Saturday, December 26, 2020

Saint Stephen

 It's the day after Christmas, Saint Stephen's day, so I will blog about Saint Stephen.

Most people probably only think about him in relation to the King Wensceslas song, which is always treated as a Christmas song, even though it doesn't mention Christmas, just "the feast of Stephen."  Since his feast day is the day after Christmas, it all makes sense.  The song is all about how the rich should remember and help the poor, which is a repeated motif in many old Christmas songs, although there seem to be a lot of people who lose track of that.

The day after Christmas is called Boxing Day in Britain and much of the old British empire.  This has nothing to do with hitting each other with puffy gloves.  Rather, it has to do with boxes, service people going around with boxes hoping for tips from folks they've served all year.  Maybe in the spirit of Wensceslas?

But I digress.  The original Stephen is in the New Testament.  Stephen may not even actually have been a name then (though it quickly became one), as in Greek stephanos meant honor or glory.  He is often called "protomartyr," meaning first martyr, because he is the first person recorded as being put to death for his Christian faith.  In the Book of Acts he is one of the followers of Peter and the rest of the original Apostles and is stoned to death by the Jews for following this disruptive set of ideas.  Saul of Tarsus, who later became Saint Paul and one of the leaders of the early church, was said to have witnessed the stoning and been disturbed by it.

(In the Middle Ages there were even earlier martyrs celebrated, the Holy Innocents, all the baby boys Herod was supposed to have killed in trying to kill Jesus.  But Stephen still got to be a protomartyr.  The Innocents were celebrated on December 28.)

Though Stephen was killed long before the New Testament was composed, he was often depicted holding the Gospels, as in the image below.  Also note the stones.


As well as being the first martyr, Stephen was one of the first saints to have his bones discovered, treated as relics, and have churches named for him.  This happened at the beginning of the fifth century, nearly 400 years after his death.  After his relics, buried outside Jerusalem, were revealed in a vision, they were moved into a church on December 26, which is why today is his feast day.

Bits of his bones were sent to various other parts of the Roman Empire (which, you'll recall, was officially Christian at this time).  Saint Augustine of Hippo, a bishop in North Africa and one of the main theologians of the early western church, had originally been skeptical about relics, but he was impressed with the miracles these relics performed.

In the following decades, a great many churches were named for Stephen.  Originally churches had not been named for saints, but now they started to be.  In France St.-Etienne (Saint Stephen) is a very common designation for a cathedral church.  An old baptistry church, originally separate from the cathedral, would be named for Saint John the Baptist (St.-Jean) for obvious reasons, but the other French churches of the fifth and sixth centuries were generally named for local saints.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on the medieval way of thinking about saints, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Christmas Presents

 At the same time as TV shows and magazines are telling us to simplify, to get away from commercialization and overspending and discover "the true meaning of Christmas," we are also being constantly urged by the same TV and magazines to buy lavish presents, especially for the children, though expensive electronics and jewelry seem aimed more at the adults.

(I discussed this in my short book, "Contested Christmas," available on Amazon and other on-line book sellers.)

But how about the Middle Ages?  Did they have presents and commercialization?

They certainly had presents.  But they were not on Christmas!  Christmas was a time of religious observance.  The "twelve days of Christmas" however were observed, close to two weeks of feasting and merriment.  On the Feast of the Innocents, December 28, there would be special festivities dedicated to children.  This day was sometimes called Feast of Fools, a day when children would get to play the role of adults.

Presents showed up on January 1, New Year's Day.  The Romans had celebrated the first of January with presents, and there were periodic attempts in the Middle Ages to ban presents on New Year's as a pagan practice, but that didn't stop anyone.  These presents were usually exchanged between close friends or between spouses or lovers.  They were not "commercial" in that they were not made in a factory or advertised on TV, but you could certainly go to an artisan in a medieval city and buy jewelry or shoes or a new knife.  The gift-giving season might also be extended to January 6, Feast of the Wise Men, when the Three Kings were supposed to have arrived in Bethlehem and made gifts to the baby Jesus.

The Christmas-New Year's season was also when the powerful gave gifts to their underlings.  This was different from the normal practice the rest of the year, in which the powerful expected the weak to attempt to curry favor with them in part by offering presents.


Christmas presents with a focus on children really began in the nineteenth century, as did the modern version of Santa Claus.  Christmas had become a hard-drinking holiday, and there was a concerted effort to make it more friendly, home-centered (rather than tavern-centered), celebration.  Focusing on the children meant much less focus on the liquor.  Wrapping presents in colorful paper not only led to a surprise but took them out of the ordinary:  a present is something special when you have to unwrap it, not like just being handed a new shirt or a book or a toy.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval holidays and social history, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback!

Friday, December 11, 2020


 We think of queens as wives of kings, as of course they were, but they also were rulers in their own right.  After all, Elizabeth II has been queen of England for going on for 70 years.  Let's not forget the sixteenth-century Elizabeth I.  There were ruling queens in the Middle Ages as well.  And even as wives of kings, queens exercised real power.

Here a good example is Eleanor of Aquitaine, who I've discussed earlier.  She was successively queen of France and of England, by being married successively to Louis VII of France and Henry II of England, and she was the mother of both King Richard the Lionheart of England and King John of England.  That's her tomb shown below.

Okay, Eleanor was unusual.  But for all medieval queens, they functioned as the power behind the throne.  They would have their own separate court, with their own faithful men.  Here they were entirely capable of advancing their own policies, which might or might not be the same as the king's.  Eleanor plotted against Henry II on behalf of her sons, who felt that Dad was not giving them what was Rightfully Theirs.  (Teenagers, they never change.)  Even when not working in opposition to the king, the queen could be a real power.  Someone who wanted a special favor from the crown might do well to start with the queen, figuring if she agreed, she could be a significant ally.

(First ladies, wives of presidents, have separate offices and staff, but people rarely go to them to get a special favor out of the president.  Maybe they're missing a bet.)

The above image is a twelfth-century depiction of a king and queen of the Old Testament, carved onto the facade of Chartres cathedral.  Not surprisingly, they have sort of a twelfth-century look to them.  That queen isn't going to stand for any nonsense.  I think she may be taller than the king, who looks worried.

Then there were ruling queens.  The mother of Henry II, Mathilda, thought of herself as ruling queen of England, though her cousin Stephen begged to differ, and the two carried out a long civil war.  (Stephen won by outliving her.)

