Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Christmas Story

We all know the Christmas story.  Even those who are not Christians get it drummed into them this time of year.  Mary, a virgin, conceived, which might seem like an issue already, but then in her ninth month she and Joseph, her celibate husband, had to go to Bethlehem to be entered on the tax rolls, and she gave birth in a stable because there wasn't a hotel room free anywhere.  The baby, Jesus, was shortly visited by shepherds, who'd been told about him by an angel.  Less than two weeks later, three kings arrived from the East with rich gifts, having been following a star that stood over the stable.  Evil King Herod wanted to kill the future King of the Jews that the three eastern kings told him about, but Mary and Joseph escaped into Egypt.

The story of course has its roots in the Bible, but the version everyone knows, the version I just gave, is a composite of two stories written to be quite different from each other.  It was medieval thinkers, who just knew that the Bible told a single, unified story, who put them together in the form we now take for granted.  This was the story they had carved on their churches.  And who are we to argue with them?  After all, Christianity is far more than the Bible.  Medieval thinkers assumed that a thousand years or more of tradition also had validity, or God would not have allowed it.

(Below is a twelfth-century carving of Mary and Joseph escaping into Egypt.)

Get out your New Testament and follow along as we look at the roots of this tradition.

The story of Jesus's birth (the Nativity) is in only two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke.  Mark and John start with Jesus as an adult.  The name Jesus, by the way, is a variation of Jesse, the name of King David's father.  Everyone agreed that Jesus was of the house of Jesse.  Curiously, although  Matthew starts with the line of descent from Jesse to Jesus, it goes not through Mary but through Joseph.  What about the virgin birth?  After all, it fulfilled a prophecy.  Let's keep moving.

Matthew clearly wrote to persuade the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah who had first been foretold some five centuries earlier.  He kept on noting that aspects of Jesus's birth fulfilled an aspect of the old prophecies.  Medieval thinkers said, Well, of course it did.  No surprises there!

In Matthew, Jesus was born in Bethlehem because that's where Joseph and Mary lived.  They had a house.  It's also where prophets had said the ruler of God's chosen people would come from.  Off in the East, some wise men (or mages, magi, the Bible doesn't call them kings and doesn't say there were three of them) had their own prophecy about the king of the Jews.  It took them maybe a year to figure it out and get to Judea, following a star.  They stopped in Jerusalem to ask directions, where King Herod (a puppet of the Romans, history tells us, though Matthew doesn't go into detail) was distraught to learn of the birth of a King of the Jews, which, naturally, he found threatening.

Herod sent the wise men on their way with false comments about wanting to worship the baby king himself.  In Bethlehem they presented their gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, three gifts that probably led to the conclusion that there were three magi, rich enough that they were considered kings.  The magi were warned against Herod so didn't go back to Jerusalem to tell where the baby lived, but Herod decided to kill all babies in Judea under the age of two anyway.  Mary and Joseph and toddler Jesus escaped into Egypt, fulfilling two prophecies, one about death of children, the other about "out of Egypt."  When they came back from Egypt, they settled in Nazareth, not wanting to go back to Bethlehem in Judea, where Herod's son was ruling.

Luke's story is very different.  It starts with John the Baptist's parents (a section usually not read during Christmas Eve service) and has a long section on the Annunciation, where the angel tells Mary she will conceive of the Holy Spirit, details not in Matthew, which is much more from Joseph's point of view (though both agreed on the virgin birth).  According to Luke, Mary and Joseph had a house in Nazareth, rather than Bethlehem, though they were there in Bethlehem, in the stable, because of the proclamation about tax rolls.  Jesus clearly came from Nazareth, so all stories had to have him grow up there, but he had to be born in Bethlehem because of the prophecy.

Very shortly after Jesus's birth according to Luke, the shepherds showed up at the stable, told by an angel that the Messiah was born.  Although nowhere in the Bible is the Nativity dated, Luke's comment about shepherds watching their flocks by night suggests he thought it was in the spring, lambing season.  You will notice there are no wise men in Luke, just as there were no shepherds in Matthew.  The shepherds in Luke spread the word, but apparently word never got to Herod, because Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem without any problem a little later, to sacrifice at the Temple according to Jewish law.  Herod in this version doesn't slaughter anybody, and Mary and Joseph went peacefully home to Nazareth.

For more on Christmas and how medieval (and modern!) people celebrate it, see my ebook essay, available on Amazon and other e-tailers.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

Sunday, December 3, 2017


Medieval people worried about demons.  These were malevolent beings, seeking the destruction of souls.  They would inspire people to do things they shouldn't do, tempt them with enticing promises, and harass the virtuous and godly.  They loved to lurk in latrines.

The Bible doesn't have a lot to say about demons, although Jesus is recorded as having cast demons out of people, demons which made them ill or crazy.  But there was plenty there for medieval people to build on.  Demons were usually invisible, but they could take visible shape, such as like a black dog or other animal.  A knight riding to commit a foul deed might abruptly discover that what he thought was a horse was actually a demon, planning to toss him in the nearest river.

But most commonly demons were depicted as vaguely human, usually with horns, sometimes with tails.  One of the things demons loved best was hurting people, so carvings on churches often depict them doing so with great gusto.

The above grinning demon is from the eleventh-century monastery of Tournus.

Some of what were described as "temptations" were actually very painful.  I guess the idea was that people would promise the demons anything to make them stop.  Below is a late medieval painting of the "temptation of Saint Anthony."  The demons are having a blast, but Anthony is clearly not.  I used this image for the cover of my fantasy novel, "Is This Apocalypse Necessary?" which (among many other things) includes demons.

Medieval people didn't really make deals with the devil in a nineteenth-century, Faust kind of way, because they realized how little of value the cruel demons could actually offer.  Instead, demons stood by, ready to take souls away to hell, as in the below image of a rich, dying miser whose soul is being snatched while his moneybags are useless below his bed.  (It illustrates the story of Dives and Lazarus.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

For more on demons and medieval religion, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other e-tailers.

Monday, November 27, 2017

My First Kingdom

I've just published a new paperback, entitled "My First Kingdom."

It's a collection (omnibus) of the first three Royal Wizard of Yurt novels and is a big, hefty book, 750 pages long.  It's available on Amazon (click here), and should shortly be available through B&N or your local bookseller.  It's already available as an ebook from Amazon for Kindle, as well as available on the Nook, Kobo, and iTunes platforms.

One of the advantages of indie publishing, which is what I'm doing, is that one has complete control over what gets published.  I've been thinking for close to 20 years that it would be good to have a big fat paperback that included the first three Yurt books, and indeed I've had the title in mind for that long.  Now at last I've made it come about.

One of the challenges was getting a good cover.  I hired fantasy artist Cortney Skinner, whose work I've always liked, and he and I worked out the image.  It shows Daimbert, my wizard hero, and the old, retired wizard of Yurt trying to fight a dragon who has invaded the castle.  Daimbert is attempting, without much success, to make himself invisible (his legs have disappeared but that's it), and the old wizard is distracting the dragon with illusory red balls.  So far it isn't working too well.  The scene appears in the first of the three books, "A Bad Spell in Yurt."

