Thursday, April 28, 2016


These days when one says "anniversary" one thinks wedding anniversary.  Medieval people celebrated anniversaries too, but not wedding anniversaries and not birthdays.  Rather, they celebrated death days.

Exactly how old a person was did not matter an enormous amount.  Now we pass milestones (like driver's license or drinking) on particular birthdays, but medieval people rarely knew exactly how old they were.  (This is not just medieval--I've been looking at census records, and before World War II a startlingly large number of adults had ages ending either in 0 or 5.)

Much more significant was the day of the year on which someone died.  This is because anyone could be born, but a death was special.  Accounts of saints might, very occasionally, mention something marvelous like the infant speaking even before birth, but they almost invariably gave a long, sad account of the saint's final days, the wisdom imparted to their followers, and their contrition for their sins.  At monasteries, there was a special board that would be pounded if someone was dying, so all the monks could rush to the deathbed and join in someone's final moments.

The calendar of the year was marked by saints' days.  Almost always the day that was special to a saint was the day on which that saint had died.  For example, November 11 is not just Veterans' Day but Saint Martin's Day, because the saint was supposed to have died on that date.

One did not have to be a saint to have an anniversary day.  Many nobles arranged that, after they died, monks would say special Masses in their memory, in perpetuity, on the day of their death.

I'm not sure how the flower forget-me-not was given its name.  But it blooms in the spring and is a good reminder to recall those we loved who are no longer with us.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Heaven, hell, and purgatory

Everybody sort of knows about Dante, and the account he wrote c. 1300 of a trip through hell, purgatory, and heaven (or, in his Italian, inferno, purgatorio, paradiso).  There's even a "Dante's Inferno" video game.  But Dante was not the first, even if now the best known.  Visions of heaven and hell had been found in Christian writings since the early Middle Ages, often composed as a warning of the punishments to come if one did not stop sinning.

But how about purgatory, you ask?  Well, purgatory was late to the game, really becoming established only in the twelfth century.

Theologically heaven and hell were well established from late antiquity on.  From the time of Adam and Eve on, in medieval theology, everybody went to hell.  Adam and Eve had started sinning (disobeying God) almost as soon as they were created, and everybody after them had had original sin, that is sin from their origin.  No one, no matter how virtuous or well meaning, could be saved.  Hell was Satan's realm.  He thought this was a great arrangement.

That was why, according to Christianity, humans needed salvation, which came in the form of Jesus, who was both fully human (so that he could atone for all of humanity's sins) and fully divine, omnipotent enough to make up for millennia of sinning.  The whole point of salvation was that it was undeserved--humans couldn't deserve it (because they were sinners), but they could accept it, by trying to be the best people they could.

Heaven only started being populated after the crucifixion.  During the three days Jesus was dead (Good Friday to First Easter), he was supposed to have "harrowed" Hell, gone through and scooped up all the virtuous Old Testament figures.  So the first people to arrive in a Christian heaven were Jews.

Except for these Old Testament figures, everyone else was in hell for good.  Purgatory was different, because you didn't have to stay there forever.  There had long been a sense that there ought to be some sort of halfway house, for those not evil enough to deserve eternal punishment yet not pure enough to go straight to heaven and eternal bliss.  By the twelfth century, this took formal shape as purgatory.

One was punished in purgatory to "purge" one's sins (hence the name), but after a certain amount of time you had been punished enough and got to go to heaven.

Exactly when you went to heaven or hell was a bit unclear.  Officially on Judgment Day the dead would rise from their coffins and be judged, sent off to where they deserved to be.  But there was also a sense that you were sent there immediately.  After all, the saints were already in heaven.  Otherwise they couldn't intercede for you with God.  And there were plenty of visions of sinners already roasting in hell.

Hell has always been more interesting than heaven.  It would be lovely to enjoy eternal bliss, but it's boring to read about.  Dante's Inferno gets far more attention than his later two books.

I myself have used pre-Dante medieval visions of Hell in "Is This Apocalypse Necessary?" where my heroes actually voyage through hell (it's a fantasy), but I never try to get them into heaven.  (Click here for more on this book.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

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

Friday, April 22, 2016

Relics and reliquaries

As I discussed in an earlier post, saints acted as mediators between humans and the divine in medieval Christianity--as indeed they still do in modern Catholicism.  Saints were not distant figures, because medieval churches would still have a piece of them, their relics.

The early church was slightly leery of the idea of preserving body parts of the holy dead.  Certainly they buried them reverently, but the first time that a bishop put bits of the bones of a saint into an altar was at the end of the fourth century.  Saint Augustine, initially uncertain about the practice, became an enthusiastic supporter in the fifth century.

