot.  The Vikings were terrifying fighters.  Some monks had to flee repeatedly, because Europe's rivers made excellent transportation networks for the shallow long ships.  A common prayer was, "Preserve us from the Vikings and their terrible dogs."  Imagine Great Dane dogs that were fierce rather than friendly and a bit stupid.

The Vikings (who never wore horned helmets, contrary to Hagar the Horrible) also established some trading colonies in western Europe, realizing one could only raid an area once but could make a profit in trade every year.  They also explored to the east, establishing what later became Russia and continuing all the way overland to Constantinople, where the Byzantine emperors hired these tall, powerful fighters as their so-called Varangian guard.

All during the ninth century Vikings attacked England, France, and what are now the Benelux countries.  In England, King Alfred the Great fought back and eventually forced and bribed them to settle only in what was called the Danelaw region of northeastern England, where they gradually intermarried with the locals and adopted Christianity.

In France, King Charles "the Simple" granted them the region now known as Normandy in the early tenth century (it was named for the Norsemen).  Again, they settled down, started speaking Old French, and became Christians--even if always very lively Christians.

Many Norsemen stayed in Scandinavia.  They explored westward, settling in Iceland and Greenland, even briefly reaching the Canadian maritimes.  Iceland was run by an elected assembly.  Around the year 1000 they voted to convert to Christianity.

We still have a number of sagas and legends they wrote down once they became Christian, some of which, like the Saga of the Volsungs or the Poems of the Elder Edda, referred back to their pagan gods and myths.  Most of the sagas, however, were tales of relatively ordinary Icelanders who ended up killing their relatives.  All the sagas were written in Old Norse, which is extremely close to the language still spoken in Iceland (though they have added words for things like TVs and cars of course).

I have written my own epic saga, Voima, available as an ebook from Amazon,, as well as from other e-tailers.  It combines elements of the sagas with elements of the Finnish Kalevala, which, both the Icelanders and the Finns will tell you, are very different.  The Finns are an entirely different ethnic and linguistic group than the other Scandinavians, being close only to Hungarians.  But from an Anglophone perspective, they both look like good traditions from which to borrow.

I've got dragons, long ships, pagan gods, and wars.  It's my version of what Norse legends might be like if they were still being written.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Medieval (?) Movies

I have problems with movies supposedly set in the Middle Ages.  They get so many things wrong.

For example, almost invariably a movie set in the early Middle Ages will have knights wearing plate armor.  Plate really only came into style in the fourteenth century.  It required great advances in metallurgy, and, because it was heavy and expensive, even then was usually reserved for the most powerful.  The full tournament armor one sometimes sees in museums dates from after the Middle Ages and was meant solely for tournaments, where one would be winched up onto one's horse, not for battle.

And then there's the movie version of the King Arthur story made maybe a dozen years ago, supposedly set in the late Roman Empire, where the "knights" (knights of course not coming into existence for another five centuries) wore both medieval chain mail and Roman protective gear.  They also rode around using modern western saddles and had stirrups (not invented for another four centuries).  The movie claimed to be based on true archaeological finds.

It's just a story! you say.  Yes, and for that reason I have no trouble whatsoever with things labeled fantasy, even if they are set in an essentially medieval world.  The "Lord of the Rings" movies are among my favorite movies, and I'm a fan of the "Game of Thrones" TV series (as well of course of the books).  Here one can enjoy the slightly larger-than-life aspect of powerful individuals and the opportunity to be truly distinctive that actually were part of medieval elite culture.

But I continue to have problems with any movie that claims historical accuracy.  If they want to be accurate, they had better be accurate.  There were a few old movies that did this just fine (I'm thinking of "Lion in Winter" and "Becket"), where the emphasis was all on the characters' emotional interactions, not on the armor or siege weapons.  (Peter O'Toole starred as Henry II in both these movies, once as young Henry and once as old Henry.  The movies are still good.)

Now if one wants to retell the King Arthur story to make it "a story about today," that's fine.  That's what medieval authors did.  The twelfth-century stories made Arthur a glorified version of a twelfth-century king, and in the fourteenth century he had become a fourteenth-century monarch.  All historical fiction, after all, is really a story about the author's "today," as much as about the time period in which the story is set (and medieval authors made no efforts for historical accuracy).  But make it clear that that's what you're doing.

Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't.  In the 90s there was a Richard Gere movie, called, I believe, "Lancelot First Knight."  Aside from the fact that Lancelot looks nothing like Richard Gere, it was mildly amusing in a very 90s way.  Guinevere was a tomboy and she and Lancelot practiced safe-sex in a 90s way, never getting past a kiss.  Lancelot was a rugged individual, from a poor background who rose due to his skills (including scrambling through some weird and anachronistic machine).  Malory rolled in his grave.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Medieval Books

Books as we know them (rectangular pieces of paper, attached along one edge, ready to be read by turning the pages) first appeared during the Roman Empire.  In the ancient world, the standard had been the scroll, a continuous sheet of writing material that could be rolled and unrolled as one read.

(There used to be a hilarious video on YouTube, "medieval help desk," originating in Scandinavia, showing a monk upset because he couldn't figure out how to work a book, rather than a scroll.)

Medieval books were normally made of parchment.  Parchment is sheep skin, carefully treated and bleached until it looks and feels like what we would call heavy paper.  Parchment lasts very well across the centuries; I have seen and handled parchment over 1200 years old.  As long as one's hands are clean, the oil in one's fingers is actually good for the parchment.  Ink was made of a mix of oak gall and lamp black.  For most of the Middle Ages, ink was more brown than black, though late medieval Italy was proud of its dark black ink.

All books were copied by hand, because the printing press was not invented until the fifteenth century, at the end of the Middle Ages.  This meant that no two books were exactly alike.  Because parchment is fairly thick, big books (like the Bible) were generally done in several volumes.  Between the cost of the parchment and the slowness of copying, books were very valuable.  Copying books was one of the works that monks undertook.  A monastery with a very big library might have a hundred books.  Books were regularly borrowed and handed around.

For most of the Middle Ages, most books were in Latin.  A library might include various volumes of the Bible, many works of theology by the Church Fathers, philosophical works from classical antiquity, histories (Bede was quite popular), and collections of charters all copied into a single book.  The latter was called a cartulary.  Above is an image of a thirteenth-century cartulary.

Starting in the twelfth century, works of popular fiction, written in the vernacular (that is, Old French, Middle High German, and the like), might also be found in a library.

Paper was invented by the Arabs and first appeared in southern France in the thirteenth century.  But it did not become common until the fourteenth century.  Then, however, it was widely adopted.  Medieval paper was "all rag content," much higher quality than modern wood-pulp paper.  Late medieval paper is often in better condition than a twenty-year-old modern paperback.

Because paper was much cheaper and easier to produce than parchment, the price of books went down.  Scribes also became sloppier, often writing in cursive rather than the carefully printed "book hands" of much of the Middle Ages.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

Sunday, October 19, 2014


In an earlier post, I discussed "feudalism" and why medievalists no longer use the term.  (Short version:  It has taken on so many disparate and indeed contradictory meanings as to have become meaningless.)  Today, as I promised then, I want to discuss fiefs.

Fiefs were in fact real, even though much less tidy than textbooks would like you to believe, and even though really limited to the eleventh through thirteenth centuries.  In brief, a fief was a piece of land belonging to one lord but granted to be held by another person, also a noble or knight (not a peasant).  The person receiving it promised fidelity but did not pay rent.  It was a lifetime grant, needing to be renewed in every generation.

In medieval Latin, a fief was most commonly referred to as a feudum, which is where the word "feudalism" came from before it acquired all its additional meanings.  Fiefs, knights, and castles all first appeared in France together, around the year 1000.  This is not accidental.

Once the counts (heads of counties) started building castles, defended by knights, they needed to be sure that the men they put in charge of these castles (castellans) would continue to be loyal to them.  It would be too easy for someone safely behind high walls to "forget" what he owed the lord who had put him there.  The counts therefore demanded mighty oaths of loyalty from the castellans.  The castellans in turn demanded oaths of loyalty from their knights.

