Wednesday, January 29, 2020


Medieval history commonly shows up in college courses in the first half of Western Civilization, a freshman course taught at colleges around the US (and invariably abbreviated to Western Civ).  But Western Civ 101 does not start with the Middle Ages.  Usually it begins with Egypt.

We now tend to think of Egypt in terms of pyramids and mummies and hieroglyphs and a civilization along the Nile that lasted some 3000 years.  Or, we think of it as a modern, majority-Muslim country that fought a short unsuccessful war against Israel two generations ago.

But in between ancient Egypt and Muslim Egypt were Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, which tend to get overlooked in the race through the centuries of Western Civ but were extremely important for the Middle Ages.

The so-called Hellenistic Period began with Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC).  In his effort to conquer the entire world (as he knew it), he set out from Greece (having conquered it) to conquer Persia, Babylon, points east as far as India, and the eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt.  After his death his empire was divided among his generals, who established Greek culture in their territories.  Their realms are called "Hellenistic" from Hellas, the Greeks' name for their country.  Egypt was ruled for nearly 300 years by General Ptolemy and his descendants, who were Greek.  Cleopatra (d. 31 BC), one of these descendants, was Greek, not native Egyptian.

One of the things that Alexander did in Egypt was to found the city of Alexandria, where he wanted to be buried.  Alexandria became a great intellectual center, with a library renowned around the Mediterranean.  The learned came there to study.  Greek became the language of philosophy and education.  In this world of advanced study, the Hebrew Bible (what later became the Old Testament for Christians) was translated there into Greek by Jewish scholars.

Disturbingly for scholarship, the library at Alexandria was later destroyed by the Romans (by accident at least).

Julius Caesar, first Roman emperor (d. 44 BC), set out to control western Europe and the entire Mediterranean, including Egypt, in the first century BC.  Egypt did not actually fall, however, until 31 BC, when it became a crucial part of the Roman Empire under Augustus Caesar (Julius's nephew and successor, the first to really act effectively as emperor).  In the following centuries, it became known as Rome's bread basket, and huge barges full of grain sailed every year from Egypt to Rome, bringing food for that great city.

Egypt was also the center for papyrus production.  Papyrus is made from papyrus reeds, which grow along the Nile, and was the ancient world's version of paper.  The popes at Rome continued to use papyrus until the eleventh century, slowly working through a treasured horde of the stuff, because after the seventh century it was almost impossible to get in Europe.

Once the Roman Empire became Christian in the third and fourth centuries, Egypt became a great religious center.  The patriarch of Alexandria was considered one of the first among the Empire's bishops.  Probably most significant for the Middle Ages, monasticism began in Egypt in the third century AD, as I have discussed earlier.  Saint Anthony went out into the desert to live an austere life as a hermit, and he was soon copied by others who thought that Christianity made demands on one's heart and soul that could not be satisfied by going to church on Sundays.

Egypt was a good place to be a hermit, because as soon as one got away from the Nile one was in what seemed trackless wilderness, yet it was still close enough to civilization that pilgrims could come out and pray and ask for wisdom and leave the little gifts (mostly food) that kept the hermits alive.  Soon, as well as solitary hermits in individual cells, groups of monks began to be formed, men living as brothers under an ascetic rule.  The "Lives of the Desert Fathers" were written and considered extremely edifying.  Pilgrims came from as far as Jerusalem to visit them.

This Christian-Roman scene all changed with the rise of Islam in the seventh century.  Egypt was taken over by the Muslims in 641 AD, after four centuries as being a major Christian center.  The major language changed from Greek to Arabic.  There continued to be Christians and even some monasteries, but they were now a definite minority.  Their version is called Coptic Christianity.

