Monday, December 21, 2015

Shortest day of the year

It's December 21, shortest day of the year.

This doesn't mean earliest sunset.  That was back on December 6, Saint Nicholas day.  It also doesn't mean latest sunrise--that doesn't come until a week into January.  It's just the day where there are fewest hours of daylight.

The shortest day of the year, January 1, and December 25 (Christmas) are actually all supposed to be the same day, or at least have their origin in the idea of the day that darkness has finished getting darker and things will now start returning to light.  But they also all have their origin in festivals that humans have held since the beginning of civilization.

The Babylonians, the first astronomers and mathematicians, were also the first to decide that a circle had 360 degrees.  They were intensely irritated with the year for having 5 extra days.  But this was easily solved.  Have a 5-day blowout party with the extra days.  (To some extent, our year-end partying is the continuation of this tradition.)

Our calendar is Roman, based on the Julian calendar (of Julius Caesar fame), which was the first to recognize officially that you had to have a leap year every 4 years.  (The Babylonians would get around to a leap month every generation or two.)  In this calendar, January 1 started the new year, but Saturnalia was a week of feasting and fun leading up to it.  (Look how classical we are!  Celebrating both with the Babylonians and the Romans!)

In the fourth century, a pagan Roman emperor, disturbed by the rapid spread of Christianity in the Empire, decided to fight back by declaring particular devotion to Apollo, the sun-god, and declared the shortest day of the year the sun-god's birthday--because it was the day he started to increase.  In the then Julian calendar, which had been drifting since Caesar's time since no one realized that you can't have leap years on the century (have 24 and skip one), the shortest day of the year was December 25.

The Christians in turn fought back against Apollo and declared December 25 their God's birthday.  (The Sun/Son pun only works in English, but it's still applicable.)  Christmas has been celebrated then ever since.

Now in fact the New Testament doesn't exactly say that Jesus was born in December.  In fact, it puts his birth "when shepherds watched their flocks by night," which would be in the spring, lambing season, when the shepherds have to be vigilant against predators.  But it still seems an excellent time for a festival of light and warmth.

For medieval theologians, December 25 also made sense, because the crucifixion took place around the time of Passover according to the New Testament, that is probably late March.  And "everyone knows" that important people die on the anniversary of their conception.  If Jesus was born on December 25, he must have been conceived on March 25, obviously the date of the crucifixion.  It all made sense.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Santa and the chimney

In an earlier post on Saint Nicholas, I noted how our current version of Santa Claus is a curious mix of a Byzantine patron saint of children, Dutch traditions celebrated in nineteenth-century New York by Washington Irving, the "Night Before Christmas" poem, and Coca-Cola commercials.

But how about the chimney?  Why is Santa landing on our roofs and trying to stuff his rotund form down a narrow space uniquely designed to get black soot all over a nice red velvet suit?

The chimney goes back to the Italian Renaissance.  One of the stories told about the original Saint Nicholas was that he saved three lovely but impoverished sisters from ending up in the brothel, by tossing dowries in through their window.  In the ancient Roman Empire, and again in the Renaissance, a young woman really couldn't get married without a dowry.  Indeed, if she moved in with her husband without one, she was officially just a concubine by Roman law.

In the Renaissance, country girls often moved to town to find work and save up money for a dowry, because their families wouldn't have the cash to provide one.  But their working life was tough, and the pay was bad.  If they couldn't save up enough, they might well end up in the municipal brothel.  Many well-to-do Renaissance townspeople became concerned and formed San Niccolò societies, to help these girls as the original saint had helped the lovely but impoverished sisters.

These societies would provide dowries to poor-but-deserving young women, to make sure they were able to be married.  The societies would also sponsor church windows in honor of the saint.  In these images, poor-but-honest scullery maids would be depicted in front of the big kitchen fireplace, having fallen asleep there out of sheer exhaustion, after having scrubbed all the pots.  The saint would come down the chimney, wearing his red bishop's robes, and drop bags of dowries into their laps.  The laps were significant, because the dowry protected their "honor."  Perhaps it's not well to think too hard about how the laps became stockings.

(For that matter, the song "Santa Baby," where a torch-singing woman invites Santa to "slide down my chimney," doesn't seem aimed at children.)

The image from the Renaissance stained glass windows made its way into one of the subtle influences shaping the nineteenth-century Santa Claus.  In "The Night Before Christmas," however, the Saint Nicholas who comes down the chimney is not a saint but an elf.  In fact, he is a rather small creature.  His flying sleigh is drawn by "eight tiny reindeer."  (Washington Irving's Saint Nicholas had driven a flying cart drawn by a horse.)  This one had no trouble fitting down the chimney.

More recent Santas have become enormously fat, as well as full-height men.  One has to wonder how they fit down the chimney.  But this is probably the least of their worries, given how many children's houses they are supposed to visit in the brief hours between when the parents finally get to bed and the kids wake up.

