Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Fairy Tales and the Middle Ages

Modern fantasy (the heir to The Lord of the Rings) is usually, like Tolkien's masterpiece, set in something that looks a fair amount like the Middle Ages.  Now Tolkien himself was a specialist in medieval literature (especially Norse and Anglo-Saxon/Middle English), so it's not surprising that he used elements from the societies he studied in the world he created.

(Hey!  I do the same thing.)

But how about fairy tales?  (Which Tolkien detested if they got too sweet-and-cute.)  They too are filled with castles, swords, princesses, and the like, both in their original (or semi-original) version and in the many modern retellings and new creations.  So it's not surprising that when readers move up from the Big-Little Book O' Fairytales to fantasy, they look for medieval settings.

Why so many medieval settings?  Well, a lot of it isn't actually medieval but nineteenth-century.  As I discussed in my previous post, a lot of life for a lot of people didn't really change from the Middle Ages until sometime in the 1800s.  And at the same time as their life was changing, there was a strong desire for an imaginary simpler world, without all the upheaval and pollution.  Fairy tales and folk tales came into their own.

Some of what we now consider "classic" fairy tales date to the seventeenth century in France (like "Puss in Boots" and "Cinderella").  But the big era of fairy/folk tales was the nineteenth century, when the still semi-medieval social milieu, an image of a golden (and medieval) past, and strange creations like the butterfly-winged fairy seen above (dating to the 1880s), all came together.

The biggest collections of folk tales known now to modern English-speakers are those of Grimm and of Hans Christian Anderson, respectively German and Danish (they are of course known in translation).  These were not fairy tales per se (no butterfly-winged ladies), but rather tales of the folk, the ordinary people, who were considered to represent the wholesome traditional values that were being undermined by cities and factories and hence needed to be recorded and honored.

Here's a French folk tale, recorded in the nineteenth century, that doesn't get told to children.

A man wondered why his neighbor suddenly seemed quite wealthy.  He sneaked over and spied.  The neighbor had a little rag doll, and when he said, "Crap little rag doll, crap," it would crap silver coins.  So the man stole it and took it home.

"Crap, little rag doll, crap!" he cried, and the doll crapped all over him.  (Hilarity ensues.)

So he threw it on the dungheap, but one day he was on the dungheap himself, doing what he'd come to do, and the rag doll rolled over and bit him right where it would do the most damage.  (More hilarity.)

Okay, every generation finds somewhat different things tasteful and hilarious.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

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

Friday, February 21, 2020

The 19th century and the Middle Ages

Okay, historians generally put the close of the Middle Ages at the end of the fifteenth century, somewhere in the decades surrounding the year 1500, when Columbus, the Protestant Reformation, and the printing press changed a whole lot of things.  Today however I suggest that in many ways the Middle Ages lasted until the "long" nineteenth century.

Historians like to use the term "long" when discussing a century.  That way we aren't locked into a strict hundred year period where the first two digits are all the same (if after 1000).  Here I discuss the period from roughly the 1770s to the outbreak of World War I (1914), arguing that the many upheavals and developments during this period changed many aspects of everyday life that had been unchanged since the Middle Ages.

Three of the big developments of the late eighteenth century in Europe and North America (where European culture predominated) were the Industrial Revolution, the beginnings of universal education, and the end of the assumption that countries would naturally be ruled by kings.

The Industrial Revolution, which appeared first in England, was based on a turn from human/animal power, plus a good amount of wind/water power, to power from fossil fuels, primarily coal. Machines powered by coal (or steam generated by coal fires) could work very fast without tiring.  Manufactured products became much more accessible and affordable, starting with cloth and steel.  Factories (and the resulting air and water pollution from burning coal) spread rapidly.

The Enlightenment, which began in France, believed in the basic rationality of humans and thought that people would make wise decisions and be able to make good lives for themselves if they just had a better education.  Although it took a while, this idea resulted in the next generation or two of schools being established for everybody, not just the well-to-do.

Small entities (like cities, or the Swiss cantons) had long been ruled by elected leaders.  But the American colonies, which after freeing themselves from England had started as a confederation of small entities/states, with elected governors (that's why the name of the country is the United States), decided in the Constitution (1789) that there would be an elected central government for the whole country.  George Washington rejected being called king, which would have been the default title, and settled on the innocuous title of president, he-who-presides.  The French, whose Revolution also began in 1789, originally wanted a limited monarchy (as England already had) rather than the absolute monarchs they'd been having, but they eventually also settled on presidents (after various adventures, including Napoleon as emperor, which I won't discuss now).