During the Middle Ages, once monasticism reached Europe (fifth-sixth century), the Desert Fathers continued to be the ideal:  men who willingly embraced a harsh, difficult life to purify themselves and grow closer to God.  During the twelfth century, the monks of St.-Martin of Tournai decided that they should head off to Egypt and become desert fathers themselves.  They slipped out of town in the dead of night, but they never made it to Egypt (they may have gotten about twenty miles down the road).  The townspeople of Tournai were distraught.  This was as bad as having Mom and Dad run away from home.  They caught up to them and got the bishop to order them back to Tournai.

Egypt made a cameo appearance in Louis IX's Crusades of the late thirteenth century.  They'd been having unsuccessful crusades for a century, always getting defeated in frontal attacks on the Holy Land, so they had a "brilliant" idea:  conquer Egypt first, then use that as a launching pad to conquer Jerusalem.  You can probably guess how well that turned out.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval culture and monasticism, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages. Also available as a paperback1

Friday, January 24, 2020

Kingdom and Empire

What's the difference between a kingdom and an empire?  A kingdom is headed by a king (or queen), an empire by an emperor (or empress).  There.  Wasn't that easy?

Okay, there's more to it.  A kingdom is a realm ruled by a king or queen (the terms are closer in medieval Latin than they are in English, rex and regina, and a realm is a regnum).  An empire is a collection of different countries/kingdoms/realms, all under one central imperial power, emperor or empress.

For the purposes of medieval Europe, the model for empire was the Roman Empire.  Interestingly, Rome had assembled an empire, conquering countries and territories all around the Mediterranean, while it was still officially a republic, run by the Senate and the "people," SPQR (Senatus populusque Romae, "the Senate and people of Rome").  By the first century BC, however, Rome acquired emperors, first Julius Caesar and then his nephew and successor Augustus Caesar.  Emperors soon became god-like absolute rulers (they also tended to be assassinated with some frequency, starting with Julius Caesar).

As I've discussed earlier, the Roman emperors moved permanently to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the fourth century, though there were sometimes separate co-emperors in western Europe for another 150 years or so.  But when the pope crowned Charlemagne Roman emperor in 800, it was the beginning of a separate, western line of emperors that lasted throughout the Middle Ages.  This empire was called the Holy Roman Empire (at least by the emperors and their aids) from the twelfth century on.

This evolved in the post-medieval period into the great Spanish empire that took over most of Latin America (except Brazil and a few small territories) and eventually became the Austro-Hungarian empire, that lasted until World War I.  When Hitler announced that he was founding a "Third Reich" (third empire), he was looking at the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire as the first two.

The medieval empire (Holy Roman Empire) included three countries, Germany, Burgundy, and Italy, so it meets the definition of an empire containing separate countries (it also had pieces of some other ones).  In practice, the emperors were also German kings, though they had to go to Rome to be crowned emperor.  Their control over Italy was tenuous at best; medieval Italy was made up of a number of small city-states and principalities, and they had no interest in being run by the German king.  Burgundy had stopped being an independent country in the early eleventh century, when the German king married the heiress.  This now-forgotten kingdom of Burgundy was centered in the Jura, between modern France and Switzerland, and headed south toward the Mediterranean along the valley of the Rhône.

One often sees reference to a "Norman empire."  The dukes of Normandy became kings of England as well in 1066.  Other Normans (not the dukes) established their rule in Sicily and southern Italy in the early eleventh century, becoming first dukes and then kings of the region.  This was not however a real empire, because Normandy, which remained under the kings of England from 1066 to 1214, was part of France, and France was not under the English king, as the French king would have explained if you had any doubts.

Great Britain today is in some ways an empire, in that the three kingdoms on the island (England, Wales, and Scotland) are all under one monarch, now Elizabeth II.  But they are officially not an empire, but rather a "united kingdom."  They have been so since the king of Scotland became king of England as well in the seventeenth century.  The Irish are probably the most "imperial" part now.  Officially it's the "United Kingdom of Great Britain [GB being the island with the three kingdoms] and northern Ireland."

