Friday, February 22, 2019


What's a serf?  What's a peasant?  Given that pretty much everybody of western European ancestry is descended from peasants, this is something that it seems we'd like to know.

A "peasant" just means a country person, a farmer, someone engaged in agriculture.  The most common medieval term was rusticus (which you don't need to know Latin to interpret).  They worked extremely hard (as of course modern farmers do as well), but not all of them were serfs.

A serf (servus) was someone who was legally unfree, although exactly what this status entailed varied widely.  The term servus had been the term in Roman law for slaves, but medieval serfs were not slaves.  Slavery had died out in western Europe by the eighth century.  Serfs could not be bought and sold because they were not property, and killing a serf was murder just as was killing a free person.  They were not even usually referred to with the term servus.  More common were such terms as mancipius, collibertus, famulus, hospes, or colonus.  Because different regions might use different terms, it is nearly impossible to say what was the distinction between these different terms.

Mancipius suggests someone seized in the hand, collibertus someone with only partial liberty,  famulus someone who served the family, hospes someone who came from elsewhere, colonus someone who was supposed to open up new lands, but all we can say for sure is that medieval scribes knew what they meant and we're left trying to figure it out from context.

As legally unfree, a serf (of whatever variety) was not supposed to be able to enter the church--though some did--and was not supposed to be able to give testimony in court--though again, some did.  They were supposed to defer to their lord-of-the-body (as the person whose serf they were was called) in marriage and inheritance, because servile status was hereditary.

In some places, a serf was supposed to come before his lord once a year with a rope around his neck and some pennies on his head.  Serfs usually had to pay a fine if they married someone who was not a serf of the same lord.  And sometimes serfs had to pay an inheritance tax (called mainmort) if they weren't living at home when their parents died and wanted to take up their parents' house and land.

Serfs owed the same mix of rents as free peasants who had landlords--a combination of money, produce, and "work days" in which they worked in the lord's fields.  On the average, serfs had heavier labor dues (more work days) than free peasants, but they were not subject to arbitrary payments.  That is, the lords could not just demand whatever they wanted and get away with it.

A lot of serfs had both a lord-of-the-body and a separate landlord from whom they rented some additional land.  In addition, serfs, like everyone else in a region, were subject to the regional count and the diocesan bishop.  This helped, because they could play one off against another, complaining with heart-rending cries to count or bishop if someone tried to demand something of them not approved by tradition.  Peasants (including serfs) had nothing like the freedoms we now take for granted, but they still had agency, the ability to take charge of their own lives.

Serfdom essentially disappeared in France in the early twelfth century.  Understandably, serfs found the ritual with the rope and the pennies very humiliating, and many bought their way out--their lords were willing to take a large lump sum in return for never again receiving the pennies, whose value became less and less all the time.  Some forgot (or "forgot") that they were serfs, since in many respects they were indistinguishable from other peasants.  Other just ran away to lose themselves in the rapidly growing cities.

In England and Germany, however, serfdom lingered much longer than in France.  Christian Spain started having serfdom for the first time in the thirteenth century.  Russia acquired serfs for the first time at the end of the Middle Ages.

Interestingly, mainmort, the inheritance tax for those heirs not living at home with their parents, lasted for at least a century after serfdom had disappeared in France.  Eventually most peasants bought their way out of it.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Valentine's Day

It's Valentine's Day, time to talk about love.

Okay, Valentine's Day is not medieval.  (For one thing, the Middle Ages did not have chocolate--shocking, I know.  Nor did they have printed cards nor cut flowers imported from foreign countries.)

An early Christian martyr named Valentinus, probably put to death under the (pagan) Roman emperor Aurelian in the third century, became an official saint in the fifth century, with his feast day February 14.  (There are actually several early martyrs named Valentine or Valentinus, and they sort of got blended together.)  But he got no more special attention than any other second-tier saint.

His day had no connection to romantic love for the next millennium.  The earliest connection that can be found dates to the late fourteenth century, when the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer said that birds chose mates on Saint Valentine's Day.  (Several other people said so too at about the time; it may have been a folk-saying.)  England at this time was still using the Julian calendar, so in terms of the season February 14 was more like what we'd call late February than mid-February.  The date Chaucer chose doesn't seem to have had much to do with the original martyred saint, anymore than the swallows coming back to Capistrano (California) on Saint Joseph's day, as they are supposed to do every year, creates a connection between Joseph and swallows.