Fief-holding was initially extremely ad hoc. Someone might hold in fief from multiple lords.  Two powerful men might even settle a quarrel by agreeing that each would hold in fief from the other.  There was no tidy pyramid, and the kings were not even initially involved.

When William the Conqueror, duke of Normandy, took over England in 1066, he declared that the great lords who had accompanied him must hold from him in fief, and granted them land scattered all over Britain (so that they could not consolidate power).  In the middle of the twelfth century, both the French and German kings announced that their dukes and counts had really held from them in fief the whole time and had gotten centuries behind in their oaths of loyalty.  For the most part, the counts and dukes took a deep breath and accepted this version.  (It became highly problematic when the French kings began loudly pointing out that the kings of England, in their role as dukes of Normandy and Aquitaine, owed them fidelity.)

By the late twelfth century, fief-holding became a little more systematic.  The person receiving the fief, the vassal as he was called, did a ceremony called homage, in which he promised to be the faithful man (homo) of the lord granting the fief.  He went down on his knees and held up clasped hands.  The lord put his hands around the vassal's hands, drew him up, and kissed him.  The ceremony thus symbolized both the vassal's subject position and the fundamental social equality between lord and vassal.

Interestingly, it was at this point that the modern "attitude of prayer" began, on one's knees with clasped hands, indicating that one was God's vassal (although probably not expecting to be drawn up and kissed).  Before then, one prayed lying on one's face, or else standing with head bowed and arms extended.

Normally a vassal was expected to fight on his lord's behalf for forty days a year.  In England, vassals promised to help pay for the knighting ceremony of the lord's oldest son and wedding of his oldest daughter.  Vassals were also expected to help ransom a captive lord.  Because a noble might end up doing homage to several different lords for different fiefs, lords often insisted on "liege homage," where homage to them took precedence over homage to anyone else.

In the thirteenth century, Italian lawyers at the University of Bologna, irritated at the messy, ad hoc nature of fief-holding, tried to create laws and regulations, using various events that had involved fiefs as the basis of precedent law (most medieval law was based on precedent, as was Roman imperial law).  But by the fourteenth century fief-holding became much less common, just as it became more rigid.  The Italian lawyers' version was what was discovered in the seventeenth century and labeled "feudalism."

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

Friday, October 17, 2014

What happens when we die?

As I discussed in an earlier post, rather than denying death as does modern western society, medieval Christianity embraced it.  Death was good, they asserted often enough and loudly enough that they may have almost believed it.

There was at any rate a fairly clear idea of what happened after death.  Interestingly, the Bible never actually says that if we are all good little boys and girls we will go to heaven and become angels when we die (the New Testament talks about overcoming death, but there are no pearly gates or halos to anticipate).  But once it became clear that the New Age that the Messiah was supposed to usher in seemed rather slow to appear, people settled on expecting a glorious afterlife, not a glorious life here on earth.

The straightforward version was that we would all lie in our coffins until Judgment Day, when the trumpet would blow (see the trumpeter on the right) and we would be judged, the sinners sent straight to hell for punishment by demons (as in this image), and the righteous gathered into Abraham's bosom.  From the twelfth century on, those in the middle were sent to purgatory so that they could purge themselves from their sins through various sufferings.  The idea of a third place, halfway between heaven and hell, had been around for a while, but it only became formally accepted in the twelfth century.

When you rose again, you got your body back.  Although these days one expects to be a disembodied spirit after death, medieval people knew that when we rise, we rise in the flesh.  (This is still orthodoxy; ask your pastor.)  And it wasn't just any flesh, but specifically yours, all the dust and bits gathered up and reassembled.  You would still be yourself, male or female as the case may be, but improved.  Someone who had been lame would now be able to walk.  Someone who had been obese would now just be pleasantly plump.  Someone who had been anorexic would just be slender.  The one thing that worried them was cannibals.  Since "we are what we eat," they wondered whether the parts of a person which had been absorbed into a cannibal would be part of the original person's body in the afterlife or of the cannibal's.

Now all this happened at the end of Time, but saints were alive and with us right now, rather than having to wait around.  Exactly how this worked was deliberately not contemplated.

