Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Medieval Advertising

These days, we are assailed by advertising, and we possess technology that allows us to find what we need merely by asking the right question into a hand-held device. (I wonder that anyone in their teen years knows what it's like to use the yellow pages, or if they are even aware of what the phrase "yellow pages" means to the older generation.)

Centuries ago, signs or symbols indicated certain places of business. When most of your population cannot read, you needed to find the right image to represent your profession, such as the mortar and pestle for an apothecary, a boot for a cobbler, scissors for a tailor, etc.

It might not be a painted sign. Roman custom was to hang vine leaves to indicate a tavern where wine was served. This custom was brought to Britain, but in the absence of grapevines they used holly. A bush of holly was a common indication that wine was served within. If you made and sold beer, you would hang a long pole outside, indicating what you stirred ale with. Leaves on a pole let the traveler know that both beer and wine were available.

Of course, where there is food and drink, there should be quality control.
In 1389, King Richard II of England, decreed that landlords must put signs outside their inns, so that inspectors could identify and visit them; there is a record from 1393 of a publican being prosecuted for not having a sign. [source]
Of course, not all advertising was static. A 13th century poet, Guillaume de la Villeneuve, wrote the poem "Les Crieries de Paris" [Street cries of Paris]. Here's a sample of how he felt about merchants advertising their wares or services:
Although they will not stop screaming
Through Paris until the night.
Do not think it tires them
For they will never stop.
Listen to what is being shouted at daybreak:
"Lords, go to the baths
And in the ovens without delay,
The baths are hot, I'm not lying!"
Then you will hear the sound [of]
Those who shout fresh herrings.
"At the tide, the others shout,
In sage and white herring, fresh salted,
I would like to sell my herrings."
The introduction of mass printing and cheap paper meant signs and flyers could circulate more easily, eliminating the need for criers.

Monday, December 10, 2018


With the holiday season upon us, folk are preparing to consume mincemeat pies at the conclusion of their meal. Growing up, I was told it was a dessert made from ground up fruit and spices and not to think of it as meat, and I was never tempted by it. Imagine my surprise, years later, to discover:
1. "meat" wasn't a euphemism
2. it's not a dessert, but a main dish
3. I loved it

Numbers one and three might not be a surprise or noteworthy, but number two was worth looking into. King Henry V had a mincemeat pie as a main dish for his coronation feast, and Henry VIII apparently preferred it as his Christmas supper. Its creation goes back further, however.

You might say it originated by accident. Crusaders returning home in the 12th century brought with them spices not found in western Europe before. These were tested as preservatives for meat, or ways to add flavor to dried meat. (The notion that spices were used to cover up the small of rotten meat should be dispelled. No one would eat rotten meat, and we had learned ways to preserve the meat of slaughtered animals long before this, through smoking/drying or salting.)

Cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg were the three chief spices used in the Yule dish, representing the gifts  brought by the Magi. These were added to minced (finely chopped) meat, often beef or beef tongue or lamb, as well as beef suet (the hard white fat from around the kidneys and loins). Early recipes add citrus peel and sugar, or dried and chopped apples.

Early pies were baked in an oblong shape, to represent the manger at the Nativity. Over time, the addition of sugar made them sweeter, and they began to migrate to the dessert course. At that point, they morphed into the traditional round pie shape, and then into tarts that could be easily picked up and eaten by hand.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Borromean Rings

You've seen them. Lots of times. Three circles interlinked. You find them in jewelry, and in the label of Ballantine beer. They may be used as a symbol of the Trinity, or the logo of the 25th International Congress of Mathematicians.

The name of the design comes from its use in the coat of arms of the Borromeo family. The family owns three islands in Lake Maggiore, and might have designed the rings to represent those. In any case, the design is used frequently in the Baroque palazzo and gardens built by Vitaliano Borromeo (1620-1690).

But the design goes back hundreds of years before Borromeo. We find its equivalent also in three triangles called "Odin's Triangle" or the valknut (Old Norse valr = "slain warriors" + knut = "knot"). The valknut was carved in stone pillars as far back as the 7th century.

One curious fact about the Rings is that, although we call them "interlinked" or "interwoven," they sort of aren't. In the above illustration, place your hand over the red as much as you can, and you'll see that the blue and green aren't linked. It's the same with any other two colors: no two are linked except by a third that runs through them. In this way, it is similar to a three-strand braid. Braid three ribbons together, and when you pull one out, the other two completely disengage.

And for a treat: how about some Borromean Onion Rings?

Thursday, December 6, 2018


Back here we spoke about the manufacture of glass, but when and where did glass come to be used for enhancing and correcting vision?

Ptolemy (c.100-170CE) wrote in his Optics about glass shaped so that it enlarged an image. His ideas were expanded on by the "Father of Modern Optics," Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, whose Book of Optics (c.1021) spread through Europe at (coincidentally?) about the same time that we get records of "reading stones."

A reading stone is a glob of transparent substance, flattened on the bottom but with a curved top, making it in essence a convex lens. It was (still IS, actually) meant to be placed on and slid along a line of text, causing the letters below to expand and be more easily read. I call it a "substance" because it wasn't necessarily glass. Early ones were ground from quartz, and they can be had today in glass or plastic.

