Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Cistercians

 Earlier I posted about Cluny, the head of an important monastic order in Burgundy, founded at the beginning of the tenth century.  Today I want to discuss another important Burgundian monastic order, the Cistercians, founded two centuries later.  The Cistercians take their name from their first monastery, Cîteaux.  (I doubt that Cluny and Cîteaux both began with the letter C in order to confuse you.  Remember, the Carthusians also start with the letter C.  Try to keep them straight--they did.)

Cîteaux was founded in 1098, at a time when the economy had improved enough that poverty, rather than wealth, was considered holy.  Its founder was not a great duke but rather a monk.  Robert, the monk, had spent decades trying to find what he considered an austere enough monastery, moving from house to house.

Robert had eventually founded his own monastery, Molesme, in 1075, where he became abbot.  But even here he felt that many of the monks were not following a strict enough life, that they were too comfortable, not facing God’s commands starkly enough.  So in 1098 he and a handful of monks of Molesme who agreed with him headed off to an old hermitage, called Cîteaux (it was in a swampy area, the name is related to the word ‘cistern’).

The rest of the monks were distraught.  It was like waking up and discovering that Mom and Dad had run away from home because you had been so bad.  They sent a tear-drenched letter to the pope, who ordered Robert to return to Molesme, where his monks promised to be good.

But the monks at Cîteaux continued, electing a new abbot from among their number.  The house was from the beginning extremely austere, its church lacking any decoration, its way of life harsh, the monks originally doing their own agricultural work, rather than having peasant tenants, as did Cluny.  They did however soon adopt the practice of conversi, people from peasant backgrounds who wanted to be monks but lacked the educational background to become full choir monks.  The Cistercians seem to have gotten the idea for conversi from the Carthusians.

Neighboring aristocrats soon learned of these holy monks.  In 1113 Cîteaux’s success was assured when a whole band of knights arrived, fired with enthusiasm and ready to give up everything for Christ.

Quickly Cîteaux began founding daughter houses, because there were now too many monks to all fit.  One of the most influential of these new houses was Clairvaux, headed by Bernard, who had been the leader of the converting knights.  Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) became the best known member of the Cistercians, counseling kings and popes, accusing Peter Abelard of heresy, pointing out to Louis VII that he was too closely related to his wife, helping found the Templars, of which his uncle was first Grand Master, and preaching the Second Crusade.

He also criticized the Cluniacs for being too lenient, rather than (metaphorically) cracking the whip over monastic behavior, and for building such beautifully decorated churches, where he said the carvings would distract one from prayer.  He mocked them for protesting that they ate eggs rather than meat, saying, Yes, but boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, poached eggs, fried eggs, baked eggs ...  He said that all novices ought to undergo strict noviciate training, even the elderly, though at Cluny elderly converts could skip becoming novices.  Bernard even chided the Cluniacs for wearing black habits, because black wool was more expensive—the Cistercians wore habits of undyed white wool.  Toward the end of Bernard’s life, however, he and the abbot of Cluny became friends.

Cîteaux quickly became the head of an “order,” a group of monasteries that all followed the monastic rule in the same way.  The Cistercians were tightly organized and uniform, with the abbots of all daughter houses meeting together every year to maintain this uniformity.  All members of the monasteries were adult converts; the Cistercians took no child oblates ("offerings").  The order soon had daughter houses all over Europe; the Cistercians in Yorkshire had huge sheep flocks roaming the moors.

The Cistercians also became major pawn brokers.  Nobles who needed money, especially for Crusade, but didn't want to sell their land outright, would lease it to the monks for a lump sum substantially less than the property's actual value.  If they could repay within six years, they got it back.  No interest was charged, though the monks usually got the "usufruct" (that is, the produce and income from the land during those years), described as a gift for the layman's soul.  In practice, since few people returned rich from Crusade, these pawned properties generally became the monks'.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Wednesday, April 18, 2018


I've posted before about medieval monasticism.  Today I want to discuss one particular monastery and its associated monastic order, that of Cluny.

