Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Capetians

The Capetian dynasty is the longest line of kings in the world, with straight, father-to-son inheritance from Hugh Capet, king of the Franks in 987, through eight centuries of French kings, to the modern kings of Spain.  (The queen of England claims the ninth-century King Alfred and even the legendary Hengist and Horsa, leaders of the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain in the fifth century, among her ancestors, but there are a lot of detours in between.)

The Capetian family, who had originally held power in the Rhineland, gained power in France in the ninth century leading the resistance against the Vikings.  The Carolingians, the descendants of Charlemagne, provided little leadership (and the German branch of the Carolingians soon died out), so there were several kings in the family as well as counts and dukes before Hugh Capet was elected king of the Franks (see here for more on royal election).  Modern scholars call his family "the Capetians" in his honor.

Capet was later taken as a last name, but people did not have last names in the tenth century.  Capet was rather a nickname, to keep him distinct from other men named Hugh.  It means "little cape," and he had the nickname because he was abbot of the monastery of Saint Martin (yes, powerful laymen at this time often appropriated monasteries).  Saint Martin was the Roman soldier-saint who had supposedly seen a beggar cold and wet by the road and given him half his cloak (cutting it in two with his sword).  When the beggar transformed into Christ, Martin was understandably surprised and took up a religious life at once.  The monks of his monastery preserved the half a cloak he had left as a relic.

The Capetians had been counts of Paris before becoming kings, which is why Paris is now the capital of France.  Initially they had less power and property than a lot of their dukes, but they had ambitions.  At the end of the eleventh century King Philip I named his son Louis, which was a much more royal-sounding name than Hugh or Philip or Robert, which is what men in the family had previously been called (there was also a Megingoz back there, but let's not worry about him.)

Supposedly Philip I and his queen had been praying for a son, and a wise old hermit they visited blessed them, told them to expect a son, and gave them permission to call him Louis.  Louis was the name of Charlemagne's heir and also the name of the first king of France of the Merovingian line back in the fifth century (who is usually called Clovis in French or English--put C on the front of Louis and see what you've got--even though he probably called himself Chlovodech).  From then on until the French Revolution, almost all French kings were named Louis or Philip (especially Louis), with the exception of the occasional Charles or Frances or Henry.

Philip II (1180-1223) is now considered the creator of modern France.  Nicknamed Augustus, he drove the kings of England out of Normandy and consolidated royal rule.  He also got into major trouble for trying to divorce his wife, Ingeborg of Denmark, but that's a different story.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Even if a person knows very little medieval history, they have almost certainly heard of Charlemagne.  "He was great or something."  (That's right, the name means "Charles the Great," the great-part from the Latin magnus, as in 'magnum'.)

The real Charlemagne was king of the Franks from 768 to 814, king not only of what is now France but also of much of western Germany and the Benelux countries.  He was also king of Lombardy (northern Italy) in at least his own mind, though the Lombards had doubts.  He is now imagined as "father of Europe," and there is a statue of him at the European Union headquarters.  Given that he became king of all these territories through conquest, and that his biographer was very irritated with the Germans who refused to stay conquered, maybe we shouldn't press this analogy too far.

In the year 800, Charlemagne was crowned Roman Emperor by the pope.  Now you'll recall from earlier posts that the capital of the Roman Empire had moved in the fourth century from Rome to Constantinople (what is now Istanbul, in Turkey).  There were intermittently independent emperors in Rome as well as Constantinople for over a century, but from the 470s on, the Roman Emperors, the heirs to the Caesars, were solely in the Greek East (Constantinople), where they remained until their empire finally fell to the Turks in 1453.

So how did Charlemagne get declared Roman Emperor?  (Usually modern history books call him "Holy Roman Emperor" to keep him distinct both from the Caesars and from the Greek Orthodox emperors in Constantinople, but the term "Holy Roman Emperor" wasn't used until the twelfth century.)

In part the popes owed him one.  Early medieval popes were quite weak and little respected, and the pope of 800 had been having terrible trouble with the Lombards.  He also had decided that the current Emperor in Constantinople was a heretic.  Irene, the emperor, was also a woman, which only made it worse.  She believed that the Ten Commandments forbidding "graven images" meant that one could not have images in the church and was thus an "iconoclast," one who broke up such images.  (This is very depressing to art historians.)  This was not at all how western theologians and the pope interpreted the Ten Commandments.