Several lens-shaped items of quartz have been found in Viking graves on Gotland in Sweden, some mounted in silver. They date to the 11th or 12th centuries. They might be reading stones, although several are not shaped to be good at focusing.

But when were lenses put into a frame for enhancing vision? In 1301, in Venice, there were guild regulations governing the sale of eyeglasses. The Dominican friar Giordano da Pisa delivered a sermon in February 1306 in which he said:
It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses, which make for good vision... And it is so short a time that this new art, never before extant, was discovered. ... I saw the one who first discovered and practiced it, and I talked to him.
 So far as we can trace, then, eyeglasses were first made in Italy around 1290.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018


We are now in the Christian season of Advent, from the Latin adventus, meaning "coming." It comprises the four Sundays leading to Christmas Day, leading you to think it was started as preparation for the coming off the Nativity. Good guess, but that's not how it began.

First let us talk about the timing. We are not sure when it was first established, but probably in the 4th century Christians in Spain and Gaul began a period of penance and fasting starting on 11 November, the feast day of St. Martin of Tours (c.316/336-397). They were preparing for the baptism of new christians, which would take place on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. The activity spread, and Roman Christians in the 6th century started associating it with the coming of Christ's birth on 25 December.

These days, Advent begins on the Sunday nearest 30 November, the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, and only lasts four Sundays. It is therefore a "floating holiday" like Easter, and can start any day from 27 November to 3 December. The change seems to have come about by the 9th century: Pope Nicholas I mentions the shortened span in a letter to the Bulgarians. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates from 15 November until Christmas.

The Advent wreath, like so many traditions involving evergreens, began in northern Europe. The wheel-shaped greens represented the cycles of the year and the promise of life after winter. The candles represented the warmth of hope in the returning Son/sun. Three purple candles represent hope, peace, and love, and are lit on the 1st, 2nd, and 4th Sundays. The pink candle, representing joy, is lit on the 3rd Sunday. Purple was not a cheap color to produce, and dyeing candles with a royal color indicated the significance of Christ the King's birth.

(The Advent calendar? That was concocted in Germany in the 1800s.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Merino Sheep

The previous post on the Mesta mentioned the kings of Castile giving shepherds rights-of-way that overrode those of other landowners in order to get their sheep to good pasture. There aren't many shepherds or large flocks around these days, and so you might not realize the important stake the kings had in sheep, especially Merino sheep. Those flocks were owned by royalty.

Sheep provided wool, and Merinos were champions at it. Their wool was an incredibly valuable export because of its spinning count, or S value. The S value describes how fine the strands of wool are. The finer the strands, the more yards of fiber you can spin from it. One pound of merino wool, with an S value of 62, could produce 34,720 yards of yarn. (A "hank" is 560 yards.) Merino wool was much finer than other breeds, and produced not only softer wool, but more of it. Finer strands also enabled it to be more easily interwoven with other fibers.

They were bred in southwestern Spain in the 12th century, and there are careful records of attempts to breed them to be even more useful. The original herds might have been brought by Berbers early on, but English breeds were introduced to help develop the Merino, as described in the entry on "Wool" in The New American Cyclopaedia (1858).

Spain held a monopoly on the finest wool in the world through the 16th century. In fact, export of living Merino sheep was a crime in Spain, punishable by death, through the 17th century! The monopoly started to wane when some were sent to Sweden in 1723, and then in 1765 when King Charles III of Spain (1716-1788) sent some to his cousin in Saxony to start a private flock. Merinos started trickling out to other countries, and Spain soon lost its pre-eminence in the world of fine wool.

But the Merino is still king.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Mesta

Merino Ram, bred in Medieval Spain
Consider the Iberian Peninsula in the early Middle Ages: the Moors controlled the southern part, and Christians held the northern regions bordering France. The border between them was far from firm, and there was a "buffer zone" that was frequently contested. It was therefore too risky for any group to settle there permanently, not knowing whether you might become surrounded by hostile foreigners.

It was suitable, however, for nomadic people, such as shepherds. Hundreds of square kilometers were open to anyone passing through, and if you had hundreds or thousands of sheep, and needed a place for them to graze, well... .

In 1212, Alfonso VIII of Castile, mentioned before because he founded the abbey whence comes the music of Las Huelgas, led a group of Christian leaders to push the Moors south, reclaiming a large part of the peninsula and making it safe for settlement. Folk started moving into what was previously a "no man's land," setting up farms and communities.

This meant clashing with the enormous number of sheep and their herders. Something had to be done, and by the late 1200s, Castile had struck an agreement that produced the most powerful agricultural union in Medieval Europe, the Mesta.

Its full name is Honrado Concejo de la Mesta ["Honorable Council of the Mesta"]. "Mesta" comes from Latin animalia mixta ["mixed animals"] because the enormous herd of sheep which you are guarding might not all belong to the same owner. Driving the sheep from location to location in search of pastureland would result in herds getting mixed together.

The Mesta had rights that persist to this day: the right to drive their sheep along certain pathways regardless of land ownership. These were called cañadas ["road along which livestock is driven"] or cañadas reales ["royal ways"; because they were established by the kings of Castile]. They still exist, and some roads through Madrid are designated as such. Sheep are not usually driven through the streets of Madrid, but nothing prohibits the practice.