Cluny was founded in Burgundy in 910 by the powerful duke of Aquitaine, who specifically said that neither he nor any other layman would meddle in the monastery’s affairs.  This was a big concession at a time, in the aftermath of the Vikings’ raids, when many French monasteries were abandoned, and a lot of dukes and counts acted as titular abbots of monasteries, taking monastic revenues for their own.

But Cluny quickly became well known as a holy house, where the monks lived separate from the sordid affairs of the world, even though a village quickly grew up adjacent to the monastery, and both regional landowners and aristocrats from further away came to the monastery to make generous gifts.  Donors admired the monks’ adherence to the Benedictine Rule, emphasizing common property, obedience, learning, and prayer.

In the politically unstable tenth century, Cluny avoided getting drawn into factional wars, due in part to the abilities of a series of long-lived and widely admired abbots (though one of these abbots had more adventures than he anticipated when he was briefly captured by bandits during a trip).

Laymen who controlled other, older monasteries that had either been abandoned or which no longer supported a rigorous religious life gave these houses to Cluny to reform--that is, to bring back to observance of the monastic rule.  The abbot of Cluny would become the abbot of these houses as well.  In some cases, after a few years (or at any rate when the abbot of Cluny died) the house would elect its own abbot, though retaining close ties to Cluny.  In other cases the house would now be headed by a prior, who would answer to Cluny's abbot.  These houses collectively were called the Cluniac Order, although there was no real orderly organization.  (Ordo just meant way of life.)

Cluny claimed (with only partial success) to be exempt from the oversight of its bishop, saying, for example, that the monks could choose any bishop they wanted for consecrating a new abbot.  The monks felt that they, living a life without luxury or even personal property (or even meat) were holier than bishops who might live like princes.  The bishops were some of the few who did not see the monks of Cluny as holy.

Most of Cluny's monks were so-called oblates, boys offered (by their parents) to the monastery.  (In Latin, the past participle of offero is oblatum.  You learn something every day.)  However, there were plenty of monks who had taken the monastic habit in their mature years, including one eleventh-century duke of Burgundy.  Cluny had a daughter house, Marcigny, specifically for women who became nuns when their husbands became monks.

In the twelfth century, some of the newer, more austere monasteries faulted Cluny for letting mature converts become full monks immediately, without spending a year in rigorous training as a novice.  Cluny's abbot said they did this out of love and mercy, as these old guys would probably be dead soon anyway (he phrased it more diplomatically).

Generous gifts paid for first a second, larger church to be built to replace the small one of the early tenth century, and then in the late eleventh century Cluny III as it is known, a triumph of Romanesque architecture.  The new abbey church, finished around the year 1100, was the biggest church in Christendom (until the sixteenth century, when Saint Peter's in Rome surpassed it) and was richly decorated.

The image should give you some sense of the size of this church (now a museum).  This is one of the transepts (crossings).  Unfortunately, this is about all that is left.  During the French Revolution, the church (as with all French churches) became officially the property of the state.  Napoleon dismantled it, using the nicely quarried limestone to build the stud stables for his cavalry.  (There is still an equestrian center in the village of Cluny.)  Napoleon has a lot to answer for.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

For more on medieval monasticism and so much more, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other on-line bookstores.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Templars

So far I've been able to avoid a certain topic which seems to inspire conspiracy theories about the Middle Ages.  But it's time.

The Templars have received far more excited attention that they deserve.  They began with the success of the First Crusade, founded as a cross between a monastic order and a group of knights.  That is, they lived like monks, chaste, sharing everything, with no personal possessions, obedient to a Master.  And yet rather than spending their days in prayer or copying manuscripts or doing useful chores around the monastery, they spent their days riding out to protect pilgrims.

The image below, of two knights riding one horse, was also used for their official seal.  It emphasized both their military prowess and their poverty--they could only afford the one horse.

There were two of these Crusading Orders, the Hospitallers and the Templars, the first attached to the “Hospital” of Saint John (we would call it a hostel rather than a hospital) and the latter having their headquarters near the ruins of Solomon’s Temple (on Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the ruins are the so-called Wailing Wall).  For whatever reason, the Templars get all the attention.

