Saturday, November 29, 2014

"In the Deep Midwinter"

We take calendars for granted.  These days, your cell phone will tell you what day it is.  And there's the calendar hanging on the wall, the announcement on the radio, the newspaper, etc.

But figuring out what day it was, or even what year it was, was not self-evident in the Middle Ages.  They were working with the Julian Calendar, one of the few things Julius Caesar was responsible for in the brief interlude between becoming emperor and being assassinated on the Ides of March, the assassins' unrealized intent being to restore the Roman Republic.

The Julian Calendar recognized, as previous calendars had not, that the year is not exactly 365 days long, but rather 365 1/4.  This is why we have "leap year" every four years, with an extra day.  Before the institution of leap year, the calendar would creep, getting 1 more day out of synch with the seasons every four years.  After a while, one starts to notice.  Ancient Egypt, that had a 365-day calendar, had had a long enough civilization for festivals to work their way all the way around the year twice.

The Julian Calendar was thus a great improvement.  But a year is still not exactly 365 1/4 days long.  To make it work just right, you have to skip leap year every 100 years, but have leap year every 1000 years (we had leap year in the year 2000).  So, although from the first century on they no longer had the problem of getting further out of synch with the seasons by one day every four years, they were still gradually getting out of synch by one day every century.

Thus, by the late Middle Ages, they were about two weeks off, with Christmas coming not within a few days of the winter solstice (shortest day of the year) but rather in what we think of as January.

Christmas carols from the Middle Ages and Renaissance have lines like, "In the deep midwinter, frosty winds made moan, earth as hard as iron, water like a stone."  It's still bitterly cold in January in the northern hemisphere (at least in those parts that get cold), but we now assume Christmas is earlier, at the beginning of winter.

The modern calendar is called the Gregorian Calendar, pronounced by Pope Gregory XIII, who was concerned at Easter's drift away from the equinox.  Protestant countries, including the American colonies, initially refused to recognize it, assuming it was some sort of papal plot.  When the American calendar was finally changed, in the late eighteenth century, a number of people were distraught over their "missing" weeks.

Click here for more on telling time in the Middle Ages.

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

Saturday, November 22, 2014


The Middle Ages did not have turkeys, for they are found only in the New World.  For a big feast, they might have a duck or a goose, however.  Many people kept flocks of geese, valued for their feathers, their eggs, and their meat.  In addition, hunting provided wild geese and ducks for the table, as well as sport.

When white men first reached the Americas, they were impressed at the large and tasty local fowl, especially the southwestern turkey.  Natives in what is now Latin America had domesticated them, just as Europeans had domesticated geese.  The Spanish took some home in the sixteenth century.

From Spain, they quickly spread throughout the rest of Europe.  There was some disagreement at the time as to where these big, exotic birds had come from.  The Turks had recently taken over Byzantium and much of the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and anything exotic was routinely ascribed to them.  Thus the British called these birds "turkey birds."

When a century later, in 1620, the Puritans left England, seeking a place where they could impose their religion on everyone in sight without any of that pesky Church of England, they brought turkeys with them in cages on the deck of the Mayflower.  Imagine their surprise when they reached New England (as of course they called it) and discovered a wild version of what they had assumed was exclusively a Middle Eastern bird.

They hunted wild turkeys but did not try to domesticate them, already having domestic turkeys.  In the following centuries, wild turkeys declined rapidly due to loss of habitat and over-hunting, although in recent years they have made a substantial comeback.  The domestic turkey, meanwhile, has become extremely stupid, so that it could never take care of itself in the wild--and, it is said, they have even lost the ability to breed unassisted, which must certainly be a sign of major debility.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Medieval Banking and Money

Banking, along with so much else, was invented in the twelfth century.  The economy was a money economy, with gifts to monasteries, purchases of horses, and peasant rents all calculated in pounds, solidi (shillings), and pence.  The division of a pound into 20 solidi, each of which was divided into 12 pence, went back to late Roman times and was indeed the system of currency used in Britain until the 1980s.

A pound was, quite literally, a pound of silver.  As you can imagine, walking around with 100 pounds of silver, because one was going to make a generous gift or a substantial purchase, was not going to work very well.  Even bigger purchases would have been impossible if one had to pay in silver.  They used coins for small purchases, little silver pennies smaller than a dime as well as copper pennies, but for a bigger purchase one needed to write a check.  (There was not enough gold in Europe for it to be a normal form of coinage.)