Feeling that the imperial throne was thus vacant, the pope announced that Charlemagne was the only true emperor and crowned him on Christmas Day 800 in the church of St. Peter's in the Lateran.

On the one hand, this was great, Charlemagne and his descendants (known as the Carolingians, from Carolus, the Latin version of the name Charles) got to call themselves emperors.  But a precedent had been set, that one was not really an emperor until crowned by the pope, which gave the pope power at least potentially.  The bases of the eleventh-century crisis of church and state were laid down.

A thousand years later, Napoleon remembered this all too well and refused to be crowned emperor by the pope, instead snatching the crown from the pope's hands and crowning himself.

Charlemagne himself had doubts about the whole procedure, mostly because he was concerned about the Greek Roman Emperors.  He seems even to have asked Irene to marry him, hoping to resolve it that way.  But she died quickly, and her successor, a man, basically told Charlemagne that if he wanted to call himself emperor in the God-forsaken northern European forests, where they didn't even speak Greek, he was welcome to do so.

The image is from one of his coins.  To the left, behind his head (crowned with laurel like a Roman), you should be able to read his name, Karolus.

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

Friday, December 12, 2014

End of medieval serfdom

In an earlier post, I discussed the origins and nature of medieval serfdom.  Here I discuss how it became less and less important, disappearing in some areas in the twelfth century.

Because serfs, "bound in the body," lived and worked next to free peasants--some of whom rented their land, some of whom owned their land outright--they always resented their status.  The easiest way out was to "forget" that they were serfs.  Because who was or wasn't a serf was rarely if ever recorded in writing, and because some of the things that really marked one's servile status (like restrictions on inheritance) came around only once a generation or so, serfs might be able quietly to pass for free.  The danger was being called on it by one's peasant neighbors.

Or one could just run away.  In an era without modern communication, no one would know where someone had gone, much less drag them back.  "City air makes free," went an old proverb, because with the growth of twelfth-century towns serfs had a place to go where they could get a job and live, where everyone (serf and free peasant alike by origin) was an immigrant from the countryside.

In France in the early twelfth century, a number of peasants painstakingly saved up the money they were able to make from sale of produce and bought their way out of serfdom.  A lord of the body would be quite happy to free a serf for twenty or thirty pennies, rather than getting one penny a year in head-tax.  By the 1120s, serfdom was essentially gone from most of France.

The former serfs still owed their rents, the combination of labor dues and produce that they and their ancestors had always paid.  But a number of lords became irritated at the difficulty of enforcing labor dues--workers grumbled about how far they had to come, tended to arrive late and leave early, and demanded lunch.  These lords "commuted" a number of labor dues to cash payments, so that peasants paid an annual fee instead of working the lord's land, and the lord would then hire laborers who knew they would not get paid unless they worked hard.

This was fine with everyone, including young men trying to save up money to buy property or get married.  That is, it worked until inflation set in, the inevitable result of a growing economy.  Workers started demanding higher wages whereas the fees-in-lieu-of-labor were fixed in perpetuity.  In the thirteenth century, landlords stopped commuting labor dues, and some even insisted that anyone who could be proven to have a servile ancestor had to come work for them.  This was not as successful as they hoped.

In England, meanwhile, serfdom did not die out quite as quickly, in part because of the developing common-law courts.  Only free men and women could sue or give evidence, and many a claimant won their case by arguing that their opponent was a serf and thus couldn't be in court at all.  This made it much harder for people to quietly forget their servile origins.

In Germany, when knighthood began in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the service knights (on whom see more here) were serfs, and indeed they continued to be serfs into the late Middle Ages.  They lived and acted like aristocrats, even becoming governors of regions of eastern Europe, yet still legally kept their servile status.  These "serf-knights" were known as ministeriales, those who served.

Although serfdom was at most a minor issue in the high and late Middle Ages in the west, it developed for the first time in Russia in the early modern period and persisted there until the nineteenth century.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

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

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Medieval serfdom

A student of mine once wrote on an exam that "surfs were tide to the land."  I like the maritime motif, but um, no.

A serf, servus in medieval Latin, was someone who was not legally free yet not a slave.  We now have trouble with such distinctions, but both ancient Rome and medieval Europe were fine with it.  Slavery means that someone is assumed to have no will of their own and are thus required to obey all commands, no matter how stupid, arbitrary, or harsh.  A slave can be bought and sold like an animal or any possession.

