Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Medieval shoes

We take shoes for granted.  Work shoes, dress shoes, shoes for fancy occasions, beach sandals:  off to the store, try on a few pairs, and there we are.  Shoes come in so many shapes and styles that there is even a museum in Toronto (the Bata museum) dedicated to shoes.  The well-to-do are mocked for owning too many pairs of shoes--Imelda Marcos supposedly had hundreds of pairs.  Most shoes today are assembled in third-world countries, and a great many are made of man-made components.

Medieval shoes, as you will doubtless have guessed if you've been reading this blog, were different.  For starters, one did not pop into the shoe store, decide you liked a style, try on both the 9 and the 9 1/2 to see what fit best, and buy a pair.  Shoes were individually made to fit your feet.  Interestingly, however, there wasn't the left shoe and the right shoe.  Instead there were shoes, that might be tweaked until both left and right feet were accommodated.

Shoes were made of leather because there was no plastic and no rubber (at least no rubber in western Europe--rubber comes from southeast Asia).  Light slippers might be fabric with a leather sole, and sandals could be made of fibers (like vines), but leather was the norm.  If someone wanted a new pair of shoes, he or she would go to the shoemaker, who would measure their feet, discuss the style, and decide which shoe last was closest to the buyer's feet.  The shoes would then be made by hand.

Shoes came in several different styles, depending on time, place, and purpose.  The basic shoe was a piece of leather that was cut the right shape to wrap around the foot and was held in place by wide laces going up the leg.  Warmer regions saw a lot of sandals, often made from plant material; some were slip-ons, others had a thong that went between the toes, like a modern flip-flop.  Knights wore riding boots, generally shorter than the modern riding boot.

Not surprisingly, shoes were expensive by our standards.  Peasants needed shoes for the winter, but during the summer they might go permanently barefoot.   (Very conservative Amish communities follow the same pattern today.)  Note the farmer plowing barefoot in the image below.  They would of course have to be very careful not to step on a nail and potentially get tetanus and die.

Even the wealthy had few different pairs of shoes, both because they were expensive and because it took a while to get a new pair.  Because they were made for one's feet, they generally fit just right, so why get more than you needed?

But shoes then, as now, were influenced by fashion.  Periodically a fashion for very long, pointed toes would seize the aristocracy.  In the extreme version, the points were so long that they were drawn up to the knees and tied.  These shoes were hard to walk in, but that wasn't the point.  The long, curling toes still survive in stereotyped images of court jesters.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Friday, January 18, 2019

More bawdy plays

In an earlier post I discussed some bawdy plays put on in the late Middle Ages.  There's been enough interest in the topic that I thought I'd share a couple more.

As I noted earlier, the same band of traveling players might put on religious ("mystery") plays and bawdy plays.  Whatever the audience wanted!  Both men and women appeared in these plays, and the women were uniformly agreed to be loose women and harlots--all the more reason to go see them.  (By Shakespeare's time, women's roles were played by boys, to try to decrease the harlot factor.)

In one play with a strong heroine, three friends all desire the same married lady, who has no interest in any of them.  When each one comes to her house in turn to beg to become her lover, she concocts a cunning plan.  She tells each that, because her husband is so jealous, they will have to come to an assignation with her in disguise--but don't tell your friends about the disguise!  She dresses one as a priest, one as a dead man (we'd say zombie), and one as the devil.  She tells them all to meet her one hour after sunset in the graveyard.  Each makes her a generous gift in anticipation of what they hope will happen.  Now of course she doesn't show up, but they all do, each makes out the other two through the dimness and is terrified.  Hilarity ensues, and they all race off, never to proposition her again.

What I'm calling bawdy plays did not always involve sex (though a lot of them did).  Some just mocked people, both the powerful and the weak.  These plays were definitely not concerned that they might appear insensitive.

In one play that mocked the uneducated, a country boy who has been a servant to a priest decides he wants to be a priest himself.  He travels to the University, presents his letter of introduction (which he is incapable of reading himself), and announces he is ready for the entrance exam.  But he falls down on the first question, which is supposed to show knowledge of French literature. "In the epic, The Four Sons of Aymo, what is the name of the father?"  (This is a twelfth-century epic about Aymo's sons having an extended conflict with Charlemagne.)  The answer should be as obvious as "Who is buried in Grant's tomb?" but our poor hero just can't answer it.

