Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Carthusians

The eleventh and twelfth centuries, as I have earlier noted, was a busy time for the foundation of new monastic orders.  One of those with the longest success was the Carthusian order, founded by Saint Bruno in the late eleventh century in what is now the French Alps.  The name of the order comes from the medieval Latin name for their valley, Carthusia.  It is now called Chartreuse.

The Carthusians managed to combine elements of the life of a hermit with the life of a monk.  The monks lived in solitary cells, like hermits, not seeing or speaking with anyone else all week.  But the cells were relatively close together, and they all got together to walk and talk on Sunday.  They were considered admirably holy, and the order soon spread to other areas.  In England a Carthusian monastery is called a Charterhouse.  The Carthusians are intensely proud that, after more than 900 years, their Order has never needed radical reform.

They were an extremely strict order from their beginning.  Women were not even allowed in their valley (though since a modern road now goes right by, they've had to give up that idea).  At the time the story was that they wouldn't even allow hens, though this seems somewhat fanciful.

The Carthusians had so-called lay brothers, men who wanted the holiness of associating with the monks but who weren’t ready to become monks themselves and who probably didn’t known Latin.  These took care of their flocks and brought the monks their sparse meals, leaving trays outside their cells.  Lay brothers became accepted at other monasteries as well, because it meant that very ascetic monks could focus all their attention on prayer without having to starve, and it meant that peasants could become virtual monks without the education necessary for the liturgy.

Fun fact:  The liqueur chartreuse (and the yellow-green color the liqueur has) is named for the valley.  In the eighteenth century, well after the end of the Middle Ages, the lay brothers started making and selling this liqueur.  You can buy it at the gift shop at La Grande Chartreuse.  (But you can't visit the monks.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Albigensian Crusade

What we now know as the Crusades began, as I have discussed previously, with efforts in 1095 to conquer the Muslims in the Holy Land (essentially what is now Israel and Syria) and make it a Christian territory.  But the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem fell to the Turks in 1187, never to be regained.  This did not stop the desire for Crusades, just their likelihood of success.

The crusading movement quickly branched out to be wars against heretics (or even personal enemies in a few cases), rather than only against Muslims.  The first big war against heretics was the Albigensian Crusade, launched in 1209, called that because much of the fighting was near the town of Albi in southern France.

A heresy we now call Catharism had been growing and spreading for some time.  It was actually an alternate version of Christianity, a dualist religion related to Zoroastrianism and to the Manichaean heresy of late antiquity.  It seems to have reached western Europe via Bulgaria, and its adherents were sometimes called Bogomils.  The basic tenet was that the universe was divided equally between forces of light and darkness, locked in eternal conflict (and no, we're not talking here about the Star Wars' Force).  For adherents, the physical universe was the creation of the devil, not of God, and the ultimate goal was to free oneself from all hint of physicality until finally starving to death.

There is a fair amount of dualism in orthodox Christianity, but it has always held that God, not the devil, created the physical world (reread Genesis), and that when we rise again we will rise in the flesh, not as disembodied spirits.

For a long time this growing heresy was considered deplorable but nothing more.  When towns in southern France started having two bishops, one adhering to Roman Christianity and one to Cathar beliefs, Cistercian monks were sent south to preach and to try to talk the locals out of what was considered their mistaken faith.  It didn't work.  Even the count of Toulouse, the most powerful lord of southwestern France, adopted at least some tenets of Catharism.

The pope sent a legate (representative) to try to help coordinate the preaching.  His legate, Pierre de Castelnau, was murdered in 1208, some said at the orders of the count of Toulouse.  No more Mister Niceguy!  Calling the heresy a cancer that must be cut from the body of Christendom before it spreads, the pope declared a Crusade.  The count of Toulouse's efforts to calm everything down were unsuccessful, and he was placed under anathema.  The Crusade, essentially a war of northern France against southern France, began in 1209.

It was a vicious war.  Northern forces were led by Simon de Montfort.  You should still not tell Simon de Montfort jokes in southern France, because these are not considered funny jokes.  When asked how they could tell who was and wasn't a heretic before burning a whole village, he was said to have quipped, "Burn them all.  The Lord will know His own."

Having (sort of) won, the northern armies settled down to hold southern lands.  They took over and enlarged a number of quite stunning castles that the heretics had held.  These are now sometimes called "citadels of vertigo" from being perched on high peaks and cliffs.  The newly established order of Dominican friars continued the efforts to try to convert people they kept hoping were just confused.  The Inquisition got underway, trying to find and deal with hidden heretics.