Serfs could not be bought and sold, and although they might have very heavy obligations, they were not subject to arbitrary commands.  They were still, however, assumed not to have complete freedom of will, so they could not give testimony in court or join the church, both of which required free oaths.  A serf was born into serfdom, under the authority of a "lord of the body."  Because they could not be sold, they could not be sent off their land (this is what "tied to the land" meant--it is sometimes described as a horrible condition, but in fact it was a protection).

Serfdom began in the sixth century, at the end of the Roman Empire.  Although the period is very badly documented, so the details are not clear, what appears to have happened was that as the Roman army stopped conquering and thus stopped bringing home hordes of new slaves, landlords became worried that their agricultural slaves would die and not be replaced, and they would have no one to do the work.  Hence, they allowed their serfs to marry, establish families (thus creating new workers), and have their own little plots of land so that they could support themselves, rather than having to be fed by the landlord.

Helping hurry the end of slavery was the spread of Christianity, which had always preached that all humans were equal in the eyes of God.  It was considered a "good deed" to free one's slaves.  Household slavery lingered in Europe until the eighth or ninth century, but agricultural slavery was gone by the seventh century, replaced by serfdom.  And of course there were always free peasants as well as serfs, on whom see more here.

Serfs were assumed to be born into serfdom; it was inherent in their bodies.  They owed heavy rents, especially labor dues, that is a certain number of days a week they were required to work on their lord's land rather than their own, but these rents were fixed, and the lord could not raise them.  Serfs also had other restrictions, such as who they could marry and who could inherit from them, and in some places they had to come before their lord once a year with a rope around their neck and a penny on their head, to indicate their subjection.

I will discuss the end of serfdom in a later post.  In the meantime, just don't call it feudalism.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

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

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Christmas trees

An old-fashioned Christmas, that's what we all say we want--but Christmas trees are part of everybody's definition of a "good, old-fashioned" Christmas, and they are a relatively recent development.

Nobody had Christmas trees in the Middle Ages.  They certainly brought trees into the house, but it was chopped-up trees for firewood (preferably aged hardwood), not a semi-living evergreen.  If you think about it, it indeed strange to cut down a live tree and bring it inside in order to express one's Christian piety.  There are all sorts of possible pagan overtones one can imagine about the renewal of life and hope at the darkest time of the year.

The medieval-favored plant for Christmas was holly.  Holly keeps its leaves green throughout the winter, as a symbol of rebirth, and the thorns and the red berries were seen as symbols of the Crucifixion--the thorns for the Crown of Thorns, the berries for drops of blood.  Wait, you say, these should be Easter symbols, not Christmas symbols.  But medieval Christians always thought of the beginning of Jesus's story--his birth--in terms of its end.  He was born to die.  What else do you think the myrrh was doing?  This gift from the Wise Men was an unguent used in embalming.

The first definite appearance of Christmas trees was in Germany in the late eighteenth century.  The story was that Martin Luther, over two hundred years earlier, had seen stars through the branches of an evergreen and been inspired to bring the tree indoors and light it with candles, but this story has its doubters.

Both England and the US first adopted trees during the nineteenth century, independently inspired by the Germans.  Queen Victoria, married to a German (Prince Albert), was apparently the first to have a Christmas tree in Britain, though the well-to-do British soon followed suit.  Originally trees were for the upper crust.  The beloved story "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens (the story with Scrooge and Tiny Tim) has no Christmas trees.

In the US, wealthy east-coast families were caught between, on the one hand, wanting a simpler, more "traditional" Christmas in a nineteenth century that was increasingly turning to factory-produced goods and commercialization, and, on the other hand, wanting to "make this the best Christmas ever" for their children.  (The focus of Christmas had already shifted from the drunken revelry of earlier times to the child-centered celebration of the home.)  Christmas trees met both these needs.

The first American Christmas trees were small, table-top trees, on whose branches were hung small presents like a toy boat or a candy cane.  A semi-living tree (or top of a tree, now cut and brought indoors) was certainly nothing like a factory.  And the children would, it was hoped, be very excited to see their gifts in a new arrangement (even if they were factory-produced).

For more on the history of Christmas celebrations, see my essay, "Contested Christmas."

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

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