Monday, January 30, 2017

The Holy Hanky of Cadouin

The monastery of Cadouin, founded in the twelfth century in southwestern France, had and still has the Holy Hanky.  (Its official name is the Saint-Suaire.  It means Holy Hanky.)  Discredited as a genuine relic since the 1930s, it is a very interesting example of how relics were seen and used in the Middle Ages.

Here's a picture of it.  The story is that it was a handkerchief used to wipe the sweat from Christ's brow as he carried the cross on the way to his crucifixion.  Shortly after the year 1100, when the French had just conquered Jerusalem during the First Crusade, the pope's representative on the crusade, the bishop of Le Puy, picked it up in Mustafa's House O' Relics.

(Okay, there wasn't really a Mustafa's House O' Relics, with a certificate of authenticity bearing the genuine facsimile signature of Jesus H. Christ.  But close.  The rest of it's real.)

The bishop sent the precious relic, which he said had protected him in battle, home to his cathedral of Le Puy.  But the cathedral canons frankly didn't believe the story of the priest whom the bishop had commissioned to take it there.  Medieval people were by no means ready to believe in every relic someone presented to them.  The priest ended up in the newly-founded monastery of Cadouin instead, along with the Holy Hanky.  (It's not clear what the bishop's reaction was when he found out what had happened to his relic.)

This small, out of the way monastery quickly became a place of pilgrimage.  People flocked to see something so holy, a physical connection to the redemptive suffering of Christ.  It was widely considered to perform miracles.  Its authenticity was considered proven by the miracles it worked.  And why should we say it didn't?  We weren't there.  It inspired gifts to the monastery from such notable people as Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Over the centuries it continued to be revered.  When France went officially atheistic during the French Revolution and both monks and relics were tossed out in the street, the mayor of the village of Cadouin took the Holy Hanky and hid it under his floorboards, until Catholicism was reestablished.

It continued to receive attention and have miracles attributed to it until the priests of Cadouin unwisely decided in 1934 to prove scientifically that it was authentically from the first century AD.  The first thing to turn up was that what they had always assumed to be a decorative border was actually Arabic writing, saying, "Allah akbar!  There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet."  Oops.

Things went downhill from there.  It's now been determined to have been woven in Egypt shortly before the pope's representative got it.  On the up side, it is one of very few surviving pieces of Egyptian cloth from that period in such nice condition.

Today in Cadouin there is a chain hanging above the altar, where the reliquary with the Holy Hanky used to hang.  There is a display comparing it to the Shroud of Turin (also now known not to be from the time of the crucifixion), discussing how the true source of miracles is not a piece of cloth but God's response to piety and prayer, which may be inspired by almost anything, including an Egyptian handkerchief.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

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

Monday, January 23, 2017

Organic and natural

We've all heard it.  "Eat organic and natural food, exercise regularly, and you'll be nice and healthy without any of that artificial modern medicine."

Well, medieval people ate nothing but organic and natural food, and they certainly were not couch potatoes in front of the TV or behind the wheel of the car, yet their life expectancy was probably somewhere around 50 or 60.  They would have loved modern medicine.

But how about healthy eating?  All natural, no processed foods.  Let's start with "organic."  This is a formal category, meaning food grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, without giving animals things like growth hormones.  Because medieval farmers did not have chemical fertilizers or pesticides, much less have any artificial growth hormone to bump up their cows' milk production, they were certainly organic farmers by today's standards.

Many people (including me) prefer not to eat chemicals that have been sprayed on our food and prefer organic for that reason for fruits and vegetables where you eat the outside.  But there's a reason those chemicals came in originally.  With modern fertilizers, plants grow much better.  Drive by a corn field and notice how much smaller the plants are in the corners, where the fertilizer-spreader didn't reach.  With modern pesticides, pests destroy a smaller proportion of the crop.

Organic foods, as I'm sure everyone has noticed, are more expensive because the yield is lower, even with organic farmers hand-picking off bugs and sprinkling nasturtium flowers around (to say nothing of more labor intensive…).  The massive famines around the world that were feared back in the 1960s never happened because of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  (Though the population has now about caught up with possible production.  Better distribution would help a lot, but that's a separate discussion.)