One of the more remarkable events, a generation after the Crusade, was the Massacre at Montségur in 1244.  A group of heretics, with their families, held out in a castle on a mountaintop for close to a year.  When the castle was finally captured (Swiss rock climbers went up the back of the mountain, so steep as to be thought inaccessible), the attackers gave any heretics who would renounce their faith two weeks to get out, not wanting to kill children and admiring the defenders' resolve.  But at the end of two weeks most were still there.  And, feeling they really had to do so, the attackers burned everybody.  You can now visit Montségur and, after paying a few euros, climb to the top.

My husband, Robert Bouchard, and I co-wrote a fantasy novel, Count Scar, set in a slightly reimagined version of southern France in the aftermath of the Albigensian Crusade.  It is available as an ebook on Amazon and other e-tailers.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Monday, March 19, 2018

Fish in the Middle Ages

Today people are encouraged to eat a lot of fish because it is supposed to be healthy, full of omega this and that, even sometimes called "brain food."  Medieval people ate a lot of fish because cold-blooded creatures (like fish) were considered to produce a lower quality meat than mammals.  Many wanted to eat something not as good as red-blooded meat.

This of course was not everybody.  Peasants mostly ate bread with maybe some nice onions and lentils if they were lucky.  Fish was embraced by monks and nuns, and by aristocrats on Fridays, in all these cases because they wanted to be simple and ascetic.  These days even Catholics are only expected to abstain from red meat on Fridays during Lent, but in the Middle Ages, and until quite recently, every Friday was meatless Friday.  (In the modern US, of course, this has given rise to things like grocery stores promoting king crab legs for Lent.  I can hear the medieval monks rolling in their graves.)

(This is a picture of a carp, not a king crab.)

Aside from religious issues, fish could make a good supplement to the diet.  Those who lived along the coast or along a lake or river would routinely fish.  Many communities and monasteries had fish weirs, that is a barricade in a river or stream made of sticks or brush, something that would allow the water to continue flowing downstream, but would trap the fish.  These fish were not, strictly speaking, farmed the way that a lot of salmon and tilapia is farmed today, because people were not trying to grow up fish from tiny hatchlings and feeding them.  But fish caught in the weir might be transferred to an enclosed pond (and given a little food) so as to be ready whenever fish was wanted.

Fish were also an important trade item.  Especially in the North Sea, people caught a lot of fish (mostly cod), salted it heavily, and sold it to areas further from a source of fish.  Fortunately for the fishermen, oceans were both a source of fish and a source of salt.  This fish would have to be soaked for a day or so to get out the extra salt before you would actually want to try to eat it.

Fish also make a good symbol.  You've probably see the spare sketch of a fish that is supposed to identify someone as a Christian.

This is the ichthus, a word meaning "fish."  Although (supposedly) early Christians fearing persecution used this symbol to identify themselves to other Christians, it is not really found during the Middle Ages.  How can a fish be Christian, you understandably ask?  It's because the first three letters, ICH, were considered an abbreviation for Iesus Christus (remember, the distinction between I and J is a recent one).

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Celts and Anglo-Saxons

Many in Britain today are looking forward to leaving the European Union, wanting to retreat to some (imagined) past when England was just for the English, and there weren't any of those pesky immigrants.  In fact, England has experienced waves of conquest, where the newcomers weren't just immigrants who blended in with the locals but conquerors who decided they were in charge now.

This of course is not a uniquely English situation, though since I'm blogging today about Celts and Anglo-Saxons, Great Britain is my focus.  After all, the US, a nation of immigrants, is also a nation full of people saying that just because Grandpaw arrived in this country poor and unable to speak English, we shouldn't allow in any more poor people who can't speak English.

The earliest people in Britain who we know much about (and it's not a lot) are the megalith builders who built Stonehenge, pictured above.  Then around 500 BC came the Celts, though there were various people like Picts who still lingered around the margins.   Then came the Romans under Caesar.  Then the Angles and Saxons.  Then the Vikings.  Then the Normans in 1066.  Things have been a bit quieter, invasion-wise, since then, but it's clear nobody British is "pure" anything.

Earlier I discussed the Romans in Britain.   Today I want to focus more on the ways that the Romanized Celtic population dealt with and merged with the Anglo-Saxon conquerors.

Because the original Anglo-Saxons didn't write, we know about them primarily through archaeology, digging up things like their pottery.  The Romans had had mass-produced pottery, thrown on wheels, fired in kilns, distributed from what were in essence factories.  One quickly stops seeing this kind of pottery after about the year 500, although a few examples seem to have survived as precious possessions.  (We find most of the earlier ones in graves or in pieces.)

The assumption has been that the rougher-looking, hand-shaped pottery that came into use instead was therefore Anglo-Saxon pottery, pots baked in open fires rather than in kilns (and therefore less durable).  But a lot of this pottery looks in overall style just like Roman pottery, even if not as professionally made.  It does not have the style of the pottery found along the lower Rhine, where the Angles and Saxons originated.

