Monday, October 26, 2015

Social mobility in the Middle Ages

In the US, we imagine that we live in a society where social mobility is always possible.  The rags to riches story of the poor kid who ends up making millions (usually as a sports star) is treated as almost normal, whereas of course it is wildly unusual.  Few people these days make great leaps of upward social mobility.

But it's possible.  It was also possible in the Middle Ages, even though even more unlikely than it is now.  Upward mobility was generally a several-generations-long process, and of course downward mobility was also possible, and generally much faster.

For a peasant, upward mobility generally meant becoming a more well-to-do peasant, through careful use of one's limited resources, very hard work in the field, and some raw luck.  A young peasant (generally male) might also move to town in the twelfth century or later, trying to make his fortune there, although the ones who actually made a "fortune" were extremely few.

Among the townspeople, someone willing to work very hard (and who got a lot of raw luck) might become fairly wealthy as the head of a merchant or banking house or as a guild master.  He (or occasionally she) would try to emulate the nobility, wearing silks, educating his children, eating meat.  No one would actually mistake a wealthy merchant for a nobleman, but there were enough of these by the late twelfth century that some in the lower nobility felt threatened.

For downward mobility was also possible, and a lord who overspent on silks and spices, rebuilding his castle, going on Crusade, and acquiring new land could find himself in danger of having to do his own plowing.

Marriage was a way to give upward mobility to one's children.  A wealthy townsman could hope to marry the daughter of a knight down on his luck.  A knight would hope to marry a castellan's daughter, a castellan a viscount's daughter, and so on up the line.  (Note that men hoped to marry up, women had to deal with marrying down.)  A knight could not marry a princess (no medieval gender-swapping equivalent of the pretty waitress catching the billionaire's eye), but within about five generations everybody in the upper levels of society was related to everybody.

One of the best routes to upward mobility was the church, although one had to have at least a decent social background to begin with (few peasant children entered the church, as their parents couldn't spare their labor, and serfs couldn't enter the church at all).  That is, a person from what we would call a middle-class background could become in effect a prince within the church as an abbot or bishop.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

For more on medieval nobles and townspeople, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Royal nicknames

We think of royal rulers as having numbers.  The queen of England, for example, is Elizabeth II.  But for most of the Middle Ages, kings with the same names were identified by nicknames, not by numbers.

Charlemagne, of course, was "Charles the Great," Carolus magnus (magnus being Latin for great).  He was doubtless called this during his lifetime.  His grandfather was also named Charles, often referred to as Charles Martel, "Charles the Hammer," because he was a great war leader and defeated a Muslim army in southwestern France in the middle of the eighth century.

These are the kinds of nicknames anyone would be proud to bear.  But Charlemagne's father (Charles Martel's son) was known as Pippin the Short.  One might wonder how Charlemagne managed to be so tall--he was a good six feet tall in an age when few men passed five and a half feet--with a short father. Well, Pippin the Short was married to Bertha Broadfoot, who one assumes was big in more aspects than just her shoe size.

Charlemagne's oldest son was Pippin the Hunchback.  Now, it's not entirely clear that he actually was hunchbacked, but after Charlemagne divorced his mother (to marry the mother of the rest of his sons) he was removed from the line of legitimate succession.  To add insult to injury, one of his younger half-brothers was also named Pippin, their grandfather's name.  Pippin the Hunchback, feeling aggrieved, rebelled against his father and ended up being imprisoned in a monastery for the rest of his life.  (One did not rebel against Charlemagne.)  The "hunchback" nickname seems to have been made up after the fact to explain that he never could have succeeded to the throne anyway.

Charlemagne's eventual successor, Louis the Pious, got off fairly easy in the nickname department, but his own son, who became king of France, was called Charles the Bald, presumably not to his face.  It is in fact not totally clear whether he really was bald or perhaps was just very hairy, and this was supposed to be a joke.