Here's a sample from the first chapter of "Bad Spell" to whet your interest.

     I was not a very good wizard. But it was not a very big kingdom. I assumed I was the only person to answer their ad, for in a short time I had a letter back from the king’s constable, saying the job was mine if I still wanted it, and that I should report to take up the post of Royal Wizard in six weeks.

It took most of the six weeks to grow in my beard, and then I dyed it grey to make myself look older. Two days before leaving for my kingdom, I went down to the emporium to buy a suitable wardrobe.

Of course at the emporium they knew all about us young wizards from the wizards’ school. They looked at us dubiously, took our money into the next room to make sure it stayed money even when we weren’t there, and tended to count the items on the display racks in a rather conspicuous way. But I knew the manager of the clothing department—he’d even helped me once pick out a Christmas present for my grandmother, which I think endeared me to him as much as to her.

He was on the phone when I came in. “What do you mean, you won’t take it back? But our buyer never ordered it!” While waiting for him, I picked out some black velvet trousers, just the thing, I thought, to give me a wizardly flair.

The manager slammed down the phone. “So what am I supposed to do with this?” he demanded of no one in particular. “This” was a shapeless red velvet pullover, with some rather tattered white fur at the neck. It might have been intended to be part of a Father Noel costume.

I was entranced. “I’ll take it!”

“Are you sure? But what will you do with it?”

“I’m going to be a Royal Wizard. It will help me strike the right note of authority and mystery.”

“Speaking of mystery, what’s all the fuzzy stuff on your chin?”

I was proud of my beard, but since he gave me the pullover for almost nothing, I couldn’t be irritated. When I left for my kingdom, I felt resplendent in velvet, red for blood and black for the powers of darkness.

It was only two hundred miles, and probably most of the young wizards would have flown themselves, but I insisted on the air cart. “I need to make the proper impression of grandeur when I arrive,” I said. Besides—and they all knew it even though I didn’t say it—I wasn’t sure I could fly that far.

The air cart was the skin of a purple beast that had been born flying. Long after the beast was dead, its skin continued to fly, and it could be guided by magic commands. It brought me steeply up from the wizards’ complex at the center of the City, and I looked back as the white city spires fell away. It had been a good eight years, but I felt ready for new challenges. We soared across plains, forests, and hills all the long afternoon, before finally banking steeply over what I had been calling “my” kingdom for the last six weeks.

From above there scarcely seemed to be more to the kingdom than a castle, for beyond the castle walls there was barely room for the royal fields and pastures before thick green woods closed in. A bright garden lay just outside the castle walls, and pennants snapped from all the turrets. The air cart dipped, folded its wings, and set me down with a bump in the courtyard.
    I looked around and loved it at once. It was a perfect child’s toy of a castle, the stone walls freshly whitewashed and the green shutters newly painted. The courtyard was a combination of clean-swept cobbles, manicured flower beds, and tidy gravel paths. On the far side of the courtyard, a well-groomed horse put his head over a white half-door and whinnied at me.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

Monday, November 20, 2017

Beer and burial in the early Middle Ages

One of the big questions in early medieval British archaeology is the change in pottery.  What we now think of as England had become a thoroughly Romanized part of the Roman Empire, Christian, Latin-speaking elites, villas with mosaics, hot baths.  (See more on this here.)  Pottery was professionally made, smooth, thrown on a wheel and thus perfectly symmetrical, fully glazed, fired in a kiln.

But in the fifth century a different kind of pottery began to appear, shaped by hand but not on a wheel, thus not nearly as symmetrical (though it might be decorated), glazed on the outside but not the inside, fired in a bonfire rather than a kiln.  (One can tell the difference because a kiln gets a lot hotter, being enclosed, and the clay fires much harder.)  Why the change?

Now the easy answer was always that the Anglo-Saxon invaders brought a cruder way of making pots with them.  But this only makes sense if the local populations was completely replaced by the newcomers.  And in fact for at least a generation both kinds of pots were used, so there must have been more to it than Celts fleeing with their symmetrical pots while crude Germans and crude pots replaced them.

To further complicate the issue, most of the hand-built pots that archaeologists have discovered were used to bury cremated bodies.  And some of the pots have trace elements on the interior surface that suggests they were used for making beer.  The Romans had believed in cremation (though much less so once they became Christian), whereas Germanic peoples often buried people in elaborate graves with grave-goods, so this further messes up any effort to explain the change in pots by changes in the population.

One way to explain this is to start not by supposing a change in population but rather a change in who was in charge and who made the beer. While Romanized lords ruled the villas, they tended to have the beer made in industrial amounts.  They then distributed it to their tenants, who were I'm sure suitably grateful.

But if the Anglo-Saxons did not completely replace the local Celtic population, they certainly did a number on the lords in the villas.  Who was going to make the beer?  (And it wasn't as if they could drink wine instead--England is not really warm enough for wine grapes, even now, and wine imports from the Continent had stopped a few generations earlier.)

Beer making fell to the local women.  With no lords in the villas, the locals had to figure things out for themselves.  And one thing they seem to have figured out is that getting beer to ferment needs yeast, which they couldn't see (it's a microorganism), but which they knew was in bakeries or, and this was the key issue, in containers that had been used to brew beer before.  (That is, they didn't specifically know about yeast, but they knew about fermenting and getting it started.)  And they certainly knew that pots unglazed on the inside were more likely to retain the "fermenting principle."

So it may well be that women made these "cruder" pots specifically to brew beer, even while Roman-style pots were still being made for other purposes.  Because they were fired at a lower temperature (better for a pot not entirely glazed), they were more fragile and couldn't be counted on to last more than a year or so in use.  Pots archaeologists have found generally had a crack or leak.  But what more appropriate to use as a container for a woman's cremated remains than the kind of pot in which women had been brewing beer?  An intriguing possibility!

This blog post was inspired by the ideas of Andrew Welton, of the University of Florida.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

For more on Romans and Anglo-Saxons, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Monday, November 13, 2017


Nobody these days thinks much about beads.  Beading (or making simple jewelry from them) can be fun, but it is not something we think of in terms of trade routes and great expense.  In the early Middle Ages, things were different.

Beads were considered a fine form of decoration for women and, to a somewhat lesser extent, to men.  In the late Roman Empire those in the West who could afford it wore necklaces of beads made from semi-precious stones.  Beads could also be made from amber, from non-precious stones, even from horn.  (Plastic was centuries in the future.)  But the most important kind of material was glass.

This changed in the seventh century.  With the rise of Islam and the resultant breakdown of Mediterranean trade routes, it became hard for the West to get glass.  Beads found in graves from that period tended to be made instead from bone, horn, even fired clay.

This changed with the Vikings.  As I have noted before, they established long-distance overland trade routes that reached all the way from Scandinavia to Byzantium.  One of the most important things that they brought to the west was glass.