For more on Santa, see my essay, "Contested Christmas," available as an ebook on Amazon and other ebook platforms.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Medieval scribes always abbreviated.  When one is using a feather pen, dipped in ink laboriously made from oak gall and lamp black, writing on parchment that had to be carefully prepared from sheep skin, it's a slow process.  One of the ways to pick up the pace was to abbreviate.

A number of abbreviations were standard from the ninth century on.  For example, a short horizontal line drawn over a vowel meant that there was a following -m- or -n-.  Hence, to write cu with a short horizontal over the -u- was to write the common Latin word cum (meaning with), without having to devote energy to all those little vertical lines (called minims) that go into the letter -m-.

Similarly, the letter -p- with a short horizontal through the lower leg (the descender) meant per, a word that came up a lot in medieval Latin.  It could also be found in the middle of a word, so that imperator (emperor) would be written as impator with a short horizontal through the lower leg of the -p-.

One could even write episcopus (bishop) as epc, because, after all, what other word could it possibly be?

A very common abbreviation was of the word Christos.  This is of course Greek, meaning "the anointed one" or "the Messiah," Christus in Latin, Christ in modern English.  (The New Testament was written in Greek, though medieval writers used the so-called Vulgate, the Latin translation.)  Because Christos is a Greek word, which medieval scribes recognized as such, they abbreviated it using Greek letters, even though very few of them knew much Greek at all.

The first letter of the word in Greek is "chi," what we would call a K-sound, written as X.  Thus a capital X stood for Christ.  Sometimes the scribes would add the second letter, the "rho," the R-sound, written as P.  One will see on sarcophagi and altars the letters X and P superimposed on each other.  This is the "chi-rho" (pronounced Cairo), meaning Christ.

So a scribe referring to Christians might write Xiani.  Christmas was Xmissa (missa is Latin for mass).

This abbreviation system has continued in the modern Xmas.  Some people find the abbreviation deeply disturbing, the reduction of Christ to a cipher, to an unknown.  But this is not the case at all.  (One does wonder if the mention of "the unknown" is a leftover from modern high school algebra.)

Medieval monks could never be mistaken for secularists, and they found the abbreviation very reverent.  Indeed, there may have been some holdover of the ancient Hebrew idea that you should not actually say or write in too explicit a way (or at any rate write on something that might be discarded) the sacred name of God.

So if someone today loudly pronounces they do not believe in Christianity and will therefore refer only to Xmas, that's one thing.  But you cannot read an anti-religion sentiment into the simple abbreviation.  It does, after all, go back to the earliest existing western Bibles.

For more on the history of Christmas, see my essay "Contested Christmas," available as an ebook from Amazon and other ebook platforms.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Medieval bridges

Bridges seem self-evident to us.  There's a stream or river.  We want the road to cross.  We build a bridge.

But bridge-building, as any engineer will tell you, is far from simple.  It has to be strong enough to carry the load.  Unless it is very short, it has to be supported in the middle, which means putting pillars down into the river.  The pillars have to be sturdy enough to withstand the pressure of running water and probably ice and flotsam.  And then there's maintenance.  Covered bridges in the nineteenth century were built that way so that the roof would help protect the timbers.

Bridges were very important in the Middle Ages both for commerce and for communication.  One can kick a horse into a river and hope he swims faster than the river carries him away, but this doesn't work with a cart full of goods on the way to market.

Timber bridges were certainly found in the Middle Ages, but if possible they were built of stone, the roadway wide enough for a cart, with low walls on either side.

All market towns built bridges on the approach roads to facilitate merchants bringing goods to town.  These were usually operated as toll bridges, where those with the carts would willingly pay rather than hunt up and down stream for miles for a shallow ford.

Within a town there was almost always a bridge, because almost all towns were built on a stream or river.  The bridge made communication and commerce between both sides of the river much easier than they would have been otherwise.  Often a bridge would lie right below a castle or fortress, so that anyone crossing the bridge would know they should not even think of getting out of line.

Under the bridge, if the river was swift-flowing, mills were often build between the pillars.  On the bridge itself, if it was fairly long, little shops might become established.

A surprising number of Europe's medieval bridges still survive after eight centuries or so, a tribute to the planning and workmanship of medieval engineers who did not have computers, slide rules, or even Arabic numerals.  These bridges are mostly now pedestrian-only, but some still take cars.  (The one above, located in Mende in south-central France, is pedestrian-only now.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

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

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Saint Nicholas

It's Saint Nicholas Day, December 6, earliest sunset of the year, so I think I'll talk about Santa, Jolly Old Saint Nick, and the question of how the saint whose feast day is almost three weeks before Christmas has gotten associated with Christmas.  (Hate to break it to you, but medieval Christmas was completely lacking in both Santa and Christmas trees.)

(And for that matter, isn't "Old Nick" another name for Satan?  And if you rearrange the letters in Santa, what do you get?)