Incidentally, mesta is also the root of mestengo ["ownerless beast"], where we get the word "mustang."

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The King and London

The Tower of London is the most visited tourist site in London. It was built by William the Conqueror to be the king's home when he was in London. It was built not to be just a home, however, but a fortress. London was not necessarily a safe haven for the king. Its citizens enjoyed a level of control over their own fates and weren't about to let the king change that.

William recognized this, and made sure that he had a secure place to stay when he visited London. The White Tower (named because it used to be whitewashed) was designed for this. More than that, he built another fortress at Windsor, where he could station troops that would be a day's march from London if he needed support.

William even built two more fortresses within London's walls: Baynard and Montfichet. He couldn't entrust his fortresses to local people, so he put them in the hands of Normans who followed him over the Channel. Baynard and Montfichet were barons into whose hands he put those properties.

Although he might have felt he would be reasonably safe from an uprising, he took to heart the importance of independence to the citizenry of London, the most important city on the island. There still exists his charter, granting to "all the citizens, French and English" the same "laws and customs as they were in King Edward's time."

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Secret Templar Initiation

In 1307, Philip IV of France arrested several Templar Knights, accusing them of horrible sins. Some of the worst sins took place during a "secret initiation" in which new members supposedly were asked to denounce and spit on the Crucifix, to practice sodomy, and to engage in improper kissing.

Pope Clement V insisted that the captured and excommunicated Knights be brought to him at Avignon to be questioned. The knights were not able to make the journey, so Clement had his emissaries meet them at Chinon. These emissaries included Bérenger Fredoli. The interrogations at Chinon were conducted on 17-20 August, 1308.

Interrogating the Knights actually turned out some surprising affirmatives. One Knight questioned, Geoffroy de Gonneville, admitted that he was asked to denounce and spit on the Cross, but that he refused and was admitted to the Order anyway. Others admitted to denouncing out loud but not in their hearts.

In 2001, a document known as the Chinon Parchment surfaced in the Vatican Secret Archives. It is the account of the questioning by Bérenger and the others of the Templars. It also includes this:
After this, we concluded to extend the mercy of pardons for these acts to Brother Jacques de Molay, the Grandmaster of the said Order, who in the form and manner described above had denounced in our presence the described and any other heresy, and swore in person on the Lord’s Holy Gospel, and humbly asked for the mercy of pardon [from excommunication], restoring him to unity with the Church and reinstating him to communion of the faithful and the sacraments of the Church.
Whatever they heard, they did not consider it damning enough to keep the Templars excommunicated. Examining this document has led some to suggest that the steps of the secret initiation may very well have included what look like desecration, but had a different purpose. The statement of de Gonneville, for instance, suggests that denouncing the Cross was not necessary, and perhaps was a test of faith. It has also been suggested that the initiation was intended to expose them to what they might encounter if they were captured by non-Christians during tours of duty in the Middle East.

So maybe they did do the "terrible" things of which they were accused, but the reality/intent was very different from the appearance.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Berenger Fredoli and the Rebellious Canons

Bérenger Fredoli was a Frenchman with a successful religious career. Little is known about his youth, except that he was born in Vérune about 1250. Some of his career highlights include:

  • Becoming chair of canon law at the University of Bologna.
  • Being chosen by Pope Boniface VIII to help write the books of Canon Law known as the Decretals.
  • Playing a prominent role in the dispute between Boniface and Philip IV over papal vs. monarchic authority.
  • Becoming a cardinal in 1305 thanks to Pope Clement V.
  • Almost becoming pope on the death of Clement V (but it went to John XXII).
  • Became Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals in 1321.
In July 1321, a document with his name on it was sent to Maiden Bradley Priory in Wiltshire, England. Maiden Bradly was founded in 1164 as a leper hospital. A few decades later, it was placed under the authority of Augustinian canons, but it had been not living by the proper Augustinian statutes. For these transgressions they had been excommunicated.

Bérenger's letter was on behalf of Pope John XXII, notions that they had seen the error of their ways, punished the offenders, and were granted absolution, lifting their excommunicated status.

Berenger's name cropped up on another letter just a few years ago, regarding the persecution of the Templars. We will look at that next.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Doctors in Dreams

I mentioned that Cosimo de' Medici was named for Saint Cosmas, as in Cosmas and Damian. They were two Arabian physicians of the 3rd century CE, possibly twin brothers.

They were known for treating people and not charging for their services—which seems very unlike doctors, but let that go. Because they were Christians, they were martyred in Syria in 287 CE.

...and that's all we have on their lives. Afterward, however, the legends grew. As saint physicians, the healing power of their relics was considered prodigious. Not long after their martyrdom, churches were springing up dedicated to them. Numerous pilgrims came for healing, and through the Middle Ages pilgrims would sleep in their churches, hoping for a healing dream.

Healing dreams were common in classical and medieval times: the belief that a spirit would appear in your dreams and diagnose or cure you. The picture here is a 1495 painting by the Master of Los Balbases. It represents the story of a man with a w withered leg sleeping at a shrine dedicated to the saints. When he woke up the next morning, he had a healthy leg, but it was from a black man. Assuming it had been transplanted from the corpse of a black man recently deceased and buried in the church graveyard, they exhumed the man's body and found that, indeed, his leg was missing.