A lot of the glass was already in the shape of beads.  Other glass could be melted down and shaped into beads (most commonly short tiny cylinders in shape, rather than the round form we take for granted).  The glass came in all sorts of different colors.

The Vikings, who set up trade colonies in the West by the ninth century, once the fun of constant raiding wore off (and they realized that one could make consistent money year after year through trade, whereas a raid usually couldn't be repeated), traded beads.  Beads made excellent trade goods, because everyone wanted some, they were (relatively) inexpensive per unit, so everyone could afford at least some, and they were fairly lightweight, making them easier to transport than say metal or stone.

Big heaps of early medieval glass beads have been found in Scandinavian harbors, presumably from a box being loaded that broke loose and dumped.  It would not have been worth it at the time to send divers down into the murky, icy waters to try to pick up beads one by one.

Do you find it hard to picture a Viking warrior wearing a necklace of glass beads?  Readjust your thinking.

Some of the ideas in this post were inspired by the work of Matthew Delvaux of Boston College.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

Anglo-Norman Kings

One sometimes hears that medieval kingship was a simple matter of inheritance--the king was succeeded by his eldest son, and that was that.  The kings of England totally undercut that model.  From the middle of the eleventh century to the early thirteenth century, a grand total of 1 king became king by simple father-to-oldest-son inheritance.

These kings are usually called Anglo-Norman, because they had been dukes of Normandy (in France) before becoming kings of England and held onto the duchy.

William the Conqueror of course became king of England in 1066 by conquest (his nickname is a clue...).  When he died, he was succeeded not by his oldest son, Robert Curthose, but by his second son, William II, also called William Rufus.  Robert Curthose became duke of Normandy.  When William Rufus died without children in 1100, he was succeeded by his youngest brother, Henry I.

Robert Curthose was in Jerusalem at the time, on the First Crusade.  He was distraught, thinking that he ought to succeed as king.  He came back to Europe, fought Henry for half a dozen years, lost, and ended up imprisoned for the rest of his life.  So much for brotherly love.

Henry I had no shortage of sons.  He had over a dozen.  There was no problem there, except for one crucial issue.  All but one of them was illegitimate.  His one legitimate son was lost at sea (a group of young men trying to cross the English Channel during rough weather, all probably DUI).  There was no way Henry could make one of his other sons king, even though several of them became bishops, and all of them had comfortable lives.  So he chose his daughter Mathilda to succeed.

Mathilda was supposed to be king, not queen.  She in fact usually called herself Empress, because she had been briefly married to the Holy Roman Emperor, though he had died without them having children.  She had married a second time, to Geoffrey, count of Anjou.  The county of Anjou is next to Normandy, and the Angevins had decided Normandy was rightfully theirs.

The great Anglo-Norman lords hated Mathilda, partly because she was a woman, partly because they hated Geoffrey of Anjou.  They quickly declared they hadn't really sworn to support Mathilda and went instead for her cousin Stephen, son of a daughter of William the Conqueror.  England now calls Stephen the rightful king, so Henry I was succeeded by his nephew.

Mathilda spent much of the next two decades fighting Stephen.  She never won, but at the end of his life, when he had no children to succeed (what's with these guys? low sperm count?), he agreed that Mathilda's son, Henry II, would become king after him.  So Stephen was succeeded by a first cousin once removed, a man who was already duke of Normandy and count of Anjou.  Henry also acquired Aquitaine, essentially the southwest quarter of France, through his marriage.

Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had five sons.  (No low sperm count there!)  Though their oldest son, William, died very young, and the second, Young Henry, died as a young man while his father was still alive, the third son, Richard the Lionheart, was alive and ready to succeed when Henry II died in 1189.  This was the first time an English king was succeeded by his oldest surviving son since before the Conquest.

But Richard had no children, so he was succeeded by his younger brother, John.  When John died in 1216, his young son succeeded as Henry III, and (at least for a little while) there was a sense that this father-son inheritance should be the model.

Henry II and his five sons had not had a happy Dad-and-lad relationship.  Richard and Geoffrey (the fourth son) rebelled against their father.  They also did not get along with each other.  Geoffrey was killed in a tournament, and his young son, named Arthur, mysteriously vanished after visiting his Uncle John.  When Richard the Lionheart was preparing to go on the Third Crusade, he seems to have wanted to make John come with him, fearing that if John were left behind he would seize the English throne.

Although the King Arthur stories that developed in the twelfth century (which owe essentially nothing to the fifth century) cannot be seen as simple metaphor or roman-à-clef, there are similarities between the King Arthur of the stories and the real Anglo-Norman kings.  Arthur in the stories never had a legitimate son, like Henry I.  He was rebelled against by his son Mordred, like Henry II.  Mordred was the product of an incestuous union, Arthur's nephew as well as son, which made it worse--and evoked nephews in royal succession (at least none of the Anglo-Norman kings were thought to have had incestuous relations with their sisters).  The first people who heard the King Arthur stories saw parallels with their own line of kings.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

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

Tuesday, November 7, 2017


Copper played a major role in the Middle Ages, both as part of the economy and as a marker of cultural exchange.  Copper of course had been mined and used for centuries.  Although not nearly as hard as iron and thus not as good for weapons (though copper can become hard and sharp if mixed with tin to become bronze), it is a very useful metal and relatively easy both to mine and to shape into tools.  It has been used for at least 10,000 years.

In the Middle Ages, copper was used for coins (coppers--modern pennies are an alloy today but used to be copper).  Silver was officially the main form of currency, but in practice most monetary exchange was in copper.  It was also used for all sorts of bowls, lamps, pots, pipes, jewelry, and the like, as well as for roofs and for decoration.  (Health tip:  a copper bracelet will not cure arthritis.)  It transmits heat very well (as well as electricity), meaning it's good for cook pots, and barnacles won't grow on it, meaning it is prized for cladding ships.

Sicily became a major medieval center of copper usage under Norman rule (eleventh-twelfth centuries).  Sicily itself did not have much in the way of copper mines--the main Mediterranean source of copper was Cyprus, which gave its name to copper (the Romans called the metal aes cyprium, the metal of Cyprus).  But the Sicilians both worked the metal extensively and imported all sorts of small useful objects from the Middle East, much of which they resold.

Arabic scientists had worked out a lot of the details on how copper could be worked and made into alloys.  The Sicilians both read these treatises and figured out on their own how to work and shape the metal.  They also absorbed a lot of Arabic ideas on alchemy.

Although we now think of "alchemy" as involving lead and gold, and being a bunch of nonsense, it was a major intellectual thread in Arabic and Christian thought in the Middle Ages.  It was a way of thinking about the nature of the physical world, how it's put together, how different kinds of material substances relate to each other.  (The word alchemy, like algebra, is from the Arabic, as are many other words that start al-.)

One of the ways that the Sicilians used copper was to make major decorated church doors, some of which still survive.  The Temple in Jerusalem was supposed to have had copper doors, and the idea had a great deal of appeal.  The Sicilian church doors were incised with alchemical symbols and ideas.