He was convinced because he believed they could work miracles.  The bones of Saint Stephen, who is mentioned in the New Testament as the first martyr (someone killed for his faith), gained a great deal of attention at this time, and churches all over Europe were dedicated in his honor.  Stephen was soon joined by other saints, both "universal" saints like Mary and local holy men and women, who would be revered where they were buried and who would be considered likely to listen to the prayers of their neighbors.

A relic trade quickly grew up, bringing bones especially from the Roman catacombs to churches that needed relics.  Medieval people did not automatically believe every bone was a relic.  If there was any doubt, they would test it, for example by throwing it into a fire and seeing if it hopped out, or trying to see if it would work a miracle.  Scientific method in action.  (Click here for more on medieval miracles.)

Similarly, medieval people were suspicious of people willing to sell relics--who would want to get rid of a real relic?  So if a church did buy a relic, they would usually do so from someone who claimed to have stolen it.  These "holy thefts" were considered only to be possible if the saint was willing to leave--probably because the church where their relics were located was not treating them right.  If someone wanted to steal relics which did not want to go, they would become enormously heavy, or the thief would find it impossible to leave town.

Relics could be classified as first-class or second-class.  First-class relics were actual pieces of the dead saint.  Second-class relics were things the saint had touched or used, like items of clothing.  Some of the  best-known second-class relics were the (supposed) Crown of Thorns, brought from the Holy Land to Paris in the thirteenth century (it is still preserved at the Ste.-Chapelle), and the "chemise" of the Virgin, kept at Chartres, supposedly the nightgown Mary was wearing when she gave birth to Jesus.

Relics were generally kept in reliquaries.  These boxes were beautifully decorated, often inset with jewels.  Sometimes the reliquary would be in the shape of the body part--for example, an arm bone might be kept in a reliquary shaped like an arm.  Sometimes the reliquary portrayed the saint herself.

For important festivals and councils, the reliquaries would be taken out of the church and become part of the procession.  A conference between the abbots and bishops of a number of different churches would also be considered a conference between the saints who had been brought along.  Although saints (like God) could be accessed anywhere, they were considered to be most present with their relics.  Just because they were dead didn't mean that they weren't still alive and part of the community.

A late medieval French king (Louis XI) wouldn't go out without a certain number of relics pinned to his clothes.  This sort of thing strikes many moderns as "superstition," but it is important not to be so dismissive.  As I discussed earlier, superstition is an action unrelated to the desired outcome (like wearing lucky socks), whereas the saints helped protect the king.

One may think of saints and their relics as something for days of long ago.  But during World War II, when American fighters were bombing the French city of Amiens (held by the Germans), the priests of the cathedral took out their saint's reliquary and showed the saint the danger.  The last bombing run stopped just short of the gorgeous fourteenth-century cathedral.  Hard to argue with success!

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

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

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Indie book publishing

These days, the good news is that anyone can publish a book, as an ebook on Amazon, B&N/Nook, iTunes, or Kobo.

The bad news is that anyone can publish a book.

Independent author/publishers, of which I am now one, have to be their own publicists, cover designers, editors, accountants, and everything else.  But the biggest challenge is getting one's books noticed among all the other ones.

Far more indie ebooks are published each year than traditional print books, yet about 80% of all book sales are regular, physical books.  As they say, do the math.  And if that wasn't a big enough challenge, a lot of the ebooks available are, how shall I say this delicately, really bad.  This makes it harder for readers even to want to plow through the haystack in search of golden needles.

One of the ways to get attention is to do "promotions," put the book on sale and make sure as many people as possible know about it.  A whole minor industry has grown up of companies that will send out emails to people who like your ebook's genre, telling them it's on sale.  They charge quite a bit, and authors line up to pay.  The reason it works is that these companies are very picky about which books they will promote, so buyers will know the book's worth reading.

I'm been experimenting with the whole indie publishing thing with "The Starlight Raven," my most recent full-length book.  I've made it available both as an ebook and in paperback.  This is intended to be the first in a new series about Daimbert's daughter (for those of you who have read the Yurt series).  It's available on all major ebook platforms.  Here's the link to Amazon.

For my own amusement, I've written the opening to what could pass as a typical ebook on Amazon, written by someone who always wanted to write, but….  It is not particularly over the top.  Of the over 4 million ebooks on Amazon, about half never sell at all, other than perhaps that one sale to Mom.  There may be a reason for this.

The Storie of Sue & Tom
Sue was very pretty.  She luved to go to the movie's. She had a boy friend.  His name wsa Tom.  Who was tall and strung.

One day it was very sunny Tom called up "Hello." He sad.  "Hello. Said Sue."  "Is this Tom." She asked?

"Yes do you want to go to the movie's?" Said Tom "Yes."  Said Sue.

That eventing they went to the movie's.  When they walking down the street a horrible Monster jumped out.

