Thursday, May 28, 2015

Water in the Middle Ages

We have no idea how lucky we are to have clean water available in (it seems) unlimited quantities just by turning on a tap.  All the water that comes into an ordinary home is drinking water.  We drink water, make coffee and tea with water, fine, but we also shower with drinking water, wash the car with drinking water, flush with drinking water, water the plants with drinking water….  Imagine a whole series of plastic bottles flying by next time you're in the shower.

This is a development just of the last century.  And it may not last, because we're using up available water.  California, under the pressure of a burgeoning population, heavily irrigated farmland, and a major and continuing drought, is having to figure out how to save and use "gray water," the water from, say, washing dishes, which is perfectly good for flushing or watering plants.

People in the Middle Ages never had our free and easy attitude toward water.  They were, of course, just as concerned as anybody about water-borne illness, which is why you could get someone in very serious trouble by accusing them of poisoning the well.  You don't need to know about germs to know that there can be impurities in the water that will make you sick.

In much of western Europe, cities often relied on Roman aqueducts.  The ancient Romans had had the same concerns about getting pure water, so they had built aqueducts to carry water often many miles from mountains down to town.  They had also constructed big sewers in the city of Rome, most notably the cloaca maxima, which is still (partially) in use today.

But if one were out in the country or didn't have an aqueduct, wells were the only option.  They were of course hand-dug; wells today are drilled.  In dry areas and in places (like mountaintop castles) where it was impossible to have a good well, they collected rainwater.  A castle would have plenty of water stored for a long siege; it was even more important than food.

Peasant houses and town houses had privies out back.  This became a problem in the post-medieval period, when all the empty spaces between houses of a medieval city were filled in.  Then houses had cesspits in the basement, that had to be cleaned out periodically.  Medieval castles had "inside toilets," you might say, privies set in the outer walls, sometimes opening on air, but usually with drains to carry things away.  It was sometimes possible to capture a castle by crawling up through the drains.

All medieval cities were located on a body of water.  Clean (or fairly clean) water would be taken out on the upstream side of town, and noxious trades (like leather tanning) would be located on the downstream side, where the water would carry away the noxious products.  With luck, the river would have cleaned itself by the time it flowed down to the next town.  Now, in fact, a running stream going over sand and gravel can clean itself, sort of, but only of organics, not of modern chemicals or heavy metals (much less the coal slag of the nineteenth century that made England's rivers black).

Even aside from drinking and washing, water was needed to run the watermills (the medieval version of factories) and to produce fish.  And of course, as all farmers know, the crops won't grow without water.  (Click here for more on medieval use of rain.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

For more on water in the Middle Ages and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see the ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Robin Hood

I hate to have to be the one to break it to you.  Robin Hood wasn't real.  As in the case of King Arthur, there may well have been a real person (named Robert) to whom later stories were attached, but he didn't do the things attributed to him in tales of Robin Hood.

That doesn't mean they aren't good stories!  The stories are set in fictionalized version of the last decade of the twelfth century, when Richard the Lionheart was king of England.  But he was mostly off on Crusade or rampaging around France, so his younger brother John and his mother essentially ran the country.  Because John, who succeeded Richard as king, was considered both then and now as a very bad king (the barons forced him to sign Magna Carta, and you will notice there's never been a King John II), he made a good adversary.

In the stories, the outlaw Robin Hood (usually described as an unjustly outlawed lord) lives in Sherwood Forest with his merry men and one woman, Maid Marian (okay, this seems a bit odd, but we won't worry about it now).  One of the merry men is Friar Tuck, apparently a Dominican friar who has either run away from or been expelled from his religious order.  (The fact that the Dominicans were not founded until 1215, well after the stories are supposed to take place, doesn't detract from the stories.)

There isn't much left of Sherwood Forest these days but a few trees, but that hasn't kept the locals from making it into a tourist attraction.  Robin Hood and his band, who were especially skilled in archery, constantly outwitted John's henchman, the wicked sheriff of Nottingham.

This statue of Robin Hood is now in Nottingham.