In the nineteenth century, however, when "the sun never set on the British Empire," the British king or queen was also emperor/empress of areas from Australia and Hong Kong and India to Canada.  No medieval king or emperor ever had anything as broad as either the British Empire or the early-modern Spanish Empire.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

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

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Trackless wilderness

There was not much trackless wilderness in western Europe in the high or late Middle Ages.  Pretty much all of the land that is now being cultivated was already cultivated in the twelfth century.  In England, the census of property and revenues called the Domesday Book (1086) listed most of the villages that are there now.  Indeed, there may have been a higher rural population in the fourteenth century in much of western Europe than there is now.

The early Middle Ages, however, had had wilderness.  Western Europe had suffered serious population loss at the end of the Roman Empire, due to the onset of the mini-ice age (making it harder to get in crops), the Black Death, and war.  With no one cultivating the fields, they were taken over by brush and trees.  But by the eleventh century, wilderness was being pushed back.

A common term in charters of the eleventh and twelfth centuries was assart, meaning newly cleared and cultivated land.  In the twelfth century a lot of landlords established what were called "new towns," new villages laid out in areas that had not been producing crops, with appealingly low rents.

From our perspective, even a cleared and cultivated medieval European landscape would have seemed fairly wild.  There were no highways, just some fairly well worn trade routes (many Roman roads in origin) and a complex tangle of tracks, joining farms and villages with each other.  Finding one's way without road signs, maps, or GPS would have been, shall we say, a challenge.  And there were certainly still plenty of uninhabited areas, and the cities were very small by our standards.

Once the wilderness started to disappear, people began to miss it—the same change of heart happened later in North America.  Wilderness especially was considered (potentially) holy in the twelfth century, a place where one went to break away from ordinary life and worldly distractions.  The new monastic order of the Cistercians was especially interested in siting their monasteries in areas that they could describe as the realms of thorns and wild beasts.  They became very good at clearing land and draining marshy areas, so in spite of their attraction to wilderness their immediate reaction was to try to make it less wild.

Hermits continued to seek out wilderness areas, but like the first hermits in Roman Egypt, they couldn't be too far away from civilization, or no one would be able to come out from town and make them little offerings; after all, nuts and berries will get you only so far.

By the early modern period, western Europe was thoroughly tamed, with wild areas quite limited.  Thus it must have been quite a shock when Europeans reached the Americas and realized, for example, that it was solid trees from the Atlantic to the Mississippi.

Their immediate reaction was the same as that of their twelfth-century ancestors:  Wilderness bad!  Cropland good!  Chop those trees down!  In Ohio people recorded that enormous oaks were cut down and burned in pyres that could be seen for miles.  By the twentieth century, however, there was a Whoops! moment that led to the establishment of national parks, to preserve the remaining trackless wilderness.

Now in fact it wasn't solid trees when the white man arrived, even though it has been said accurately that a squirrel could have traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles without coming down from the trees.  The Native Americans had practiced low-level agriculture, and they had cleared promising areas (fairly flat, fertile land, well-watered without being water-logged).  For example, in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains white men who were moving west, looking for a place to settle, found open meadows and decided this would be a good place to stop.

The Cherokees who had been cultivating the area had suffered serious population loss, due in large part to European diseases like smallpox to which they had no immunity.  (Some have managed to remain, however.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

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

Friday, January 10, 2020

Beer, onions, and barley bread

A number of years ago I co-wrote a textbook for undergraduates on life and society in Antiquity and the Middle Ages.  In some ways my book Positively Medieval (see below!) is a continuation of that idea.  The publishers' idea was to make a book of social history in two volumes available for classroom use, to complement the more common kings-and-battles political history textbook.  My volume covered the West before 1500, and the second volume covered life and society after around 1500.  I used a photo of mine of a medieval castle's stairs for the cover of my book (as I did again for Positively Medieval, though a different castle, I guess I like medieval staircases), so my co-author had to come up with a photo of a modern staircase for his volume.