There really was a Saint Nicholas, by the way, who lived in what is now Turkey in the later days of the Roman Empire.  He had various stories told about him, including that he saved some girls whose destitute father was going to sell them to the local brothel; the saint saved them by secretly throwing bags of money through their window.  He also supposedly brought back to life some boys whom a nefarious innkeeper had cooked up and was getting ready to serve.  These stories made him the patron saint of children.  (See more here on how he became the patron saint of poor working girls during the Renaissance.)

By the seventeenth or eighteenth century, well-to-do Dutch were celebrating Saint Nicholas day (Sint Niklaus or Sinter Klaas as they called him) with small presents for the children.  In the Netherlands, the saint still comes up the canal in his canal boat on the 6th, bringing toys for the good children, but his assistant, Black Peter, puts coal in the wooden shoes of the bad ones.

Santa as we know him (say Sinter Klaas fast and you'll see where the name Santa Claus comes from) is a specifically American invention, that started in the early nineteenth century with Washington Irving, the same person who wrote about the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow.  He was trying to create a vision of an "old fashioned" sort of family celebration, based on Dutch heritage--with the war of 1812 and all that, the British weren't as welcome in New York State as the Dutch still were.

But it was Clement Moore's poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (aka "The Night Before Christmas") that single-handedly moved Santa from December 6 to the 24th.  By the middle of the nineteenth century, Santa was well established, driving out alternate gift-givers.  Thomas Nash, a newspaper illustrator (whose Santa is above), was the first to come up with the North Pole toyshop--I guess someone dressed in furs and driving reindeer just had to live in northerly climes.

But the jolly, red-dressed figure, with a bushy beard, big black boots, and a sack of gifts only really took the appearance he has now in the twentieth century, with Coca Cola commercials, where he chugged a frosty bottle of Coke, rather than puffing on a Dutch clay pipe as he had earlier (and is doing in Nash's illustration).

The Byzantine saint certainly has had many transformations in the last 1600 years, to being considered a secular symbol of Christmas, acceptable where a manger scene would not be (wait! aren't saints religious by definition?), most visible sitting in the mall in December where terrified children are forced to sit on his lap.  Ho ho ho!

For more on Santa and Christmas in the Middle Ages, see my essay, "Contested Christmas," available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Medieval Wedding

These days, it sometimes seems as if it's not a "real" wedding without a few hundred guests, elaborate food, music and dancing, and limousines.  Many (including me) dispute the need to spend tens of thousands of dollars just to get married.  But except for the limousines, a modern blow-out wedding bears many resemblances to a medieval aristocratic wedding.

Earlier I posted on medieval marriage and its slow acceptance as a sacrament, complete with rules against incest (which included marrying quite distant cousins) and against divorce.  Here I want to discuss in a little more detail the wedding itself, which took a form far older than Christian marriage.

The Romans had believed in a big, fancy wedding, with feasting and elaborate clothing.  The bride would process through the streets to the house of her new husband.  A Roman bride was expected to provide a dowry, and in fact she was considered a concubine, not a real wife, if she couldn't produce one.  The males in both the bride and groom's families made most of the arrangements.

Early medieval weddings followed the same pattern.  A priest might be invited in to bless the bed, but if he had any sense he went home before things got too raucous.  By the Carolingian era, however, a priest would commonly perform a nuptial mass, having at least some say in the events.

But the heart of a valid marriage was the oaths exchanged by the couple, commonly symbolized by the exchange of rings.  Modern weddings still have the couples recite (or repeat) oaths to stay true to each other forever.  This was supposed to take place before witnesses, who would be able to say later that the oaths had indeed been exchanged if there was any doubt.

Because an oath is only valid if given by free will, neither party could be forced into it. This did not of course exclude strong moral suasion by one's relatives.  But then, as now, a shotgun wedding doesn't count and can be annulled.

For peasants, a wedding was simple, promises exchanged before family and relatives, often standing in a ring.  If a priest came by at some point, he might bless a marriage that had been in effect for several months already.  (The idea that lords had some sort of "first night right" to peasant brides is completely imaginary, having been created by over-excited Victorian minds.)

For aristocrats, unlike peasants, the exchange of vows, which often took place on a church's front steps, was followed by a nuptial mass inside the church, and then the feasting and dancing.  One could be married in a parish church or a cathedral, but most emphatically not in a monastery or nunnery.

One of course dressed up for a wedding, but medieval brides did not wear white--indeed there was no particular color that was considered most appropriate.  White wedding dresses only became popular in the nineteenth century, in imitation of Queen Victoria's wedding with Albert.

Because a couple was not fully married until they had consummated their union, they would be tucked into bed together.  The wedding guests would often provide helpful tips through the window or sing naughty songs to get the couple in the mood.  There was no honeymoon trip; rather, the feasting might continue for several days.  The whole event could be so expensive for the bride's father that in England lords often demanded that those who held in fief from them should help pay for the oldest daughter's wedding.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

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