Monday, April 15, 2019

Notre Dame of Paris

This is heart-breaking.  Notre Dame is burning.

The cathedral is 850 years old, having been begun in the 1160s under the direction of the bishop of Paris.  The pope laid the cornerstone.  There had been older cathedrals there since the fourth or fifth century, changed or replaced every century or two, but this one was so large and so beautiful that it was never replaced.  It's built of local limestone.  The roof, now gone, was supported by wooden beams, giant oaks dating from the twelfth century, which would have been very dry and burned very readily.

It's one of the earliest and best-known churches in the Gothic style, a new twelfth-century way of building churches that emphasized height and light.  (The monastery of St.-Denis, on the outskirts of Paris, is now considered the first Gothic church, a generation earlier.)

The church was finished within a generation, but of course it had challenges and issues over the centuries—though nothing like what it is now facing.  The first problem was that the high walls, pierced by high windows, started bowing ever so slightly but very alarmingly.  The flying buttresses were then added to help keep the walls upright at the beginning of the thirteenth century.

During the early eighteenth century, the church lost much of its medieval stained glass, knocked out by the cathedral canons as too "old fashioned."  Then in the late eighteenth century, when France went officially atheistic during the Revolution, the facade was deliberately damaged, the heads knocked off the kings and queens of the Old Testament who were ranged across the front.

It was still however the biggest, most important building in Paris, and when Napoleon was crowned emperor (crowning himself), he held the ceremony in Notre Dame.

The novelist Victor Hugo deplored the dilapidated condition of the cathedral, and in his Notre Dame de Paris (1831), usually translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he inspired Parisians to look at their cathedral and save it.  Extensive renovations were carried out, headed by Viollet le Duc, who put new heads on the Old Testament kings and queens, added gargoyles, and had the whole thing topped off by a spire (flèche in French) at the crossing point of nave and the perpendicular aisles (transept), which spire collapsed today.

Recently the whole church was cleaned of the dirty patina from polluted air and was looking fresh and inviting, as seen in the picture below, taken the last time we were in Paris.  The limestone walls still stand, but it may be an awfully long time, if ever, before the church will be itself again.  (Limestone doesn't actually burn but it disintegrates in intense heat.  It is burned in kilns to form one of the components of cement.)

In the twelfth century, when Chartres cathedral caught fire, the local citizens pounded on the walls and cursed God.  One can see their point.

Added May 6:

Amazingly, much of the interior of the church survived.  There was stone arching (ceiling) below the actual roof, and it held up fairly well.  The biggest damage was at the crossing, where the nave met the transept.  The nineteenth-century spire crashed through there when it fell.

But obviously the church still needs a roof.  There are not 1300 oaks in Europe big enough to replace the 1300 wooden beams (made from oaks already several centuries old in the twelfth century).  And there is concern that, without a roof pressing down and out, the walls, which are pushed in by the flying buttresses, might start leaning toward the center.

Here's an article from the NY Times about how the fire spread--and how it could have been even worse than it is.

The French government has promised restoration within 5 years, in time for the next Olympics (to be held in Paris).  We'll see.  But cathedrals have been rebuilt before.  Reims, in northern Champagne, was blown up in WW I, leaving nothing but the walls, and was rebuilt back to its thirteenth-century glory over 20 years.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Double monasteries

I've written before on male monasteries, where monks lived, and on nunneries for women (often now called convents).  But in the early Middle Ages, it was not uncommon to have double monasteries, houses for both men and women.  Such houses were normally headed by a woman, an abbess, although she would need to have a priest on hand to say mass.

One of the more famous of these double monasteries was Nivelles, located in what is now Belgium, near the French border.  It was founded in the seventh century, and its most important abbess was Gertrude, now considered a saint.  It was founded for her by her widowed mother, who joined the house herself.  Gertrude is actually in the Carolingian family tree, a great-great (etc.) aunt of Charlemagne, though those creating a glorious image of him on either side of the year 800 tended to emphasize the family members who were warriors and rulers, not female saints.