Now we get into the real nineteenth century.  Peoples' lives were radically altered by improvements in transportation and communication.  Trains, which were everywhere by the 1860s and 1870s, meant you could now travel in an hour a distance that would have taken all day on horseback.  By the first decade of the twentieth century cars were appearing, allowing individualized travel.  Telegraphs came in with the railroads (you had to let the next station down the line know a train was coming, so there wouldn't be two trains on the same tracks going opposite directions), and then by the final decades of the nineteenth century telephones appeared, allowing people to speak across town or even across the country without having to be in the same room.  Photography developed rapidly, allowing  people to see scenes (like the aftermath of Civil War battles) far away.  We now take all these things for granted (plus being able to get restaurant recommendations or play games on our phones), but they would have drastically changed how people lived.

In many ways the Napoleonic wars (wrapped up in 1812) were very similar to fifteenth-century wars, with big cannons, horses, foot soldiers dragged into the fighting.  But the soldiers had uniforms, and there were individual firearms as well as cannons.  The American Civil War of the 1860s was the first modern war, with rifles and trains playing serious roles, and it really bore little resemblance to fifteenth-century wars, except that of course a lot of people died.  By the time of WW I, medieval warfare was clearly far in the past.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, first gas and then electricity spread to private homes, replacing candles and lamps for illumination (although even in the US not all areas were electrified until the 1920s or even 1930s).  Coal replaced wood for heating at the same time.  Movies first appeared at the very end of the century.  We're looking less medieval all the time.

Curiously, just as the Industrial Revolution spread pollution and separated the worker from the work of his or her hands, and made a whole lot of manufactured goods more easily available, people became nostalgic for a golden past and decided this past was the Middle Ages, as I have discussed earlier.
My own fantasy series that begins with "A Bad Spell in Yurt" (available on Amazon and other online bookstores) is set in a version of the 19th century, where magic made the Industrial Revolution unnecessary, and where such Middle-Ages-ending events as the discovery of the New World, the Protestant Reformation, and the French Revolution never took place (though they are still Enlightened in the world of Yurt and have limited monarchies).

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

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

Thursday, February 13, 2020

End of the Merovingians

As I posted last week, medieval people could and did get rid of monarchs.  It was unusual, it was difficult, and it didn't always work.  The usual reason was that the monarch had become a tyrant.  Today I want to blog about the first known example of people getting rid of a monarch for incompetence.

Let's go back to the middle of the eighth century.  The Merovingian dynasty had ruled the Franks for three centuries, since the Frankish people (Germanic in origin) had come wandering west into the Roman Empire and settled down in what is now France to become Roman themselves.  These descendants of the Sea Serpent as the kings considered themselves wore their hair long as an apparent symbol of status—most Romans and Romanized peoples in the Empire had short hair.  They converted to Christianity in the late fifth century and were learned, cunning, and by all accounts ruthless.

The above is a modern reproduction of a Merovingian-era belt buckle.

By the middle of the eighth century the dynasty appears to have weakened, or at least run short of male heirs.  At least one monk had to be brought out of the cloister to become king, and at one point the mayor of the palace, who one might think of as chief of staff or even secretary of state, ruled without a king for several years, acting in the name of the last dead king.

In 751 this mayor of the palace's son, Pippin (called "the Short," his wife was called Bertha "Broadfoot," people tended to have nicknames for their rulers) decided he himself should be king.  But this was going to be complicated.  Pippin and his older brother, who had been co-mayor of the palace with him until deciding to go to Italy and become a monk, had found themselves a Merovingian king, Childeric III, probably a boy, and put him on the throne.  So how to get him off the throne?

The argument used was that Childeric was incompetent.  Pippin said that he wrote to the pope, Zacharias, asking if someone who actually wielded royal power, meaning himself, should in fact be the king.  According to Pippin, the pope agreed.  It is at any rate clear that Pippin was formally elected king by the great Frankish lords, which was standard, that the bishops anointed him as king, almost like baptizing him, which was not standard, and two years later he had Zacharias's successor as pope come and bless him and his sons.  This last wasn't standard at all.

So it appears that, in order not to look like a usurper, Pippin lined up the full force of secular and religious power to support his ascension to the throne.  But the story gets even more complicated.  What happened to Childeric?

Strangely, nobody at the time said anything about Childeric.  Contemporary accounts speak of how wonderful it was that Pippin should have been elected, crowned, anointed, and blessed, but without a whisper of how Childeric was removed.  Even the account of Pippin writing to Pope Zacharias shows up for the first time only forty years later, and the contemporary biography of Zacharias doesn't mention it, which would have to be considered odd, since the popes then were very close to the Frankish kings and mayors of the palace.  It may well have been so shocking to end the Merovingian dynasty after three centuries that no one at the time wanted to mention that aspect.

Well after the fact, it was said that Childeric had become a monk, which was indeed a common fate for Merovingian kings if a brother or cousin in the dynasty pushed someone off the throne.  But it is also possible that Childeric had just died, and Pippin and his successors needed the story of the removal of an incompetent to justify seizing the crown, rather than ruling in the name of a dead king or finding another Merovingian boy somewhere.  After all, the same account that says that Childeric had been shuffled off to a monastery says that he had a son who was shuffled off with him.

