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!