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Medieval Clothing

Most of us have far too many items of clothing.  Because these days most clothing for sale in the US is made by cheap labor in the third world, it's fairly inexpensive.  So we buy something for a special occasion that we'll wear once, or buy something and decide we don't like it, but not enough to get rid of it.  Or we do like something, so we buy another one or two just like it.

Medieval people did not have the luxury of the overstuffed closet (and yes, I'm looking at me).  Cloth was woven by hand and sewed by hand (no sewing machines until the later nineteenth century), so making it was labor-intensive.  Town people could have clothing made for them, but country people made their own.  Most people would have two outfits, one to wash and one to wear (no pajamas, they slept naked).  When one outfit got thoroughly worn out, they'd get another.

The basic outfit for both men and women was a tunic, essentially a long-sleeved T-shirt.  For men it would be about knee-length.  For women it would be floor-length.  Elegant women preferred dresses cut on the bias, so they would accentuate their form.  Sleeves could be so tight that it was impossible to get the dress on or off, so they had to be separate, sewn in place each day once the woman had wiggled her way in (this is way before zippers).  For riding, men would wear trousers ("breeches"), but much of the time they were happy to show off their manly legs.

Wool was the most common fabric for clothing, which is why sheep-raising was a major activity, especially in areas like the British Isles where the land wasn't as suitable for crops.  The other major kind of cloth was linen, made from flax, a grass-like plant that could be spun and woven like wool.  Women might wear a linen shift (essentially a slip) under their tunics.

Everyone wore long capes as their outer clothing, with a hood to keep off the rain (the umbrella was centuries in the future).  They also wore stockings, woven rather than knitted, as knitting was not invented until the end of the Middle Ages.  These were held up either with wrapped bands or what was essentially a garter belt (for those who remember garter belts), a belt worn under the clothing with laces hanging down ("points") to tie to the tops of stockings.  Shoes were individually made for each person's feet.

(Click here for information on medieval underwear.)

The cloth trade was a major economic activity.  Raw wool from the British Isles was imported into what are now the Benelux countries, where it was woven into cloth.  This cloth would then be sold at the great trade fairs in Champagne (the region in northern France, after which the drink was named some centuries later).  Some of this wool cloth would be taken to Italy, where it was dyed--the Italians had special secret ways of producing good red-colored cloth.  Once dyed, it would be back at the trade fairs to be sold for substantially more than undyed cloth.

If one did not have Italian reds, one's clothing was either natural (off-white) or else a choice of muddy green, dark blue, or brown, which if dark enough passed for black.  Unconvincing yellow was also possible.  We have no idea how lucky we are to have modern chemical dyes.

The luxury fabrics were cotton and silk.  Cotton first appeared in the west in the late twelfth century and made possible actual underwear, which they'd pretty much done without.  Silk was known throughout the Middle Ages, but because it was imported from the far East, it was always extremely expensive.  It came on the so-called silk road from China, across central Asia, to fetch up in the eastern end of the Mediterranean.  Silk was valued for its color--you could get a brilliant green silk--for its softness, and for its resistance to cloths moths.  No one believed the ridiculous story that silk came from worms.

The wealthy had luxurious clothing that probably cost as much (proportionately) as we'd pay for a car, both because it was good to have more than just a few serviceable outfits and because it was an excellent way to show off.

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

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Columbus Discovers America?

Since this is Columbus Day weekend, I am blogging about Christopher Columbus and the discovery of America.

Good old Colombo (as he was probably known at the time) used to be a major hero, which is how he got a Day.  When I was a kid, textbooks often portrayed him as blond and rather Anglo-Saxon looking, which would doubtless have puzzled an Italian who sailed under the sponsorship of Spain.  The "America" he discovered, it was suggested (though never actually said), was the United States.  No wonder he was a hero!