The Templars came out of the idea that knights could use their knightly skills to save their souls rather than to lose them, if they used these skills properly in defending Christians.  The idea was pushed by the influential Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, who also got the Second Crusade off the ground.  The first Master of the Templars was Bernard’s uncle.

After the fall of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187, the Templars, along with just about everybody else, headed back to western Europe, primarily to France (a few lingered for another generation or two).  The Templars established houses, essentially monasteries (though called commanderies), extremely austere.  Here, rather uneasily, they settled down to become monks, but they never quite succeeded at being monks.  They were still knights, and they would go after bandits and try to protect travelers.  But without Muslims to fight they rather lost their mission.

However, they soon found a new mission, becoming bankers.  By the late thirteenth century they had banking houses all over western Europe and were reputed to be extremely wealthy.

In the early fourteenth century, King Philip IV “the Fair” of France decided that some of that wealth would suit him just fine, especially as he was fighting the English and needed money for his armies.  (Philip is called the Fair for his hair color, not his temperament.)  He trumped up some heresy charges against the Master of the Templars, tried him, and, what a surprise, found him guilty, even though the Master refused to confess.

The charges against the Templars included that they denounced God and spat on the cross, that they engaged in homosexual behavior, and especially that they had a disembodied head in a box which talked to them and from which they sought counsel, clearly something demonic.  Some Templars confessed to these things under torture, which made a sensation.

The pope, who at this point wanted to be the little friend of the French king, officially dissolved the Templars in 1312.  In 1314, the Master died under torture, and a number of other Templars were burned at the stake, in spite of recanting their earlier confessions.  King Philip went to seize all the Order’s wealth, and was grievously disappointed to find there was extremely little there.  There have been rumors ever since of vast “Templar treasure” hidden someplace or other.

Another story is the curse that the dying Master of the Templars supposedly put on Philip as he was being tortured, that the king’s line would end with him.  Philip laughed this off, because he had three sons.  But in fact his three sons each became king in turn and died without sons of their own.  The Capetian line thus officially came to an end, and the throne went to Philip’s nephew (his brother’s son), first of the Valois line.

The Templars have continued to excite the imagination ever since.  Several modern groups (like the Masons) consider themselves the heirs to the Templars, though it’s hard to account for a gap of well over 400 years.  It is nothing but a fantasy that the Templars continue the secret blood-line of Jesus and Mary Magdalene (if you think this, you’ve been reading too much Da Vinci Code).

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Positively Medieval

For those of you who have been following this blog, it's now a book!  I've taken the best bits of the blog and organized them into a social history of the Middle Ages, everything from medieval farm animals, to marriage and divorce, to brothels, to the medieval diet, to life as a medieval teenager.

The book is called "Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages."  It's a big one, something like 400 pages.  It's available as an ebook on Amazon, Nook, Kobo, and iTunes;  a paperback version is also for sale on Amazon and is coming soon to a store near you.

Here's the link to the book on the US Amazon site.

 And here's the Preface, to give you a taste:


What was life like in the Middle Ages?  It’s a fascinating historical period, where to the modern reader everything can seem larger than life, more dramatic, much more interesting than a modern life centered on driving to work, paying the bills, picking up something at the grocery store, and urging the kids to do their homework.  Between The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, almost everyone has become interested in the Middle Ages.

But it was more than a time of sword fights and capes and dramatic contests for the crown.  It was also the period when much of what we think of as “modern” was first established, from universities to the legal profession to sword-and-sorcery stories to parish churches to Europe’s political and linguistic boundaries.

Four years ago I started a blog to inform those interested of aspects of medieval life.  I wanted to counter common misconceptions, such as that medieval people were all brutal and superstitious, or that everyone lived under “feudalism,” or that medieval women had no rights, or that everyone was middle-aged.  I also wanted to give a little more context than those who arrived at my blog after a Google search probably expected—no simple answers here to questions like, “How many silver coins make a gold coin?” or “What was a queen’s illegitimate child called?”  (I actually don’t have handy answers to either of those.)