The first appearance of references to Robin Hood took place a good two centuries after the time of Richard the Lionheart, and the earliest ballads telling stories of him are from the end of the Middle Ages, so clearly the people writing the stories had other kings and other issues in mind than Richard and John.  It was certainly safer to criticize the government by composing ballads about bad rulers of long ago than to criticize the current ones openly.

When you think about it, it's interesting that the outlaws get to be the heroes.  They are said to "take from the rich and give to the poor," proving they are not greedy bandits, but the stories are definitely subversive--unlike the King Arthur stories, about a properly constituted and beloved ruler.

Americans love outlaws.  Our country began in rebellion against the English crown, so Robin Hood is a natural hero.  Star Wars, with the brave rebels and the evil Empire, is in the same mold.  Movies, TV shows, and even commercials show daring outlaws eluding the forces of law and order.  (And then we wonder why young men flee from the police and get shot at, rather than meekly surrendering.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Friday, May 22, 2015

The War of the Roses

Many people with only minimal interest in late medieval British history have gained a new appreciation for the War of the Roses because George R. R. Martin has said that it inspired him.  His "Song of Ice and Fire" series of books has been made into a popular TV series as "Game of Thrones."  The real War of the Roses was between two branches of the royal family, called the Yorks and the Lancasters, whose names inspired Martin's Starks and Lannisters.  If you look at Martin's map of Westeros, you will see that it is the same shape as Great Britain (though flipped), with The Wall up around where Hadrian's Wall stretched across Britain during the late Roman Empire.

The name, "War of the Roses," sounds like something sweet.  It was not.  It was an extremely nasty civil war, fought with gunpowder, cannons, and conscripted foot soldiers.  At its most basic, it was a war between two related families, both of whom thought that the English crown should be theirs.  It started in 1455, only two years after the English had finished losing the Hundred Years' War with France, and lasted, with on-and-off fighting, for the next thirty years.  Let's just say that if you liked warfare, fifteenth-century England was the place to be.

We tend to think of the crown as descending in a tidy way from father to oldest son, but royal inheritance never was tidy in England.  The difficulties that led to the War of the Roses started innocuously enough with King Edward III (1327-1377) and his four sons, Edward, Lionel, John "of Gaunt," and Edmund.  So far, so good, heirs and back-up heirs.

Edward, called "the Black Prince" (he was proud of his special black armor), was a great war leader during the Hundred Years War but did not live long enough to succeed his long-lived father.  No problem--he had a son who succeeded as Richard II.

But Richard II died childless.  So the crown went to his first cousin, John of Gaunt's son Henry IV.  This is the line that became known as the Lancasters, whose emblem was the red rose.  But wait! you say.  How about Lionel and his heirs?  Well, that's exactly what Lionel's descendants wanted to know.  But Lionel had not had sons, only daughters, which is why his line was skipped over.

The Lancasters hung onto the throne for the next two generations, but Lionel's descendants remained grumpy.  Then, Lionel's great-granddaughter married the duke of York, a descendant of Edmund, who you will remember was King Edward III's youngest son, and whose emblem was the white rose.  The war was on.

Initially the Yorks won, but then they turned on each other.  Richard III (a York) became king in 1483 after the mysterious death in the Tower of London of his young nephews, his royal older brother's sons, who one would have thought were heirs to the throne.  Ever since then, Richard III has had a bad reputation, although there has been a concerted effort to rehabilitate him.  Richard's bones were recently found in England under a parking lot.

The above is a simplified version of a very messy and complicated series of conflicts.  The point is that relatives can hate each other much more bitterly than they hate non-relatives.  The war did clear out an awful lot of England's aristocracy, especially branches of the royal family.  The eventual winner was neither a York nor a Lancaster, but Henry Tudor, who was Welsh, and who became Henry VII after he defeated Richard III in 1485.

On the one hand, this shows that winning battles is more important than being the "rightful heir," especially as no one had been able to agree for thirty years who was the "rightful heir."  But Henry VII did have connections to both Yorks and Lancasters, a detail he made sure everyone recognized.  His mother was a descendant of a younger son of John of Gaunt, and hence could be called a Lancaster, and his wife was a sister of the York "princes in the Tower."  At this point, everyone was so exhausted that no one tried to raise any more issues.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Medieval wilderness

Medieval people's attitude toward wilderness was like of Americans in the last couple of centuries:  first the wilderness is a frightening, useless place that must be overcome, and then, when it almost is overcome, it becomes beautiful and valuable and worth preserving.