Copper, which starts as almost golden in color and becomes green as it is exposed to oxygen (verdigris), was seen as a symbol of one important theological discussion:  the relationship of God to His creation.  It was argued by many that God had created the earth, set it in motion, then stood back to see how it would do.  Copper symbolized this, starting as bright and golden, like God's initial creation, then becoming green, like the earth covered with growing plants.  Medieval thinkers loved metaphors and analogies.

Note:  Many of the ideas in this post were inspired by the work of Robin Reich of Columbia University.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Protestant Reformation

Last week was the official 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther (after whom the civil rights leader Martin Luther King was named, don't confuse them) nailed what he called "95 Theses" to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.  Although he had no idea at the time that he was starting a whole new branch of Christianity, in retrospect it was decided that this was the beginning of Protestantism.

(It's a little tricky to do modern "anniversaries" of long-ago events, because they were still on the Julian Calendar, rather than our Gregorian Calendar, which puts specific dates at a slightly different distance from the solstice.)

The 95 Theses were a list of things that Luther objected to in the church of his day, both theologically and practically.  He was himself a monk and a professor of theology at the local university, a member of the church.  Although the events of 1517 are now seen as a thorough break with medieval Christendom (one of the reasons the end of the Middle Ages is usually put around the year 1500), in many ways Luther was the last of the medieval reformers who thought the organized church was headed in the wrong direction and tried to drag it back.

Luther's main concern in 1517 was so-called indulgences.  People who worried about their sins (that is, almost everyone) were encouraged to show their penitence by making a gift to the church.  Their penitence would be rewarded by being "indulgently" granted a reprieve from much of their expected time in purgatory.  Luther thought the pope would agree that although this might make theological sense--popes had ruled that the saints had created a "treasury of merit," excess virtuous deeds on which ordinary Christians might draw--it had been seriously abused.  Pardoners were wandering through Europe, promising forgiveness for a payment, missing the whole nuance.  "As the coin drops in the box, the soul rises up!"

In practice, the pope was not impressed.  After councils and extensive discussion, Luther was excommunicated in 1521.  Rather than wanting to be rejoined to the church, Luther, like all good people who break with orthodoxy, decided that he was right and the organized church was the real heretic.  His real point, which he developed as his movement spread and gained many followers, was that people were saved by "faith," not by deeds.  That is, of course one had to try to be the best person one could, but one could not count on being saved just by doing rote activities, like buying an indulgence or taking part in sacraments.  One could not "earn" one's own salvation he argued, but rather had to receive it, if one were saved at all, as a gift from God.

Protestantism (so-called because the followers were "protesting" things in the organized church) spread rapidly, its ideas spread by pamphlets and leaflets printed on the recently developed printing press.  New versions of Protestantism quickly developed (such as Calvinism), theologically different from Luther's version.  In England, Henry VIII broke with the pope because he wanted a divorce, then essentially declared his own version of Protestantism (Anglicanism).  In Germany, which at the time was divided into many small principalities, the duke or count or prince of each territory declared which religion was to be followed in his region.  Protestants and Catholics went to war with each other, making the sixteenth century a particularly bloody time.  Everyone persecuted the Mennonites for being non-violent.

The big schism between the two versions of western Christianity was never healed, although they no longer treat each other as heretics.  Protestants still have many versions, but they differ from Catholics in reducing sacraments, allowing priests to marry (as they had in the early church--Luther himself went on to marry a former nun), rejecting purgatory, having people read the Bible in their own language (Luther translated the Bible into German, though Catholics stuck with the Latin Bible until the 1960s), and jettisoning most of the saints and relics.  One really only can speak of Catholicism in the aftermath of the rise of Protestantism, when it became the other version of western Christianity, to be distinguished from eastern (Greek) orthodoxy (and such versions as Russian orthodoxy).  In the aftermath of Luther, the Catholic church did a great deal of reforming itself (like getting rid of pardoners), even though never admitting Luther had a point.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

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

Monday, October 30, 2017


All societies have to figure out what to do with the end-products of digestion.  We're not cows, who just let it fly wherever they are, or dogs, who won't foul their own den but consider the outdoors their rightful place to do what needs to be done (including making a scent-statement for other dogs).

(Interesting side point:  if beings from another planet were watching dog-walkers, and noticed that the dogs being walked just did what they wanted, while the humans cleaned up after them, who would the aliens decide was the true Master?)

The Middle Ages had chamber pots and latrines.  We have no idea how lucky we are to have city sewers and septic systems.  Push the flush lever, and you  never have to think about it again.  Medieval people didn't have it so easy.  They preferred not to think about such things, but being clean and odor-free was a lot harder.

On a farm, the manure pile would serve for the family's use as well.  In a town house, there would often be a privy in the back yard, built over a deep hole.  In a castle, there generally wasn't a handy manure pile, and you didn't really have the option of stepping out of the building.  (In fact the stables would have a manure pile, but the number of humans living in a castle would overwhelm the pile's ability to absorb human waste along with that of the horses.  And castle folk thought of themselves as much more refined than to use the manure pile anyway.)

Castles had latrines, located off main rooms, where one could go to do one's business and where chamber pots could be dumped.  They were rather discreetly located, and there were generally different sets for the noble family and for the warriors and workers.

Latrines might be built in the outer walls, letting things dribble down the wall, but from the thirteenth century onward castle builders were very careful not to put the latrines in any sort of defensible wall.  Everyone remembered what happened at Château Gaillard in Normandy (pictured below), where the attackers got into the castle by climbing up through the latrines.

In addition of course no one wanted their castle to be stinky, so things dribbling down a wall, especially an interior wall, would be frequently cleaned.  One sometimes hears that a castle's moat functioned as a sewer, but this is not true, although it would certainly not be savory.  Being surrounded by a sewer was not something any medieval lord would put up with (besides, most castles didn't have moats).

Alternately, a cesspit could be constructed within a wall.  It would be made with an easy way to clean it out.  Cesspits became the standard in cities during the early modern period, when urban growth made the backyard with its privy an expensive use of real estate.

The stench of a badly maintained latrine or cesspit was considered theologically a reminder of the weakness of human flesh, something that evoked both death and the powers of evil.  Miracle stories are full of demons lurking in latrines and emitting foul odors.

The picture below shows a high-end two-seater in a fourteenth-century castle.

Miscellaneous fun fact:  There is no actual name for that big white porcelain thing in the bathroom that is neither a sink nor a tub.  Americans usually call it a "toilet," but this is a euphemism.  It used to be that people would "make their toilet," meaning comb, brush, put on makeup, get properly dressed, and someone "stepping away" would be said to be going to the "toilet room," even if they were already dressed and brushed.  The Brits still call the room, not the fixture, the toilet.  ("Toilet water," mild perfume, still keeps the original meaning, in spite of a lot of adolescent sniggering.)