The most famous ruling queen is probably Isabelle, of Ferdinand-and-Isabelle, who sent Columbus off on his crack-brained attempt to get to India by sailing west.  Isabelle was king (not queen) of Castile, the northern part of what is now Spain, as well as queen of Aragon (the eastern part of Spain), a position she gained by marrying King Ferdinand of Aragon.  (I don't think he was queen of Castile.)  They called themselves the "Catholic kings."

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval social and political history, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback!

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Old Folks Homes

 In the modern West it has become common to have what used to be called old folks' homes (not to be confused with the Stephen Foster song about "old folks at home").  These assisted living facilities, senior centers, nursing homes, or the like have become necessary due to a lot of people growing older and less able to care for themselves easily, and in many cases not having anyone able or willing to care for them at home.

With the pandemic these facilities, where a lot of older people with health problems live close together, have tragically become centers of spreading the disease.  But how about the Middle Ages?  Did they have old folks' homes?

No, because most people died before they had become so incapacitated that they would have needed such a facility.  Without modern medicine, diseases or chronic conditions that can now be handled would have carried people off.  With life a lot rougher physically, even for the well-to-do, the average life expectancy was probably more like lasting into ones 50s or 60s, rather than the 70s or 80s we now assume.  (Of course then, as now, these are averages, with some living much longer, some much less.)

Families were expected to take care of the older generation, once the next generation was ready to take over the work, and grandparents provided advice and insights as well as assistance with less strenuous tasks.  The modern Amish still practice something similar, with grandparents moving into a little adjacent house once the next generation is grown, married, and ready to take over the farm.

But there were still institutions in the Middle Ages that served some of the same functions as a retirement home.  The chief was the monastery or nunnery.  Someone (usually aristocratic) who no longer was active and had started to worry about their soul would convert to the religious life, making a suitable gift, taking the habit, and leaving their possessions and family behind.  The new, strict orders of the High Middle Ages, like the Cistercians, required these converts to become novices, following a rigorous schedule to learn all about the monastic life.  Other monasteries provided a (reasonably) comfortable home where older people could pray and hope to make it into heaven.

These were group facilities, but rather than just being homes for the elderly, they were communities that included all ages down to teenagers, and at a lot of traditional monasteries, down to childhood.

 Alternately, one could go into a hospital.  Medieval hospitals became common from the thirteenth century on, founded as an act of charity by the wealthy and powerful.  The hospital of Beaune, pictured above, was founded by the most powerful lords of Burgundy.

These weren't really retirement homes, however.  They were places for the sick, the indigent, and the dying (more like a hospice).  The nuns would however try to heal the sick.  Chicken soup and saint dust are great cure-alls.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval social history, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback!

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Medieval Church Officers

 We tend to think of the medieval church as monolithic, as a single, unified entity.  In fact, there were numerous different entities within it, as I have earlier discussed, popes, cardinals, archbishops and bishops, monasteries, shrines, houses of canons, nunneries, and they certainly did not always see eye to eye.

Even within a single entity there was a lot of difference and disagreement.  Cathedrals, for example, had a bishop but also a cathedral chapter.  This chapter had been separate from the bishop since the ninth century in most places, and the priests in it, who supposedly helped the bishop in administering the diocese, were quite jealous of their own prerogatives.  The property from which the chapter drew its revenue was different from the property that supported the bishop, and the chapter had its own elected officials who led them, often in opposition to the bishop.


The dean was the head of the cathedral chapter, but there were many other church officers, most connected with the chapter, some connected with the bishop.  Among the most important were the chancellor, who oversaw the chancery, where records were kept and documents written, and the provost, responsible for the land and other property belonging to the church.

(You will notice that dean, provost, and chancellor are still names for some of the major officers of a university, due to universities' origins in medieval cathedral schools.)

Also important were the sacristan, responsible for the bread and wine of the mass and for maintaining the sacred vessels and altars, and the cantor, who led the singing of the psalms.  By the twelfth century many dioceses were divided into what were called archdeaconries, with an archdeacon over each (you knew that was coming), someone who took responsibility for overseeing the various churches within that archdeaconry.

A monastery had many of the same officers, chancellor, provost, cantor, sacristan, but there was no dean.  This is because the monks did not constitute a separate institutional body from the abbot, even though the monks collectively were called a chapter, and they would have regular meetings in what was called the chapter house, to discuss issues and give erring brothers a chance to confess and mend their ways.  Unlike in the cathedral, where most of the officers were elected by the cathedral chapter, in a monastery most officers were appointed by the abbot.

Monasteries had always had schools, where boys who joined the house would be educated.  It was assumed that they would most likely grow up to be monks there.  From the eighth or ninth century on, cathedrals also had schools, to train the boys and young men of the diocese who hoped someday to become priests, although most would never join the cathedral chapter.  There was thus always a school master (school mistress in a nunnery), sometimes the same person as the chancellor.  A large monastery might have a separate Master of the Boys, someone who supervised them in areas other than their education, such as keeping them in line if they got too ramunctious, making sure they were properly clothed and fed, and arranging for them to have some exercise and time to play.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on the medieval church, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Friday, November 20, 2020

November in the Middle Ages

 It's November, a month that seems stuck somewhere between fall and winter, can't figure out which one it wants to be.  It's a month of major storms on the Great Lakes, as warm Gulf air comes up and meets Arctic air coming south, the "witch of November" as the weather pattern is called (referred to in the Gordon Lightfoot song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald").

The weather in November in the Middle Ages was moving toward what we would consider December weather, because they were on the Julian calendar, which had leap years every four years but didn't take account into the need to skip leap year on the century mark, so from our point of view they were 10 or 12 days further into winter weather than we are.

November was an important month for medieval people, even if they didn't celebrate Thanksgiving (which, in spite of all the talk about 1621, really only took the form we now take for granted at the end of the American Civil War).  Saint Martin's day (November 11) celebrated the saint, who had first introduced monasticism to the West at the end of fourth century and who had divided his cloak with a beggar (Christ in disguise), and also marked the day that a lot of rents came due.  Below is a famous El Greco (well post-medieval) picture of Martin (on the horse) and the beggar.

November was also the month to finish bringing in the crops and to round up the pigs, who had been running more or less wild all summer and fall.  We eat turkey for our big harvest-festival meal, a bird unknown in Europe before Columbus, but for medieval people, pork was the thing.  They ate as much fresh pork as they could at November hog-butcher time and salted and smoked the rest.  Europe's small Jewish and Muslim populations wouldn't eat pork, which everybody else thought just showed they didn't know a good thing.