In the early Middle Ages (sixth-seventh centuries), with the breakdown of Roman communication and trade and indeed urban society, due to plague, the mini ice age, and the rise of Islam, Europe became predominantly rural and heavily wooded.  It took several centuries before the population began to grow enough that people became aggressive about clearing land for crops.

The wild wood was frightening, a place for wolves and bears (still found in Europe then), a place all too easy to get lost in.  Villages were far between, with nothing like the road-signs or even roads we now take for granted.  People lived in the woods, of course, bandits or half-crazed hermits, but they were just as scary as the wolves and bears.

In the eleventh century, with a growing population and the new, heavy carruca plow, which allowed plowing of denser, damper, and thus richer soils, there was a concerted attack on the wilderness.  Marshes were drained, brambles cleared, trees chopped down to create new fields.  Both peasants and monks tackled this enthusiastically--monks of the new Cistercian order depicted themselves at the beginning of the twelfth century as energetically cutting down trees.  Landlords too set out to turn waste land into agricultural land, to increase their income.

The same response to what must have seemed like infinite woods motivated settlers in the American colonies.  The whole eastern half of what is now the US was heavily forested when white men arrived. As late as around 1800 in Ohio, centuries-old oaks were being chopped down so that new corn fields could be planted, the trees being burned in enormous bonfires that could be seen twenty miles away.

But in medieval Europe, as in the Americas, people quickly discovered that the forests were not infinite after all.  It was considered a miracle when the abbot of Saint-Denis (near Paris), early in the twelfth century, was able to find enough large trees to make the beams for the new church he was building.

Wood was necessary for all sorts of things, from building houses (as well as churches), to building ships, to making carts and furniture, from making trellises for vines to making the cogs for windmills.  Metal was scarcer than it is now, and plastic was centuries in the future.  And especially wood was the chief fuel in an age without oil, gas, or coal.  Forests were also places for wild animals that could be hunted, for pigs to be pastured, and for wild honey and berries to be harvested.

Twelfth-century Europe probably had fewer woodsy patches than it does now.  For the first time, people started worrying about indiscriminately chopping down forests.  The problem was especially acute in Iceland, an island far enough out from the Continent that tree seeds do not blow there readily, and birds do not carry acorns across the waves.  When the Vikings first settled, it was wooded, but they cut down the trees, for their ships, for fuel, and for pasturage for their sheep, and the trees did not come back.  Even now, after many years of planting trees, Iceland has a fairly barren landscape.

Those woods that remained on the Continent continued to be homes of hermits, though from some of the accounts there seem to have been quite a large number of hermits squeezed together in the few remaining patches that could be considered wilderness.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

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

Monday, May 18, 2015

Medieval seven-year-olds

We all have been seven years old, we all have known seven-year-olds.  First or second grade, full of enthusiasm, at that awkward age where you know what you want but the grownups are still enough bigger that if they don't want it too, it's not going to happen.  Still young enough to be characterized as "tiny tots."

A medieval seven-year-old was considered old enough to know right from wrong, to have reached some version of "the age of reason."  (Various stages kicked in at seven, fourteen, and twenty-one.  The only one we still keep is twenty-one, though some states used to allow driver's licenses at fourteen.)  For example, they could give consent to a donation.

Although birthdays and exact ages were far less important to medieval people than they are in modern times, momentous changes could happen to a child around age seven.  This was the stage when their future life might be decided.

It was at roughly this age that a boy (or more rarely a girl) would be sent off to a monastery as an oblate (literally an "offering"), if the parents decided this child was going to become a monk (or nun).  Contrary to popular belief, parents were not disposing of excess children.  Many large families sent no one to the monastery; others ended up having the entire family enter the cloister.  And of course a large gift was expected to accompany the child, so it was certainly not a way to "get out of" the expense of child rearing.