In this book I’ve pulled together a lot of the ideas from the blog with the hope that both those who have been reading it and those who have not will discover some of the fascination that has kept me involved with medieval history my entire adult life.  There is a little political history, the “kings and battles” kind of history that they may have tried to make you memorize at some point.  But most of it is social history, how people lived and tried to get along.

The book is arranged topically.  Under broad headings, you will find out about medieval society in general, how people lived their lives, as well as more specific information about everything from farming to the church.  Because every chapter cannot possibly cover a thousand-year span, I tend to focus primarily on the high Middle Ages, the period from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries, although you will also find plenty here on both the early and late Middle Ages.  This isn’t a textbook—it doesn’t have to be read in any particular order, and there won’t be a quiz on Monday.  So plunge in, and I hope you enjoy it!

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Frederick II

In an earlier post on the Holy Roman Empire, I noted that, from the middle of the tenth century on, the kings of Germany were also crowned Roman Emperor.  (Some might find this ironic, given that Germanic peoples are supposed to have overthrown the original Roman Empire.  They really didn't, as discussed more here, though the establishment of Roman Emperors in Germany--with another Roman Emperor in Constantinople--is an interesting story.)

Today I want to discuss one of the most interesting of the Holy Roman emperors, Frederick II (1194-1250).  He was grandson of Frederick Barbarossa, son of Emperor Henry VI and of Constance of Sicily.  His mother was queen of Sicily, although at the time she and Henry married it had not been expected that she would take the throne.  But several male relatives died within a short time, and she took over.

This meant that baby Frederick II was heir to two kingdoms, Germany and Sicily, with Italy sort of squeezed in between--especially disturbing to the pope.  The popes had been fighting on and off with the German kings/Roman emperors for over a century when Frederick was born, and were understandably concerned.

Constance had a slightly different concern--that her son be accepted by the Sicilians.  She was forty when she became pregnant, and in order to avoid any question of whether the baby was really hers, she had the bishop of Palermo be present when she gave birth--as the story went, in a tent in the middle of the main piazza.

Frederick's father died when he was very young.  The pope of his youth, Innocent III (1198-1216), thought he had won the papacy's long conflict with the emperors.  Young Frederick seemed a pliant boy who promised to give up Sicily in return for being crowned emperor, and who did the equivalent of telling him, "I'll do whatever you want, Uncle Innocent!"  (He had his fingers crossed.)

In practice Frederick had no interest in giving up Sicily, where he grew up and which he considered home.  He went to Germany just long enough to be crowned king and to grant the great dukes and princes pretty much freedom to do whatever they wanted, which worked for them (and was the beginning of the disintegration of Germany into small principalities, not to be reunited until the late nineteenth century).

Though Innocent died without realizing what a problem Frederick was going to be, his successors as pope found out all too well.  Frederick promised to go on Crusade, then didn't because he said was sick.  The pope excommunicated him.  Then, saying he felt better, he took off for the East, and got excommunicated a second time, because you weren't supposed to go on Crusade while excommunicate.  Then he got to the East, had a nice chat with the sultan rather than fighting, and got excommunicated a third time for doing Crusading wrong, even though he came home calling himself the King of Latin Jerusalem.

He was very interested in science and learning and had Arabic scholars at his court as well as speaking Arabic himself--he also knew Greek.  Muslims served in his court and in his army, enough that he was accused of being a secret Muslim himself.  He dabbled in alchemy enough to be considered a magician.  He had a zoo with giraffes and an elephant.  He established a university in Naples.

He drew up law codes for Sicily, with, big surprise, the king in charge, supported by an efficient bureaucracy and good record keeping.  Interested in the effect of exercise on digestion, he had (it was said) two condemned criminals given a nice big meal, had one run around and the other sit still, then had them both cut open to see how digestion was going (scientific method in action).  He ordered that some infants be brought up not hearing any human speech, to see if they would speak Hebrew (the supposed first language) or the language of their parents; the experiment failed, because the children did not speak at all.  He wrote a manual on falconry, how to train falcons, which is still used today.

