Sunday, May 29, 2016

Eleanor of Aquitaine

If you know anything about medieval history you have sort of heard of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204).  She used to be treated as a "fabulous female," supposedly one of the very few women who actually had power then.  As I discussed in an earlier post, however, medieval women actually had far more power and agency than women did either in antiquity or in the modern period, before the twentieth century.  They did not have what we would call "equal rights," but then neither did most men.

(My theory is that modern historians looked back on the nineteenth century, when married women lost rights to their property to their husbands, and figured, "Gee, they must have been even worse off even earlier."  But history does not proceed in a straight line.)

Eleanor is and was a striking figure, with a much larger space to work on than most women, but her ability to exercise power was not unique.  She first appears as heiress to the duchy of Aquitaine, essentially the southwest quarter of France.  When her father, the duke, was dying without sons in 1137, he designated her as his heir and asked the French king, the Capetian Louis VI, to arrange a suitable match for his little girl (she was about fifteen at the time).  The French king found a suitable match all right, his own son, who shortly became Louis VII.

Louis had not originally been intended to be king.  His older brother Philip was the official crown prince, but Philip had been killed while horseback riding through the streets of Paris with his friends (racing, probably DUI), when a porcus diabolicus ran out, got tangled in the horse's legs, and threw him.  Young Louis was also about fifteen, like Eleanor, when they got married, and since he immediately became king, he had a lot on his plate for a teenager.

Then he and Eleanor had daughters but not sons, and they went on the Second Crusade which turned into a disaster, and he figured out that they were actually cousins, so he managed to get a divorce (on which see more here).  She promptly married King Henry II of England and bore him five sons, including Kings Richard the Lionheart and John. This attached Aquitaine to the English crown, which understandably caused all sorts of issues for the French, leading eventually to the Hundred Years War.

You can see why she is considered so unusual.  Very few women get to be married to two different kings (though neither was what we would call a happy marriage) and be the mother of two others.  Two of her daughters also became queens.  She was vilified during her lifetime, and stories were made up about her, such as that she flirted shamelessly with her uncle in the Holy Land while on Crusade.  She has also more recently been credited with "introducing courtly love" to northern France, which is quite unlikely.

She remained active throughout her life, helping her sons rebel against Henry II, even though at one point he had her under house arrest.  She eventually did become a nun, but she popped out to offer homage to the French king for Aquitaine, so that her son Richard would not have to go down on his knees before another king.  When she finally died, she was buried next to Henry and Richard at the monastery of Fontevraud (that's her effigy, above).

Fun fact:  She was the first person named Eleanor.  Her mother was named Aanor, a common name at the time, and she was named for her.  But she was the "other" Aanor (Aanor junior we'd say), Alia Aanor in Latin, which became Alianor, or Eleanor.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Orientation of medieval churches

Medieval churches were quite literally "oriented," aimed toward the east (the Orient).  The choir end, the end of the church where the altar was situated, was supposed to point toward Jerusalem, which in practice meant pointing east.  The main entrance of the church and the porch were at the opposite end of the main aisle (nave), so the big doors would open to the west.

The above is an Alsatian monastic church, showing the porch which leads in to the main doors.  Pilgrims would often sleep on church porches.

In practice east and west were somewhat flexible.  If a church was in a narrow valley, for example, as were some Cistercian houses that sought out uncultivated, wild areas, the church might lie on a northeast - southwest axis rather than strictly east-west.  But east-west, lined up with the rising and setting of the sun on the equinox, was the ideal.

At many churches, windows set high above the central aisle were designed to send their light down the central aisle of the church on the longest day of the year (and adjoining days).  On the shortest day of the year in the winter, the light would fall instead on the capitals at the tops of the pillars that separated the nave from the side aisles.

For a monastery, which needed a cloister where the monks would spend much of their time, an open square surrounded by roofed walkways, the cloister was generally positioned on the south side of the church, tucked in next to the nave, with the crossing of the church running along the east side.  Because the cloister was on the south side of the church, it would be warmer in the winter than it otherwise might be.

Also tucked next to the church in a monastic setting were the buildings where the monks lived and ate, generally the dormitory upstairs, with a stairway to bring them down to the church for the night offices, and a refectory (cafeteria) on the lower level.  A big monastery would have a number of other buildings as part of the complex, including kitchens, a guest house, an infirmary, a library, and workshops.  The whole would be surrounded by a wall.  The church remained the most important structure.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

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

Saturday, May 21, 2016


We think of a hermit as someone who withdraws from society, who perhaps has some sort of psychological problem (afraid of crowds, bad social skills).  Or perhaps we think of the cartoon wise man (guru) living on top of a mountain.  In the Middle Ages, hermits withdrew from society for religious reasons, to devote their lives to prayer and contemplation.

As I discussed in an earlier post on monasteries, monks and hermits began in Egypt in the third century with Saint Anthony—if you're named Tony or Antonia, you're (ultimately) named for him.  Hermits came first, men (rarely women) who went out into the desert to live an extremely simple life of prayer.  People did come to seek their wisdom, which was usually along the lines of giving up sin and purifying oneself for God.

Because it is easier to keep to a life of radical prayer and asceticism if one has helpers to nudge you back in line if you start to drift, many hermits started gathering together in groups, under a master or abbot.  Both forms of life, the solitary hermit version and the monks in groups version (eremetism and cenobitism if you're keeping score at home) continued during the Middle Ages.