Going into the monastery was a one-way trip.  An oblate would rarely if ever see his family again, unless he decided not to become a monk after all.  This decision would be made around age fourteen.  In practice, few boys or girls brought up in the cloister, not knowing anything else for seven years, decided to leave.

Alternately, parents might send a boy (not a girl) off to the cathedral school, to start training to become a priest.  Here at least the child would get to see his family again, and if the family lived in town, the boy might be a day pupil, coming home every night (or at least every few weeks).  Here the basic reading and writing a boy had learned from his mother would quickly be augmented with rigorous Latin and theological training.  Even those who did not intend to become priests might go to a cathedral school as a day pupil; the future King Louis VI of France was one example.

Parents who wanted to apprentice their children to a trade would send them off around age seven as well.  Although they would still see the child intermittently, the child would live with the master with whom he (or sometimes she) was training.  And again, a large donation was expected to set a child on this path.  (See more here on guilds and apprenticeship.)

If a family was aristocratic, in the twelfth century or later, the age of seven or so was the age at which boys would be sent off for knighthood training, either with a lord or with an uncle or other appropriate relative.  Again, the child might come back to visit, but his home now was where he was being trained. (See more here on knighthood training.)

Girls were less likely to leave home at age seven, because they weren't trained as knights, were less likely to apprentice in a guild (most guilds, even though not all, were male-dominated), and did not become priests.  The majority of nuns were adult converts, not child oblates.  But by age fourteen a girl, who had been taught both book learning and household management skills by her mother, would be considered old enough to marry.

Of course, the seven-year-old child of a peasant family had fewer possible options; he or she would be expected to start actively helping out in all the chores associated with farming--and to know enough not to be stepped on by the ox.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

(See more here on medieval childhood.)

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


Happy anniversary to my "Life in the Middle Ages" blog!  It's one year ago today since I started it.

So far I've covered a wide range of topics, some on everyday life, such as what people did and didn't eat in medieval times; some on religious history, such as why medievalists avoid calling people "superstitious" just because we in the twenty-first century don't agree with them; and some on political history, such as the Holy Roman Empire.  Posts on medieval women have proven especially popular.

I've also talked some about my books, fantasy set in an alternate version of the Middle Ages, where there was working magic, and where the Middle Ages had persisted without the invention of gunpowder, the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, or the Industrial Revolution.

("The Starlight Raven" and other books are available as ebooks on Amazon and other e-tailers.)

Recently I seem to have been discovered by gamers, who want some ideas for role-playing games set in their own version of the Middle Ages, and by students googling for answers to take-home exams.  (I'm fine with the first, not so sure about the second--if you just copy and paste my text, kiddos, the teacher will recognize that you weren't the ones who wrote it.)  I'm probably a big disappointment to re-enactors, because I don't describe exactly how to sew a medieval-style tunic or give recipes for garlic stew (which was actually a big favorite--better than a plate full of under-salted lentils).

As a professor, I get a lot of people signing up for medieval history courses because they've enjoyed "Lord of the Rings" or "Game of Thrones."  I'm not alone--medievalists across the country experience the same thing.  Real medieval history is usually a shock if one comes in expecting lots of sword fights, but fortunately it's extremely interesting in its own right.  And that's what fantasy is for, a half-way house between hard-core medieval history and imagined adventures with knights and castles.

If there are specific topics you'd like to see covered in this blog, let me know!

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Monday, May 11, 2015

Peter Abelard's life & hard times

As noted in the previous post on Peter Abelard, he was one of the great thinkers of the twelfth century, one of the most outstanding examples of the medieval assumption that faith and reason (religion and science, we would probably say) would give you the same answer.  Some people who really ought to know better have seen him as anachronistic, as someone just like us only living in the twelfth century, because he applied rationality to matters of faith.  But he was a totally twelfth-century kind of guy.

He also had a very adventurous life.  He was a teacher in the Paris schools that eventually became the University of Paris.  One of the cathedral priests had a very smart niece named Heloise, who he thought should get a good education, but girls couldn't attend these schools.  So he asked Peter Abelard to come give her private lessons.