I seriously considered calling my textbook "Beer, Onions, and Barley Bread," because those were the constants of the diet from early civilization through the Renaissance.  I was talked out of this title, because it could make the unwary think it was a cookbook, rather than an overview of ancient and medieval social history.  But these are still important topics in their own right.

Beer was the basic medieval drink, as I've discussed earlier, drunk by children and adults alike.  It was a lot lower proof than modern beer, though not "lite," because it was supposed to be thick and crunchy.  Onions will grow almost everywhere and keep well without refrigeration—an important consideration in all societies before the twentieth century.  It was one of the most important vegetables in the medieval diet.

Barley was used not only to make beer but to make bread, because barley will grow well both in hot and cold climates.  Unlike winter wheat, it would be planted in the spring.  This meant that both the planting and the harvesting would be done at different times; because the labor was spread out, it was at least theoretically possible to harvest more grain during the fairly short window when it was planting-time or harvest-time (spring planted barley would be harvested after the winter wheat).  Barley bread was nice and thick and crunchy (starting to see a trend? fortunately medieval teeth were pretty good, without sugar in the diet to cause cavities).

No spaghetti with tomato sauce? No chocolate?  No coffee? No French fries (or any other kind of potato)?  No corn chips or corn on the cob?  Not even much in the way of salt or spice?  Suddenly the Middle Ages seems much less exciting and romantic.

But here's a medieval recipe to show that things weren't entirely bleak.  It comes from a late medieval Italian cookbook.

Onion salad
Cook onions (one per person) in the embers of the fire, until the outside is well blackened.  Peel as soon as they can be handled (the dish should be served with the onions still warm).  Cut into thin slices.  Mix with olive oil, wine vinegar, and a little salt and spice.  (The spice might include cloves, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, or saffron.  Be creative.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

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

Friday, January 3, 2020

Galoran and Melchior

I've got a new book!  It's a paperback, titled Galoran and Melchior, and I cowrote it with my husband, Robert Bouchard.  Here's the link on Amazon.

It's a big fat omnibus edition containing two complete novels, Count Scar and its sequel, Heretic Wind (which I blogged about earlier).  Even though the books are officially fantasy, they are very close to real historical fiction, in that the setting, the religion (against which the heretics rebel), the weapons, the castles, the food and the like are all very close to real medieval society and culture.

The people, however, are not based on real historical figures.  Instead we have given them the kind of outlook and reaction to situations real medieval people would have had.  The two heroes, as you probably figured out all by yourself, are named Galoran and Melchior.  Here's the book's description.

* Galoran is a scarred warrior and younger son, his years of captaining the Emperor's armies over, and now it seems without future prospects.
* Melchior is a priest and magic-worker in the Order of the Three Kings, an order dedicated to redeeming magic from the heresy of the so-called Perfected.
When Galoran unexpectedly inherits the castle and county of Peyrefixade, he also acquires a spiritual advisor - Melchior. The two are not sure they can trust each other but must learn to work together as the heretics threaten the castle and the dark secrets it hides. Galoran's life is further complicated by the ruthless duke who invited him to Peyrefixade, to say nothing of his beautiful and spirited daughter.
Set in an alternate version of southern France in the Middle Ages, the story is told from the alternating viewpoints of the two main characters. The outcome turns on mystery and passion, on betrayal and uncertain alliance, as they are forced to question their very beliefs to determine where true loyalty lies.

 The heresy in the novels is essentially that of the so-called Albigensians in thirteenth-century southern France.  Similarly, the religion called the True Faith is essentially medieval Christianity.  However, neither the heresy nor the orthodoxy is given its historically accurate name, so if you don't want to mix real religion with your fantasy, you can pretend they are also fantastical.

The individual titles are available as ebooks on the major ebook platforms.  In spite of publishing a whole lot of ebooks, I myself continue to prefer a physical book, so this volume makes the novels available for those who feel the same.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020