November's other chore was getting ready for winter.  There were going to be some long months where not that much was going on other than trying to keep warm.  Firewood had to be gathered, cut and stacked.  A fireplace in a big castle or manor house (from the thirteenth century on) could burn its way through an awful lot of wood, though a peasant house would have a firepit, where the heat and smoke would not go up the chimney--more efficient though a lot smokier.

 And of course enough grain had to be carefully stored away, where (one hoped) mice and rats wouldn't find it, to make bread to last until spring (along with the occasional piece of ham or bacon with a side of lentils or turnip).  It was five months until the dandelion greens would be ready to eat.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on the medieval round of the seasons, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020


 Mills were the equivalent of medieval factories, places where machinery provided a lot of the hard work that made it possible for people to do more than they could have through their own physical labor.  Although there were some precursors in the ancient world, mills, essentially in the form they kept through the nineteenth century, are medieval inventions.  (Below is a picture of a nineteenth-century water mill.)  Big electricity-generating windmills and water mills ("hydro power") show that mills are still very important, even though the technology has changed.

The Romans had had water mills, but they treated them as toys; none of them were more than miniature little mechanical contraptions that looked cute when water ran through them.  Windmills  appear to have developed originally in central Asia and spread very rapidly across Europe in the twelfth century.  (Contrary to what you may have heard, windmills do not cause cancer.)

Windmills predominated where there was strong and steady wind.  Water mills could be set up on any rapidly running stream, or, as in the picture above, a race could take water from a stream and funnel it to a mill, with a big drop (fall) to power the wheel.  Medieval streams were thick with mills, and there were always quarrels about people damming streams (to create the big drop of water) and depriving people downstream of water.  Along the coast there were tide mills.

If you have ever visited a historic mill, you have probably been impressed by all the gears.  The wind or water drives a shaft around and around, and gears and ropes take that power off for useful purposes.  Because, I have discussed earlier, bread was the single biggest item in the medieval diet, grinding grain into flour was the most important function of a mill.  In ancient Rome, it would take a slave all day with a hand mill to grind enough flour for the household for that day.  With a mill, you could grind a 50 pound sack of grain into a 50 pound sack of flour in half an hour.  Big millstones ground against each other to break the hard grains of wheat into flour.

It's actually possible to tell if a community had adopted mill-ground flour, because a tiny amount of stone dust gets into the flour and wears down people's teeth, which is evident in skeletal remains.

Mills had many other uses.  They could power hammers, used both in forging and in "fulling," the beating of woolen cloth to make it thick and tight (like what we call boiled wool).  They could also be used for sawing lumber, again making the work much easier for humans; we still speak of sawmills.  With all the ropes and gears mills could be dangerous places, but the miller was a highly revered member of the community.  Some lords and monasteries insisted that the local inhabitants grind their grain only in their mills (for a fee of course), to make back the substantial expense of building one.

As Americans moved west in the nineteenth century, one of the first things to be established in a new community was a mill.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

Read more about medieval food and technology in my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms. Also available in paperback!

Friday, November 6, 2020

Dialogue in historical fiction

When one is writing historical fiction (or fantasy, because let's face it, most fantasy is some version of historical fiction for the setting, with the addition of magic), a question is how to handle dialogue.

Should one's characters sound sort of medieval? (or to be more accurate, like Shakespeare).  Do you want them to say things like, "Zounds, thou hast e'en be-causèd me to besmircheth mine trew."  Okay, let's hope that no one would actually have a character deliver this line.  But the temptation is often strong to have dialogue reminiscent of the costumed performers at a Renaissance Faire.

Here it's important to realize that real medieval people (or medieval-style people in fantasy) were not wearing costumes.  They were just wearing clothes.  In the same way, they weren't speaking archaic English.  They were speaking their ordinary language.

The challenge is to give the characters dialogue that will allow the reader to have enough suspension-of-disbelief to imagine (without really thinking about it) that the characters are speaking an English translation of what they are actually saying.  (It's fiction, so with luck the readers are already prepared to suspend belief.)

I write fantasy set in an alternate version of medieval France in the Count Scar series, co-authored with Robert A. Bouchard, but you won't catch us having our characters say, "Franche contesse, Diex te puist consellier!  Iceste chose ne vuel plus respitier."  This is real twelfth-century Old French (it's from the epic Raoul de Cambrai), and it means, "Noble countess, may God guide you!  I do not wish to delay to do this any longer."  I sense our readers would abandon us if we started slapping Old French into our stories.


But does this mean that characters should just talk like twenty-first century people?  No, that doesn't work either.  I try especially to avoid idiomatic expressions that are based on things foreign to medieval people.  For example, baseball has added a lot to our turns of phrase.  "He really struck out on that."  "He couldn't get to first base with her."  "I try to be fair, I just call the balls and strikes as I see them."  But even though modern baseball has medieval roots, as I've discussed previously, medieval people would not have used such expressions.

Football and basketball phrases don't work either.  "He shoots, he scores!"  "They're just going to run out the clock."  "He's trying to defend from his own five-yard line."  "They're trying a Hail Mary pass."  And of course the latter only works if you've got Christianity in your fantasy world.

Then there are expressions that go back to nineteenth-century clipper ships.  "He's a loose cannon."  "He's three sheets to the wind."  "All hands on deck!"  Well, maybe you could use them if your fantasy has something like a "Pirates of the Caribbean" setting.  But not pseudo-medieval.

In the same way, there are hordes of informal phrases that would just strike a jarring note.  "The joke made her crack up."  "This is one hot mess."  "Hey, don't freak out."  "Give me a break!"  Many are catch-phrases that got their start in popular movies or TV ads.  "The good, the bad, and the ugly."  "Shake and bake."  "Where's the beef?"  "Houston, we have a problem."  "Rinse and repeat."  "A few French fries short of a happy meal."  "That chick is toast!"

I try to make people speak sort-of formally but not archaically.  If you want to use catch-phrases, make some up!  If you have dragon-riders in your fantasy, surely that experience would have generated sayings or expressions.  Same thing for the people on intergalactic space ships in science fiction.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on medieval social history (and its modern descendants), see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback!

Tuesday, October 27, 2020


 Last week I blogged about anti-popes, that is men elected as pope but who are not ultimately recognized as real popes.  Real popes were those men elected as pope who were indeed ultimately recognized.  When you have both real popes and anti-popes (and you generally don't have an anti-pope without a pope), you have a schism, a split in the church when some people follow one pope, some the other.