How about "natural"?  This word actually has no defined meaning for food.  Okay, this apple was grown "naturally," in that it was grown on a tree, but there's no requirement there of organic.  It doesn't show any sign of scale or of little wormy holes, so in fact it is probably not organic.  Medieval food, however, it's safe to say, was all produced "naturally."

How about that healthful exercise?  For medieval people to go anywhere, they walked or rode on a horse, which, as any rider will tell you, is a lot more energetic than riding in a car.  Peasants spent their days in hard physical labor.  Aristocrats traveled a lot.  And think about running up and down stairs in a castle all day.  Monks were about the only people with a sort of sedentary life style, and some monastic orders stressed manual labor, so the monks might be out there working their own fields (rather than having peasant tenants) and eating nice raw turnips for lunch.  A lot more medieval people were physically worn out by their 50s than had their lives extended through exercise.

So making wise food choices and getting appropriate exercise is good.  But don't think that eating and working like a medieval peasant is going to make you live a long and healthy life.

(And don't even get me started on the Paleo Diet.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

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

Friday, January 20, 2017

Daughter of Magic

I've got a new audio book just out!  It's called "Daughter of Magic," part of my Royal Wizard of Yurt series.

It's available on Audible as well as Amazon and iTunes.  You can get it for free with a trial membership in Audible, or buy it for $1.99 from Amazon if you also buy the ebook version.  And if you're an Audible listener, make it one of your choices this month!  It should soon have "Whispersync" turned on, where you can alternately read and listen, read and listen, and have your devices (Kindle and mp3 player) remember your place.

Here's the description (a ruined castle plays a prominent role):

She's the daughter of a witch and a wizard, with the talents of both - and the world had better watch out!
Daimbert the wizard just wants to spend some quality time with his daughter Antonia. He loves his peaceful kingdom of Yurt, but he and those around him are increasingly finding themselves hampered by their society's strictures and silent rules. The king doesn't want to marry any of the princesses offered to him, the duchess' twin daughters want to be respectively a knight and a priest, and Daimbert himself is forbidden by the norms of wizardry from a liaison with a witch - much less having a daughter.
And then the peaceful kingdom is suddenly not so peaceful, between the arrival of an exotic eastern princess and her elephant, a ravening wolf, an army of undead warriors, a bogus miracle worker, and an old enemy seeking vengeance.
Can Antonia save the day? She already knows how to turn someone into a frog. But she is after all only five years old. And the bogus miracle worker has a strange power over children....

An audio book (what we used to call "Books on Tape") is an interesting experience.  It gives you more of the feeling of stories-told-out-loud around the campfire than sitting and reading.  The narrator is called on to do different voices, to bring out the tension in the exciting parts, to make you want to know what happens next.  The story is told by Daimbert the wizard, and when I first heard my stories being narrated, it was an odd sensation, because in my own head of course Daimbert sounds like me.  The excellent narrator, Eric Vincent, brings out intensity I hadn't realized I'd put in.

If you've never read or listened to any of the Yurt series, you could plunge in here for a wild ride, but you might prefer to start at the beginning, with "A Bad Spell in Yurt."  Happy listening!

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

Friday, January 13, 2017


Stigmata seem weird to the modern person, even most devout Christians:  marks that suggest the wounds of the Crucifixion appearing on a living person who isn't Jesus.  And yet the stigmata were (relatively) common in the late Middle Ages.

The first person to display stigmata was Saint Francis of Assisi (d. 1226).  The story was that Christ appeared to him on a mountain top and marked his hands and feet with wounds that looked like wounds from being nailed to the Cross.  He was also supposed to have a wound in his side that would not heal.  Francis, who was an extremely humble person (much more so than the Jesus of the Bible, who told people very firmly what-was-what), seems to have hidden these wounds, which kept on bleeding intermittently.  His closest followers, however, found out about them, which is why we know about them now.

The above image is a picture of Francis painted about a century later by Cimabue.  It shows stigmata.