Brits call the fixture the "loo," a shortening of "lavabo," but that means sink, a place to wash up.  Or they call it a WC, short for "water closet," the small room (closet) with plumbing.  You will also see the term WC on the Continent.  The Germans may even refer to the "wasser," but that just means water.  You may see the term "commode," which is French for useful--an arch way of saying you need to use the "useful object."  Even more arch is the term "facilities," as in "the facilities of modern civilization."

Even the room is referred to euphemistically.  "I have to go to the bathroom."  You need to take a bath?  Really?  "The ladies' room."  "The gentlemen's room."  No indication in the term of what the ladies and gentlemen will be up to.  I had a teacher in elementary school who referred to the "cloakroom," though no cloaks were involved.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

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

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Medieval travel and tourism

When people today are asked about retirement plans, they very frequently say, "I hope to travel."  Being a tourist, traveling around to interesting places, is considered fun and worthwhile, even if only really available to those with leisure time (one wonders if those whose jobs require a great deal of travel have the same attitude toward retirement).

As I have discussed previously, travel in the Middle Ages was a lot harder than it is now.  With human power (walking) the chief form of transport, much of the population might spend most of their lives within a twenty-mile radius.  Horses were for the well to do, and carts, made to transport goods, would have been very uncomfortable to ride in over any distance.

Yet people did travel.  The aristocracy especially traveled a lot.  It was easier to move people than to move food, so large courts would frequently move from place to place, eating up the food at one palace before moving on to the next.  Without modern communication, the only easy way to tell what was happening somewhere was to go there, so kings, dukes, counts, and landlords were constantly on the move, checking things out, passing judgments, hearing complaints, collecting revenue.  And of course you had armies marching back and forth and young men traveling to tournaments.

Tourism as we know it did not exist in the Middle Ages.  Our version really began in the nineteenth century, when well to do young men (rarely women) would undertake a Grand Tour.  Young English gentlemen would travel around the Continent for months, even a few years, picking up culture and art, admiring the scenery, and visiting places of historical significance.  The very word "tourism" comes from taking the Tour.

But modern tourism essentially began with the automobile, after World War I.  It is much, much easier to go visit interesting places when one can hop in the car.  In France, after the Armistice, people wanted to visit the battlefields where so many of their young men had died.  The automobile made this possible, and Michelin especially (maker of car tires) started putting out helpful booklets to let people figure out where to go and what to see.

So modern tourism is a combination of "broadening one's mind" by being exposed to different scenes and ideas, of entertainment by seeing lovely and interesting places, and of education, by learning about history and other useful subjects.  The museums where all this educational information was made available developed along with tourism.

Something that looks like tourism certainly existed in the Middle Ages, but its purpose was very different from broadening one's mind or being entertained or educated.  It was called pilgrimage.

One traveled places to improve one's soul, and the difficulties of the journey were supposed to help improve it, by shaking one out of lethargy or luxury.  The best pilgrimage goal was always Jerusalem, the scene of the Crucifixion, but most Europeans would choose more accessible places to go.

Rome was always a place for pilgrims, full of the bones of early martyrs, the graves of Saints Peter and Paul, and of course the papacy.  Many other spots became pilgrimage centers, from Vézelay in Burgundy (pictured above) to Santiago in northern Spain (and a pilgrimage route ran between these two).  Pilgrims were always interested in lovely architecture, important relics, and holy men (hermits could be visited as part of the pilgrim experience), but they do not seem to have paid as much attention to scenery.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

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

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Black and white in the Middle Ages

Medieval people would most certainly not be considered inclusive and welcoming of diversity by today's standards.  Anyone who wasn't an orthodox Christian (i.e. not a heretic), or who didn't know how to speak the local language, was treated at best with suspicion.  But skin color was not nearly as big a factor as it is in the modern US.

In part this was because western Europe had a great range of skin and hair colors anyway, with more light-skinned blonds in Scandinavia and Celtic areas like Ireland, and more swarthy skin and black hair along the Mediterranean.  The Mediterranean had been a melting pot since at least the early days of the Roman Empire, with African, Middle Eastern, and European ethnic groups all intermixing.  In the late Empire, a freed slave became a citizen, and his children might marry the descendants of people who had never been slaves.  Frescos from ancient Rome show a progressive darkening of Romans' skin over the generations, as more African genes mixed with the original Roman Celtic genes.

Spain and Italy especially had populations that mingled genes from all over the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as from northern Europe.  Think about "Spanish eyes," dark and flashing.  They didn't get them from the Visigoths.

So medieval Europeans were happy to deal with people with a great range of skin tones without trying to identify them by "race."  Blond and blue-eyed, however, remained the default definition of beauty, as indeed it still is the US—notice how actresses and even TV personalities are far more likely to be blond than the frequency of light hair in the general population would warrant.

Light skin was not just a marker of beauty but a marker of wealth and status.  These days, when most people have indoor jobs, getting a tan makes a Caucasian stand out among the pale-skinned.  In the Middle Ages, when most of the population was involved in farming and thus were outdoors a lot, having pale skin was good, because it meant you weren't a peasant.

(In the modern US, it seems that getting a tan from a day at the beach or from a tanning salon is good.  Getting a tan from your ancestral genes is bad.  I don't get it either.)

It was very rare that a European saw a sub-Saharan African, someone with very dark, essentially black skin.  They knew however that such people existed.  The Romans had mentioned them, and the Queen of Sheba in the Bible was described as "dusky."  (It seems most likely that she was from what is now Ethiopia.)

In the medieval story of "Parzival," Parzival father had lived in the Middle East for years with a woman as dark as the Queen of Sheba.  He never married her, however, according to the story, not because of her skin color but because she was not a Christian.  They had a son who eventually came to Europe and met Parzival, his half-brother.  This mixed-race son was described as spotted, black and white.

Medieval people didn't think through where the range of European skin tones had come from.  But they knew that if you bred a black and a white cow, or a black and a white horse, you'd get offspring with black and white spots.  Humans must be the same.  It all made sense.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Why do bad things happen?

Why do bad things happen to good people?  This is a vexing theological question if one assumes a loving God.  It has come up again in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane season, Harvey and Irma and Maria and Nate, which did serious damage to the US and the Caribbean.  Most of the victims were doubtless good people.

In some ways this is what they call a "First World Problem."  People in much of the world even today, and people in most of the pre-modern world, wouldn't have had philosophical discussions about why bad things happen.  Bad things happen, they would say, because bad things always happen:  fire, flood, disease, accident, war, betrayal, hunger, quarrels, loss …  The list goes on for quite a while.

Even in the modern US, where most of us (when we are not evacuating from hurricanes) can imagine we're fairly good people leading fairly good lives, bad things happen to everybody.  One interviewer I heard said she can always get a perhaps reluctant person to talk by saying, "Tell me about a time you were treated unfairly."  Then she couldn't get them to shut up!

I guess if someone were born into privilege and had every want catered to, and died unexpectedly and painlessly before anyone they loved died, then maybe nothing bad happened to them during their life (until they died of course).