For checks one needs banks.  The first banks were "benches," where money-changers sat at trade fairs (click here for more on these fairs), so that if someone came with the currency of one city in his pocket, he could get it turned into the local currency.  Every major city had its own solidi, which varied in value depending on the purity of the silver in them (everyone worked a little "base" metal into the silver at some point), so local merchants wanted local currency, to make sure they were getting what they were owed.

The money-changers had strong-boxes and lockups, to protect their coins, and they would take deposits, for a fee, so that someone coming to a trade fair with a lot of cash wouldn't have to worry about pickpockets.  Soon the bankers also were arranging short-term loans, so someone arriving with goods to sell could get some money upfront to pay for food and lodging until he had sold his goods.

The image is a silver penny, from thirteenth-century Burgundy.

Officially, according to the Old Testament, one was not supposed to charge one's "brother" interest.  The easiest way around it was for the bankers to be Jews, since neither they nor the Christians considered each other "brothers."  Alternately (and the Italian bankers became very good at this), one could charge a "late penalty fee" (defined as not-interest) or fiddle with the exchange rates, so that one borrowed money denominated in one currency and paid it back in another.

Very quickly banking houses became established, with branches in all the major commercial centers.  They would honor each other's checks, so that one could have hundreds of pounds in one's "account" without necessarily having any silver there at all.

We now, in the twenty-first century, tend not to think about how money works.  Money works because everyone tacitly agrees to believe in it, and things were no different in the Middle Ages.  Consider.  You go to the shoe store and give the clerk a piece of paper (a check) on which you have essentially written, "This piece of paper is worth $86.98."  It works because you signed it and it has a picture of a flower.  In return they give you real shoes.  But how about "real" money? you say.  You mean those green and gray rectangles of paper with a dead guy's picture and some little colored threads? maybe worth a nickel in actual value?

Money is anything we want it to be.  There have been countries that use counterfeit American currency, known to be counterfeit, because it's what they have.  In the concentration camps, they used pieces of bread.  As long as experts, the bankers, tell you this money-object has a value, and horses and clothes and electronic devices and everything else are also defined in terms of set values, it all works.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Keeping Warm in the Middle Ages

Without modern furnaces or space-heaters, there were only two ways to keep warm in a medieval winter:  fire and the animal heat of other living creatures.

We take fireplaces for granted, and indeed fireplaces were a medieval invention.  They came in originally during the twelfth century but did not become common until the thirteenth, and were very much something for the elite.  Before then, and for peasants throughout most of the rest of the Middle Ages, the normal source of heat was a fire pit in the middle of the room.  The smoke found its way out through small holes under the roof.

Although one would always reek of woodsmoke from such an arrangement (and probably wouldn't do one's lungs any favors), it was much more efficient in heating a building than was a fireplace.  A modern fireplace is very inefficient, with most of the heat going up the chimney along with the smoke.  It is pleasant on a cold night but not particularly warming--unless the furnace has quit and it's all one has.  Because making a good masonry fireplace and chimney that would not themselves catch fire was expensive, and because one needed a lot more wood to keep a place warm with a fireplace than with a fire pit, only the wealthy could afford one.

Other than fire, one had to rely on animal heat.  Even now, except in the coldest climates, barns are not heated, because all those animals close together can keep the place (reasonably) warm.  Medieval peasants typically had houses built right up to where they kept the animals.  The animals did not actually share their living space, but they were close enough to keep it from freezing.

Then there was snuggling up with other people.  Twin beds would have made no sense for ordinary people in the Middle Ages; you wanted to sleep close to other people, with or without the activities that "sleeping together" now implies.  Today those who enjoy winter camping have down sleeping bags.  The Middle Ages did not have Goretex but it certainly had featherbeds, wool blankets, and furs to keep them warm at night.  The temptation to spend much of the winter in bed must have been strong, especially for the peasants, who had few chores that needed doing in the coldest part of the year, other than seeing to their animals.

In monasteries, the monks did actually have separate beds and just a few blankets, deliberately kept minimal because one's life was supposed to be simple and hard.  Otherwise, how could one rise above luxuriating in things of the flesh?

We have no idea how lucky we are with modern high efficiency furnaces.  For that matter, medieval people would have killed for the wood stoves ("Franklin" stoves, invented by Ben himself) of the late eighteenth century.