He is depicted above; you can't tell if he's really bald or not because of the crown.  But if being bald is bad, how would you like to be Louis the Stammerer, the next French king?  Or how about his son, Charles the Simple?

In comparison to the Carolingians, the Capetians had more innocuous nicknames, though Louis the Fat probably again would not have been called that to his face.  But his grandson was Philip "Augustus," a nickname intended to invoke Caesar Augustus, and his grandson was Saint Louis.  You don't get much better than that.  Saint Louis's grandson was Philip the Fair, named for his blond hair.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc is the only Catholic saint who was originally declared a heretic and burned at the stake by the Catholic church.

She was certainly a remarkable person by any criteria.  She was a village girl, born in Domrémy in Lorraine (France) around 1412.  By this time, the fifteenth century, people had last names; hers was d'Arc (so she has nothing to do with Noah's Ark, some student exams to the contrary).  From girlhood, she had visions of saints who spoke to her.

There is no question that she heard voices.  In the Middle Ages, the question was whether these were the voices of saints or angels.  Angels were decided on definitively in the early twentieth century, when she was declared a saint, but for many historians the question has been which psychological condition she suffered from.  Different eras seek different explanations.

At the age of 17, under the inspiration of the angelic voices (as she certainly considered them), she set off to meet with Charles VII.  He was living in exile, not yet crowned, because the Hundred Years War was going on, and the English held northern France, including Reims, where French kings were traditionally crowned.  She managed to persuade him that the saints wanted him crowned, and he provided her with armor and knights and sent her off to Orléans, which was held by the English.

Here, to everyone's surprise except perhaps her own, she inspired a great victory.  (You can still buy Jeanne d'Arc refrigerator magnets in the gift shop of Orléans cathedral.)  With this victory, it was now possible for Charles to cross the Loire into northern France, and Joan got him to Reims and got him crowned.

She continued to have success against the English, enough that Charles may have become jealous of her reputation.  When she was captured in battle, he made no attempt to ransom her.  The English tried her for heresy, based in part on the voices and in part on a charge of cross-dressing, found her guilty (no surprise), and had her burned at the stake in 1431.  She was still only nineteen.  (How many of us have led victorious armies in our teens, defying all gender expectations?  It would be good to skip the part about being burned at the stake, however.)

The French never believed she had been a heretic, and in the following years, inspired in part by her example, they finally drove the English out of France and ended the war.  The pope was persuaded to reopen the case in the 1450s and declared that it had not been a fair trial, although she was not officially made a saint until 1920.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

For more on medieval saints and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The late medieval Capetians

The Capetian dynasty ruled France from 987 until the French Revolution, when Louis XVI went to the guillotine in 1793 under the name of Citizen Louis Capet.  He was officially part of the Bourbon dynasty, which had succeeded the Valois dynasty, but they were male-line Capetians all the time, just descended from younger brothers.

As I discussed in an earlier post, the Capetian dynasty succeeded the Carolingian dynasty in France--the most famous Carolingian of course was Charlemagne, who had been crowned Roman emperor in 800.  Hugh Capet was not strictly speaking the first king of his family, because both his great-uncle Odo and his grandfather Robert I had been kings (succeeded for a few years by the final hurrah of the Carolingians), but from 987 on there was an unbroken line of kings descended directly from Hugh.

The most famous medieval Capetian king was probably Louis IX, or Saint Louis, after whom the American city is named (pictured above).  He determinedly sought peace and justice in his kingdom, trying to impose what we would call chivalrous behavior on his knights (things like not killing someone without giving them a chance to fight back, or, best of all, not even killing them a little bit).  He went on Crusade twice, though both excursions were disasters.

On the first of his Crusades, they decided to set up a base camp in Egypt, then attack the Holy Land from there.  Instead he was captured and held for ransom.  On the second, they decided that Egypt was too dangerous to go right in, so they decided to set up a base camp in Libya from which to attack Egypt--with predictable results. When the old king and one of his sons were killed, the surviving French boiled him up so that they could get his bones to take home for burial.