February 14 continued just as one more day for the next several centuries.  Probably its biggest claim to fame was the Saint Valentine's Day massacre of a whole lot of Protestant nobles by the Catholics in the sixteenth century in Paris.

But in the eighteenth century, probably inspired by Chaucer and the birds, people started seeing the date as one connected to romantic love.  In England, claims were made that the feast had something to do with the Roman (pagan) fertility celebration of Lupercalia, which was held in February.  An actual Christian martyr of course would have had nothing to do with something like this, but it seemed like an excellent (if fake) tradition.  Soon stories were added that the martyr Valentinus had sent a thank-you note for the excellent care his jailer's daughter gave him (before his execution) and signed it "love from your Valentine."  Other stories claimed he was persecuted because he was performing Christian weddings (there actually were no "Christian weddings" in the third century, but that's a separate issue).

In the nineteenth century, exchanging printed cards became common, and by the late twentieth century one was supposed to give one's beloved a card, candy, and flowers, and maybe go out to dinner.  Both the restaurant industry and the candy industry thought this was a great plan, to say nothing of Hallmark Cards and the florists.  One now had something to put on the candy shelf after taking off the stale Christmas candy, because it is still way too early for the Easter candy.  Valentine's Day celebration has now gotten so ubiquitous that people without a "special someone" are counseled how to deal with the unavoidable despair of the day.

In honor of the day (and not in despair), I will note the one book I've written that can be called a romance, "The Sign of the Rose."  It's a retelling (and expansion) of a story originally written around 1200.  (Hey! we're back to the Middle Ages.)

A medieval "romance" wasn't quite what we mean by the term.  It was a story full of adventure and twists and turns, but it focused more on personal interactions than did the epics (and very few people died).  In addition, there tended to be a lot more women in these stories.  "The Sign of the Rose" follows in that tradition, with sword fights, betrayal, a feisty heroine who saves the day, and true love.  It's available both as an ebook (on all major platforms) and in paperback.  Here's the Amazon link.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Baseball in the Middle Ages

With the Super Bowl behind us, football is over for the season, so it's time to think about baseball!  Pitchers and catchers will soon be reporting for spring training.

But what, you say, are you doing posting about baseball in a blog about the Middle Ages?  Wasn't the sport invented in the nineteenth century in the US?  Short answer, no.

Games where you hit a ball with a bat and run around bases have a long history, indeed going back to the Middle Ages.  In England school children still play "rounders," what Americans would call a simple version of baseball, and what is probably fairly close to the medieval game.  Both modern baseball (and softball in its various versions) and modern cricket are derived from this game.

The baseball Hall of Fame is now in Cooperstown, NY because legend has it that Abner Doubleday, who later was a hero of the Civil War, first laid out the baseball diamond and created the rules of the game there in the 1830s.  The Hall of Fame itself now says that this is not even vaguely true.  There are references to games of "base-ball" (sometimes bass-ball or baste-ball) being played in the American colonies in the eighteenth century, and all the variant versions of games played with bat and ball did not really settle down to become modern baseball until the twentieth century.

The rules of modern baseball are derived ultimately from rules written by Alexander Cartwright in the 1840s in New York City; he has a lot better claim to being "father of baseball" than Abner Doubleday, who may never even have visited Cooperstown.  During the American Civil War the soldiers of North and South sometimes played baseball rather than trying to kill each other, and the first professional teams were established once the war was over.

And the Middle Ages had baseball!  There is a book of simple Latin, intended for novices in the monastery, that describes activities the boys might be doing.  It was written in a semi-humorous way to try to engage the readers (and teach them Latin).  Among other things it describes the boys horsing around until they see the master approaching.  "He is coming, quick quiet down, he is almost here, look studious, he is at the door!"

And one of the things it describes is what looks a lot like baseball.  After being drilled on their conjugations, the novices would go outside, with their master, for a little exercise.  He would pitch, and they would try to hit the ball and race around the bases.  Life as a boy being trained as a novice monk would have been tough by our standards, but at least the monks realized that boys needed to run around outside, and sometimes the monks even had a sense of humor.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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