Now in fact it's perhaps something of a misnomer to say he "discovered" the Americas, given that the natives knew the whole time that these continents were here.  They looked around, and there they were!  The America Columbus discovered was also not the US but almost certainly Hispaniola, the island that now is home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Columbus really was important for proving to Europe that the "outer sea" did not go all the way around the globe, but that there were continents in the middle.  Everyone of course knew the earth was a globe, as I discussed earlier.  Columbus was sailing west in order to find a "shortcut" to India, which is why he called the natives Indians.  He insisted he had indeed gotten to Asia, but no one paid any attention, realizing instead that he had stumbled onto a New World.  Less than five years later the Spanish and Portuguese kings were dividing up the planet at the Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain claiming the New World, everything that lay west of a line down the middle of the Atlantic, Portugal claiming what lay to the east, that is Africa and Asia.

(In fact, although they didn't realize it at the time, the treaty line through the Atlantic sliced through what is now Brazil.  Portugal insisted that Spain observe the original treaty, which is why Brazil is Portuguese-speaking, unlike the rest of Latin America.)

Columbus was also not the first European to reach the Americas.  Legends of the Irish Saint Brendan said that he made it across the Atlantic in a boat made of oxhide--and miraculously made it home again, in spite of whales coming to rub against the boat.  More prosaically, Portuguese fishermen fished the Grand Banks and may well have gone a bit further west to the mainland.  Icelanders (Viking descendants) got as far as the Canadian Maritimes in the year 1000, though at most they seem to have over-wintered before deciding this was too far and heading home.  (This has not kept Scandinavian-descent people in places like Minnesota from finding "authentic" rune-stones with deeply meaningful inscriptions like "Eric was here.")

Even if not an Anglo-Saxon who discovered the US, Columbus certainly marked a major transformation.  If one wants to date "the end of the Middle Ages," 1492 is a good year to choose.  Europe discovered a whole new area to exploit and to influence with its culture.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Raising Food in the Middle Ages

Let's face it, even though we all like to imagine that we would have been lords and ladies (if not indeed kings and queens) in the Middle Ages, any of us with European ancestors are descended from peasants.

This means that our ancestors were out there raising food, a complicated and very hard and unpredictable enterprise.  Even today, farmers will tell you that raising food is possible only due to a few inches of topsoil (where most of the nutrients are) and the fact that it rains.

Most food raised was grain, wheat, oats, barley, which could be stored for a year or more without refrigeration (assuming the rats didn't get it) and ground into flour for bread.  Without modern hybrid seed and modern fertilizers, peasants just had to hope that the ratio of grain planted to grain harvested was better than 2:1.  At a 2:1 ratio, they would have to save half the harvest to plant next year and hope that the other half, the half they were eating, lasted the year.  (With modern farming, the ratio of harvest to seeds planted is dozens to one.)

Of course one could always eat, rather than plant, the saved grain.  Then you'd starve next year instead of this year.  Great choice!  There were constant decisions to be made, with no assurance of the right answer.  Plant too early, and the wet ground might cause the seeds to rot rather than sprout.  Plant too late, and there may not be a long enough growing season.  Harvest too early, and the grain won't be ripe.  Harvest too late, and chances of destruction (hail storm, locusts, birds) increase.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, European peasants made some bold decisions.  Especially they started using a heavier plow (called a carruca), which would dig deeper and was fitted with a mould-board, to turn over the soil as one plowed.  The carruca was only possible with improved metallurgy, such as led at the same time to the spread of horseshoes.  It replaced the old, light-weight plow, the aratum, which while cheaper and easier to make would only dig a little way into the earth.

The carruca allowed farmers to plow only once, turning over the soil as they went in long strips, rather than having to cross-plow to get the soil properly turned over.  This allowed farmers to cultivate rich, damp soils that would have been too wet to use with the old aratum.  The image above is of a field plowed using modern farming techniques, but you can see the deep furrows and ridges made by a heavy plow.

It was bold to switch to an expensive new-fangled kind of plow.  Also bold was to switch from so-called two-field farming, where one planted grain in half of one's land each year and left the other half to lie fallow, to regenerate itself and grow grass and weeds to be plowed under as "green manure."  But also in the eleventh and twelfth centuries peasants started using three-field rotation, one third of one's land to grow grain, one third to lie fallow, and one third planted in legumes like peas and beans, which can increase nitrogen in the soil.  Such decisions, however risky they seemed at the time, increased peasants' food production, making possible the economic growth of the central Middle Ages.