His son, Philip IV, got Saint Louis declared a saint.  Philip also is responsible for starting the Avignon papacy by completely intimidating the popes (see more here).  He disbanded the Templars, in the hope of getting their treasure, but unfortunately for him they had no treasure.  Philip IV is called "the Fair" for his blond hair, not his personality.

The story goes that as the head of the Templars was dying under torture, he cursed Philip, that he would not have sons to succeed.  As Philip had three sons, he laughed this off.  But all three died in quick succession after their father, leading both to the Valois dynasty and to the Hundred Years War.  After a great deal of unpleasantness--the Hundred Years War actually lasted over a century--Joan of Arc inspired the French to finally defeat the English.

At this point, the French kings started down the road toward absolutism.  Louis XI (1461-1483) trusted no one, and filled his court with intrigue and spies.  He was known as "the Spider."  He was also intensely religious and always had at least a few dozen bits of saints' relics pinned to his clothing, for protection.  Although true absolutism really only came about in the seventeenth century, with Louis XIV, the trend was there.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Conflict resolution

In an earlier post, I discussed medieval violence.  There was certainly plenty of violence then (as now!), but there were also plenty of ways to defuse conflicts before they became violent.

It used to be thought that, in an era without the courthouses, police forces, and clear law codes we take for granted now, then anarchy was the only possibility.  This was far from the case in the Middle Ages, in large part because everybody agreed on (or at least gave lip service to) the ideal of peace.

If two men (say, in a drunken brawl) leaped at each other, their friends were supposed to grab them and pull them back, not egg them on.  Hot-headed violence was deplored in all the epics and romances, not celebrated.  (Our own movies and TV shows glorify violence a lot more than did medieval literature.)  Local authorities, whether landlord, sheriff, count, or even king, were expected to act as peacemakers.

A quarrel would be brought before a court, not anything like our judicial courts, but the court of a powerful man (or sometimes woman).  Both sides would present their positions.  Long discussion would ensue.  Both sides would bring forth witnesses, oath-helpers, and material evidence.  More discussion would ensue.  The judge would not end up ruling definitively for one or the other, but rather act more as a mediator, trying to reach some sort of agreement.  The only way one party would get a summary judgment against them would be if they failed to show up.

Sometimes one party or the other would volunteer to undergo trial by ordeal.  The other side, realizing no one would volunteer to do something so painful unless completely convinced they were right, would often yield at this point, leaving the other side the winner.  If someone were accused of major crimes, and everyone knew they were guilty, a good defense would be to suddenly become penitent and head off to Rome or Jerusalem on pilgrimage.  By the time one came back, with luck things would have blown over.

If one had a quarrel with a church, or even a quarrel that involved such sacraments as marriage or oaths, one side or the other could stop the proceedings cold by appealing to the pope, from the early twelfth century on.  Both sides would then go to Rome, get in line to await judgment (a line often years long), and usually end up settling it between themselves anyway.  (By the later Middle Ages, popes started just referring most cases back to the local bishops, so appealing to Rome was much less useful.)

Churches would try to forestall quarrels over pious donations by getting all relatives of the donor to agree ahead of time.  This was much easier than the alternative, trying to persuade one's saints to blast the malefactors.  Threats of such saintly blasting, however, could be quite persuasive.

Castles also acted, by their very presence, to forestall violence.  Although one now thinks of castles as centers of fighting, most would not be attacked for centuries.  Their very presence sent a clear message, Don't even think of it.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015
For more on medieval society, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Medieval Literacy

Anyone reading this blog has probably been able to read for so long that the memory of first figuring out that those marks on the paper meant words and sounds is, at best, dim.  We take reading for granted, but it was certainly not the case before more-or-less universal education and affordable books and libraries.

Being able to read was restricted to the upper levels of medieval society:  not just the churchmen and churchwomen, but aristocrats and merchants.  Although late antiquity/the Merovingian era had been a literate age, as most transactions were recorded in writing and stored away in municipal archives.  Yet when urban civilization collapsed in the early Middle Ages, being able to read became much less useful.

