Thursday, October 31, 2019

Medieval Allegory

Medieval thinkers loved allegory.  For them it was more than an explanatory technique, or a form of colorful language, as it is now.  "Her eyes were like limpid pools of deep blue water" (that sort of thing—that's actually metaphor, as technically allegory is one thing just standing for something else, but you get the idea).  Rather it was an insight into the way that the universe functioned.

Medieval people wanted to believe (as do we all) that life and the universe have some purpose, some meaning, that it isn't just a series of random events.  Allegories could help us figure it out.  At the most basic level, medicinal objects might contain clues as to their purpose.  So caraway seeds could stand for human "seed" or semen, and a woman trying to get pregnant might stick some on her thighs.  We know this, because priests told women not to do so, as it was pagan superstition (and told them often enough and loudly enough that it must have been fairly common).  But even herbalists in monasteries knew that visual appearance carried clues.  If the Middle Ages had had kidney beans (they didn't, as kidney beans are New World), everyone would have known they were good for treating diseases of the kidney.

In a broader sense, good and evil were associated respectively with beauty and vileness.  So a saint appearing in a vision always had a beautiful face, and devils routinely were accompanied by horrible smells, even if they were not found actually lurking in stinky latrines, which indeed they often were.  When a medieval author wrote that someone suddenly came to face to face with a huge black horse, ugly and with fiery eyes and decayed (but sharp) teeth, it wouldn't be a big secret that it was the devil in disguise.  Surprising how many slow-learner heroes in the stories hopped on anyway.  Were they in for a shock!

On a more serious theological note, medieval thinkers read the Bible allegorically.  In spite of some modern efforts to say that the Bible must be taken literally, that's actually impossible, as there are too many things in it that either contradict each other (like big pieces of the Old and New Testament) or else present unedifying spectacles, like Noah being drunk and naked (they leave out that part in the Noah's Ark stories), or Old Testament patriarchs having children with their handmaidens/slaves.

But allegory presented an excellent way to deal with the parts of the Bible that were problematic if read too literally (some sections, of course, especially the life of Jesus, were read very literally).  The "Song of Solomon" could be a challenge, given that it is a long love poem, in which the lover speaks of kissing his beloved behind the knees and the like.  But as soon as it was decided that it could be read as an allegory of the love of Christ for His church, all the problems vanished away.

Medieval literature also used allegory in a religious sense.  You may have been exposed to "Pilgrim's Progress," a slightly post-medieval work in which the hero, Pilgrim, makes a journey through life, meeting people with names like Good Advice.  Real subtle it's not.  But medieval people would have loved it.

On the other hand, you have the thirteenth-century Roman de la rose (not to be confused with "Romance of the Rose, or Guillaume de Dole").  It starts as a delicate allegory of the would-be lover in a garden, and there's a special rose within a wall, and as he tries to decide how to reach it he has to deal with people called things like (again) Good Advice or, alternately, Bad Advice.  The original author never finished it.  A slightly later author decided the young hero had been hanging around being delicate far too long.  So this later author had the hero pick up a battering ram, with two big sacks slung over it near one end ("for balance"), and ram his way straight in to where the rose was.  Talk about subtlety!

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Married Life in the Middle Ages

I have previously blogged about how marriages were arranged in the Middle Ages and the way that weddings were held.  Today I want to talk about married life, what happened after the wedding.

As I noted before, marriage as a sacrament required the free consent of both parties.  It doesn't count as a sacrament if you're forced to do something against your will.  Families and powerful neighbors might exercise powerful suasion, but medieval marriages all started from the assumption that both parties, the man and the woman, had agreed to it.  (They did not have same-sex marriages.)  Marriage thus was a constant impediment to any attempt to establish a thoroughly patriarchal society.

Still, families with political agendas would try to make sure that their children agreed to marry who they were supposed to.  Betrothals of children to other children could cement an alliance.  In such a case the girl was often sent to live with the family into which she was expected to marry, to learn the customs of the region (and the language in some cases), and to grow up with the boy who, it was hoped, would be her childhood best friend as well as future spouse.

People lower on the social scale had more freedom to pick out their own spouse than did members of the high aristocracy.  But anyone who determinedly said No would be supported by the priests.  The church generally thought that parents should guide their children in the correct path, but forcing someone's will was never acceptable.

As this suggests, in spite of all the official talk about how a woman was supposed to be subservient to her husband (a lot of it with biblical backing), couples recognized that the wife had a great deal of free exercise of will within a marriage.  There are plenty of examples of wives "disobeying" their husbands, and even more of men being guided by sound wifely advice.  Couples normally shared a bed, both for intimacy and to keep warm at night, and wives were often described as giving their husbands useful advice as they snuggled down.