Francis was considered a saint immediately upon his death, though it took another two years for him to be officially so declared (the current Pope Francis took his name from him).  He was buried deep, because his followers were concerned that otherwise people might want to get a relic, a finger bone or toe bone or the like.

He was however exhumed in the nineteenth century during some renovations of the church at Assisi.  The story is that he had bones looking like nails (though made of bone) protruding from the wrists of his skeletal hands.

Fact?  Fiction?  Hard to say about any of this, because we aren't there to see for ourselves.  But in a way it hardly matters.  What matters is if people believe and if they act on their beliefs.

In the centuries after Francis, a number of other highly religious people were marked with stigmata and frequently were declared saints.  The vast majority of them were women.  For example, Catherine of Siena (d. 1380), the other patron saint of Italy (besides Francis), was said to have received the stigmata.  She also wrote chiding letters to the pope and brokered peace treaties between warring Italian city-states.  Though stigmata have become far less common in recent centuries, there are still cases.  Many are denounced as frauds, but at least one twentieth-century case was declared to have baffled doctors.

Declaring stigmata a result of hysteria or easy bruising sort of misses the point.  Stigmata are supposed to show that the person is truly trying to imitate Christ, and that Christ recognizes that they are succeeding.  Certainly some people have injured themselves deliberately in a pathetic effort to get attention, but if a religious person devoutly believes that her strenuous efforts to be holy have been recognized by God, it does neither her nor us any good to tell her that she brought it all on through hysteria.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

Saturday, January 7, 2017

One Thousand Years Ago

The Middle Ages can seem very far away.  Let's set the way-back machine for 1017 and see what's different.

For starters, you wouldn't be reading this on a screen but on parchment.  Plus you wouldn't be reading it in English, a language that only slowly emerged out of a fusion between Anglo-Saxon and Old French, as I have discussed elsewhere.  And then you probably wouldn't be able to read at all, since most people in the eleventh century were illiterate (including most of our ancestors, in spite of our best efforts to claim descent from kings and knights and princesses).

If you're in the US, you're in a building that certainly didn't exist in 1017 and, most likely, not even before World War II.  (I take this back if you live in a pueblo.)  You have electricity, modern plumbing, and most likely a furnace or heater that can keep you warm without an open fire.  Almost certainly today you ate some processed food, like cereal or chips or store cookies or anything made with flour or sugar, or consumed coffee or tea or chocolate or potatoes or tomatoes or anything made with corn, all foods unknown in the Middle Ages.

You would neither own a gun nor worry about gun violence in the early eleventh century, for the excellent reason that there were no guns.  Gunpowder only appeared in Europe in the fourteenth century (China had had it earlier but used it for fireworks, not killing people, at least intentionally), and for several centuries it just used for cannons, not handguns.  (Medieval people did of course worry about violence, but it was more the up-close-and-personal kind.)

You rely for entertainment on things reaching you from outside--radio, TV, streaming broadcasts.  You travel by bicycle or car or bus or train or plane, not by horsepower or on foot.  You communicate with your friends by telephone or Facebook or email or texts.  You took a nice bath or shower in the recent past.  Your clothing was probably made by someone you've never met, most likely in a different country.  Now imagine not having any of this.

And yet in many ways there are strong similarities between life a thousand years ago and now.  The dominant religion was Christian, in spite of minority populations of Jews and Muslims and atheists, as is the case in the modern US and western Europe (not so many Hindus, however).  Muslims, in the abstract, were considered scary by people who didn't know any, as now the thought of "Islamic terrorism" lurking among refugees can now send shivers of fear.

Towns then, as now, were the centers of trade, commerce, and opportunity (or at least the hope for opportunity).  Northern Europe's cities were just starting to grow in 1017, but Italy already had cities, and cities had mayors and elected city councils.  Almost all of modern Europe's cities are in the same place as medieval cities, usually with the same names.  Modern Dijon, for example, was Divionensis in medieval Latin, probably pronounced something like "Divion" or "Dijon" by people who lived there.

Speaking of Dijon, the above is one of the carvings in the crypt of St.-BĂ©nigne of Dijon.  It was brand new in 1017, and you can still go see it.