It was hard to be a hermit (which of course was the idea).  Even beyond what must have been the constant temptation to think, "What am I doing?  Why don't I go back to town and see my friends for a change?" there was the basic difficulty of getting enough to eat.  Hermits settled by preference in wild, solitary places, which meant they would have difficulty growing crops.  There were nuts and berries, but these only go so far.  Essentially hermits were dependent on people coming by and making gifts.

In the Egyptian desert of late antiquity, the hermits became something of a tourist attraction, and people would come from as far away as Jerusalem to visit them.  Some hermits made simple objects like sandals or prayer mats from palm fronds and sold them to the tourists.  But chatting with tourists sort of undercuts the whole solitary-prayer thing.  Some hermits wouldn't come out of their cells and just had to hope the tourists would drop off some food before leaving in frustration.

In the early Middle Ages, when the economy was very tight, it was hard for anyone to make a living, much less a hermit.  But when the economy started booming in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, leaving the world and its comforts for radical simplicity and solitude became not just possible but appealing.  Most new twelfth-century monasteries had their origins in hermitages, where an original solitary had gathered a small group of followers.

This was the problem of being a holy hermit.  "He lives all by himself, he is so holy, he understands the ways of God, being so solitary," people would say.  "Let's make him lavish gifts and go live with him."

Because I try to include at least some real medieval history in my fantasies, I have a hermit—with apprentices—in The Wood Nymph and the Cranky Saint.  They live at the shrine of a long-dead, sainted hermit, the Cranky Saint himself.

The book is available as an ebook from Amazon and other ebook stores, as well as an audio book.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

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

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Medieval bestiaries

Bestiaries were some of the most popular books in the Middle Ages.  A bestiary is a compendium of different kinds of animals, with a description and characteristics of each.  It was quite different from a modern natural history book (such "Handbook of North American Snakes" or the like) because it was based much more on ancient authorities than on direct observation, and because most of the animals presented a moral and religious message to the readers.

Bestiaries included normal European animals that everyone would know (dogs, oxen, mice), exotic but real animals that the authors would likely never have seen (lions, tigers, elephants), and fantastic ones, some of which scholars still haven't figured out (unicorns, eeales, paranders).  Many bestiaries were heavily illustrated.

The above is a medieval illustration of an elephant.

Medieval bestiaries took their origin in the Physiologus, a Christianized compendium of beasts that owed most of its information on animals to ancient Greek and Hellenistic sources.  Medieval authors definitely revered the ancients.

For most animals, there was a discussion of the name of the animal, often quite fanciful.  For example, a bee (apis in Latin) was said to be called that because it was born without feet (a pedibus).  (Actually bees are not born without feet.)  The stress on an animal's name was based ultimately on Genesis, where Adam named all the animals.  Attempts to explain a name's meaning had gotten a major push from the writings of the sixth-century bishop Isidore of Seville, who seems to have made a whole lot up.

The normal combination of imagined characteristics with moral messages may be seen in the example of the beaver.  According to the bestiaries, a beaver's testicles were useful for medicine, so if a beaver were pursued, it would bite off its own testicles and leave them for the hunters, thus making its escape.  This act, the bestiaries went on, shows that sinners should cut themselves off from all vice and shameful deeds, leaving them for Satan while escaping.  (They did not argue for self-castration.)  Similarly, bestiaries informed their readers that lynxes concealed (covered) their scat because their urine would harden into a jewel, and that the lynx represents a jealous miser.

A complete English translation of a famous thirteenth-century bestiary now at Oxford (MS Bodley 764) was done by Richard Barber, Bestiary (Woodbridge, England:  Boydell, 1999).  It includes all the original color illustrations.

The cover reproduces the illustrations for the entry on lions.  The middle picture illustrates the assertion that if you lie down on the ground the lion will not bite you, and the bottom one the "fact" that lions are afraid of white roosters.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

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

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Historian as Necromancer

Historians are necromancers.  We make the dead sit up and speak.

This is especially true of medieval historians.  Modern historians have a whole lot to work with, crop yields, polling results, transcripts of Congressional debates, the amount of steel that goes into a tank.  Medievalists in contrast have what people in the twelfth (or whatever medieval) century decided needed to be remembered, and therefore decided to preserve, either in a chronicle or in charters.

So our memories of the medieval past are heavily influenced by theirs.  We do have archaeology to tell us more things about their material culture, but for the most part historians today have to listen to what writers in the past wanted us to hear.  That is, we have to listen to the voices of the dead.

This is fine.  For the most part, we would rather know how a chronicler characterized a bad harvest ("Unheard of.  Horrible.  God is punishing us for our sins.  The people in that nasty duchy I've heard of turned to cannibalism.") than to have an exact sense of the ratio of grain harvested to grain planted.

It does mean that we have to know how to ask questions.  If someone tries to ask medieval sources a question that they are not prepared to answer, one will get no reply.  "What percentage of a city's streets were paved?" for example will get no answer.  However, "Were cities admired for paving their streets?" or "Did city councils worry about the cost of street paving?" will get lots of answers.

The way I see it, medieval writers have been waiting for many centuries to speak.  If we try to force them to answer questions they have no interest in answering, they will keep stubbornly silent.  If we ask them what they would like to tell us, it will be hard to get them to shut up.

So we are necromancers, speakers to the dead.  A necromancer is a kind of wizard, one who deals in dark arts.  Any fiction writer is a wizard too for that matter (on which see more here), someone who can persuade readers that imaginary people who are no more than ink on a page (or pixels on a Kindle screen) are worth worrying about.  Writing is an act of tremendous power.  Medieval authors who made deliberate choices what to preserve in writing, on expensive parchment with laborious hand-written words, knew this.  We should too.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016