In practice, husbands and wives needed each other.  If a great lord was going to be away (say on Crusade), the normal practice was for his wife to run the castle in his absence.  She would have been familiar with what was required to do because of having been involved in it since the beginning of their marriage.  Much of running a castle was a woman's prerogative anyway, so she just expanded what she was doing.

For peasants, farming chores really worked better with two adults (as any modern farmer will tell you), and a woman had to know how to plow, cultivate, harvest, and take care of the animals as well as to cook and sew and raise the children.  Among merchant and artisan families in towns, husband and wife typically worked as partners, and widows of guild masters could become masters themselves.

Married couples were assumed to love each other, even if they had not known each other very well before the wedding.  The physical consummation of their union was quite literally portrayed as making love, intensifying their emotional ties to each other.  Letters from Crusaders writing back home to their wives are full of terms of endearment and statements of how much they missed their wives.  In practice, a certain number of wives accompanied their husbands on these expeditions, if there was someone else to keep the home place running in their absence.

Marriage was still oriented more toward the husband and his family than toward the wife, however.  Husbands with concubines were treated relatively indulgently in the early Middle Ages (though by the twelfth century this was increasingly frowned upon), but a wife with lovers was shocking and horrible.  A new couple would typically move to the man's house (or castle or country, depending on social status).  If a husband died, and the wife remarried, she would typically leave her children behind to be raised by her late husband's family.

A lot of widowed people of both sexes, however, never remarried.  A widower with young children might find it expedient to do so, and a young woman still of child-bearing age would be sought after.  But a lot of people who became single, either through death of a spouse or through divorce, just decided to stay single.  One could enter the church as a monk or nun or just carry on in the world.

A good recent book on medieval marriage is by Elisabeth van Houts, Married Life in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 2019).

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on married life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019


One of the things you can do with apples is make cider.  It's the taste of fall (much more so than pumpkin spice latte.)  Cider was certainly drunk during the Middle Ages.  In fact, because medieval apples were much smaller than modern apples, they were more likely to be made into cider than eaten raw.

That's a picture of a modern apple.  Medieval apples would have been closer in size to what we call a crab apple.

Making cider is not very difficult.  Chop the apples coarsely, press the pieces (as in a cider mill), catch the juice as it comes out, strain it to get out seeds, stems, etc.  That's it!  Now you have good raw cider.  It needs to be kept cool or drunk immediately.  This is the cider you get at a cider mill today, and the cider that medieval people made.

Most of the cider you get in the grocery store has been pasteurized so it won't ferment the way raw cider will, and it often contains a small amount of chemicals also designed to preserve it.  I personally can always taste the chemicals and consider them an affront against nature.

So how did medieval people preserve cider?  Well, it was fall, so the spring house would be fairly cool, for at least a few days' preservation.  But much of it fermented, and that was fine too.  It was drunk as hard cider, an alternative to beer.  (Like medieval beer, it still couldn't be kept very long, because pasteurization and bottling were centuries in the future.)  In Great Britain, if you now order cider in a bar you will get what Americans consider hard cider, and the Brits don't really drink what Americans consider regular cider.

Fun fact:  Cider is not the same as apple juice.  Apple juice is made not by pressing raw apples but by boiling up apples, then straining off the resulting liquid.  Perfectly OK but not as good as cider.

Another fun fact:  Johnny Appleseed was a real person, back around 1800.  His father had a cider mill.  He thought it important that, as pioneers headed west, they should be able to have apple trees.  So every year he took a whole lot of seeds from the cider mill and headed west, ahead of the settlers, and planted apple trees.  They resulting trees were all sorts of weird hybrids, but you could always make cider.  The village of Apple Creek in Ohio is so named because when the white settlers arrived, there were already Johnny Appleseed trees along the creek.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Castles in TV/movies

A challenge for American film makers and TV producers is getting good backdrops for costume dramas.  They can manage a story set in the 1950s or even 1930s.  There are plenty of small towns (and even neighborhoods in large cities) with streets where all the buildings were built before WW II, and thus all the producers really need to do is get the modern cars off the streets and make sure the people in the background aren't wearing jeans and hoodies.

But for pretty much any story set before the twentieth century, finding a good location is a challenge.  For a long time movies avoided the challenge by having everything take place on sets constructed for the purpose.  Need a trackless forest?  Paint a picture of it and stick it behind the actors.  Need a scene inside a castle's great hall?  Easy.  Build a plywood wall and paint a stone wall on it.  A little grey paint, and there you are.

This works for live drama.  People going to a play are perfectly aware that they are sitting in a theatre, watching people on a stage.  They can deal with painted plywood passed off as a stone wall.  But those watching movies or, these days, a lot of TV shows want things to look realistic.