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

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The World Ends in 1260

In an earlier post I discussed the mistaken notion that people in the year 1000 expected the world to end.  Here I discuss a real medieval belief that the world was about to end--in the year 1260.

Why 1260? you may well ask.  Back in the early thirteenth century, an Italian priest called Joachim of Fiore tried to calculate the age of the world based on the Old Testament, as people have done both before and since.  His calculations gave a shorter time span than most people's calculations, 1,260 years from the Creation to the birth of Christ.  This period he called the Age of the Father.  Logically, then (medieval people were always logical, even though we may not always accept the premises from which they argued), there should be another 1.260 years for the Age of the Son.

(Incidentally, BC/AD dating did not begin until five or six centuries after the birth of Jesus, when a monk tried to translate the Roman dating system everyone in the West had been using into a Christian one.  Scholars now think he was close but off by a few years, which is why you will generally see Jesus's birth as dated to about 4 BC, based on the years when Herod was king.  Medieval people did not worry about this.)

Joachim of Fiore died well before the year 1260, so it is unclear exactly what he expected to happen then, but he did say that that year would mark a major change, the beginning of the Age of the Holy Spirit.  In the 1250s, a number of people read his work, and by the time 1260 rolled around panicked crowds assumed the end was at hand.

With only a short time left to atone for their sins, great masses of people took off cross-country, weeping and wailing and flagellating themselves, that is beating themselves with whips.  The bishops declared that this was a heresy, but they had to say it in a quiet voice, because so many people believed it--including some of the bishops.  Mostly the bishops kept their heads down and hoped the madness would soon pass off.

When 1261 dawned and nothing had happened, most of the flagellants quietly went home and back to whatever they had been doing before.  Some of the leaders of the bands announced loudly that it was their piety and prayer that had preserved the world from ending, but this was widely disregarded.

The only group to proclaim the reality of the supposed big change of 1260 was the Spiritual Franciscans.  The Franciscans, founded by Francis of Assisi in the early thirteenth century, had initially followed radical poverty, where the friars lived solely by begging and owned nothing--they could not even save a piece of bread over from one day to the next.  But after Francis's death in 1226, many of his successors decided this was an impossible way to run an Order and started creating exceptions and building houses for the friars.  Those who held out for Francis's original vision called themselves Spiritual Franciscans.

In 1260, they declared that their day had come, that they were the "dusty-footed preachers" whom Joachim of Fiore had vaguely suggested would appear during the Age of the Holy Spirit.  For them, the world really had ended, even if no one else noticed, and they were now in charge.  This was declared a gross heresy, and over the next two generations the Spiritual Franciscans were determinedly exterminated.  The Franciscan Order today still follows a life of simplicity and love for all of God's creation, but the radical extremes of the Spirituals have been quietly forgotten.

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

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Telling Time in the Middle Ages

Of course we know that the day has twenty-four hours.  Ever since the ancient Babylonian astronomers announced that there were twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of night, we have believed them.  (The Babylonians loved twelves.)

But when you think about it, there is no particular physical reason why we should divide up the day the way we do.  And for medieval people, there was certainly no reason why hours always had to be the same length.

They, like us, assumed a daily cycle of twenty-four hours--that is, they assumed the sun went around the earth once every twenty-four hours, whereas we know the earth rotates once every twenty-four hours.  But close enough.

Where they differed radically was that hours were longer or shorter depending on the season.  By definition, for them, there were twelve hours between sunrise and sunset, and twelve more from sunset to sunrise.  This meant that in the summer the daylight hours were long and the night hours short, and vice-versa in the winter.

Whereas we count our hours from midnight, they counted theirs from sunrise.  So what we would call 7 am at the equinox, one hour after sunrise, was for them the first hour, "prime."  Many events were supposed to take place at certain hours, such as the big meal of the day at "none," the ninth hour, in the middle of what we would call the afternoon (on mealtimes, see more here).  Because they recognized that hours were longer or shorter at different time of the year, some things were adjusted according to the season.

For example, monks were supposed to get up at certain times during the night for prayers and liturgy.  During the winter, they went back to bed in between these "night offices."  During the short nights of summer, however, there was no time to do so before the next round of prayer and psalms.  Thus, the monks were allowed a nap in the afternoon.