The Great Schism involves late medieval popes.  The story starts at Avignon, a pleasant city in southern France.  Below is a picture of the town's medieval bridge.  There is a little French children's song, "Sur le pont, d'Avignon, on y danse" (On the bridge of Avignon, people are dancing).

Avignon originally had nothing of the schism about it.  In 1303 the pope died, just as the king of France was announcing he was going to arrest the pope and try him for heresy.  (Yes, if you thought medieval people lived in fear of the pope, you are mistaken.)  The cardinals, wanting to keep on the good side of the king, elected a Frenchman as pope in 1304.  He started toward Rome but got no further than Provence, that is the southeastern corner of France.  Avignon seemed like a nice place, so he stopped there while sorting out some issues but somehow never got moving again.  He and his successors just stayed in Avignon.

They built a lovely large palace (which is still there), planted vineyards (think Châteauneuf du Pape), and proved themselves serious administrators, not inspiring but not corrupt.  Avignon was a good choice, because even though it really was French, politically it was just within the border of the Holy Roman Empire, and thus the popes could say plausibly that they weren't really in the French king's pocket.

But everyone said they should get back to Rome. Somehow it never quite happened, for three-quarters of a century.  Finally in 1378 the whole papal curia got themselves together at last and headed off to Rome.  What a mess!  Nobody had cleaned up the place in generations.  The pope announced he was heading home to Avignon but instead he died.

The Roman mob demanded the cardinals elect an Italian, which the terrified cardinals did.  But when the new pope started throwing his weight around, the cardinals decided they had only elected him "under duress," which didn't count, and raced back to Avignon where they elected a different pope.  The Great Schism was on.

Earlier schisms had been cleared up within a generation, but this one dragged on, with the Roman pope and the Avignon pope both getting supporters (respectively the English and the French king, who were having the Hundred Years with each other), and both excommunicating the others' adherents.  Everyone agreed this was horrible, and a big council seemed like the only solution.

In 1408-9 a great council was held at Pisa.  Both the Roman and Avignon popes were denounced as schismatic heretics and formally deposed.  The council elected a new pope to replace them.  You can probably guess what happened.  Now there were three popes.

You  might have thought the failure of the Council of Pisa would have turned everyone against councils, but it was really their only option.  In 1417 the Council of Constance, announcing that a general council held its power only from God, deposed all three popes, and the Great Schism was over.  There have been a few anti-popes since, but none ever got much support.

But in the meantime the papacy had pretty much lost all respect.  The popes settled down to be one more Renaissance tyrant, and the Reformation was only a century away.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on the medieval church, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Monday, October 19, 2020


 What are anti-popes?  They are people elected as pope, in defiance of other people electing someone else as pope, who are later decided not really to have been popes at all.  How can you tell the difference?  Well, at the time it's hard to say.  But the ones who won are, by definition, the real popes, and their opponents are the anti-popes.

As I've discussed earlier, the popes were mostly considered irrelevant until the second half of the eleventh century.  Once they became relevant, recognized as the real heads of the church hierarchy, anti-popes began to be elected.  (I guess it shows the importance of the papacy that it was worth having a big argument over who was really pope.)

Sometimes popes were elected as part of political quarrels, such as the quarrel between Gregory VII (pope 1073-1085) and Henry, German king and Roman emperor, where the two were engaged in the Investiture Controvery over whether pope or emperor was the ultimate authority in a Christian empire.  Henry chose an anti-pope and the pope chose an anti-emperor, and things went downhill from there.  That's an image of Pope Gregory VII below.

 Sometimes there would be a disagreement within the college of cardinals itself over who to elect.  The cardinals have been the official only people to elect popes since the 1050s.  They are a "college" not like a university but rather in the word's original meaning, a collection of people making decisions (think Electoral College).  For example, in 1130 the electors split between two powerful cardinals, the one elected as Innocent II and the other elected as Anaclete II.  Both took the names of semi-legendary popes of the first centuries of Christendom (popes have, since the early Middle Ages, chosen new names that are intended to be significant).

Things were ugly for a while (Anaclete was accused of being Jewish, among other things), but most of Europe followed Innocent, including the French king.  This split was finally resolved when Anaclete died (1138), and his followers made their peace with Innocent.  This was the normal pattern:  one side or the other would lose support, and there wouldn't be more than one anti-pope before reconciliation.

But the biggest split was in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when during the Great Schism there were first two and then three popes, at Rome and Avignon and Pisa, over a period of close to forty years.  Stay tuned for more details.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on the medieval church, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Bees in the Middle Ages

For most of the Middle Ages, the only sweetener available (other than the naturally occuring sugars in fruit) was honey. Honey could be gathered from wild hives if one were lucky (and avoided being stung), but medieval people also domesticated and kept bees. The honey bee, so necessary to pollination of fruits in North America, is descended from the medieval domestic bee. Note bee in the image below.
(Honey bees, and with them the crops they pollinate, are in danger today due to so-called hive collapse, due to climate change and probably a mite, but that's a separate story.)

Bee-keeping was actually quite similar in the Middle Ages to what is done now, hives tended by someone wearing protective gear who knows how to keep the bees from getting too excited (domestic bees are a lot calmer than wild bees or wasps or hornets). Monasteries and manors all had hives. The honey was used for sweetening, the wax for candles, and the bees themselves to pollinate orchards.

Bees were considered busy and industrious creatures. They were often found in bestiaries, books about different kinds of animals and their habits. It was often said that they were called bees (apies in Latin) because they had no feet (a- plus pedes, meaning feet). Now of course bees have perfectly good feet, as everyone knew, so the story was they were born without feet and that's why they got their name. (Talk about implausible folk etymology.)

Jeweled bees were found in the tomb of King Childeric (5th century, father of Clovis), probably symbolizing hard work and attention. Napoleon, trying to identify hiself with a millennium and a half of French rule, also used bees as a symbol.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval agriculture, see the ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other on-line bookstores. Also available in paperback.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Fantasy Book Covers

For those of you who enjoy my fantasy books, you'll be interested to learn that I'm finishing a new book in my "Starlight Raven" series (aka Yurt the Next Generation). It's not quite finished yet, but I've got a cover! 

