Tuesday, December 17, 2019


Jerusalem is an unusual city.  For starters, it's the only major city in the world not built on a body of water (lake, river, ocean).  This is because it had its start as a religious center, whereas all other major cities had their start as commercial centers, and until very recently transportation of goods required easy water access, to say nothing of the necessity of drinking and washing water for a large population.

Jerusalem is also a holy city to three different religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  They are all Abrahamic religions, sharing some version of what the Christians call the Old Testament as a crucial text, all monotheistic, believing in only one god—in fact the same God.  So from the point of view of, say, Buddhism they may look fairly similar.  But these three religions all consider followers of the others infidels, which understandably leads to tensions.  There are plenty of other holy cities, such as Mecca for Muslims or Rome (or at least Vatican City) for Catholics, but no others where three religions vie for dominance.

Jerusalem was founded roughly 1000 BC, traditionally by King David, and was important as a religious center.  Its original Temple, supposedly built by David's son King Solomon, claimed to have the Ark of the Covenant, a symbolic representation of Noah's Ark and the agreement that God reached with Noah not to flood the earth again.  It was a small city, maybe a few thousand people at most (in even smaller footprint than what is now the Old City), but very important as a religious and cultural center.  When the Persian Cyrus the Great of Babylon defeated the Jews and captured Jerusalem in the sixth century BC, the Jews could hardly wait to get back and rebuild the Temple.  When the Romans drove most of the Jews out of Jerusalem  in 70 AD, they spent over 1800 years hoping to get back soon.  When the modern state of Israel was founded in 1948, with only a small slice of Jerusalem as part of the new country, they could hardly wait to capture it all, as they did in 1967.

Jerusalem has great symbolic value.  The New Jerusalem is a biblical metaphor taken now to mean heaven.  Even today, Jews at Passover promise, "Next year in Jerusalem," an old call to return to the Holy City, which is now interpreted to mean establishment of peace and prosperity for Jews.

Meanwhile of course Jerusalem also became a Christian holy city when Jesus was crucified there around 30 AD.  It was from there that the Christian religion originally spread, and it was thoroughly Christian under the late Roman Empire until it was conquered by Muslims in the seventh century AD.  Christians (and a few Jews) continued to live there, but Islam became the dominant religion both in Jerusalem itself and in the broader region the Romans had called Palestine.  Especially important for Islam was the mosque known as Dome of the Rock, built on top of the ruins of the second Jewish Temple, and containing the rock that was supposedly both the altar on which Abraham was going to obey God and sacrifice his son Isaac and the place from which Mohammad miraculously ascended into heaven.

For medieval Christians, Jerusalem continued to be a holy city.  Churches were oriented toward the east, symbolizing pointing toward Jerusalem.  Throughout the Middle Ages people made pilgrimages to Jerusalem to see all the holy sites, like the Church of the Sepulcher or the Mount of Olives, and to walk "on the ground where Christ's feet trod" as they put it.

In 1095, when the Byzantine patriarch needed some assistance in fighting the Turks and called on the pope for help, he got to his surprise not some companies of soldiers to help him as he'd hoped, but a whole army that intended to capture Jerusalem from the Muslims.  Much to everyone's shock, including their own, this First Crusade succeeded, and the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem was established in 1100.  This included not just the city but much of the Holy Land.

It lasted however only about three generations, being constantly attacked by Muslims who wanted back what they considered their country.  After steadily losing territory, the city of Jerusalem itself fell in 1187 to Saladin, ending Christian rule but not Crusades, which continued throughout the Middle Ages though with increasingly less success.

Modern Jerusalem, or at least the Old City in Jerusalem, is one of the richest archaeological sites in the world.  It has remains of buildings, streets, water courses, and human habitation going back to the Canaanite civilization pre-David, and remains from the era of the Hebrew kings, and on top of that Persian ruins, a lot of Roman and Byzantine-era buildings, Muslim structures, Crusader fortifications and churches, and Turkish remains—and that's just the pre-1500 material.  The December 2019 issue of National Geographic has a big article on "Jerusalem underground."  As you can imagine in a city already divided by three antagonistic faiths, archaeology itself is a fraught subject.