The story of the removal of an incompetent blossomed in the following years.  Some seventy years after the fact, Charlemagne's biographer Einhard gave a long and vivid portrait of how bad the Merovingians had become.  They were too feeble to ride a horse, he said, and had to be driven around in an ox-cart like some peasant.  They sat on the throne with a long beard dangling to their knees (but Childeric was a boy?), saying whatever the wise mayor of the palace told them to say.  Einhard mistakenly named not Zacharias but his successor (Pope Stephen), the one who actually came to Francia and blessed Pippin, as the one who agreed that Pippin should depose the last Merovingian.  In this account, it was a real kindness to the Merovingian kings and to the Franks to get them out of the way.

This tale of the fainéant (do-nothing) Merovingian kings was so compelling that historians believed it for 1200 years.  Lately, however, the Merovingians have seen something of a scholarly rehabilitation.  For more on the end of their dynasty, see the article, "Childeric III and the Emperors Drogo Magnus and Pippin the Pious," in the journal Medieval Prospography (volume 28, 2013).

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval monarchs and so much more, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other ebook platforms.  (Also in print!)

Friday, February 7, 2020

Getting rid of a monarch

In the US this week an ultimately unsuccessful effort was made to convict and remove the president. It thus seems like a good time to talk about getting rid of a medieval monarch.  After all, you can't just drag a king (or a president for that matter) to the curb on Blue Box day (or Major Appliance Disposal day).

As I have discussed earlier, medieval kings were not absolute rulers (that developed only in the post-medieval period with kings like Louis XIV of France).  But they were still hard to get rid of if those around them didn't like what they were doing.  One possibility was always assassination, as Julius Caesar had been murdered by his sometime-friends in 44 BC, because they were hoping (erroneously) that with him gone, Rome would go back to being a Republic rather than being ruled by emperors.

Once Europe became Christian, the option of murdering people, even kings thought to be on the wrong path, seemed less viable.  Other ways were often sought.  The most famous example is probably the replacement of the Merovingian dynasty on the Frankish throne by Pippin "the Short," father of Charlemagne, in 751.  The official story was that Pippin, the mayor of the palace for the last Merovingian king (sort of like chief of staff or secretary of state), who had actually been running the kingdom, asked the pope if it was right for an incompetent to have the name of king, and the pope said no (25th amendment!).  Pippin deposed the king and had himself elected by the Franks, anointed and crowned by the bishops, and blessed by the pope.

(This official story appears for the first time 40 years later and seems dubious.  I'll discuss it properly another time.)

Deposing incompetents continued.  Among Charlemagne's descendants, Charles the Simple was deposed and locked up when he didn't seem to be doing his job protecting France from the Vikings.  In England in 1066, Harold Godwinson was declared king, but Duke William of Normandy claimed that Harold was an oath-breaker, that he (William) had been promised the English throne, and he took the throne by force.  This didn't count (maybe) as assassination because Harold was an oath-breaker and died in battle.

Sometimes kings were just threatened with deposition.  In England in 1215, the great barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, a document spelling out the rights of the great lords and churches of England, if he didn't want to be deposed.  John grumbled and complained and tried to get out of it, but he died the next year (natural causes), which certainly solved the barons' immediate problem.

At the end of the fourteenth century in England, King Richard II again seriously displeased the barons, who thought he was acting as if he were above the law.  The final straw was when he seized the duchy of Lancaster, held by his first cousin Henry.  Henry raised an armed rebellion and captured Richard.  Parliament, coming into its own in the late Middle Ages, declared that Richard had broken England's laws and forced him to abdicate in 1399.  Henry became King Henry IV, claiming his right to the throne by inheritance, by conquest, and by act of Parliament.

Parliament entered the picture again in 1461, when Henry IV's grandson Henry VI, who came to the throne as a baby and had serious mental health issues as an adult.  During his periods of incompetence, England was ruled by various relatives, with Parliament's support, but this was complicated by the relatives' fights with each other and Henry's efforts to regain control.  We're here plunging into the War of the Roses, which I won't discuss here, but Henry was finally conquered and deposed in 1461, with the combination of conquest and Parliamentary support leading to the reign of his third cousin, Richard III.  The same set of circumstances that had led to Henry IV becoming king led, two generations later, to his grandson Henry VI being kicked off the throne (but at least left alive).

In late medieval France meanwhile, during the Hundred Years' War, during the phase when the English were winning, they were able to get the "dauphin," the heir to the French throne, declared illegitimate, by having his mother attest that the boy's father was someone other than the late king.  This got him out of the way, but only until Joan of Arc's angel voices told her he really was legitimate the whole time and got him crowned as Charles VII (see more on Joan here).

You will note that medieval people rarely just tossed (or killed) a king.  There was always an effort to justify, usually on the basis of abuse of power by the king, sometimes on the basis of his legitimacy.  Getting the great lords on board was usually Step One.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

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