A number of these plays have been translated into modern English, suitable for performance, by Jody Enders, in The Farce of the Fart and Other Ribaldries (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).  (Enders has done such things as substitute modern topical references and catch-phrases for Old French ones, to get the modern audience a similar experience to the original.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Lapis lazuli

Medieval artists loved brilliant blue.  Stained glass windows included exquisite blue glass (due to trace amounts of copper and other minerals), and manuscript illustrations (called illumination) often included bright blue color.  The Madonna, for example, was routinely shown dressed in blue.

The problem for manuscript illumination was getting a pigment that would make that brilliant blue.  The only way they could do it at that time was to use lapis lazuli, a mineral mined in just one area of Afghanistan.  When ground up, this mineral would produce a color called ultramarine.  It was highly sought after in western Europe, meaning it had to be traded over several thousand miles.

Obviously this was far too expensive to use in other than very small amounts.  Clothing, for example, even expensive luxury clothing, could not be colored ultramarine.  Instead the best medieval people could manage for their clothes was indigo, dark blue, which could be made from certain plants.

Even though lapis lazuli was as valuable as gold, it was extremely desirable.  Recently archaeological excavations at a former nunnery at Dalheim, in Germany, has discovered miniscule traces of lapis lazuli on the teeth of a woman's skeleton.  (Her teeth actually look pretty good--no cavities!)

It is quite clear where the traces came from.  The nunnery, like most religious houses, copied and illuminated books.  Religious books would have luxurious illustrations that required bright blue.  An eleventh-century nun worked on a book's illustrations, doubtless bending close over the very small image she was creating, and kept licking her brush to give it a narrow point as she delicately painted the blue bits.  Tiny flecks of lapis lazuli became embedded in the plaque on her teeth, where she would not have noticed them (the modern archaeologists looked at her teeth with a microscope).

The nunnery of Dalheim and its manuscripts were destroyed long ago, probably during the Thirty Years War in the sixteenth century.  The foundations of its small church and the skeletons in its cemetery are about all that remain.  It is indicative of how little we know about the Middle Ages, in spite of everyone's best efforts.

This case also is suggestive of the activities of medieval women.  It used to be thought that all women, even nuns, were passive and uneducated, and that all art and writing was done by men.  This is now known to be false, and the example of the eleventh-century nun (it's pretty easy to tell if a skeleton is a man or a woman) is a further indication of the artistry of medieval women.  It's too bad that we will never now be able to see the manuscript she was working on.

The discovery of the flecks of blue on the skeletal teeth was carried out as part of the larger project Science of the Human PastHere's the link to a news article about the discovery.

(For any readers just starting to look at my blog now, I've put in links above to a lot of other entries you may find of interest.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Monday, January 7, 2019

More medieval recipes

A little while ago I blogged about medieval recipes.  There's been enough interest that I've decided to add some more.  Note that these are not all everyday recipes; many instead are dishes for great feasts in great households, and measurements are extremely free form by modern standards.  For example, they usually didn't bother mentioning salt, because of course you would salt your dish.  But it's fun to see how medieval tastes differed from ours, and how medieval cooks tried to be imaginative with what we would consider a limited choice of ingredients.

Fava beans with herbs
Take some fava beans and use hot water to skin them, the same as you would with almonds.  Add some good broth and boil them long enough to be cooked properly.  Add some parsley and chopped mint and a little salted meat and boil together.  This should be a nice shade of green.  You can also make this dish with peas but do not skin them with hot water.

Chicken stew
Boil up your chickens and save the broth.  Cut up the chickens and cook the meat in lard.  Pound together the meat, the chickens' livers, some almonds, and a little broth.  Boil it with ginger, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, and grain of paradise [another kind of pepper].  Add a little vinegar.  Serve the meat in bowls, with the broth poured over it.
[medieval people preferred capons for dishes like this--a capon is a rooster castrated when young, so it grew up large but tender]

King Manfred's meat pie
Take chicken gizzards and livers and add pork belly.  Chop it all up with a knife.  Add pepper.  Fry it all up in a deep pan.  Let it cool and add eggs.  Meanwhile make a crust, and put the mixture in.  Bake it gently until done.

Stuffed eggs
Hard boil eggs and cut them in half.  Take out the yolks and mix with marjoram, saffron, and cloves.  For every 8 eggs, also mix in one beaten raw egg.  Mash in a little cheese.  Fry the eggs in pork fat and eat with verjuice.
[verjuice was made from partially fermented grape juice and crushed grape seeds boiled together]

A good source for medieval recipes is Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy, by Odile Redon, Fran├žoise Sabban, and Silvano Serventi (University of Chicago Press, 1998).

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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