Europe's countries were taking shape in the eleventh century.  England and France were more or less where they still are.  Both Spain and Italy were divided into smaller states, but in both cases their peninsulas had a certain cohesion (complicated in Spain because the southern half was ruled by Muslims).  Germany thought of itself as a country, though it sort of wandered off to the east.

Most people paid rent for their housing to landlords.  Much of the rent was paid in labor or produce rather than coin, but they still had coins for some things.  In their houses, they did the same things we do, eat, sleep, store their possessions, relax after work.

People lived in families a thousand years ago, a mother and father, who were supposed to be married to each other, trying their best to raise the children and teach them what they needed to succeed.  Although there were not yet any public schools or universities, there were plenty of places to get an education, either in a monastery or cathedral school, although only a few could take advantage of these.  Parents loved their children and got exasperated by their teenagers, just like today.  And they worried about and took care of older relatives.

(Note, I seem to have pulled together in this post a lot of earlier ideas.  If you haven't been following my blog all along, click on the links to learn more from earlier posts.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

Thursday, January 5, 2017


Politics was much more personal in the Middle Ages.  Rather than stationing missiles along the border to make sure a peace treaty stayed enforced, warring states and individuals would demand hostages.  A hostage was surety for good behavior, and might be offered for the short term (such as while someone was being given a safe-conduct across a territory) or the long term (such as as assuring a one-time rebel would not rebel again in the future).

Hostages could be any number of different people, but the highest value hostages were the enemy's sons.  Even if someone were not explicitly called a hostage, the status would be clear.

For example, King Charles the Bald (Charlemagne's grandson) had a number of dukes and counts try to rebel against him.  Generally these rebellions were pacified without too many people getting killed—unlike modern warfare (or the board game Risk), the purpose of fighting was not to kill as many guys as possible but rather to get the other side to pay attention.

Charles, "to show there were no hard feelings," would invite the penitent rebels to send their sons "to be brought up at court."  There the boys would indeed be treated well, but everyone knew they were hostages for their fathers' good behavior.  They could, at least theoretically, be put to death very quickly if any new rebellions broke out; ruthlessness, after all, is the other side of trying to settle things without too many deaths.  But in practice threatened execution of hostages happened far more than actual execution.  Especially if a rebel's sons were at court, he would generally change his mind about rebelling.

For the hostage boys, besides being summarily killed, the other danger (at least as their fathers saw it) was to become too close with those who were holding them hostage, what today is called Stockholm Syndrome.  And why shouldn't they become close to their captors?  They saw "Uncle" Charles (or whoever) almost every day; he encouraged them and educated them and made them presents and took them hunting and let them flirt with the ladies of court.  When their fathers expired of natural causes, they would go back and take up their fathers' rule as loyal allies to the crown.

During the early Middle Ages, hostages were almost always male.  But starting in the eleventh century, girls and women started appearing as hostages.  Here Stockholm Syndrome really was an issue, for young women might well end up marrying someone at the court where they were hostage.  Or, like the boys, they could be put to death, rather nastily if the negotiations that had brought them there totally broke down.

In the late Middle Ages, during the Hundred Years' War, the French king Jean II (1350-1364) was captured in battle by the English in 1356 and held for ransom.  He was in essence a hostage, taken to England and kept there in very pleasant circumstances while the French tried to raise the very large ransom demanded.

When by 1360 it became clear that the money raising was going too slowly, he offered to go back to France and help out, and proposed his second son (Louis) as a hostage for his good faith efforts.  Raising the money was a complete pain, however, as France was wracked with dissent and poverty and had apparently just lost the war.  (They eventually won, due to Joan of Arc, but that's a different story.)

After three years of trying unsuccessfully to get the cash together, Jean was shocked to learn that his son had escaped from the English.  Declaring that "good faith and honor" demanded it, he immediately sailed to England to become a hostage again himself, where he wouldn't have to worry about ruling,  but follow the life of leisure he'd enjoyed earlier.  He died in England, and the ransom never did get paid.  He is known as "Jean the Good."

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

For more on medieval law and politics, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.