But it's still a good theological question.  Medieval thinkers in monasteries and universities came up with answers, as they did for so many other theological questions.  They may not be our answers, but these people were smart and tried to figure things out.

The most obvious answer was one derived from the Old Testament, that everyone was to be punished for the sins of the few.  Thus one reads in the Bible about "the sins of the father" being punished in all his descendants.  God destroying the earth with floods because of some bad actors, or wiping out Sodom and Gomorrah because some people there threatened His angels, certainly suggest that one can suffer for someone else's fault.  Even today, there is talk in some circles of God bringing about hurricanes because the US is not strict enough against sexual sinning.

Medieval thinkers, however, would not have agreed.  For the most part, they rejected the idea of the many suffering for the few.  Medieval Christianity put the New Testament ahead of the Old, with its emphasis on individual rather than collective responsibility.

So why did good people experience pain and sorrow?  The answer was easy to medieval theologians.  There were no good people!  Everybody was stained with original sin and deserved suffering in this life and damnation in the next.  Only because of God's completely undeserved mercy did anyone make it to Heaven at all.

(Medieval Christianity was not "comforting."  See more on this here.)

The only really good people were the saints, and they suffered the most of all.  All the early martyr-saints had had horrible things done to them for their faith, like being slowly cooked on a griddle (Saint Lawrence).  This suffering, for medieval theologians, burned away the sin in them, strengthening them and making it possible for them to become saints.  People who wanted to emulate the saints deliberately sought out extremely unpleasant experiences, if not actual martyrdom.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017 
For more on medieval religion, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Olive oil and butter

People on diets these days (i.e. almost everyone, at least at some point) try to "cut back" their fat. Modern nutrition guidelines specify that only a certain percentage of one's calories should be from fat.  But in all premodern societies, including the Middle Ages, it was hard to get enough fat, which one actually needs (at least in moderation).  One also needs it for cooking, especially in a pre-Teflon era.

The main medieval choices were olive oil and butter.  There was no soybean oil, canola oil, or margarine.  Lard was the third way (and some cooks still insist lard is best for pie crusts--I wouldn't know.)

Olive oil had been the Roman choice, as it had been for the Greeks.  The "anointing with oil" events in the Bible were all examples of olive oil.  It could also be used to burn for light.  And athletes in antiquity, without today's "refreshing shower gel," got rid of the sweat by smearing themselves with olive oil, sprinkling on sand, and scraping it all off.

Olive trees grow well around the Mediterranean, providing both their fruit and oil.  Southern Europe continued throughout the Middle Ages to rely on olive oil as the major source of fat.

Olive trees, however, do not grow well further north, although the oil certainly traveled on the trade routes.  For northern Europe, butter (made from churning cream) was the chief source of fat in the Middle Ages.  If salted and kept cool, butter will keep quite a while.  In Scandinavia, butter might be stored for over a year.

When the Germanic people first came wandering into the Roman Empire, bringing their cows with them, the Romans reacted with disgust to this source of fat.  But then the Germans weren't totally impressed with olive oil.

Butter works well for greasing the pan, mixing with flour for baking, and making dry food more palatable.  But it doesn't work nearly as well for lamps, anointing, or scraping off the sweat.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017 

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

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Attitudes toward medieval poverty

There's being poor, and then there are attitudes about the poor.  Modern society hasn't exactly figured out the appropriate attitude, and neither did medieval society.  By modern standards, all medieval people were poor, lacking the material goods we take for granted, but people then didn't think so.  This meant those who considered themselves wealthy or at least well off had to decide what to think about poor people.

For starters, medieval people couldn't decide whether poverty was a sign of holiness or the result of sin.  As I discussed earlier, voluntary poverty was considered very holy in the late Roman Empire and in the High Middle Ages, times of (relative) economic prosperity and wealth, when renouncing wealth was a sign of devotion to God.  After all, the New Testament depicts Jesus as without possessions or even a house.  Many twelfth-century churches deliberately sought to be simple and undecorated--but not all, showing the basic division of opinion.  Saint Francis in the thirteenth century said he was wed to Lady Poverty.

But even at other times (the early and late Middle Ages), when life was a lot tougher for a lot more people and holiness became equated with wealth, poor people were not automatically spurned.  Although theologically it made sense that poverty was a product of sin, this did not mean then that poor people were specifically sinful.  Rather, Original Sin, everybody's sinful nature, meant that there was poverty in the world.  (Original Sin is a great explanation for all sorts of things.)  "The poor we have always with us," says the Bible.  This meant the wealthy were always responsible for trying to help them.

Giving alms, helping the poor, was considered a religious duty.  Both laypeople and churches sought to help poor people.  The wealthy in lay society and those monasteries that did not go in for extreme simplicity themselves would distribute leftover food at the back door after every meal.  The poor did especially well if there was a feast.

Some monasteries had what were essentially official poor people, those who were fed daily, got new clothes once or twice a year, and had their feet washed on Maundy Thursday.  In all of this, the emphasis was not on the poor people themselves.  The emphasis was on the wealthy or comfortable.  It was their Christian responsibility to help poor people, which meant they would establish official poor folks living nearby if they had to, so that they could help them.

There was still ambiguity about poor people.  Sure, you were supposed to help them, but suppose they were scary and dangerous?  Dirty, unkempt people are always scary, and it's easy to be dirty and unkempt if you have nowhere decent to sleep, no good clothes, and no way to bathe.  And yet the scariest people were not the poor but the powerful.  A knight might be clean and well-dressed, but he also had a sword and a short temper.  Overall, the poor were those to be pitied and helped.

Things changed in the fourteenth century, when over-population and a string of bad harvests (always a bad combination) led to famine.  Now there were a lot of poor people, most of whom were poor not for religious reasons but because they had lost their livelihood.  Their numbers overwhelmed the charities that had supported the poor for the last few centuries--after all, they too now had less food to distribute.

Really for the first time the well to do started making distinctions between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor, those who deserved to be helped and those who didn't.  Thieves and bandits could be easily classified as undeserving, even if they'd stolen only to keep from starving.  Children with big eyes got to be deserving.

The twenty-first century has the fourteenth century's distinction between deserving and undeserving poor.  But we draw the line somewhat differently.  The fourteenth century wanted to know if the poor people being helped were moral people.  Today the concern is that they not be goof-offs.  There is a very strong assumption that many poor people choose poverty so that they can avoid work and get freebies, which is why they have to be very carefully vetted before receiving benefits, and food stamps can't be spent on certain foods that they "don't deserve."  Many would change their attitude if they suddenly had nothing.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017 

Monday, August 21, 2017

Medieval eclipses

Today an eclipse was seen throughout much of the US, reaching totality in a coast-to-coast strip (we were in the 80% range).  So it seems like a good time to blog about eclipses.

These days astronomers can predict eclipses by calculating the paths of earth and moon.  (Eclipses of the sun are caused by the moon passing between us and the sun, eclipses of the moon by the earth passing between sun and moon.  But you knew that.)  There was no way for medieval people to make such calculations.  (The US is going to have another total eclipse of the sun in 7 years.  Plan ahead.)