See more here on winter in the Middle Ages.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Monasticism and secular society

In an earlier post, I defined medieval monasticism.  Here I shall give more detail on the relations between the monks and the powerful leaders of society.

First of all, it is crucial to keep in mind that "the church" and "secular society" were not separate, discrete units.  They constantly interacted.  Indeed, church leaders, the bishops and abbots, were frequently the brothers and cousins of secular leaders.  Those electing church leaders just took it for granted that those coming out of the leading families were more suited to command.

This did not however mean that church leaders were just the pawns of the powerful.  Instead, for much of the Middle Ages, it worked the other way.  A lord who misbehaved was likely to be subject to an extremely serious talk from an extremely close relative in the church.

Probably the majority of monks were also from the upper levels of society.  Monasteries normally expected an entry gift, to pay for the upkeep (for life) of the new monk, and peasant families would not have felt they could spare any children.  This did not mean of course that noble families were disposing of "extra" children, for giving a son or daughter to the church was always treated as a sacrifice, giving one's most precious possession to God.

These child offerings (called "oblates") were the most common sort of medieval monk or nun, brought up in the cloister, rarely if ever seeing relatives again.  But some twelfth-century monasteries did not take child oblates, requiring instead adults who made the decision themselves.

Young knights frequently joined such houses, filled with religious enthusiasm, as excited to be giving up everything for God as they might, in other circumstances, have been excited to go on Crusade or to a tournament or to war.  They would have to know Latin already to join, meaning a good education was required.  Young adult peasants might experience the same enthusiasm, but without an education they could only become sort of halfway monks, conversi as they were called, who ended up doing a lot of the agricultural work.

Few men "converted" to the religious life in their middle years, though women might if widowed.  (One spouse really could not enter the cloister while the other stayed in the world.)  In old age, both men and women often "took the habit" as they felt themselves dying, as a last attempt to atone for their sins.  Complications arose if they recovered from what they had thought was a fatal illness and decided they had changed their minds--for you could not change your mind about an oath to God.

As well as becoming monks and nuns themselves, nobles were the biggest donors to the monasteries, hoping to gain the favor of a monastery's saints through their generosity.  They might even found a brand new monastery.  The image above is of St.-Etienne of Caen, the monastery William the Conqueror, duke of Normandy, founded in the wake of his 1066 conquest of England, to try to make amends for the deaths of so many people.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dukes and Counts

The most important medieval nobles were the dukes and counts, that is regional authorities.  Let's start with the counts (and no, in spite of what Sesame Street may have told you, a "count" is not someone who can count from 1 to 10).

A count is the head of a county (there, wasn't that easy?).  In the US we still have counties as the basic geographic and governing units; we got them from Europe.  The word "count" comes originally from comes, meaning "companion," because the first counts, back in the sixth century, were the companions of the kings who appointed them.  Originally kings were careful to move these officers around, to keep them from building up too much local power, but counts became hereditary during the ninth century, well before the monarchs did.

Counts did not "own" their counties anymore than the modern county commissioner owns an American county, but they were the chief administrative officers, especially responsible for giving justice in their courts.  They also collected revenue and taxes for the kings and raised armies if armies needed raising.

For those of you following Downton Abbey, in England a count is generally called an earl (from the Anglo-Saxon eorl).  He's still a count the whole time, and his wife is called a countess, not an earless (you can see why).

A duke was a sort of high-level version of a count.  He was head of a duchy, which generally meant a group of several counties.  Eleanor of Aquitaine, who married successively Louis VII of France and Henry II of England, was duchess of Aquitaine, basically the southwest quarter of France, which contained multiple counties.

An especially large and important county might also be called a duchy.  Normandy was sometimes called a county, sometimes a duchy, but the dukes, who became kings of England as well in 1066, preferred the title of duke to that of count.  (The image is the castle of Gisors, in Normandy, built by the dukes shortly after they became kings of England.  It is now a municipal park.  Schoolchildren are brought there to learn about their patrimony.)

Although dukes and counts were fairly independent of the kings in the ninth through eleventh centuries, in the twelfth century all western kings all persuaded these great lords that they held from them in fief.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

For more on dukes and counts and so much more about life in the Middle Ages, see the ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon.

Friday, November 7, 2014


We tend to think of medieval warfare as involving swords, battle-axes, archery, and catapults.  But late medieval warfare also involved cannons.