As indie authors as we are called (independent author/publishers) have proliferated, writing and selling both ebooks and paperbacks, a parallel industry has grown up, to edit books or format them or illustrate them. I edit and format my own books, but my graphic artist skills aren't up to painting my own covers. (I've got some covers that are based on my photographs, but I have never, just for example, been able to take a photo of a purple flying beast whose skin becomes an air cart.)

So I've gone to the company "EbookLaunch" for the covers for my "Starlight Raven" series. Dane, who did the previous two covers in the series, is doing "The Sapphire Ring." Getting a picture that shows what you want goes through several stages, starting with a sketch.
Then the picture is colored in, and finally the whole cover emerges.

A book cover is an illustration of the book, but that's not really its purpose in life, and sometimes it won't even illustrate a specific scene. Rather, its purpose is to suggest the genre of the book (for example, you are unlikely to look at this and think space exploration or pirate story or a near-future political thriller), and to intrigue the potential reader. With luck this person will dip into the book, like how it's written, and buy the book. 

So if the cover seems intriguing, look forward to the book! 

 © C. Dale Brittain 2020

Saturday, October 3, 2020


It's October, time to fatten up the pigs, or at least it would have been in the Middle Ages.

Pigs were one of the few farm animals medieval people raised primarily for their meat.  They would eat essentially any animal (at least after it got too old), but sheep were raised for wool and sheepskin (parchment), cattle for milk and leather and pulling the plow, goats for milk and wool, horses for transportation, and so on.  Pigskin could be used for various projects, but the real value of pigs was found in pork roasts, ham, bacon, and sausage.

Pigs are not friendly creatures.  Don't let the cute cartoon version fool you.  There's a reason you never see a pig in a petting zoo.  They are close relatives of wild boars, and although they were (more or less) domesticated thousands of years ago, they have never been as thoroughly domesticated as sheep or, say, dogs, most of whom have left their wolf ancestors far, far behind.

 Sus scrofa domesticus, miniature pig, juvenile.jpg

The great advantage of pigs is that they can essentially feed themselves.  They, like humans, are omnivorous, eating both meat and vegetable matter.  In the ancient Mediterranean, they were probably the most commonly eaten meat, because they were relatively easy to raise to full eating-size.  The Jews, and after them the Muslims, rejected pork as a religious marker, which distinguished them from everybody else.

(You'll sometimes see it suggested that the Jews kept away from pork to avoid trichinosis, but this seems very unlikely—they didn't know about it specifically, it's avoidable if pork is cooked thoroughly, other animals can also have parasites, and the rest of the ancient world flourished just fine eating pork.)

Medieval people might raise a piglet out in back of the house, even in the cities.  The oldest son of King Louis VI of France was killed when he and some friends were having horse races through the streets of Paris (one assumes beer was involved), and what was described as a porcus diabolicus got loose from its pen and tangled with the prince's horse, throwing him to his death.

But most pigs were allowed to be self-sufficient for most of the year (for one thing, pigs stink), at most herded into new grazing areas periodically.  October in the oak woods was an especially good time, because acorns (called mast) were one of pigs' favorite foods.

In November, once the pigs were fattened up, they were rounded up and slaughtered.  Pig harvest was great.  Everyone ate their fill of fresh pork for a few days, probably the most meat they'd eat at one time all year, and the rest was smoked, salted, and made into ham and bacon and sausage.  It was much more heavily smoked and salted than modern products, because it had to last for many months without refrigeration.

Neither pigs nor boars are native to the New World, but the Spanish brought pigs to their colonies, some of whom escaped, and wild boars were introduced into the US for hunting purposes.  (Medieval aristocrats had also enjoyed hunting boars.)  Feral pigs, which cross-breed with the wild "razor back hogs" (boars), are very destructive (and dangerous) in some areas now, for they they root up the ground and kill ground-nesting birds, and are treated as an invasive species.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on farm animals and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see the ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other on-line bookstores.  Also available in paperback.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Medieval disease

Until the era of Covid-19, Americans didn't worry too much about disease.  Some diseases that had been real killers, like smallpox, have been eradicated, and others, like polio, have been nearly eradicated, due to vaccines.  Some so-called childhood diseases, like measles and mumps, are unlikely if parents get their children vaccinated.  There are vaccines for seasonal flu and for pneumonia.

These are all viral diseases, where the best bet is to build up the body's own immunity (through vaccines).  For bacterial diseases, including even nasty diseases like Lyme disease or bubonic plague, there are antibiotics.  Antibiotics are also very helpful in fighting off any kind of infection.

There were neither vaccines nor antibiotics in the Middle Ages.  For that matter, vaccines were invented in the nineteenth century and antibiotics in the mid-twentieth.  Thus medieval people had to worry about disease a lot more than modern westerners have done in recent generations.  A nasty infection could be a death sentence.  So could polluted water.

There's a reason that child mortality was a lot higher then than it is now, and that the average life expectancy, which is now in the 80s for people in the US, was more like the 50s.  People got worn out, and something or other might sicken and kill you.

(Of course, as I have discussed earlier, some people lived a very long life then, but a lot fewer than now.)

 You might ask, how could people cope with all that death?  In fact one could ask that very question now.  As I write, the Covid-19 death toll in the US is at 200,000 in seven months, or the equivalent of three jumbo jets falling out of the sky and killing everyone on board every day for that period.  And yet people have grown numb.  Families that have lost someone are of course devastated, but for many of the rest the raw terror has long since worn off, and getting together with friends or going to a show seems "worth the risk."  Medieval people would also have been devastated when a family member died, especially a child, but they went about their daily affairs without thinking too much about disease.

There were of course exceptions, most notably the Black Death (bubonic plague), especially its two big outbreaks in the sixth century and the fourteenth (but not in between).  This really was scary, because it spread and killed so fast.  Like Covid, it was easily spread by people who had not yet developed symptoms, so someone trying to escape it could infect those in the place to which they fled.  Strict quarantine measures were put in place, but they were of only limited success, given how close everyone lived to each other in an urban environment.  A city might seem fine one day, and two weeks later three-quarters of the inhabitants would be dead.  They couldn't bury them fast enough.

The plague retreated once "herd immunity" had developed, that is enough people had caught a mild case and recovered that it wasn't being spread any more, but in the meantime probably a third of Europe's population had died.  This is why waiting for herd immunity to save us from Covid is not a viable option.

And the plague's aftermath disrupted Europe's economy for a century, as I have discussed earlier.