So the question is, were the Anglo-Saxon invaders trying to copy the local pottery?  Or were there local Celtic populations still trying to make the kind of pots that seemed right to them, but the centers that had produced them were gone?  After all, the conquerors went after the rich lords, not the ordinary people.  If ordinary people couldn't buy their pots from the shop at the villa because it no longer existed, then they would have to make it themselves, as best they could.

This is much more likely than that the Celts completely disappeared overnight (caught up in the rapture?), and the Angles and Saxons found examples of their pottery Left Behind, grunted, "Ugh.  Good," and tried with their crude techniques to copy it.  This kind of thinking can lead too easily to assuming that if one finds supposedly "Anglo-Saxon" pots, then all the people buried with them must have been Anglo-Saxon, and everything else in the graves must be a marker of Anglo-Saxon culture, even though it looks weirdly like Roman-Celtic material goods.  In fact, it is far more likely that Romanized Celts and Anglo-Saxons intermingled and intermarried, as well as trading bits of their culture, just as the Anglo-Saxons did with the Normans 500 years later.

Professor Robin Fleming of Boston College has done a great deal of work on this subject.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Middle Ages and Whiteness

There is a low-level but increasing tendency to see Europe's Middle Ages as a golden age of Whiteness.  As a medievalist, I must strongly disagree.

Of course I love my guys who lived in the Middle Ages.  But that doesn't mean that I admire them, want to be like them, or think they should be anyone's model.  (As the preachers say, "Love the sinner but not the sin.")  As I've said before, they were ruthless, violent, and intolerant of religious diversity—and those were the good guys!

But there's another side to it, that should be understood by those who like ruthless intolerance.  In spite of everything negative you can say about the Middle Ages, there was never a dominant white and Christian culture that excluded all else.

For starters, medieval people weren't racist in terms of skin tone.  A lot of this was just naïveté, they hadn't for the most part seen people of color and couldn't therefore work up any sort of antagonism against them.  In the Parzival story in which Parzival had a half-brother whose mother was an Ethiopian, the half-brother was spotted black and white, because it seemed that that's what you'd get crossing a black person and a white person.  The spots were considered intriguing.

And then there are the so-called black Madonnas of the Auvergne, very dark wooden figures of the Madonna, found all over southwest France, dating to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  No one tried to whiten them up.  Black was fine.  (The image below is of the one at Rocamadour.)

Medieval Europe had large minority populations of Jews and Muslims.  Sometimes they'd be persecuted, sometimes not.  In Spain especially everyone had to work out a way to get along with each other, at least some of the time.  When the first wave of fighters on what became the First Crusade (1095) got to the Rhineland, they decided they'd get a head start on killing the infidel by killing Jews, and the Jews were protected by, get this, the local bishops.

Now of course when the Crusade actually got to the Muslim Middle East, they were in slaughter-mode.  At the time the story was that the streets of Jerusalem ran ankle-deep in blood.  But as the westerners settled down to rule their newly-established Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, they got along most of the time with local Muslims—who were, after all, in the majority.  This was upsetting to those newly arrived from Europe.  It was mostly the new arrivals who kept the fighting going, until the westerners were driven back out in 1187.

Religious intolerance reached new heights in the thirteenth century, but the special focus was Christian heretics, not other religions (though those too came under attack).  Christianity, as those who have been reading this blog know, was never a single, unified religion, and although the persecution of heretics was an attempt to make it so, it was not successful.  Then, in the disastrous fourteenth century (famine, Black Death, Hundred Years War), religious difference became much less of an issue.  People had other things to worry about, like staying alive.

And of course Europe was not sealed off from the broader world.  A lot of their philosophy, science (think astronomy and Arabic numerals), and architecture was heavily influenced by the Arabs.  If one wants to find a time when everyone was white and Christian and therefore everything was swell (and I must say I think such a time is imaginary), it is not the European Middle Ages.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018 

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

Thursday, March 8, 2018


Everybody sort of knows about alchemy and rejects it--turning lead into gold, let's not get silly!  But in the Middle Ages it was a major branch of philosophy.  This is why the first Harry Potter book was entitled (in the UK) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

As you doubtless can guess if you've been reading this blog, I'm not about to say, "Ha, how dumb can they get in the Middle Ages?  Lead into gold indeed!"  Rather alchemy, which in fact became the ancestor of what we consider chemistry, started as a theoretical musing on the nature of the universe.  Medieval Europe got it from the Arabs (as the prefix al- should have told you),  from the eighth or ninth century onward.  The Arabs in turn had gotten a lot of it from ancient Greek philosophy.