Gunpowder came originally from the Chinese, who had used it to make fireworks.  It took the Europeans to figure out that it could be used to kill people.  Gunpowder came into use in wars in the middle of the fourteenth century, at almost exactly the same time as the Black Death showed up for the first time in eight centuries.  The main war of the time is now called the Hundred Years War.  All in all, it was not a good time.

Gunpowder was far too likely, given the metallurgy of the day, to blow up in one's hands for medieval people to develop pistols, but they did have cannons, built massively thick (to keep them from blowing up).  Basically you stuffed gunpowder down the barrel, put a cannon ball on top, and lit the powder with a fuse.  When it exploded, it shot the ball out the front.  A cannon could not be fired very rapidly, but a row of them would have a devastating effect on the opposing soldiers.

Every army quickly acquired cannons (including Joan of Arc's army, though the movies don't show it that way).  Cannons acquired personalities and names, like Big Bertha or Mad Margaret.  The Hussites beat the imperial armies in Bohemia in the fifteenth century by mounting their cannons on wagons so they could drag them through the woods, practicing guerrilla warfare.

Not surprisingly, cannons radically changed the face of warfare.  Knights quickly lost the predominance they had had since the eleventh century, since a cavalry charge could be stopped very effectively with a round of cannon fire.  More and more generals relied on foot soldiers, recruited almost at random, given little training and little if any pay, intended just to be cannon fodder.  With luck, after the first wave of foot soldiers were killed, pikemen could rush in and overpower the cannoneers before they could load again.

As this suggests, pikes and halberds continued to be important weapons even in an age of gunpowder.  Bows were also very important, because one could shoot far faster with a bow than a cannon.  But gunpowder just made the always hellish nature of warfare even worse.  Because a castle could not stand up to a bombardment with cannons, many lords, who had been defining themselves militarily since the eleventh century, gave up on defensible castles and built elegant palaces/châteaux instead.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Bad Spell in Yurt

I've always enjoyed fantasy as well as real medieval history.  So when the characters for what became my first published novel, "A Bad Spell in Yurt," showed up quite literally in a dream, I set the story in something that would at least remind people of the real Middle Ages.

Some of it, as I've discussed before, is more nineteenth century than medieval.  But there is no New World in the story, just an outer ocean that reaches west from Europe all the way around to Asia (as medieval people, including Columbus, assumed).  There are thus no New World foods like chocolate or turkeys or tomatoes or potatoes (on which see here).  The hunting scenes and the weapons and the castles are all authentically medieval (except that the castles have figured out how to have plenty of hot water).

The saints in the "Yurt" stories are all based on real medieval stories about saints, including the Cranky Saint of the shrine of the Holy Toe, though I may have gone a bit over the top on that one.  When my heroes go through Hell (quite literally) in the finale of the series, the Hell they encounter is based on pre-Dante visionary literature.  (And here I bet you didn't even know there was pre-Dante visionary literature.)

For those of you who haven't read "A Bad Spell," or who have friends who haven't, here's a special sneak preview (the image is from Amazon).  (If you have read it, be sure to continue the series with "The Wood Nymph and the Cranky Saint.")