Their feast day is 27 September.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Cosimo de Medici

The Medici family name is known to many casual readers of history. Let's talk about the man who started it all.

Born on 27 September 1389, Cosimo di Giovanni de' Medici was described by Edward Gibbon as:
...the father of a line of princes, whose name and age are almost synonymous with the restoration of learning; his credit was ennobled into fame; his riches were dedicated to the service of mankind; he corresponded at once with Cairo and London; and a cargo of Indian spices and Greek books were often imported in the same vessel. [The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire]
Cosimo never became pope (like three later Medicis did), but he did rise to prominence in Florence due to his wealth. He operated a powerful bank, using the money this brought him to influence politics and arts. Although he never overtly "ruled" Florence, he was a de facto ruler because politicians functioned according to his whims. The man who later became Pope Pius II said "Political questions are settled in [his] house. The man he chooses holds office... He it is who decides peace and war... He is king in all but name."

His birthday was not his birthday. He was actually born on 10 April. He was born with a twin, called Damiano. His parents named their children after the twin saints Cosmas and Damian. Later, Cosimo would celebrate his birthday on the feast day of those saints, 27 September. (Damiano died shortly after birth.)

In 1410, he made a loan to Baldassare Cossa, who used it to make himself a cardinal. When he later became (the anti-) Pope John XXIII, he repaid Cosimo by making the Medici Bank the official bank of the Vatican. Cosimo used this connection well, until 1415 when John XXIII was deposed. After that, the Medici Bank had to compete with other banks.

In 1415 he married Contessina de' Bardi, a daughter of the family that once controlled the powerful Bardi bank, before its collapse in 1345 (the subject of one of the very first entries in Daily Medieval, and a factor in the novel portrayed on this page to the right). Although their family bank had collapsed, the family was still prominent in Florence. He died on 1 August 1464, at the ripe age of 75, leaving behind a family line that would remain powerful for generations.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Second Council of Nicaea

We have talked about the Council of Nicaea before, but always the First Council in 325. There were several ecumenical councils. The seventh was the second to be held in Nicaea, and was called to deal with the subject of iconoclasm.

I addressed iconoclasm before: the idea that images of religious figures should be forbidden came from Moses' third commandment about not making "graven images."  In 787, the Second Council met to deal with the subject (they hoped) once and for all.

Arguments for included invoking various lines from the Old Testament:
  • Genesis 31:34 : "Now Rachel had taken the images, and put them in the camel's furniture, and sat upon them. And Laban searched all the tent, but found them not."
  • Exodus 25:19, regarding the fashioning of the Ark of the Covenant: "And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end."
  • Ezekiel 41:18: And it was made with cherubims and palm trees, so that a palm tree was between a cherub and a cherub; and every cherub had two faces
...and others.

Over the course of three weeks (24 September to 13 October), presentations were made followed by debate. At the end, the use of religious images was allowed, reversing the edict against them made by Byzantine Emperor Leo III decades earlier. The official statement made declared that veneration offered to the image was actually passed to the subject of the image, and was therefore a good thing.

This Council also declared that every altar should contain a saint's relic. Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches still adhere to this practice.

Monday, September 24, 2018


When Catholic missionaries in the Middle Ages went to a new land, how did they deal with language barriers? They had to make their own lexicons, or find one made by someone who went there before them.

The Codex Cumanicus, found in the Library of St. mark in Venice, includes a language guide to the Cuman language, spoken by the Turkic nomads of Western Eurasia. As early as the 11th century, Hungary and Italian city-states such as Genoa attempted to open trade with the region, and the need for understanding the language became an important goal.

The Codex was probably assembled in the 12th or 13th centuries. I say "assembled" because it is a collection of various documents clearly created by different writers. It can largely be divided into two sections: the "Italian" section which is a glossary of the Cuman-Kipchak language and Italo-Latin words, as well as Persian; and a "German" section, which includes several religious texts translated into Latin and Middle High German.

It was important to teach the natives how to pray in their own language. The Paternoster ["Our Father"] in the Codex reads:

Atamız kim köktesiñ. Alğışlı bolsun seniñ atıñ, kelsin seniñ xanlığıñ, bolsun seniñ tilemekiñ – neçik kim kökte, alay [da] yerde. Kündeki ötmegimizni bizge bugün bergil. Dağı yazuqlarımıznı bizge boşatqıl – neçik biz boşatırbız bizge yaman etkenlerge. Dağı yekniñ sınamaqına bizni quurmağıl. Basa barça yamandan bizni qutxarğıl. Amen!
Some of the Cuman words you can learn from this lexicon are:
tizgi tiz - knee
bitik bitiv - book, writing
sag sav - healthy
kyeg kyv - bridegroom
yag yav - fat
tag tav - mountain
ekki eki - two

It also includes riddles:
"The white kibitka [a carriage] has no opening." (an egg)
"My bluish kid at the tether grows fat." (ripening melon)
"Where I sit is a hilly place. Where I tread is a copper bowl." (a stirrup)

The Codex is a mere curiosity now, the languages involved having changed radically over the years.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Pirate Monk

There were many reasons why someone would become a pirate, I suppose. It was probably rare that a monk would do so, however.