Every church had people who were supposed to keep track of the time and ring the bells (every three hours, not every hour).  Without modern clocks, they would keep track through the angle of the sun, the position of the stars, and such things as candles and water clocks (where the water dripped through slowly), though the latter had to be adjusted according to the season.  In a cathedral city, the ringing of the cathedral bells was an important event.  Some of the other churches in town would wait until the cathedral started ringing and then quickly start ringing as well.  Other churches, to show their independence of the bishops, would deliberately ring at different times.

The invention of mechanical clocks in the fourteenth century marked a major change in how people thought about time.  Now hours were all the same length, a radical concept.  One could plan to meet someone at "terce" (mid-morning) and know, from glancing at a clock, if terce was soon or a while yet, rather than waiting to hear the bells.  Clocks were far too big and complicated for personal use (as watches), but a centrally-located one could be readily consulted.

Medieval merchants and artisans thus found clocks very useful for business.  The late medieval clock in Auxerre, pictured above, was erected as a symbol of municipal liberties, in opposition to the bishop and the cathedral's version of hours.

Of course, for most of the population, time was reckoned somewhat differently.  When you woke up, it was time to work.  When you were so hungry you couldn't work anymore, it was time to eat.  When you were so exhausted you couldn't work anymore, it was time to go to bed.  (This pattern was ameliorated during festival times and when there were few farm chores, as during the winter, but it was still the standard.)

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

Friday, October 3, 2014


Medieval pilgrimage was a way to atone for one's sins, a way to grow spiritually, a way to seek healing, and a way to get the heck out of town.

Pilgrimage began in the first centuries of Christianity, when the faithful from communities all around the Mediterranean decided to travel to Jerusalem, to "see the places where Christ's feed trod," as one writer put it.  Pebbles from various holy sites would be brought home as souvenirs.  Even after the Muslims took over the Holy Land, Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem continued.

Rome was the other major pilgrimage goal in the early Middle Ages, to the extent that the popular Old French term for pilgrims was "Romies," even if in fact they weren't headed for Rome.  Here one could visit the tombs of Saint Peter and Paul, perhaps get a glimpse of the pope (revered in the abstract as Peter's successor, on whom see more here), and pick up the bones of a purported martyr in the catacombs.

By the eleventh century, another major pilgrimage destination emerged, Santiago in northwest Spain.  This was where Saint James, Jesus's brother (or step-brother), had supposedly died after taking ship in the Holy Land, and sailing the length of the Mediterranean and up the Atlantic coast.  (Iago is the same name as rendered as James in English.)

Major pilgrimage routes quickly became established all across western Europe, leading to Santiago.  The best known starting point for this trip was Vézelay, in Burgundy (the interior of this early twelfth-century church is shown above).  The monks of Vézelay claimed to have the bones of Mary Magdalene.  She had supposedly also taken ship from the Holy Land, but unlike James she put in at the Riviera.  According to the monks of Vézelay, she was not suitably appreciated there, which is why they brought her bones to where they could be properly revered.

The Santiago pilgrim's route is still popular today, though few walk the whole distance (there are, I hear, regular buses to take modern pilgrims over the Pyrenees and across the long and dusty miles of northern Spain).  Medieval pilgrims, however, walked the whole thing, planning on about twenty miles a day.  Given that a lot were ill and going to seek healing, this is quite impressive.

Pilgrims on the way to Santiago wore badges in the shape of a cockleshell, the saint's emblem.  Churches on the pilgrimage route were built with very large enclosed porches, where pilgrims would sleep on the floor.

Someone accused of a crime could often get out of their richly deserved punishment by taking off on pilgrimage.  Fulk Nerra, count of Anjou, went as a pilgrim to Rome five times, staying away until the excitement blew over (from such peccadillos as killing his wife).

Initially what we call Crusades were referred to as pilgrimages.  Those going on the journey wore the sign of the cross, rather than a cockleshell.  These armed journeys to the Holy Land were indeed treated as opportunities to see the land Christ's feet had trod, as well as to kill Muslims.

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