I was not a very good wizard.  But it was not a very big kingdom.  I assumed I was the only person to answer their ad, for in a short time I had a letter back from the king's constable, saying the job was mine if I still wanted it, and that I should report to take up the post of Royal Wizard in six weeks.
It took most of the six weeks to grow in my beard, and then I dyed it grey to make myself look older.  Two days before leaving for my kingdom, I went down to the emporium to buy a suitable wardrobe.
Of course at the emporium they knew all about us young wizards from the wizards' school.  They looked at us dubiously, took our money into the next room to make sure it stayed money even when we weren't there, and tended to count the items on the display racks in a rather conspicuous way.  But I knew the manager of the clothing department—he'd even helped me once pick out a Christmas present for my grandmother, which I think endeared me to him as much as to her.
He was on the phone when I came in.  "What do you mean, you won't take it back?  But our buyer never ordered it!"  While waiting for him, I picked out some black velvet trousers, just the thing, I thought, to give me a wizardly flair.
The manager slammed down the phone.  "So what am I supposed to do with this?" he demanded of no one in particular.  "This" was a shapeless red velvet pullover, with some rather tattered white fur at the neck.  It might have been intended to be part of a Father Noel costume.
I was entranced.  "I'll take it!"
"Are you sure?  But what will you do with it?"
"I'm going to be a Royal Wizard.  It will help me strike the right note of authority and mystery."
"Speaking of mystery, what's all the fuzzy stuff on your chin?"
I was proud of my beard, but since he gave me the pullover for almost nothing, I couldn't be irritated.  When I left for my kingdom, I felt resplendent in velvet, red for blood and black for the powers of darkness.
It was only two hundred miles, and probably most of the young wizards would have flown themselves, but I insisted on the air cart.  "I need to make the proper impression of grandeur when I arrive," I said.  Besides—and they all knew it even though I didn't say it—I wasn't sure I could fly that far.
The air cart was the skin of a purple beast that had been born flying.  Long after the beast was dead, its skin continued to fly, and it could be guided by magic commands.  It brought me steeply up from the wizards' complex at the center of the City, and I looked back as the white city spires fell away.  It had been a good eight years, but I felt ready for new challenges.  We soared across plains, forests, and hills all the long afternoon, before finally banking steeply over what I had been calling "my" kingdom for the last six weeks.
From above there scarcely seemed to be more to the kingdom than a castle, for beyond the castle walls there was barely room for the royal fields and pastures before thick green woods closed in.  A bright garden lay just outside the castle walls, and pennants snapped from all the turrets.  The air cart dipped, folded its wings, and set me down with a bump in the courtyard.
I looked around and loved it at once.  It was a perfect child's toy of a castle, the stone walls freshly whitewashed and the green shutters newly painted.  The courtyard was a combination of clean-swept cobbles, manicured flower beds, and tidy gravel paths.  On the far side of the courtyard, a well-groomed horse put his head over a white half-door and whinnied at me.
A man and woman came toward me, both dressed in starched blue and white.  "Welcome to the Kingdom of Yurt.  I am the king's constable, and this is my wife."  They both bowed deeply, which flustered me, but I covered it by striking a pose of dignity.
"Thank you," I said in my deepest voice.  "I'm sure I will find much here to interest me."  The air cart was twitching, eager to be flying again.  "If you could just help me with my luggage—"
The constable helped me unload the boxes, while his wife ran to open the door to my chambers.  The door opened directly onto the courtyard.  I had somehow expected either a tower or a dungeon and wondered if this was suitably dignified, but at least it meant we didn't have far to carry the boxes.  They were heavy, too, and I had not had enough practice with the spell for lifting more than one heavy thing at a time to want to try in front of an audience.
The air cart took off again as soon as it was empty.  I watched it soar away, my last direct link with the City, then turned to start unpacking.  Both the constable and his wife stayed with me, eager to talk.  I was just as eager to have them, because I wanted to find out more about Yurt.
"The kingdom's never had a wizard from the wizards' school before," said the constable.  I was unpacking my certificate for completing the eight years' program.  Although, naturally, it didn't say anything about honors or special merit or even areas of distinction, it really was impressive.  That was why I had packed it on top.  It was a magic certificate, of course, nearly six feet long when unrolled.  My name, Daimbert, was written in letters of fire that flickered as you watched.  Stars twinkled around the edges, and the deep blue and maroon flourishes turned to gold when you touched them.  It came with its own spell to adhere to walls, so I hung it up in the outer of my two chambers, the one I would use as my study.
"Our old wizard's just retired," the constable continued.  "He must be well past two hundred years old, and when he was young you had to serve an apprenticeship to become a wizard.  They didn't have all the training you have now."
I ostentatiously opened my first box of books.
"He's moved down to a little house at the edge of the forest.  That's why we had to hire a new wizard.  I'm sure he'd be delighted to meet you if you ever had time to visit him."
"Oh, good," I thought with more relief than was easy to admit, even to myself.  "Someone who may actually know some magic if I get into trouble."
I took my books out one by one and arranged them on the shelves:  the Ancient and Modern Necromancy, all five volumes of Thaumaturgy A to Z, the Index to Spell Key Words, and the rest, most barely thumbed.  As I tried to decide whether to put the Elements of Transmogrification next to Basic Metamorphosis, which would make sense thematically but not aesthetically, since they were such different sizes, I thought I should have plenty of quiet evenings here, away from the distractions of the City, and might even get a chance to read them.  If I had done more than skim those two volumes, I might have avoided all that embarrassment with the frogs in the practical exam.
"You'll meet the king this evening, but he's authorized me to tell you some of our hopes.  We've never had a telephone system, but now that you're here we're sure we'll be able to get one."
I was flabbergasted.  In the City telephones were so common that you tended to forget how complicated was the magic by which they ran.  It was new magic, too, not more than forty years old, something that Yurt's old wizard would never have learned but which was indeed taught at the wizards' school.  How was I going to explain I had managed to avoid that whole sequence of courses?
He saw my hesitation.  "We realize we're rather remote, and that the magic is not easy.  No one is expecting anything for at least a few weeks.  But everyone was so excited when you answered our ad!  We'd been afraid we might have to settle for a magician, but instead we have a fully-trained and qualified wizard!"
"Don't worry the boy with his duties so soon," the constable's wife said to him, but smiling as she scolded.  "He'll have plenty of time to get started tomorrow."
"Tomorrow!  A few weeks!" I thought but had the sense not to say anything.  I didn't even have the right books.  If I did nothing else, I might be able to derive the proper magic from basic principles in four or five years.  I was too upset even to resent being called "the boy"—so much for the grey beard!
"We'll leave you alone now," said the constable.  "But dinner's in an hour, and then you can meet some of the rest."