For that matter, the Christians can't all agree.  The Church of the Sepulcher is divided up between different Christian denominations, and no one is supposed to touch anyone else's spot.  It was a great scandal when it was discovered that a stepladder had been moved, a few years back.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin is a remarkable object, a piece of linen with an image of a dead man depicted with dark red stains that might (maybe) be blood.  The man is shown as a photographic negative, light for the parts that would have been dark and vice versa.  Since the Middle Ages the linen has been thought by many to have been a burial shroud for Jesus after the Crucifixion.

Turin shroud positive and negative displaying original color information 708 x 465 pixels 94 KB.jpg

 On the left is a modern photograph of the face on the Shroud, the way it appears if you just looked at it now.  On the right is a photographic negative, showing how the image comes alive when one photographs it using black and white film and then looks at the film (the negative) rather than printing it.  Understandably, this has raised major questions, because this couldn't have been seen before the invention of photography in the nineteenth century (it wasn't indeed noted until around 1900).

The Shroud first showed up in the fourteenth century in France.  It was in the possession of a man known as a notorious relic-monger.  Indeed, the bishop of Troyes declared it a fraud in 1390, saying it was designed to mislead the gullible, tricking them into visiting the church that had it and making offerings.  The bishop also announced that the artist who created it had confessed.  Medieval people believed in relics but also made clear that one should not believe everything presented as such.

Nonetheless, the Shroud has continued to attract attention and belief over the centuries.  In the sixteenth century it was acquired by the cathedral of Turin, where it has been ever since.  It has become a major tourist attraction there, even though one cannot actually see it, instead just seeing the chapel where it lies.  Actual viewings are very rare but also very popular. 

There are enough odd things about it that many still assert its authenticity, even though it's hard to explain where it could have been for 1300 years and why no one knew about it.  The strange "negative" effect has been discussed as the product of rays (?) emanating from the dead man, which of course would make more sense if the dead man were supernatural.  Some people however have claimed to have reproduced something that looks a whole lot like the Shroud using medieval techniques.

Some have said (though it's been disputed) that the plant pollen found on the fibers are more typical of the Middle East than medieval France, though even if this is the case, it might only show the Shroud to be a fourteenth-century Middle Eastern creation.  The carbon-dating of the fibers indicates a medieval date, though some have asserted that those who did the carbon-dating were misled by skin cells and the like left behind by people who touched and kissed the Shroud in the medieval period.

The modern Catholic church does not consider the Shroud a relic.  A relic, as I've noted before, is either a body part of a saint or something a saint touched and used (the latter being so-called second-class relics).  Rather, Pope Francis has called it an "icon."  Like paintings or other depictions of Christ (including Byzantine icons) it is considered to have value in orienting the thinking of the faithful toward divine subjects, even if the object is not divine itself.  The Holy Hanky of Cadouin, once thought to be stained with Jesus's sweat until its "decorative border" was revealed to be a statement of Muslim faith in Arabic, is similarly revered today as something to make the faithful ponder the life and death of Christ.

The Shroud thus indicates that people in the Middle Ages and the twenty-first century have reacted very similarly to relics:  some want to believe, some are dismissive, some say there's a deeper meaning regardless of historical accuracy.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on medieval religion, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Medieval burial

Cemeteries are important.  Just because someone is gone, leaving only their body behind, that doesn't mean that their loved ones consider the body something to be tossed away.  In the Middle Ages as now, people most commonly buried the dead, and the places where they were buried, the cemeteries, were special places.

Of course cemeteries as special places had a long history before the Middle Ages.  In classical Rome, the dead were buried outside of town, because the living didn't want them coming back as ghosts at night.  But the dead were still honored, often with monuments erected over their bodies or ashes.