A century or two after its foundation, Nivelles had its monks and nuns replaced by canons and canonesses.  The difference is that while monks and nuns are supposed to be completely cloistered, away from the world, canons are supposed to help bring the Christian message to the lay population--though canonesses were still pretty well cloistered.  Their life was not as strict as that of monks and nuns, a little more privacy, for example, a little better diet, a few more blankets on the bed.  But the canons and canonesses of Nivelles continued to follow the liturgy Saint Gertrude had laid down, taking turns in the chanting and singing of the psalms, so that male and female voices were both heard.
The image above is the church of Nivelles, as it would have looked in the eleventh century.  It was bombed by the Germans in WW II but rebuilt.

Nivelles is one of the best known examples of a double monastery in the early Middle Ages, but there were plenty of others.  However, during the ninth through eleventh centuries, monasteries all tended to be single-sex.  A noble couple might found two separate houses, one for men and one for women, but they were clearly distinguished (and a certain distance apart).  Examples include the houses of Vézelay and Pouthières in Burgundy, founded in the ninth century, or the two houses that William the Conqueror and his wife founded in Caen after the 1066 Conquest of England, one for men and one for women (the picture is the female one).

One of the few double monasteries of the High Middle Ages was Fontevraud (in the Loire region), founded at the beginning of the twelfth century.  It was very successful, serving as the burial spot for Henry II of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Richard the Lionheart.  That's Richard's tomb below (constructed a couple generations after his death).

Fontevraud continued down to the French Revolution, and was always run by an abbess, although there were separate places for male monks and female nuns within its walls.  It also had a so-called lazar-house by the thirteenth century, sort of a hospice for lepers.  The lazar-house was made into a luxury hotel in the twentieth century.  I bet they were a little vague with the guests on who used to sleep in those rooms.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on monks, nuns, and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see the ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Preserving food

We now take preserving food for granted.  Pop something in the refrigerator or freezer and it will keep for as long as a week for fresh meat and vegetables, longer for some things.  Commercially canned food will last for years.  Food you "can" yourself (i.e. put up in sealed jars) will last a lot longer than it would in the refrigerator.

Medieval people had none of these options.  Instead the primary ways of keeping food were salting and smoking.  Most of us like smoked, salted food, which is why bacon is a perennial favorite, but modern ham and bacon are smoked and salted a lot less than the medieval versions would have been, which is why they still have to be refrigerated.

If you've ever had a true Smithfield ham you've had something closer to medieval ham, that is the ham where step one is cutting off the mold and step two is soaking overnight to get out the extra salt, before you even get to the baking step.

In practice, during the autumn pig harvest medieval people would eat as much fresh pork as they could, then salt and smoke the rest, or make sausage—pepper is a good preservative if you use enough of it.

In northern Europe, the pig harvest came just as winter was setting in, so some meat might be frozen (or at least semi-frozen) up in the attic or in an out-building.  Here your danger was January thaw.

They knew after all that food spoiled slower if it was cooler, even without understanding bacterial action (not understood until the nineteenth century).  So milk would be stored in a springhouse, where a cool stream or spring ran through the bottom of the structure, where one could keep things at least moderately cold.  Most milk, however, became cheese, which we still like for itself alone (as we like bacon), even though its original purpose was preservation.

The image above is a nineteenth-century springhouse, but the idea is unchanged since the Middle Ages:  build a small structure right over a stream or spring, so that you can set jars right into the cool water.

There was nothing like canning food until the nineteenth century.  One needs those glass jars with metal lids and rubber rings used for home canning, and those were far in the future.  The difficulty is making sure bacteria don't multiply in the carefully sealed environment and kill you.  Today home canners are advised to stick with acidic foods like fruits or tomatoes, which are put into jars at boiling temperatures.  For other vegetables, you need to further cook your jars in a pressure canner, far above the boiling point, to make sure the bacteria are really dead—this is what commercial cans experience.

No wonder the medieval diet would seem extremely bland to us.  It would consist primarily of bread, whatever fresh foods were available, and a selection of those things that could be preserved.  All natural!  Farm to table!  Boring!

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on medieval food and other aspects of medieval history, see my book Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other online booksellers.