Eustace Busket was more than a monk and a pirate. Born about 1170 near Boulogne, he was a younger son of minor nobility who, not being likely to inherit much in the way of lands or titles, went to Toledo in Spain to study, where supposedly he took up "black magic" and produced marvels. For some reason, he gave up that life, returning home to join a Benedictine monastery at St. Samer near Calais.

At some point he left the monastery and became the seneschal and bailiff for Count Renaud de Dammartin. Eustace was accused of mismanaging his duties, and about 1204 he fled his responsibilities and the accusations. He was declared an outlaw, and became a pirate, sailing the English Channel looking for plunder.

He was a well-known figure, and King John paid him occasionally between 1205 and 1212 to harass Philip II of France. He would sometimes raid the English Coast for fun and profit and be declared an outlaw again, but King John always forgave him eventually to continue the harassment of Philip. John also gave him 30 ships to use in his missions.

In 1212, Eustace switched to supporting France, and when English Civil war broke out in 1215 (ultimately leading to Magna Carta), he supported the English barons against King John. Eustace carried Prince Louis of France to England to join the Barons, and on a 1217 mission to bring Louis aid, he got caught up in the Battle of Dover. Eustace managed to escape, but his enemies caught up with him, and on 24 August 2017, at the Battle of Sandwich, he was caught. We do not know exactly how he was executed, but Mathew Paris portrays him as being beheaded (depicted above).

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Medieval Pirates

Piracy on the seven seas goes back a long way.

Think of fairly small ships roughing it on the open sea with little defense, not the rows of cannons you see in ships of later centuries. Even a "royal navy" would be small and not necessarily able to swiftly come to the aid of each other if a couple vessels of well-armed and determined sailors approached them. Also, maintaining a navy could be expensive. Even Henry VI in the early 15th century got rid of his standing navy, prepared to hire ships if ever he needed them.

Not that piracy wasn't a known peril; it just wasn't easy to control, although attempts were made. Of course it was outlawed, but catching and punishing a pirate was not the easiest of tasks.

The image here is a modern translation/copy of the earliest known record of punishment for a pirate prior to the 1700s. It reads:
An order was given to the Bailiffs of York as to the ship which they caused to be arrested because William de Briggeho, who was afterwards hanged for consorting with malefactors who robbed her off Sandwich, was found on board her.
The lord the King, has ascertained by inquisition that the ship, together with the chattels on board her, belonged to William Belemund, of Grimsby, and he commanded the bailiffs that they should cause her to be delivered to William Belemund without delay.
Witness, &c.
September 19th is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Liar Paradox

Medieval philosophers categorized several logic puzzles as insolubilia, unsolvable things. Probably the most common of these was (and still is*) the Liar Paradox.

Consider the statement "I am lying." If I am truly lying at that moment, then what I just said was true. If the statement is therefore true, however, then to say "I was lying" would be a lie. So which is it?

One 20th century philosopher used Jean Buridan (c.1300-c.1361, mentioned elsewhere in this blog) to claim that it wasn't really a paradox. Arthur Prior said it wasn't really paradoxical because every statement includes an assertion of its own truth. The statement "I am lying." is therefore taken as true—it carries its own truth independent of other sentences or context— and considering it a paradox is an unnecessary complication.

Buridan actually used the Liar Paradox to prove the existence of God. He put forth two statements:
"God exists."
"None of the sentences in this pair is true."
The only consistent way to assign truth values, that is, to have these two sentences be either true or false, requires making “God exists” be true. In this way, Buridan has “proved” that God does exist. [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
This particular paradox first appears in the middle of the 4th century BCE. Eubulides of Miletus made a list of seven puzzles, one of which was “A man says that he is lying. Is what he says true or false?” His commentary on whether it is true or false is lost to time.

*Those readers of a certain vintage will remember the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "I, Mudd" in which a controlling super-robot is rendered useless by its inability to process the two statements "Everything Harry Mudd says is a lie." followed by Mudd saying "I am lying."

Monday, September 17, 2018


I have mentioned The Forme of Cury [Forms of Cooking] a few times before. It's the cookbook that gathers the best recipes from the cooks of King Richard II. If I had my choice, I'd eat Mortrews frequently!

The original recipe reads:
Mortrews. Take hennes and pork and seeþ hem togyder. Take the lyre of hennes and of þe pork and hewe it small, and grinde it al to doust; take brede ygrated and do þerto, and temper it with the self broth, and alye it with yolkes of ayren; and cast þeron powdour fort. Boile it and do þerin powdour of gynger, sugur, safroun and salt, and loke þat it be stondying; and flour it with powdour gynger.
 An excellent website has translated this as:
Mortrews. Take hens and pork and boil together. Take the liver of hens and of the pork and cut it small, and grind it to a fine powder; take grated bread and add, and mix with the broth, and mix it with egg yolks; and add powdour fort. Boil it and add ginger, sugar, saffron and salt, and make sure it's thick; and garnish with ginger.
The "powdour fort" was a mixture of ground spices.