This is a Roman memorial stone erected to honor a carpenter.  If you look closely, you can see that he is sitting at a bench with his tools.

Under the late Roman Empire, important people started being buried in stone sarcophagi (that is, a stone coffin), often elaborately carved.  As the Empire became Christianized, these images became Christian.

Early medieval saints had sarcophagi that were incorporated into the foundations of churches and continued to be revered over the centuries, as in the example below.  A lot of early medieval churches were built quite literally over the dead.

Sarcophagi are expensive, however, so even the wealthy eventually gave them up.  By the twelfth century people were buried in simple wooden coffins in church yards.  Unlike modern cemeteries, however, there were no grave markers with the dead person's name.  Indeed, because the church yard was fairly small and was used over many centuries, people were buried on top of other people once the old coffins had disintegrated.  Being close to the church was still important, and they were places of memory and ritual.  Being buried in a monastery's cemetery was an important side-benefit of making generous gifts to a monastery.

Starting in the thirteenth century, "gisants" were often erected over the graves of the wealthy and powerful, in a way going back to Roman-style monuments, in that the gisant was supposed to represent the dead person.  The image below is of the gisant erected over the body of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

By the early modern period, these gisants could become quite elaborate.  Cemeteries also were expanded by what were called litchfields, places to bury horrible sinners and unclaimed bodies, who might or might not deserve to be buried next to the church, since the churchyard was reserved for the faithful.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Friday, December 6, 2019

Medieval climate change

Just as we are discovering now how much climate change can affect us, so medieval people were also affected by climate change.  In both cases, humans seem able to mess things up much more easily than we are able to fix them.

(Any climate change deniers out there, don't bother.  The science is completely clear.  Even the oil companies are now shamefacedly 'fessing up that they've known that burning fossil fuels heats up the planet since the 1970s.)

The early and late Middle Ages were marked by mini ice-ages.  The first one, starting in the sixth century,  seems to have been precipitated by a huge volcano (maybe in Indonesia, reports vary), which threw so much dust into the air that there was a "year without a summer."  Coming as this did at the same time as the outbreak of the Black Death in Europe, the population crashed.  Even once the volcanic dust settled out of the atmosphere, the reforestation of lands that had been cultivated (no one was there to cultivate them anymore) helped keep the European climate cool for another couple of centuries.  Just getting along and staying alive was a challenge.

This mini ice-age started to pass off in the ninth century and was definitely gone in the twelfth.  Things were warming up, and from western Europe's perspective, this was great.  More reliable growing seasons (less fear of early frost), along with better technology led to rapid population growth and an overall improvement in diet and living standard (which of course helped population growth).  Towns began to grow for the first time since the days of the Roman empire.

Then, in the fourteenth century, another mini ice-age showed up.  By the late thirteenth century Europeans had been farming more and more marginal land, as they had already cultivated all the best farm land but had more and more people to feed.  So the population was already stressed when, in the early fourteenth century, a year without a summer and a repeat performance of the Black Death showed up at the same time.

We have much better documentation on what happened in the fourteenth century than the sixth.  But the evidence of economic and population collapse in the later period certainly suggests that the earlier too must have been pretty awful.

This mini ice-age continued through much of the early modern period (that is, post-medieval).  This is why, back in the early 1970s, a number of scientists thought we might be heading toward a new mini ice-age:  the planet seemed to bring them around every six or seven hundred years.  But hah!  We fooled mother nature by starting to burn fossil fuel, which has prevented any such thing.

For the Middle Ages, cold was the problem.  We have replaced it with heat as the chief problem.  Medieval people did not burn fossil fuel, except very occasionally in a few places where pieces of this strange flammable block rock was found lying around, mostly on beaches.

Kind of depressing to realize that humans can improve things on earth much less than we hoped.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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