Interestingly, in the late Middle Ages/Renaissance period, anyone who could afford it sent their sons to school and recorded all sorts of events and activities in writing.  Notaries flourished, and their records are a treasure-trove for modern historians.

In between the early and the late Middle Ages, reading was a much more widespread skill than writing.  We tend to think of them as going together, but plenty of medieval people who could puzzle their way through the Latin of a charter would have been hard-pressed actually to produce one.  Charlemagne, who read Latin and who could speak Old French and Old German (neither was really a written language yet), could not write.  He had taken it up too late and lacked the fine muscle control needed for a stylus or quill pen.  His biographer told the charming story of the emperor waking up at night and practicing with a stylus on a wax tablet, in case he suddenly got the knack.

Children in well-to-do households got their first education from their mothers.  Boys would generally graduate to a teacher or tutor (often in someone else's house, if for example they entered a monastery or were training for knighthood or were an apprentice in a guild).  Girls generally stuck with Mom unless, as sometimes happened, they entered a nunnery as a day pupil.

Being able to read Latin was necessary because Latin was the language of learning and of law, as well of course as the language of Christianity.  By the twelfth century one was also taught the vernacular--Old French, Old German, Old Italian, and so on.  This was the language of literature, of stories, of epics and romances (on which see more here).

The well-to-do could and did learn to write the vernacular, both to keep track of things and to compose stories and songs to entertain others.  The epics and romances were meant to be read out loud (most were written in verse), to wile away long winter evenings.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

For more on reading and writing in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


Medieval cities, like modern cities, had pawn shops, places where people could deposit something of value and get ready cash for it, even if not what it was actually worth.  The pawnbroker would agree that the person depositing their "pledge" had a certain amount of time to come and buy it back.  The danger then, as now, was that if one was a little slow, someone else might come in and buy it before one could get back and redeem it.

Officially in the Middle Ages one could not loan at interest.  This was called usury and is formally forbidden in the Bible.  We now use the term "usury" to mean high interest rates, but it was assumed then that any interest was usurious.  The Bible provides a loophole--one is not supposed to charge interest to one's "brother," but Jews and Christians did not consider each other brothers, so Jews could be bankers and charge interest on loans.  (See more on medieval Jews here.)

In medieval pawning, officially there was no interest, and the pawnbroker made money from selling goods that were not redeemed in time--and getting more from the buyer than he had advanced to the person who had deposited the pledge.

The Italian banking houses also were involved in pawning; Lombard Street in London is named for the medieval pawnbrokers who operated there.  (See more on medieval banking here.)  The symbol of a pawn shop was three gold balls, which also became the coat of arms of the Medici family in Florence, a banking family that survived the Renaissance with their wealth intact, largely because (unlike other banking houses) they had the sense not to lend money to either the French or English kings during the Hundred Years War.

Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of pawnbrokers, and the story is that the gold balls represent the three bags of gold he gave to a poor man's three daughters as dowries.

But if one needed to raise a lot of money all at once, pawning some jewelry would not be enough.  During the twelfth century, the heyday of the Crusades, those preparing to go to the East would pawn their land.  Here the principal pawnbrokers were, interestingly enough, not bankers (either Jewish or Italian) but Cistercian monks.  They would receive the land in pawn (pignus in Latin), giving the Crusader a sum of money that was substantial but still less than he would have gotten for selling it outright.

No interest was charged.  The monks got the income and produce of the land as long as they held it.  The Crusader generally specified that this usufruct was to be considered a gift for his soul.  He usually was (understandably) worried about his soul, heading off to war, and might make a gift to the same monks who were advancing him money.

If the Crusader made it home alive, he could redeem his land; he generally had six years in which to do so.  But if he never made it home, or arrived home sick and broke (as commonly happened), then the monks kept the land.  They might offer the Crusader extra prayers.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015