At the time he was called "Stupor Mundi," the wonder of the world, for his learning, his wide interests, and power (the king of Sicily controlled the bottom half of Italy, not only the island).

When he died in 1250, the popes decided that enough was enough and hunted down and had killed all his sons and grandsons, legitimate and illegitimate.  It took a few years, but at the end the popes felt they had finally won the pope-emperor wars, that at this point had been going on for close to two centuries.

They had however lost a great deal of moral authority in the meantime, but that's another story.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

For more about medieval monarchs, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Hundred Years War

 The Hundred Years' War, as the name suggests, went on for an awfully long time.  It was a war between France and England that lasted over a century (1337-1453), through the Black Death and the invention of gunpowder. The central issue was the crown of France, and it was entirely fought in France, where the results were grim for the population.  France lost almost all the battles yet ultimately won the war, due to Joan of Arc.

The war is a sharp indication of the dangers of having hereditary rulers.  When family and politics mix, the results can be deadly.

The problem went back to the twelfth century, when Eleanor of Aquitaine, duchess of Aquitaine (essentially the southwest quarter of France), divorced her husband, the king of France, and married King Henry II of England.  For the next two centuries, through various incidents and adventures, the English crown held onto much of Aquitaine.  The French were not pleased.

Then (1328) the last direct Capetian monarch, Charles IV, died without a son.  The French crown was taken by his cousin Philip VI, the beginning of the so-called Valois line--Philip was a direct male-line descendant of Hugh Capet (d. 996), the first Capetian king, but his line went through a younger son.  So far, so good--except that Charles had a sister who had married King Edward II of England.  She thought her son, King Edward III, was the rightful king of France.

There were a few years of grumbling and threatening, and then in 1337 the French and English kings got into a big argument over Scotland (still a separate kingdom and an ally of France).  King Philip declared that King Edward III had failed as a vassal and thus no longer could hold Aquitaine, and the war was on.

There are multi-volume modern accounts of all the ins and outs of the war.  The English kept winning, including at one point capturing the French king and holding him for ransom.  When the ransom wasn’t paid, he left England to go home and get the money together, promising to return if he couldn’t get it.  He couldn’t get it.  He returned to captivity in England.  These guys believed in “honor.”  The actual battles, however, were brutal.  English bowmen and pikemen, and then the newly developed cannons devastated cavalry charges.

In 1420, there was an attempt to settle the war, basically by doing the same thing that had started it in the first place (maybe they were slow learners...).  After winning the battle of Agincourt, still considered a great triumph of English warfare, King Henry V of England married a French princess, with the understanding that their future son would be king of both France and England.  (Shakespeare wrote a play about this, that has been turned into several quite splendid movies.  The play makes it sound as if all was set now.  It wasn’t.)

The queen of England (French princess)’s brother, Charles VII, was declared illegitimate and set aside.  This is where Joan of Arc enters the picture, having been told by angels to get Charles crowned as rightful king of France, which, although it seems startlingly unlikely, she actually did in 1429.  The angels told her he really was legitimate, and he had perked right up when Joan gave him the news.

The English, in alliance with a number of great French nobles who had turned against Charles VII, captured Joan and had her burned at the stake as a heretic.  In 1430, the boy king Henry VI of England was formally crowned king of France.  But Joan had inspired the French, and a lot of the great French nobles switched sides back to Charles VII.  It took another generation to make peace formally, but in spite of some ongoing battles it was clear that France had won.

When both Charles VII of France and Henry VI of England died in 1453, the war was officially over.  Just in time for the English to start the War of the Roses.