It could be served as a soup, with more broth, or as a which stew with less broth and more bread. The name apparently comes from the fact that it is all ground up/mixed in a mortar. It sounds to me like an ideal use for leftover meat and bread. If you try it, let me know what you think.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Cassiodorus and Colleges

Yesterday's post mentioned Cassiodorus (c.485-c.585), a contemporary of Boethius, and his description of the relationship between Arithmetic and Music. His full name was Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator. He was not a senator; that was part of his name, although he was a statesman under Theoderic the Great, king of the Ostrogoths.

He served in several different roles in government, and his literary skills were so well recognized that he was often asked to draft important documents while he was in Ravenna. (Why Ravenna and not Rome? That is for the next post.) Whether because he was a devoted statesman, or just because of personal inclinations, his writings try to unite the cultural differences between the Eastern and Western Roman empires, between Greek and Roman cultures, between the Roman culture and the invading Goths, and even between established Christian doctrine and heresies. After his retirement from public life, he founded a monastery and turned to writing about religion.

The immediate reason for bringing him up in a medieval blog, however, is his link to medieval universities, which didn't exist for several centuries after his death. We are familiar by now with the medieval curriculum of the trivium (Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic) and the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, Astronomy). You might be surprised to know that Cassiodorus not only listed these fields of study, in that order, but also that he derives them from the study of the Bible.

In his Expositio Psalmorum ["Explanation of the Psalms"], he interprets Psalm 18.5
"Their voice resounds through all the earth, and their words to the ends of the earth"
as the teachings of the Bible being spread throughout the world, and that these teachings are the origin of secular studies. Therefore, mastering the secular arts helps bring one back to better comprehension of the Bible. This was, in fact, considered the original purpose of medieval universities: to train better clerics.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Philosophy of Music

Much of the medieval attitude about music and its forms came from Boethius (c.480-524 CE). In his de institution music [Latin: "On the laws of music"] he distinguished three types of music:
Instrumental music
Human music
Mundane music
Detail from copy of De musica [source]
Although today we use the word "mundane" to refer to something ordinary, it comes from Latin and refers to the world; Boethius uses it to refer to the music made by the world, that is, the so-called "music of the spheres": that sound, inaudible to human ears, that was made by the friction of the spheres surrounding the Earth in which the planets and other heavenly bodies traveled.

Instrumental music referred to music made by one of several different agents. It could come from something under tension (such as with stringed instruments), by wind, by water, or by percussion. It should be noted that Boethius was not referring to "musical instruments" as much as he used the term to mean that some physical agency was causing the sound. That could be a rushing stream, the wind in the trees, and falling rocks as much as manufactured devices in the hands of a musician. Later writers included singing as part of this category.

Human music was therefore not referring to singing by humans. For the Middle Ages, "music" was all about harmony, and the "harmony" between the physical body and the spiritual side was a serious topic. For example, you must nourish the physical body, but you must not eat so much that you fall into the sin of gluttony. Proper proportion was everything.

In fact, music (as opposed to mere noise) was all about harmony and proportion. That is why Music was studied in the medieval university only after mastering Arithmetic. A contemporary of Boethius, Cassiodorus (485-c.585 CE), compared the two by explaining that
Arithmetic is the discipline of absolute numerable quantity. Music is the discipline which treats of numbers in their relation to those things which are found in sound.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Name of the Rose

When Gerard Segarelli was rejected by the Franciscans, he took matters into his own hands and formed the Apostolic Brethren in 1260. The Brethren, active in northern Italy, gained many followers with their life of extreme poverty and their message of repentance.

In 1274, at the Second Council of Lyon, Pope Honorius IV prohibited all mendicant orders if they were not sanctioned by the papacy. In 1280, the Bishop of Parma imprisoned Segarelli, and in 1286 banished him from the diocese.

The prohibition against unapproved mendicant orders was renewed in 1290 by Pope Nicholas IV, who also began going after those "orders"; the Brethren were a particular target.

In 1294, four members of the sect were burned at the stake. Segarelli himself was sentenced to life in prison, but on 18 July, 1300, he was burned at the stake in Parma after being made to confess that he had relapsed into heresy. The Apostolic Brethren gained a new leader in the charismatic Fra Dolcino, who is worth his own post someday.

The motto of the Brethren under Segarelli, and later under Fra Dolcino, was Poenitentiam agite [Latin: Make penitence]. This was abbreviated to Penitenziagite! and made known to millions of readers 680 years after Segarelli's execution in Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Apostolic Brethren

In the later part of the 13th century, a new order was founded in northern Italy.

Sort of.

The founder, Gerard Segarelli, was a resident of a town in the territory of Parma. Poor and uneducated, he wished to follow a strict Christian life. He applied to be a Franciscan, thinking that their life of simplicity and poverty was suitable to his spiritual goals.

They turned him down.

So about 1260, inspired by a picture he had seen of the apostles, he made himself an outfit patterned after that design, sold his house, distributed the money in the marketplace, and became a mendicant, eschewing property, money, a place to live, and anything that might be considered a luxury. He preached repentance, urged the simple life that he embraced, and found many followers. The Apostolic Brethren, or Apostoli, were scoffed at by the Franciscans—they were a little "over the top" in their pursuit of poverty and simplicity.