I had seen faces peeping out of windows as we went back and forth with the luggage, but no one else had come to meet me.  While I unpacked my clothes, I tried gloomily to think of plausible excuses why Yurt could not possibly have a telephone system.  Nearby antitelephonic demonic influences and the importance of maintaining a rustic, unspoiled lifestyle seemed the most promising.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Medieval Monarchs

Medieval kings and queens are often assumed to have been absolute, "divine right" monarchs.  But this is not true--such monarchs instead are found only in the early modern period, the Ancient Régime (sixteenth through eighteenth centuries).  Medieval monarchs were elected.

Elected? you say.  You don't mean peasants had access to the ballot box?  No, of course not.  When the US was founded, only propertied men could vote, and women got the vote only after World War I, after many decades of effort by people like Susan B. Anthony, who didn't live to see it.  The ability of southern blacks to vote was tenuous at best until the 1960s.  So we shouldn't expect medieval voting rights to match the twenty-first century.

If one wanted to be a king in medieval Europe, one needed both to be part of a family considered royal and to be elected by a council of the powerful.  In the Merovingian dynasty in early medieval France (fifth-eighth centuries), any male descended in the male line from Clovis, the first king, seemed to imagine he had the right to be king, regardless of details like illegitimacy or a plethora of brothers and cousins.  This led to some extremely nasty family feuds.  A would-be king needed at least some of the powerful to support, follow, and elect him.

The Carolingian dynasty, Charlemagne's family, started with his father Pippin, who deposed the last Merovingian king, had himself formally elected by his followers, and persuaded a bishop to anoint him.  To add to this, he got the pope to bless him and his children as indubitably royal.

In the next centuries, a number of people challenged Carolingian rule, in all cases assembling nobles and bishops who were supposed to "represent" the will of the people, in order to be elected by them.  (Our form of representative democracy derives from medieval forms.)  Once kings, of course, they wanted to make the position hereditary, but it was hard to do so.  And it was not automatic that the oldest son inherit.

In England, the duly elected Anglo-Saxon king was defeated in 1066 by William, duke of Normandy, now known as "the Conqueror."  William was succeeded as king by his second, not first son, William II; the oldest son got Normandy.  William II was succeeded by his younger brother Henry I.  Henry, whose only legitimate son died by drowning (legitimacy had become more important than it had been during the early Middle Ages), was succeeded by his nephew Stephen (son of a daughter of William the Conqueror).  Stephen in turn was succeeded by Henry II, whose mother was a daughter of Henry I.  Henry II had five sons, but three of them died before he did, and the fourth, Richard "the Lionheart," died childless and was succeeded by his younger brother John.

(Interestingly, one of the sons of Henry II who predeceased him, Geoffrey, had had a son named Arthur.  Young Arthur went to visit his Uncle Richard one day and was never seen again.)

For all of these successions, none of which match our vision of inheritance by oldest son, the great lords of England had to give their consent.  We are now up to the early thirteenth century, and, for the first time, both French and English kings started asserting that their oldest son would inherit, even if not formally elected.  But it took a long time to get there.

The castle in the image is Château Gailliard in Normandy, built by Richard the Lionheart.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014