"Eek." Said Sue!  She wsa truly scarred.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

Friday, April 8, 2016

"Stuff" in the Middle Ages

Most people reading this blog probably own way too much "stuff," a problem medieval people did not have.  Our many cheap and serviceable possessions are a product of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution.

In an earlier post I discussed medieval clothing.  Most people in the Middle Ages (and for that matter up through the eighteenth century) would have had two outfits, one to wear and one to wash.  Washing of course was reserved until something was good and dirty; none of this tossing it into the washer after one wearing.  The overstuffed closets of many of us are only possible because of industrial looms, sewing machines, and cheap overseas labor.

One of the biggest causes of clutter in today's house (looking at my own office as I type) is too much paper.  We buy books, we get magazines and catalogues, we get mail, we print out interesting articles, we keep journals, we make notes, we get receipts.  This of course was not a problem for medieval people.

Paper didn't really exist; it first appears along the Mediterranean in the thirteenth century, but only became at all common in the fourteenth.  Without paper, everything was written on parchment, which requires starting with a sheep and doing a whole lot of processing.  Even medieval paper, being rag-based and made by hand, was far more expensive than modern paper, even if cheaper than parchment.

Everything was written by hand until the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, and even then most things were handwritten.  Books as a result were very expensive, plus you had to know how to read, which left out three-quarters of the population (or more).  A good-sized library might have a few dozen books, and this would not be a personal library but one belonging to a church.  A hundred books constituted a truly large library.  Most medieval books that survive look very well-thumbed, because they were read and re-read.  (Click here for more on medieval books.)

Besides clothing and paper, modern "stuff" includes kitchen ware (everything from pots and can openers to plates), furniture, appliances, linens (sheets and towels), decorative objects, cosmetics, window treatments, electronic paraphernalia (computers, phones, etc.), sound recordings, souvenirs, toys, sporting goods, and tools.  All of it is good and useful or at least seems like it should be, or could be again.  Much of it is imbued with happy memories.  We don't realize how much we have until we have to move or otherwise clear out a house.

It's no wonder that one of the biggest selling books right now is about how to make yourself throw away or give away your possessions.  Many wish (at least in the abstract) for a simpler set of possessions.  Medieval people would also give everything away, but normally only if they were going to go off and be a hermit or something.  And they would have had far less to deaccession.

Many a powerful lord's household in the Middle Ages would pack up pretty much everything they owned and take it with them when they traveled.  The bed frames would be disassembled, the trestle tables knocked down, the few chairs and cooking pots put on a wagon along with the bedding and the extra clothing, and off they would go.  In the late Middle Ages, when the well-to-do got glass for their windows, they would even travel with their glass--after all, you wouldn't want to sleep in a drafty room.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

Monday, April 4, 2016

Medieval mortgages

A lot of institutions we assume are modern were well established in the twelfth century.  As I noted in a previous post, pawning was one.  Here I want to discuss a related topic just touched on there:  mortgaging one's land.

The rich-and-powerful of medieval society were not rich by having money in the bank or in the stock market.  They were rich in the number of people they could command and in their land holdings, which would produce rents and food--both food for themselves and food to sell.  This meant that if they needed a lot of money all at once, they couldn't just sell their mutual funds.

Most commonly, medieval aristocrats needed money when going on Crusade.  They could have sold land, but they preferred not to, because if they returned alive they'd want it again.  Therefore they would mortgage it.  (The distinction between pawning and mortgaging was insignificant; the only real difference was the size of what was being offered for money.)

Cistercian monks became major money-lenders in the twelfth century, acquiring land in return for lump-sum advances of money.  Crusaders promised to pay the money back, usually within six years.  In practice, many Crusaders never made it home.  Many more were wounded or sick.  Even those who came home as healthy as when they left had no more money than when they left.  Occasionally Crusaders would get a lot of loot and actually manage to get home with it, but that was rare.  (The idea that one might get rich from Crusading was very quickly dispelled by the experiences of the First Crusade.)

It may seem surprising that the monks, withdrawn from society to a life of simplicity, would be involved in mortgages, but medieval people did not have the same automatic assumption many people today do that "business" was necessarily opposed to religiosity.  (Click here for more of the interactions between monks and secular society.)  The monks were always being given money as pious gifts, more than their simple needs required, and granting it in return for mortgaged land was a way to help the Crusading movement and to acquire land, which they wanted for their sheep.

Because the monks did not charge interest, the Crusader would announce that the "fruits" (income and produce) the land produced while they were gone, the usufruct, would be a gift for their souls, not an interest payment.  An economic and a spiritual transaction here were joined in a way that made perfect sense in the twelfth century.

In practice, the monks most often ended up keeping the land, because the Crusaders were never able to redeem it within the specified time.  In essence, although that was not their intent, they acquired a lot of land very cheaply.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016