But their lifestyle was tempting to many: surviving only on alms, living in the moment without plans for tomorrow, with no fixed dwelling, trusting on God's (and other humans') charity. They took no vows; they considered the vows of other orders hypocritical, because the vow of poverty did not mean living as poorly as the Apostolic Brethren were living. They followed one principle only, based on the Acts of the Apostles:
All who believed were together, and had all things in common. They sold their possessions and goods, and distributed them ..., according as anyone had need. [2:44-45]
But this was not to last. Tomorrow I'll tell you how Segarelli's dream ended, only to be remembered over 700 years later in a literary bestseller.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Damnation of Memory

The Roman Severan family, with
Geta "erased" from lower
left by orders of Caracalla
Memory is a tricky thing: it cannot easily be controlled, but steps can be taken.

The Roman Senate had a practice reserved for traitors to the state: Damnatio memoriae [Latin: "Damnation/Condemnation of memory"]. It was intended to remove any mention of that person from official records. On 21 April 395, the Senate condemned Eugenius (blamed for a recent civil war) to Damnatio memoriae, claiming "Let that time be reckoned as if it never was." Another famous example is when the Emperor Caracalla erased the memory of his brother, Geta, which involved physically removing his likeness from artworks. (See the image to the left.)

Damnation of memory was not strictly Roman. Queen Hatshepsut was almost wiped from Egyptian history by her ungrateful stepson, Thutmose III, in the 15th century BCE. Akhenaton promoted his brand of monotheism by removing images of the god Amon. Modern Egypt isn't immune to this practice: witness the recent removal of the name of President Hosni Mubarak and his wife from monuments and public spaces after his downfall.

Snorri Sturluson, mentioned here, tells us that the 10th century earl Hákon Sigurdarson was referred to solely as "the evil earl" long after his death.

The 55th Doge of Venice, Marino Faliero, was executed in 1355 after a failed coup, after which his portrait was removed from the Doge's palace in Venice and the space painted black. The blackened space still exists.

And Magnus Maximus was condemned with Damnatio memoriae, for all the good it did (see the previous two days' posts). Stories have a way of surviving; memory is like that.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Magnus Maximus, Part 2

rom a 14th century Welsh Book of Hours,
this is thought to depict Maximus
Yesterday we introduced Magnus Maximus, a general who briefly became ruler of much of the Western Roman Empire. Leaving the young Emperor Valentinian II in Rome, Maximus ruled over Britain, Gaul, Spain, and Africa.

He did things that did not sit well with his constituents, however. He is believed to be the first person to order execution for heresy when he executed Priscillian and six followers.* We are so used to thinking of the Middle Ages killing heretics that we would be surprised to know that this wasn't always common. In this case, St. Martin of Tours (mentioned here) tried to prevent it. On the other hand, when Maximus tried to censure Christians for burning down a synagogue, Bishop Ambrose of Milan condemned Maximus' decision.

Maximus also pushed his luck by driving out Valentinian II, who later, with the help of Eastern Emperor Theodosius I, returned and attacked Maximus, defeating him in 388 at the Battle of the Save (near modern Croatia). Maximus surrendered to his enemies at Aquileia; despite pleading for mercy, he was executed.

Maximus had family, and although we are not certain what became of all of them, we have some ideas, and legend offers another. His son, Flavius Victor, was strangled. His wife sought counsel from St. Martin, but we know nothing of her after that; we don't even know her name, although a popular Welsh legend calls her Elen. Maximus had a mother and daughters who were spared. One of his daughters, Sevira, is named on the Pillar of Eliseg as a wife of Vortigern. (The pillar was erected centuries after Vortigern, so we cannot be certain of the accuracy of the data.)

Later historians did not forget the story of a warrior starting in Britain and conquering Rome. They embraced him, and wove him into England's greatest legend. Accordingly, one of his grandsons was Flavius Ambrosius Aurelius, who had a son, Ambrosius Aurelianus. Depending on which ancient historian or modern author you pick, Ambrosius is either the uncle of King Arthur or is the figure on whom King Arthur is based.

*"Priscillianism" will be covered in the near future.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Magnus Maximus, Part 1

Yesterday's post on St. Illide mentioned that he cured the daughter of Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus. Although Maximus was Emperor of Western Roman Empire for only five years (383-85 CE), he has a bearing on medieval legend, and you ought to be introduced.

Magnus Maximus (c.335-28 August, 388) was a Roman general who served in Africa, then in southwest Germany on the Danube. He went to Britain in 380 and held it against invasions by the Picts and Scots.

In 383, when the current Western Roman emperor, Gratian, became unpopular, Maximus' troops declared him emperor. Maximus took his troops and set out for Rome to take Gratian's place. Gratian and his army met Maximus near Paris, where Gratian's troops were defeated and Gratian was pursued to Lyons and killed.

But Maximus did not become emperor automatically. Gratian had a half-brother, Valentinian II, who was declared Western Emperor. Maximus continued toward Italy to overthrow Valentinian, who was only 12 years old. Valentinian had help, however, from the Eastern Emperor, Theodosius I (once mentioned here regarding the date of an eclipse). Negotiations followed, aided by Bishop Ambrose of Milan (later St. Ambrose, mentioned here disagreeing with Plato). Maximus was given the title Augustus and allowed to rule Britain, Gaul, Spain, and Africa, while Valentinian II remained on the throne of Italy. Maximus was allowed to mint coins and make laws. He is credited with the first executions for heresy (I'll get to that some day).