The memory of the Hundred Years’ War still lingers in southwestern France (old Aquitaine), where much of the fighting took place.  They’d barely gotten over the Albigensian Crusade when the war started.  Many of the castles switched hands (French-English and back) multiple times, including Beynac, illustrated above.  The area is peaceful, even dreamy now, but that’s a recent phenomenon.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018 

For more about the war, Joan of Arc, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and so much more, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Sunday, April 1, 2018


It's Easter, the end of Lent, of six-plus weeks of giving up excess luxuries.  For medieval people, Lent was almost a famine period, because last fall's stored food would be about gone, but the spring crops hadn't produced yet.  Some people certainly go hungry in the US, but unlike some other parts of the world, it's been an awful long time since we've had widespread famine.  Medieval people would say we're lucky.  Let's feel some sympathy for our ancestors while we munch those chocolate bunnies.

Famine, in the past as now, comes about through a combination of overpopulation and failure to produce enough food.  The modern world actually grows enough food to feed everybody, due to improvements in crop genetics and fertilizers (though the planet’s current warming may make many areas less and less suitable for crop growing).  Our problem is distribution.

In the US, for example, farmers produce at least 4000 calories a day for every man, woman, and child.  That is about twice what an adult needs (on average), unless they are an elite athlete training heavily.  So what happens to the rest?  A lot is exported to other countries, a lot goes to explain why, shall we say, the American population is a tad plumper than it was fifty years ago, and a lot is wasted.

Unless you plan your shopping carefully, so you never have to throw out spoiled food, and unless you clean up everything on your plate every meal, you’re throwing out food that could have fed someone.  Grocery stores throw out fruits and vegetables that look malshapen and cans with dents or even just torn labels.  Restaurants fill up their dumpsters every night.

So a lot of the modern world’s problem is getting food to people who need it.  If we have a distribution problem in the US, where grocery stores throw out perfectly edible food that looks funky, where many have refrigerators stuffed with food they will never eat even though others in the same community do not have enough, then just imagine the problem in the Middle Ages, when it was very difficult to move food around from one place to another.  And they didn’t just have distribution issues.  They had genuine shortages.

Even though today less than 5% of the US population lives on a working farm, that tiny group still manages to feed everybody.  In the Middle Ages however almost everyone had to be engaged in farming to produce enough food. The breakdown of trade routes and the cooling of the climate that started in the sixth century brought genuine food shortages in the early Middle Ages.  An inopportune hail storm that wiped out a crop in one area would lead to local famine, because other areas would not have enough extra food to feed anyone but themselves, even aside from the difficulty of transporting the food.

But in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, a period where the climate had warmed up just enough to improve the likelihood of getting in the crop, and when farmers had adopted new technology like the carruca, there were long stretches without famine.  City councils stockpiled grain in good years to be prepared for future shortages.  Count Charles the Good of Flanders was called “the good” in part because he took the lead in distributing stockpiled grain in a bad year and keeping hoarders from jacking up prices.

Periodic famines still happened, and there were always stories told of the horrors (usually involving cannibalism) that the famine led to—in the next county over, never in the immediate vicinity of the person telling about.  But overall most people, most of the time, got enough to eat.

Not surprisingly, the population grew.  By the late thirteenth century western Europe’s rural population was probably about what it is now (though not of course the urban or suburban population).  With more mouths to feed, more and more land had to be cultivated to grow food.  Even the lower slopes of the Alps were growing grain.

Then, in the early fourteenth century, Europe became overpopulated.  “Over” populated is a relative term; it doesn’t mean actual numbers of people but rather too many people for the food supply.  More marginal cultivated areas started giving out just as the climate grew worse, going into what has been called a mini ice age, when even rich, productive lands might see crop failures.

Then there were several years in a row of really awful weather, “years without a summer” as they were called.  Crops failed miserably.  Europe had been able to deal with local famines, but nothing on this scale.  Starving people took off in bands, trying desperately to find food, stealing anything they could get their hands on that was edible.  With weakened conditions, the population was not prepared for a major outbreak of a pandemic, the Black Death.  Let's just say the fourteenth century was a difficult time.  It's also when the Hundred Years War got underway, but that's a story for another day.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018 

For more about feast and famine during the Middle Ages, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.