Besides the plague, the Middle Ages had most of the same diseases we do, except they didn't have syphilis, which originated in the Americas, and some believe they didn't have our "common cold."  The second most terrifying disease, after the plague, was leprosy.  Lepers, whose skin and eventually toes and fingers shriveled and fell off, were shunned, treated essentially as AIDS patients were when that disease first emerged toward the end of the twentieth century.

Sick people either got well at home or, increasingly, in hospitals.  A hospital was closer to what we would call a hospice, a place where the sick person was kept warm and clean and treated with chicken soup and saint's dust.  The wealthy would endow such hospitals as an act of charity.  (Lepers weren't allowed in hospitals but had to go to their own leper-houses.)  Above are the beds in the medieval hospital of Beaune.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval health and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.  Also available in paperback.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Medieval soap

"Wash your hands!"  We've been told this since we were little kids, and in a time of pandemic it's especially important.  We assume (rightly) that soap is a crucial ingredient of the process.  Did medieval people have soap?  Yes indeed, though not our kind of soap, in handy wrapped bars or even decorative shapes, smelling delicately of verbena or sandlewood.

The ancient world had not been big on soap, although they knew about it.  Athletes had cleaned up after exercise by smearing themselves with oil and sand, then scraping off the sand with little scrapers, taking the sweat with it.  You can buy "olive oil soap" today, but it's not the same.

Soap is made from mixing rendered fat or oil with a "base" (a base as opposed to an acid, think back to high school chemistry).  Medieval people cooked down (rendered) the fat from meat, which we often throw away, and mixed it with lye made from mixing water with wood ash.  This made a powerful soap, good for dissolving dirt and killing bacteria (although they didn't know about bacteria, they recognized that cleanliness was healthier).  Soap usually didn't come in bars but was soft, more like liquid soap (but no handy pump-top dispensers), and had no delicate fragrance.  Lard-based soap could become more or less solid, though oil-based soap stayed more or less liquid.  This was the normal soap in Europe and the US until the mid-nineteenth century.

(One may note that lard, made from pig fat, is often still recommended for pie crusts, and you can buy it at the grocery store.  But I digress.)

This pre-modern soap would not be described as "gentle on your hands."  Farm families could and did make their own.  In medieval cities, however, soap-making could be a skilled profession, even sometimes a guild, with the different soap-makers promoting soap that came in balls rather than as a thick liquid (making it more convenient), even scented with minced lavender leaves or the like.

Between the difficulty of heating up enough hot water for a bath and not wanting to scrub too much lye-based soap on your delicate parts, medieval people did not bathe as often as the modern model.  They valued cleanliness, but some things are just not easy.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on health and hygiene in the Middle Ages, see my book, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available in paperback or as an ebook from Amazon and other on-line booksellers.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Medieval schools

It's back to school time!  Except for now, in the era of pandemic, a lot of schools are being delayed or carrying out teaching on-line (obviously impossible in the Middle Ages, or for that matter the twentieth century).  Did schools open in September in the twelfth century?

Short answer, no.  For starters, there were no public schools.  In fact, what we think of as normal, that is more-or-less universal education provided at public schools, appeared for the first time in the nineteenth century.  And it was not until the 1960s that a concerted effort was made to get everybody even in the US into school until they turned 18.

Now, in the midst of pandemic, there is a great deal of concern about the need for education, complete with dire threats about how children will be hurt if they can't get back in the classroom.  Medieval parents would have been surprised to hear that their children would suffer permanent harm by not attending school.

Medieval schools were all associated with churches. Monasteries and nunneries all had schools attached where children who joined, as their parents' offering to God, would get a good classical education.  They would need it when they grew up to be monks or nuns.  The less-strict monasteries, cathedrals, houses of canons regular, and nunneries would often offer an education to day-students as well, ones who did not intend to enter the cloister themselves but who wanted at least a little education.  These schools ran all year, rather than fall through spring.  It was of course expected that parents would pay for them.

As Europe was overwhelmingly Christian, these schools taught Christianity along with reading, arithmetic, and a little history and geography and music.  Europe's Jewish and Muslim minorities had their own schools.  There were no "atheist" schools.  Medieval people would not have understood why schools today can't teach religion, just as they wouldn't be able to grasp the separation of church and state.

Both aristocrats and well-to-do townspeople would send their children as day-students to these church-connected schools.  But this was usually not the children's first experience with education.  Mothers would teach their children the rudiments of reading and figuring when they were five or six, just as mothers still often do.  Note that this is one of many indications of the important role played in society then by medieval women.

When students got to school, initially all learning was in Latin.  At a minimum they would be able to read Latin; the best-educated would also be able to write.  Note that being able to read and able to write are two different skills, even though we now group them together (see more here on medieval literacy).  By the late twelfth century, a lot of schooling started taking place in the vernacular, Old French, Old Italian, Middle High German, or whatever.  Young aristocrats seem more inclined to be able to write in their normal spoken language than in Latin (not surprising).  Many composed stories and poems.

But how about the great mass of the population that was not aristocratic and did not intend their children for careers in the church?  They never went to a formal school or learned to read and write.  Modern schools have summers off, which is left over from nineteenth-century efforts to get the farmer's children to attend (children were needed to help on the farm in the busy growing season).  If medieval peasants had to agree to a formal agreement, they would make a mark on the parchment in place of a signature, usually an unsteady short line.

This did not mean that they were ignorant.  They might have quite advanced technical skills.  Farming is hard.  So is being a miller, a baker, a brewer, a blacksmith, a wheelwright, a mason, or the other skilled trades that a peasant village needed.  These people would know basic figuring and would know how to keep track of things (like money), even if they knew no Latin.

Education expanded in the late Middle Ages, especially in Renaissance Italy, but it was still something for townspeople, not for peasants.  Parents would send their son off to school with a servant, who was supposed to learn along with the boy and beat him if he didn't do his homework.

Starting in the twelfth century, the ambitious young man (not woman) might want to continue his education at a university.  Basic schooling would be over by age 14 or so, and it was off to the university, to learn complicated subjects, like theology or Roman law or medicine, and to drink and have fun.  University students were primarily from families of well-to-do townspeople.  The Sorbonne in Paris, pictured below (though this is a post-medieval building), was the most prestigious medieval university.  (See more here on medieval universities.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval social history, see my book, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other e-tailers, either as an ebook or in print.

Monday, August 24, 2020


Now there's a curious word.  Like Egypt, it looks like it has too many descenders (letters with tails that hang below the line).  But it's a perfectly good word.  Polyptyque means a survey of people and property on a manor.