European producers have it a lot easier because they have a lot of old buildings on hand already.  American producers will travel to Europe to find good locations.  Now, there's a lot of mix-and-match that producers use with their locations.  The hero may walk down a street in one village, walk up the front steps of a house not actually in that village, and go into an interior of still a different house.  The scenes are stitched together so it looks like the scene is all the same place, but the clever locations manager has found the best exteriors and interiors for the story, even if they aren't all actually together.

Dramatization of  Jane Austen novels, set in the early nineteenth century, can use real places like the city of Bath (a spa town then and now) and have a choice of British country houses for the homes of the heroines, either exterior or interior or both.  If one looks closely one may see the plastic plates on interior doors that are put on to keep a swinging door from being worn down by constant hands, or a sign by the front door that tells you the hours the house is open to tours, but they still do a good job of looking authentic.

Shows like "Downton Abbey" have the advantage that they can use both the exterior and the interior of Highclere castle (not actually a castle, a late eighteenth-century manor house that is in the south of England, not in Yorkshire where "Downton Abbey" is set).  But the old servants' quarters no longer exist, so those scenes at least are shot in a studio.  Highclere itself has benefited mightily from the show, and tours now go there, and you can have tours, enjoy a high tea, and buy souvenirs.

Some of the settings for the "Game of Thrones" show are hoping for a comparable tourist surge.  An example is the castle of Doune in Scotland (shown above), whose great hall was used for the great hall of the castle of Winterfell in the show.  It's smaller than the great, sprawling Winterfell of the story, and it's partly ruined, but it's still a very nice castle.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Friday, October 4, 2019

Wine through the Centuries

Wine was an important commodity for medieval people.  As I've previously noted, wine and beer, not coffee and tea, much less milk and soft drinks, were the principal medieval drinks.  Near the Mediterranean, wine predominated, slowly giving way to beer as one moved north, because wine grapes won't grow where it's too cold.  Wine was also required for the liturgy, so it had to be imported for the purpose to places like the British Isles.

Wine making seems to have begun somewhere around 1000 BC.  In the west, it began with the Etruscans, who were already there in Italy when the Celtic ancestors of the Romans came wandering into the peninsula.  (The Etruscans gave their name to Tuscany, the hilly area of northern Italy around Florence and Siena.)

The Etruscan god of wine was called Foonfel or something like that (written Etruscan presents, shall we say, challenges to the modern archaeologist).  He was depicted as a young, sexually active male, naked and ready for drinking and action.  He was remembered in folklore in Italy well into the twentieth century, when people whose vineyards were not bearing well would chant a poem in which they asked "Fafnel" to come make their vines bear abundantly.

The Etruscan wine god was often depicted with Uni, the Etruscan goddess of love.  In the images she was often larger and more mature than he was, but he seemed to be very happy with this older woman.  She was often depicted on Etruscan wine cups.  She inspired the Roman goddess Juno, who got to be Jupiter's wife in the Roman pantheon, but was really not the same person as the Greek goddess Hera, Zeus's wife.

You will notice here a strong connection between sex, fertility, abundance, and wine.  There was also sometimes a connotation of blood.  We think of wine as something to enjoy with a good French meal, or something to sip while relaxing in the evening.  Ancient people thought of it as connected with great religious festivals and reproduction.

Under the Roman empire, wine grapes were grown all around the Mediterranean.  With the rise of Islam in the seventh century, wine disappeared (at least theoretically) from the Middle East and North Africa, because Islam forbids alcohol along with pork.  Christians however continued to include wine in their religious ceremonies, though without the sex part.  After all, according to the Bible at the Last Supper Jesus had said that liturgical wine was his blood.

Different regions produced different sorts of wine, everything from light white wines to heavy reds that were so dark as to be nearly brown.  Not surprisingly, wine could be an excellent cash crop, and it didn't need nearly as big fields as did grain.  Even today, the wine-growing areas of Alsace have villages only a few miles apart, because they don't need large empty tracts for crops, and the buildings stop abruptly at the edge of the village—no malls or quicky-fills at the edge of town, as that would destroy valuable vineyard space.

In the twelfth century in France, landlords with a piece of land that would make a good vineyard (good soil, right slope facing the right direction) would buy rootstock and tools, then go into an agreement with a peasant, an arrangement called complant.  The peasant would undertake all the labor of planting the vines and tending them as they grew, but once they started to bear in a few years, he and the landlord would split the profits of the wine.

Medieval wine was highly sought out when it first appeared in the fall, because without modern bottling wine didn't keep well and might be close to vinegar by the time the new wine came in.  A good sprinkling of spice helped but not a lot.  Some powerful lords enforced a "wine ban," where they and only they could sell their new wine in the fall for the first three weeks, thus taking advantage of everyone's eagerness to buy.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on medieval crops and food,  see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.