Medieval people were therefore always surprised when an eclipse showed up.  Although there are plenty of modern notions that medieval people thought they were caused by demons, or thought a dragon was eating the sun (or moon), this is not true.  Medieval people knew perfectly well what an eclipse was, even if they couldn't predict it.  After all, even if you don't know that the earth goes around the sun, rather than vice versa, you could certainly understand how the moon could block the light of the sun or the earth the sun's light reflected from the moon.

Remember, medieval people assumed the earth was a globe, just like the moon.  The "earth was thought to be flat" fable was invented in the nineteenth century.

Some eclipses may well have passed unnoticed.  If it's a cloudy day, even an 80% eclipse of the sun won't look like much of anything.  And a cloudy night would mean you'd totally miss a lunar eclipse.  But medieval people saw and reacted to eclipses.

The usual explanation was that God had sent the eclipse to mark some major upcoming event.  After all, the normal understanding was that God was actively involved in His creation, even though they couldn't always figure out the hints He tried to give them.  If anyone important died shortly after an eclipse, then it was understood that the eclipse had been sent to warn about this event.  After the death of Henry I of England, many recalled a recent solar eclipse.

It is possible to calculate eclipses after the fact as well as ahead of time.  Astronomers have noted an eclipse that took place in the spring of the year we call 29 AD, which some have identified with the "darkness at noon" that the Bible says accompanied the Crucifixion.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

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

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Peasant Agency

Medieval peasants. it is often now assumed, had little opportunity to express their own ideas or to choose for themselves what to do.  This is actually not true.  Although some peasants were legally restricted by having servile status, being "serfs" (not the same as slaves), all of them had opportunities for independent action or "agency," as the social scientists call it.

The term peasant means a country person (paysan in French, from pays, countryside), whose days are spent in farming, often paying rents and dues to a landowner who was supported and fed by the peasant's labor.  A peasant would live in a small village, not a town.  As much as we would all like to imagine we are descended from lords and ladies of the Middle Ages, most medieval people were peasants, and hence so were most of our ancestors.

These people, mostly being illiterate, did not produce written records, appearing instead either in the records of more powerful laymen or in records of the church.  Scholars thus long assumed they were marginal or even silent, at any rate not worth trying to study.  Interestingly, the same assumptions were once made about medieval women.  Once scholars stopped assuming "We'll find no information on women in the records" and thus didn't bother to look, and instead started looking, they found a lot.  The same is true of peasants.

Where peasants are seen most frequently is in legal disputes or in negotiations with their landlords.  Landlords were not in a position simply to impose whatever they wanted on their peasants.  Everyone believed in the value of tradition, meaning that sudden changes did not seem right, and even more importantly, peasants had a lot of leverage.  If a landlord gave them too hard a time, they could just leave.  No aristocrat wanted to end up walking behind his own plow or harvesting his own grain.

Peasants could also play different aristocrats off against each other.  Nobles wanted to be considered "defenders of the poor," and peasants knew that and could exploit it.  Where a serf had both a lord of the body and a landlord (different persons), he (or she) could appeal to one against the other.  Peasants could also appeal to the big regional courts.

In one well-known case, peasants appeared before the court complaining about a local noble, saying they were helpless, saying all they had was their "tormented voices."  They understood very well what all medieval people knew (though many moderns have forgotten), that professed weakness can be a real source of strength.  The court had little choice but to rule in favor of these "tormented" peasants.

It was through negotiation that twelfth-century peasants managed to get out of some of their more burdensome obligations.  For example, one of the markers of servitude was having to pay an annual head-tax, usually a penny a head.  Peasants who had been selling their produce to the growing towns and had saved up could and did offer their lords of the body a fairly large one-time payment in return for not having to pay the head-tax.  The lords of course accepted, but this meant that there was no longer an annual ceremony indicating that these particular peasants were serfs.  In a generation, they would have "forgotten" that they and their ancestors had ever been other than free peasants.

As landlords opened up previously-uncultivated land for farming during this period, they needed to attract peasants, and thus offered them low rents and the opportunity to regulate themselves in what was known as a commune.  In some cases the peasants insisted on having this in writing; the local priest could read it for them.

Certainly being a medieval peasant would not have been an easy life. By our standards even the most well-to-do were desperately poor, with none of the material goods we take for granted, living in a rough house with a dirt floor, snuggled up to the cowshed.  There was always the worrisome question whether the harvest would come in this year (no peasant ever decided he needed to go on a diet), and the back-breaking work would have worn them out by the time they were in their fifties.  But they were smart, and resourceful, and entirely capable of outwitting those who considered themselves their betters.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

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

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Fourth Crusade

We use the term "crusade" these days to mean a moral struggle, people rallying themselves to fight for the right (for example, World War II is sometimes described as a "crusade").  But look at the word; at its root it's something to do with a cross.  Its core meaning is Christians fighting for Christ, which in the Middle Ages usually meant killing Muslims (it's too late now to tell them it was a very bad idea, but we're still dealing with the aftermath).

(Interestingly, what we call a crusade was in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries just called going to Jerusalem.)

The First Crusade was successful beyond anyone's expectations, leading in 1100 to the establishment of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem.  As I've discussed elsewhere, winning essentially ended after that.  One of the biggest disasters (though it's hard to choose) was the Fourth Crusade of 1202.

This was after the 1187 fall of Christian Jerusalem and the failure of the 1189 Third Crusade to get it back.  But by 1202 hopes were high for victory.  A big army was assembled.  Planning to go by sea (rather than overland, since after all Frederick Barbarossa had died trying to go overland in 1189), the main army arrived in Venice, which had been busy building ships for them.

Here the Venetians came up with a startlingly large sum for their ships.  (Part of the problem was that the Venetians had been told to build ships for about three times as many Crusaders as actually showed up--and had done so, and didn't want to get stiffed for all that inventory.)  The Crusaders didn't have nearly enough money, and it was going to take more than a couple of bake sales to raise it.  So the Venetians suggested a compromise:  they would take much less if the Crusaders would first sack Zara, a trading rival to Venice, located in Croatia on the opposite coast of the Adriatic.

Zara was Christian (indeed Catholic), but the Crusaders needed those ships, so they took the deal.  The pope, understandably, was distraught when he learned about it and told the Crusaders to come home and be excommunicated.  Instead, trying to make up for this inauspicious beginning, the Crusaders pushed on, sailing to Constantinople.

The plan was to hook up with the Byzantines and together attack the Muslims in the Holy Land.  Popes had been hoping for over a century that such joint efforts might reconcile Latin Christendom and Greek Orthodoxy (though you'd have thought by now they would have figured out that it wasn't working).  Meanwhile, political infighting was going on in Constantinople, and the Crusaders were met in early 1203 by a claimant to the imperial throne who asked for their help in getting his "rightful" rule.