Polyptyques were an invention of the ninth century, and although a few were created in later centuries, the ninth century was their golden era.  They appear to have begun with Charlemagne ordering inventories of property and payments both on his own lands and on the lands of the great monasteries of his realm.

That's an image of Charlemagne on one of his coins.  You'll note that he is portrayed like a Roman emperor.

Anyway, there is some thought that Charlemagne considered all the Frankish monasteries his property, which is why he wanted to know what was on their manors.  The royal polyptyques do not survive, but there are still maybe a dozen monastic ones, plus fragments of others.  They are a major source of information on the rural economy of the period.

For each manor (and a monastery would typically own dozens of manors), the polyptyque would list how much revenue was expected.  Often the names of the tenants would be given, but a polyptyque was not intended to be a a census of people, so one cannot determine total population of a manor.  The legal status of the tenants might be specified, using such terms as hospes, colonus, mancipius, or ingenuus.  Although those composing the polyptyques clearly knew what was meant by these terms, scholars today have had serious debates over their meaning, and the twelfth-century successors of those who composed them seem to have had even less idea.

The tenants were sometimes although not always listed by name.  The overwhelming majority of these names are male, which led a few decades ago to a scholar who should have known better claiming this showed that ninth-century peasant families killed baby girls.  Now one would have thought that something as serious as infanticide would be mentioned in other sources if it was indeed practiced—it isn't.  Even more basically, the lists of tenants just gave the name of the head of the household, not of spouse and children, and, as in the US through the twentieth century, the man was considered the natural head of household.  Thus there is no reason to use the polyptyques to argue for female infanticide.

Most polyptyques do not survive on their original ninth-century parchment, but only as copied into cartularies in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  Here's a picture of a cartulary, a collection of documents all carefully copied into a single book.

Enough had changed in the rural economy and manorial organization between the ninth century and the twelfth or thirteenth centuries that the cartulary scribes often had trouble figuring out what the polyptyques meant.  Sometimes property enumerated in them had been lost to the monastery for generations.  The ninth-century handwriting was clear enough three centuries later, but the vocabulary had changed.  Yet clearly these lists of manors and dues were an important part of a monastery's history.  The scribes abbreviated heavily and hoped for the best.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on monks, kings, and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other major ebook platforms.  Also available in paperback!

Sunday, August 16, 2020


Today I want to talk about Suger, one of the most important political and ecclesiastical figures of twelfth-century France (c. 1081-1151).  And no, his name is not Sugar, it's Suger, pronounced soo-zhay.  Here's an image of him from a stained glass window.

Suger is best known now as a counselor and biographer of King Louis VI (1108-1137) and as abbot of the monastery of St.-Denis.  He was a lifelong friend of the king, because back when Prince Louis was attending school in Paris, young Suger was also.  Schools were run by churches, and although the majority of the young men attending expected to have a career in the church, lay people might also attend as day students, as did Louis.

Suger became a monk at the abbey of St.-Denis, located not far outside of Paris.  (You can get there on the metro.  Be sure to get off at the "basilica" St.-Denis stop, not the "stadium" St.-Denis stop.  France's biggest soccer/football stadium is right down the road from the old abbey.)  This was considered a royal monastery, and many kings and queens of France were buried there, going back to the Merovingians.

It was dedicated to Saint Dennis, the supposed first bishop of Paris way back around the second century, who had been beheaded by the Romans for refusing to worship the pagan gods.  He was martyred on Montmartre ("mountain of the martyr") but then, to everyone's surprise, he picked up his head and started walking.  He'd gotten out to the suburbs before collapsing.  The abbey was built over his remains.  (One doubts he had gone out to catch one last football game.)

When the old abbot of St.-Denis died, Suger was elected abbot in 1122, presumably with some friendly hints from the crown.  Although the monastery was never known for its austerity, unlike the new monastic orders such as the Cistercians, it was free from scandal, and the monks prayed and were serious, even if well-fed.

Suger's major accomplishment as abbot was to rebuild his abbey's church.  He described the process proudly, including his miraculous discovery of enough old-growth oaks for the roof beams, when everyone told him there were no big trees left in the region.  (Notre-Dame, built a generation later, had to get their roof beams--burned in 2019--from all over and float them down to Paris.)  St.-Denis is considered the first Gothic church, marked by tall, thin walls and pointed (rather than rounded) arches.  It was dedicated in the presence of the king in 1144.    (Suger actually just rebuilt the western facade, seen below, and the choir at the opposite end, leaving the eighth-century nave in place, to finally be rebuilt a century later.)  His abbey church looks rather sad today, but it went through a lot in the French Revolution (including having all the kings and queens buried there dug up and tossed out).

After the death of Louis VI, Suger wrote an admiring biography of his old friend, usually translated today as "Deeds of Louis the Fat."  Well, it's not quite fair to think of Louis only in terms of his weight, because he was indeed a very effective and beloved king.  His father, Philip I, had toward the end of his life been said to be too fat to ride a horse, which is something.  Philip had also repudiated Queen Bertha, Louis's mother, because he said she was "too fat."  Hormones.  Louis didn't stand a chance.

When Louis VII (king 1137-1180), son of Louis VI, decided to go off on Crusade in 1147, Suger became regent of France.  At this time usually wives acted as regents for absent husbands, but Louis VII's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, accompanied him to the Holy Land.  But that's another story.

When Suger died, he had started a biography of Louis VII, obviously not completed as the king outlived him by almost thirty years.  But Suger's name was permanently associated with the French kings.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on monks, kings, and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other major ebook platforms.  Also available in paperback!

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Christ Stopped at Eboli

Lately I've been working on a book about medieval peasants.  So I've been looking at medieval documents in which peasants appear (there are a lot more such documents than has generally been assumed) and also at scholars' attitudes toward peasants.  If one assumes (as has too often been done) that peasants were silent, marginal, and passive and thus did not appear in the documents, then of course one will not look for them.  (As you probably guessed, I argue instead for active peasants.)

There has also been an assumption that peasant life was unchanging, that it has been the same for thousands of years.  I have also been reading Carlo Levi's classic book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, which makes this assumption.

Levi was an interesting person, a doctor and painter who got on the wrong side of the Fascists under Mussolini.  In 1935 he was sent into political exile from his native Torino to a little village way down in the foot part of the "boot" of the Italian peninsula, and he spent a year there, among those he called "my peasants."