The starting point was the question of what was the basic "stuff" of the universe, the assumption that everything, if reduced to its smallest bits, might be the same.  We actually believe this now.  Everything is composed of atoms, whether it's a rock or a tree or a person or a drop of water.  And if everything is composed of the same smallest bits, just rearranged differently, then it makes sense that one substance can be turned into another.  We don't turn lead into gold, but we are happy to think that hydrogen and oxygen combine to make water.

Medieval people actually didn't concentrate on the lead-to-gold thing until the end of the Middle Ages (and they didn't worry about some magical "stone").  Their main interest was copper-to-gold, or even gold-to-copper, and this wasn't an issue about creating wealth.  Rather it was seeing two shiny metals as metaphors.  Copper started by looking like gold, like the sun, then turned green with verdigris to look like natural growing things.

 Human action, it was understood, turned one thing into something else.  So as copper was smelted or hammered by humans, it was considered to undergo an alchemical change.  What had once been a nugget of ore was now a coin, or an oil lamp, or a door knocker.  There were methods that would turn copper green faster than natural weathering.  So alchemy was a way to ponder the relationship between nature and human.

Alchemy was considered a good Christian science.  After all, in transubstantiation, the Communion wafer became the body of Christ.  Now it also at the same time remained a wafer, and finding actual blood in one's wafer was considered unorthodox at best, but it did change its substance (that's what transubstantiation means), by what was considered an example of divine alchemy.

Modern people tend to draw distinctions between "real" sciences, like chemistry and astronomy, and "fake" sciences, like alchemy and astrology, conveniently leaving out the detail that the former derived from the latter.  And in fact medieval people were very aware of the danger of charlatans promising that they could make you rich if you just gave them money for their alchemical experiments, or tell you which decisions to make depending on the phase of the moon or stars.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

Tuesday, March 6, 2018


To a western medievalist, Byzantium is something of an outlier.  It's that place over there, in what is now Turkey, and they used Greek rather than Latin, and maybe we shouldn't think of them as "really" medieval.

But this does the Byzantines a disservice.  The original Roman Empire had extended all the way around the Mediterranean, including the area of Anatolia, the "Asian" part of modern Turkey, east of the passage from the Mediterranean into the Black Seaas well as the western or so-called European part of what is now Turkey.  They called the whole area Byzantium.  In this end of the Mediterranean, Greek rather than Latin was the dominant language.

In the fourth century AD, the Roman emperor Constantine moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium.  For another century and a half, there were sometimes two emperors, one in Rome and one in Constantinople, the "new Rome" (guess who it was named for).  Sometimes they got along, sometimes not.  In 476 the eastern Byzantine Roman emperor had the western one, a barbarian general, assassinated, and there were no more western Roman emperors until Charlemagne in 800.  But the line of Roman emperors in Constantinople continued for another thousand years.

The Byzantine region was a highly cultured, wealthy place.  Its Christianity was Greek-speaking, following the original version of the Bible and earliest theologians, whereas in Europe and the western Mediterranean things had to be translated into Latin (on which see more here).  Religious art developed icons, images of the saints, as well as gorgeous mosaics.  The church of Hagia Sophia ("Holy Wisdom"), built in Constantinople in the sixth century, was the largest church in Christendom.

It is pictured above.  (The four minarets on the corners were added during its later time as a Muslim mosque.  Now it is a museum.)

The economic breakdown of the late Roman Empire (fifth-sixth centuries) drew eastern and western Christendom further and further apart, with the decline of trade and communication, but the real blow came in the seventh century, with the rise of Islam.  North Africa and most of the eastern Mediterranean, except for Byzantium, came under Muslim rule.  The Byzantines heavily influenced Arabic art and culture and vice-versa, even though the two were officially deadly enemies.  Among the Christians, East and West, Greek and Latin, viewed each other with increased suspicion.  In 1054, the two major versions of Christianity excommunicated each other, a breach still not completely healed today.

The Crusades were begun at the end of the eleventh century at least in part in the hope (wildly over-optimistic) that fighting Muslims together might bring East and West back together.  In fact, the Fourth Crusade in 1204 ended up with the western army sacking Constantinople and installing their own Latin emperor and patriarch.  The Byzantines eventually got their capital back, but not before all the fighting between Christians had seriously weakened Byzantium.

The Turks had, in the previous century or two, come into the Middle East and been converted to Islam.  In 1453, they finally, after years of fighting, took Constantinople, renamed it Istanbul, renamed the region Turkey, turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque, sent the leaders of Greek Orthodoxy into exile, and ended the line of Byzantine Roman emperors.  This was the real "fall of the Roman Empire."

© C. Dale Brittain 2018 

For more on Byzantium and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other e-tailers.