They threw themselves into it with enthusiasm.  Although they got the claimant crowned, one thing led to another, and in 1204 the Crusaders ended up sacking Constantinople (the claimant had been murdered in all the excitement).  Then they looked around and realized they'd just slaughtered a whole lot more Christians.  Whoops.

Very delicately worded letters were sent to the pope, saying how delighted he'd be to learn that Constantinople was now fully committed to Latin Christendom, no more schism here!  The pope even wrote back with congratulations before figuring out what had really happened.

The leaders of the Crusade headed west to "explain" more fully what had happened and to take home some of the great relics they'd obtained. Meanwhile, since  the westerners after all now controlled the city, they declared a Latin Empire of Constantinople.  Multiple French lords competed for who got to be emperor.  This Latin empire lasted only two generations, before the Byzantines took it back in 1261.  The long-term effect was just to weaken Byzantium, although it managed to hold on against the Turks until 1453.  But the Fourth Crusade never got anywhere near Jerusalem.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017
For more on medieval Crusades, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Medieval boats

Boats were a major part of medieval transportation.  Without combustion engines or good roads, dragging loads along the land was very slow and inefficient.  Much more efficient was to float heavy goods on barges.  Every smooth-running river was full of boats and barges, carrying both people and goods.  Bridges had to be built high enough that boats could easily pass underneath.  The more expensive a trade good and the further distance it had come, the greater the chance that it had been on a boat.

Boats were powered either by manpower (rowing or poling), horse power (barges pulled along by a horse or mule on the towpath), or sail.  Sailing on the rivers was mostly to increase one's current-fueled speed and to improve steering.  Part of the reason the Burgundy region became a major center of wine-growing, even aside from its good soil and climate, was that it was easy to put wine barrels on barges and float them downstream to the large Paris market.

Sail really came into its own on the ocean.  Sailing ships had been found in antiquity, but there were many improvements to rigging and sails during the Middle Ages.  The boldest sailors, of course, were the Vikings.  They developed their longships in the late eighth century, ships that could be either rowed or sailed, were big enough to cross the open ocean, and shallow enough to row up Europe's rivers to find tempting targets to raid.  By the end of the tenth century, they had reached (progressively) Iceland, Greenland, and even what are now the Canadian maritimes.  (See more here.)

Other than the Vikings, most medieval sailors were hesitant about heading off out of sight of land.  Ships tended to hug the shoreline.  Those heading to the Holy Land from Western Europe on Crusade usually went by ship, as both quicker and (slightly) less dangerous, though shipwreck on the windy and treacherous Mediterranean was always a possibility.  At the beginning of the thirteenth century, when leaders of the Fourth Crusade were trying to book ship passage for their soldiers to get to the East, the Venetian ship-masters charged them such high prices that they had to accede to Venetian demands to sack one of Venice's trade rivals as part of the price.  (The Fourth Crusade was a disaster all the way around, but that's a different story.)

The biggest advance in ships in medieval Europe since the Viking longships came in the fifteenth century.  Prince Henry of Portugal, nicknamed "the Navigator," sponsored improvements in ocean-going ships that allowed Portuguese sailors to leave the well-known confines of Europe and the Mediterranean and start south along the coast of Africa.  Henry's purpose was to find a way to get to the Indian Ocean, where spices from the fabled Orient came on Arabic dhows (ships), to join trade networks that led to Europe.  He found Africa a lot bigger than he had anticipated, but quickly realized that trade and colonies in west Africa had a lot to recommend them in the meantime (ever wonder why Angola is Portuguese-speaking?).

It was of course due to rivalry with Portugal that led the Spanish kings Ferdinand and Isabella to sponsor Columbus and his crack-pot scheme to reach the East by sailing west.  So the integration of the New World into European culture owes a lot of fifteenth-century ship building.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

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

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Meat in the Middle Ages

Modern people in the West have an uneasy relationship with meat.  On the one hand, we love it.  The smell of hamburgers on the grill or turkey roasting gets everyone's attention.  It's obvious from our teeth and from archaeology that our Stone Age ancestors ate meat (normally cooked) as part of their diet.  Meat has more calories per volume than vegetables (generally), so if one is hunting and gathering it makes sense to hunt for meat.  Humans can eat pretty much every kind of animal, whereas an awful lot of plants are indigestible or just don't produce nutrients for us (grass won't work for humans).

On the other hand, there are a lot of things we think "bad" about meat.  Every recipe for a "healthy diet" starts by talking about cutting back on red meat with its saturated fat.  Many vegetarians and vegans believe it is not right to raise sentient creatures just to kill and eat them.  (I once saw a sign in range-country Wyoming, fighting back:  "Did you know that every day thousands of innocent plants are killed by vegetarians?  Eat more beef!")  This is further complicated by the popularity of things like gluten-free diets, the so-called "Paleo" diet (not clear where Paleolithic woman would have gotten the olive oil), and low-carb diets, where one tucks happily into meat.

As I discussed in an earlier post on the medieval diet, medieval people had a lot fewer foods to choose from than we do, because they didn't have New World foods like corn and chocolate (much less processed foods or fruits and vegetables out of season).  For them, the majority of their daily calories came from bread.  "Give us this day our daily bread" was not spoken metaphorically.  However, they loved meat and ate it when they could.  They couldn't have cared less about saturated fat.

Meat was expensive, rare, and hard to keep fresh centuries before refrigeration.  For most medieval people, pork was the most common meat, but it was only eaten fresh in the fall, at the time of the big pig roundup and slaughter.  Everyone at their fill, then the rest was smoked and salted to last the winter as an occasional treat.

The aristocracy hunted for deer and went hawking for birds, but over-hunting then, as now, can drastically reduce the population of hunted creatures, so the powerful tried (without overwhelming success) to restrict the right to hunt to themselves.

For most people, beef was eaten only when the old dairy cow was no longer producing, and chicken when the hen stopped laying, though young bulls and cockerels might be harvested out of the flock.  Songbirds and rabbits provided additional sources of meat.

Red meat was considered to make one lively and lusty.  Monks considered this bad, so they normally ate no red meat at all.  (It all made sense in terms of Humors.)  To lead a pure and simple life, breaking away from material things, they had to give up meat.  Meat broth might be allowed, however, if a monk were ill, and there were always stories (about other monasteries, of course) about monks who feigned almost constant illness so they could live in the infirmary and have meat.

For a special guest (like a bishop or a great lord), the abbot would be expected to serve something better than the bread and vegetables on which the monks normally lived (with maybe some eggs).  So they would serve fish or maybe cheese (but preferably fish), not red meat but a little classier than regular monastic fare.

This idea that fish was a semi-penitential food, halfway to being a vegetable and certainly not to be considered red meat, gave rise to the assumption that Catholics should eat fish rather than meat on Fridays during Lent.  (It used to be every Friday, but it's just been Fridays-in-Lent since the 1960s.)  These days, however, eating fish (generally more expensive than hamburger) has lost a lot of its penitential aspect and seems more a ritual act.

Our grocery was advertising "crab legs for Lent."  Let's not go into detail on that one.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

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