He was pardoned after a year and hurried back to northern Italy.  But because he was Jewish, he was soon in trouble again and had to go into hiding.  While in hiding he wrote a memoir of his year in a peasant village, published in Italian in 1945 right at the end of the war, and translated into English in 1947.  It is still in print, in Italian, English, and many other languages.  His depiction of the very harsh life of southern Italian villagers brought their plight to the attention of the post-war Italian government, which sought to improve things.

The memoir is called Christ Stopped at Eboli NOT in the rather sweet, sentimental sense of "Jesus stopped off in Eboli for the night and did some miracles while he was there."  Rather, it means that Christianity and civilization got as far south in Italy as Eboli but didn't get any further.  Eboli is about two-thirds of the way down the peninsula, a short distance south of Naples, and at that point the train lines that had been following the coast south turned east instead, ignoring the south.  Here's how Levi defines it:

"We're not Christians," they [the peasants] say.  "Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli."  "Christian" in their way of speaking means "human being." ...  We're not Christians, we're not human beings; we're not thought of as men but simply as beasts, beasts of burden.  ...  Christ never came, just as the Romans never came, ... nor the Greeks.  ...  None of the pioneers of Western civilization brought here his sense of the passage of time, the deification of the State.  ...  The seasons pass today over the toil of the peasants, just as they did three thousand years before Christ."

This is certainly evocative.  But were the villagers among whom Levi lived for a year leading a life unchanged from the Middle Ages, much less the Bronze Age?  One would have to say NO.

To begin with, they were Christian.  There was a church in the village with a priest.  When Levi arrived they took their sick children to him, not because there was no other doctor, for there were in fact two other doctors, both trained at the University of Naples, a university that did not exist in the Middle Ages.  But both the villagers and Levi considered these men grossly incompetent, and the villagers added that the doctors were not "Christian."  So they did indeed use the term Christian to mean a competent human, but their use of the term here certainly indicates they believed themselves good Christians in contrast.

And the State had reached their village.  There were carabinieri, the national police.  The whole idea of political prisoners requires a state and politics—and there were several other political prisoners there besides Levi.  The mayor was proud of how Fascist he was; a medieval village might well have had a mayor but nothing comparable to positioning in a political party.

Some of the material culture of modernity had also reached the village.  Levi was brought there in an automobile.  There was electricity, even though he said dismissively it might be a single bulb hung from the ceiling.  Most of the villagers could read and write; there was a public school, where among other things they learned standard Italian, so Levi could talk to them without understanding their local dialect.  There was daily mail service, even if brought in on a mule.  There was even a public restroom with running water, though he claimed he was the only person ever to use it.  The villagers grew and ate tomatoes, which their medieval ancestors would not have done, as they are a New World food.  Some people from the village had moved to America.

This was not a land untouched by time.  Back in the early nineteenth century one might have been able to make such a case a bit more plausibly, but these villagers were living in the twentieth century, even if a different version of the twentieth century than Levi's friends back in Torino.  (In the same way, the Amish today are living in the twenty-first century, even if they don't have TV or drive cars.)

So what did the villagers mean when they said that Christ stopped at Eboli?  Levi thought it meant that they considered themselves inferior, scarcely human.  Given the grim conditions under which they lived (as he described it), my own interpretation of what he called a "proverbial phrase" is something closer to that song in the show Paint Your Wagon, "I'm so lost, so goldarn lost, not even God can find me."  They weren't saying they were inferior.  They were saying everyone had forgotten about them, even Christ.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

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

Friday, July 31, 2020


They did not have corn in medieval Europe.

Wait! say my British readers (or those who have been reading books by British medievalists).  There are all these references to "corn"!  Yes, but they are using the word "corn" in its broad sense of "grain."  They certainly had grain (wheat, barley, rye primarily) in the Middle Ages.  But there was no maize, corn in the American sense, Zea mays to be scientific.

I thought I would blog about corn because it's an excellent example of how our diet and the diet of medieval people differed.  (They didn't have potatoes or tomatoes either, as I have previously discussed.)  Corn is a New World plant.

Both North American and South American indigenous peoples cultivated maize.  It is descended from a wild grass-like plant, teosinte, with which only a few mutations on key genes produced cobs rather than just little tufts of seeds, and didn't have the seeds scatter spontaneously when ripe.  It has been cultivated in Mexico for at least 9000 years, perhaps eaten originally as popcorn (though without "butter flavor" or movies).  It was well established throughout the Americas when Europeans first arrived.  For the Iroquois, it was one of the "three sisters," along with beans and squash, vegetables that they grew to supplement the wild animals they hunted.

In the Andes, almost as many varieties of corn were developed as varieties of potatoes.  They still have many not found in the US, such as purple corn or the very large-kerneled so-called Inca corn.  The picture below is from a produce market in the Andes.

Corn is now pervasive in the American diet.  You may start the day with corn flakes.  If you eat store cookies or drink soft drinks or put "maple flavored" syrup on your pancakes, look at the label--the chances are excellent that you will see corn syrup used as a sweetener.  (Medieval people didn't even have sugar for the most part, much less corn syrup.)  Puddings, sauces, and pie fillings are thickened with corn starch.  Corn bread is made of corn meal.  Corn tortillas of course are made of corn, and indeed tortillas were a part of the diet of Mexico and the American southwest long before the Spaniards arrived.  Corn, both the ears themselves and the stalks, are now chopped and fed to cattle.  Most of our beef cattle are fed a heavily corn-based diet to fatten them up.  Corn is also used to make ethanol, which is added to most gasoline.  Right now fresh corn on the cob is just starting to appear in farmers' markets in the northern part of the US, but this is a tiny fraction of where corn ends up.

In the world overall, more corn is harvested by weight than any other grain.  It grows fast and can be cultivated in a variety of settings if one chooses the right variety, mountains, plains, northern climes, tropical climes....  Some people now may want to reduce the amount of corn in their diet, but it's hard.

When the Spaniards reached the New World they started eating corn (unlike tomatoes, which they initially considered poisonous).  However, they had serious doubts about corn flour as a substitute for wheat flour.  Priests said only wheat flour could transubstantiate in the mass, meaning you couldn't use tortilla chips for the wafer, and the army leaders feared eating corn would weaken them somehow, making them more like the natives.  Of course this issue was complicated by the fact that wheat is not native to the New World.

So as you munch your cornflakes, popcorn, store cookies, pudding, cola, and nacho chips, remember that medieval people would have had no idea what you were eating.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

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