The private lessons worked all right.  She learned a whole lot, some of it having to do with Latin and theology, some of it, well…  They named the baby "Astrolabe," after an astronomical device that had just been invented.

They did indeed get married, although Heloise initially didn't want to, afraid marriage would hurt Abelard's career, because it meant he could never be a priest.  Both were hassled by rumor-mongers (think today's paparazzi), so Abelard sent her off to stay in a nunnery, though not as a nun--indeed, they enjoyed "conjugal visits" behind the abbess's back.

Heloise's uncle back in Paris became distraught at hearing his niece was in a nunnery, thinking Abelard had dumped her there so he could pretend he wasn't married.  Deciding to teach Abelard a sharp lesson, he sent some thugs around to Abelard's house, who castrated him.

This pretty much ended Abelard's and Heloise's marriage, as you can imagine.  Now Heloise did become a nun, as abbess at a new house Abelard helped her found.  He called it "The Paraclete."  The paraclete is the Holy Spirit.  Abelard, a wise-ass as ever, said that God the Father and God the Son got all the press, and it was time to do something for the poor neglected God the Holy Spirit.  Young Astrolabe was sent to be trained as a monk.

Abelard went off to be the abbot of a monastery in Brittany, near where he'd come from originally.  It was a terrible monastery, where the monks had no interest in leading a regular, austere life, and who decided it would be fun to poison their strict abbot with his hot-shot Paris ways.  (It didn't work.)

Back in Paris (I wonder why) Abelard returned to teaching.  He got in trouble for a book he wrote on the Trinity.  The difficulty with his "solution" to the "universals" problem, that categories really exist but only in our brains, is that certain abstract nouns like "the Trinity" are really supposed to exist in external reality, and people noticed.  Abelard denied he had ever said anything unorthodox about the Trinity, and quoted Augustine to back him up and told the judges at his trial that they knew no theology or even Latin, but it didn't help.  He was ordered to burn his book on the Trinity, which he did, sobbing and explaining theological points the while.

He wrote up the account of all these adventures.  Heloise, who he hadn't been in touch with in several years, read it and sent him a scathing letter--"You never write!  You never call!  When I think of what I sacrificed for you!"  But after they got past this stage, they started quite an interesting correspondence, in which Abelard argued that because women are weaker physically than men, their privations, fasting, and the like are more pleasing to God.  (So much for the idea that medieval people considered women inferior.)  But they never saw each other again.

Heloise, as is clear in her letters, was certainly just as smart as Abelard, even if neither one had as much common sense as one would prefer.  After a while, still smarting over having to burn his book on the Trinity, he rewrote it and set off to Rome to see if he could get the pope to say it was fine after all.  But he died on the way and has been (since the nineteenth century) buried next to Heloise in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.  (So are Molière and Jim Morrison of the Doors.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Peter Abelard

"Universals."  Scholastic method.  "No and Yes."  Say what?

These are all related to Peter Abelard, one of the great intellects of the twelfth century and one of the biggest wise-asses of his time.

As I noted in a previous post on medieval universities, the twelfth century was a time when (unlike now) it was assumed that faith and reason were not opposed forces.  Rather, it was assumed that what we would call religion and science should and would give you the same answer.  Peter Abelard is an outstanding example of this.

He started his career at the end of the eleventh century as a wandering teacher; these were relatively common in a time when universities had not yet developed and yet people were interested in intellectual issues.  He lectured on what was then a hot topic, whether "universals" (things like chairs, or abstract nouns like beauty or goodness) really existed as "universals," or whether they were just convenient names or categories we had created ("nominalism").  Abelard out-argued his own teacher (demonstrating his wise-ass characteristics), arguing that universals really were real, but they did not exist in some vague outside-the-world-place (as Plato had had it), but rather only in our brains.  This sort of ended the nominalism-realism debate on universals for about 3 centuries.

But Abelard is best known for his great work, "Sic et Non" ("Yes and No" in Latin), in which he embraced all the contradictions inherent in Christian theology.  The New Testament, the Old Testament, pronouncements of popes, pronouncements of councils, writings of church Fathers all contradict each other.  This is and was undeniable.

But how to resolve these contradictions?  You couldn't reply, "Just do what the Church says," because all these contradictory writings were written by completely orthodox churchmen, and in some cases were in the Bible.  The answer was to use human reasoning powers to figure it out.

Abelard's great work was a series of theological questions, such as, "Could God make black be white?"  He answered them both Yes and No, giving citations to support each side.  He did not then actually attempt to resolve the question, although that was clearly his intent, saying he left it as an exercise to the reader (another sign of being a wise-ass).

(God never changes, therefore He would never make black be white.  But God is omnipotent, so He can make colors be any colors He wants.  See what I mean?)

Abelard never "got into trouble" for this.  Everyone knew about the contradictions.  Now there was a way to deal with them beyond hoping they would go away.  His method, quickly named the "scholastic method" (because used in the schools), was immediately adopted by other intellectuals.  Within a few years, Gratian at the University of Bologna and Peter Lombard at the emerging University of Paris both wrote textbooks, in respectively law and theology, that became the textbooks for studying their fields.  Both used Abelard's method of answering a question two ways, with supporting citations on each side. They differed, however, in giving a final answer.

Peter Abelard is also known for his affair with Heloise (less romantic than you might have thought), but that's a story for another day.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Monday, May 4, 2015

King Arthur

Everybody loves King Arthur stories.  The sword in the stone, the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle, the tragic betrayal by Mordred, who is Arthur's nephew and son, the Holy Grail even before Indiana Jones and Monty Python got hold of it.

Medieval audiences loved these stories just as much.  There was a thirteenth-century preacher who noticed his audience dozing off and woke them all up by saying, "Once upon a time there was a king named Arthur."  (Once they were alert, of course, he chided them for preferring a story to a good moral lesson.)

Curiously, loving King Arthur stories has made many modern readers want to find the "historical Arthur" and attach the stories to him.  There actually seems to have been a historical Arthur, but he doesn't match what people want to find out about him.  The real Arcturus was a Romanized Briton, not a king (Britain had no kings once it was conquered by the Romans) but probably a dux, a war leader.  Arcturus is a good Roman name.  He would have also been a good Christian.

He would have lived in the late fifth/early sixth centuries, at the time that imperial Rome was pulling its troops out of the west and focusing on war with Persia (see more here on the "fall" of the Roman Empire).  The Angles and Saxons, Germanic peoples, came across the North Sea once there were no more pesky Roman legions in Britain, conquered, and settled.  The historical Arcturus seems to have fought to keep them at bay for at least a few decades.

This was the beginning of the period called (misleadingly) the "Dark Ages" in Britain.  The Romanized, Christianized population fled to the margins, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, the areas that still think of themselves as Celtic rather than Anglo-Saxon.  They remembered in story the mythical adventures of Arthur, who had once withstood those nasty English, but whose final brave defense ended in glorious failure.  There is some thought that the dragon, now a Welsh symbol and later attached to Arthur (Pendragon and all that), came from the dragons on Roman military banners.

The idea of the glorious leader Arthur stayed alive over the centuries, but without any of the accompaniments now taken for granted.  Guinevere and Lancelot were first added in the twelfth century.  So was the Holy Grail.  Other aspects, like the sword in the stone, Mordred, the lady of Shallot, and Morgan Le Fay were added in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  What we think of as the "standard" Arthur story was put together by Thomas Malory at the end of the fifteenth century, trying to organize and combine all the different stories in circulation.

Like modern audiences, medieval audiences wanted to believe Arthur was real.  In the twelfth century, the rather obscure monastery of Glastonbury "discovered" that Arthur and Guinevere were buried at their monastery.  Pilgrims flocked from all over.  Glastonbury is on a hill (a "tor") in a rather marshy region, which, without too much difficulty, could be equated with the "island" of Avalon.  It all made sense.

All medieval authors retold stories of Arthur as stories about their own period, making the weaponry, the castles, and the manners at court match what their audiences knew--except of course much fancier and bigger.  Nonetheless, they usually set these stories "officially" in late Roman Britain, only a few generations after Joseph of Arimathea had (theoretically) brought Christianity to the island.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015