He did not, however, remain popular for very long. I'll talk about that tomorrow, as well as tell you about his great-great-grandson, who probably did not exist and whom you all know.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Saint Illide

Yesterday's post featured a picture of the chapel of Saint Illide, belonging to the Château d'Alleuze. The chapel was built in the 12th century and named for a 4th century bishop of Clermont, France. Given that the picture yesterday showed a no-longer-used stone building, you can assume that the stained glass window to the left is not from there. It is found in the Church of Saint-Eutrope in Clermont-Ferrand.

The bishop, alternately known as Illidius or Allyre, is credited with helping Clermont-Ferrand become an important center of monastic culture and religious teaching—probably one of the reasons it was chosen by Pope Urban II for announcing the First Crusade.

Illide supposedly cured the daughter of Emperor Magnus Maximus of Rome. His reputation earned him praise from Gregory of Tours.

Illide died in 385. His feast day is 7 July (except in Clermont, where they celebrate him on 5 June.)

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Castle above Saint-Flour

The picture below was posted on Facebook a few days ago by a long-time friend. (That's his daughter seen to the right of it. Hi, Kyrie!) It is the chapel of St. Illide. As interesting as the chapel is, however, I want to talk about the castle on the hill behind it.

The Château d'Alleuze was built in the 13th century in south central France, looking down on the commune of Saint-Flour. Saint-Flour is named for Florus of Lodève, reputedly the first bishop of Lodève who came to Christianize the area in the 5th century. One of his acts was to strike a rock with his staff, bringing forth water from a spring.

The Château d'Alleuze was built in the 13th century and owned by the bishops of Clermont. Typical for the time, it was built square with round towers at each corner. During the Hundred Years War, it was seized by the Breton Bernard de Garlan, who spent seven years terrorizing the area.

The locals burned down the castle in 1405 to prevent it from being used as a base for future terrorism. This understandably annoyed the actual owner, a Monseigneur De la Tour, who made the locals restore it to its original state. It survived for centuries afterward, being used for, among other things, a jail by the bishops of Clermont.

A ruin now, it was declared in 1927 as an historic monument, and a recommended tourist spot.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The King of All Birds

The wren, O the wren, is the King of All Birds.
On St. Stephen's Day he got caught in the furze.

So goes a medieval carol. But why would the diminutive—though disproportionately loud—wren be the king of all birds? The Christians of the Middle Ages had a story for that.

God, wanting to know which bird was the king, challenged them all to a contest. Whichever could fly the highest and farthest would be declared king. They all set off, flying until they dropped from weariness. When the eagle was left, and started to fail, the tiny wren popped out from where it was hiding under the eagle's wing, and won the competition.

Cute, but it looks a little contrived after the fact. Why would the wren be considered king, and therefore need a fable to justify it? And why is it important that it got caught in the furze (gorse) on 26 December? A traditional St. Stephen's Day pursuit is to hunt the wren, kill it, and bury it. The is sometimes still done in England, although these days it is pantomimed with an artificial bird.

The Norse story is that the wren betrayed St. Stephen, leading to his martyrdom; hence the hunting and killing of the wren on his feast day.

There's an older Celtic connection of the wren with the past year; in the Netherlands its name means "winter king" because the European wren sings through mid-winter. The hunting and killing, then, is probably symbolic of getting rid of the old year to make way for the new. Its "kingship" in European/Celtic tradition likely stems from this tendency to keep singing its surprisingly loud song when most other birds have disappeared to warmer climes.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Protecting the Jews

The Plague, also called the Black Death, spread across Sicily shortly after the arrival of a fleet of a dozen Genoese galleys bringing goods from the far eastern end of the Mediterranean. This was in October of 1346. A few months later, in January 1348, galleys from Kaffa (in Crimea) reached Genoa and Venice, where outbreaks also began.

The rest of Europe might have been spared—crossing the Alps would be difficult for the Plague carriers—but one of the galleys was driven away from Italy and found shelter in the port of Marseilles on the southern coast of France. That was the real introduction to continental Europe, after which there was no stopping it.

There is plenty of information about the Black Death to be found online—including in the blog—so there is no need to go into details here. There is, however, a specific event related to the Plague that took place on today's date.

Many populations throughout history, unhappy with their lot, either due to general difficulties or tragedy, have looked for a scapegoat. That scapegoat often takes the form of other people who can be labeled as "outsiders" who are not us and whose presence or actions are hurting us. In the case of the Plague, that scapegoat in many locations was the Jews, who were persecuted and killed, accused of poisoning wells (despite the fact that they drank from the very same sources of water), or of general wickedness that had brought down the wrath of God.

Pope Clement VI was moved to produce a papal bull, Quamvis perfidiam, defending the Jews against the accusations, and urging his fellow Christian prelates to defend them in their territories. It was released on 6 July, 1348. Unfortunately, persecution persisted, and so he re-issued it on 26 September.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Pets and the Clergy

Christine de Pizan and her dog [link]
In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Prologue describes the Prioress as having small lapdogs that she dotes on, feeding them roasted flesh and milk. This behavior is similar to that of a noble-born lady, not a nun. As it turns out, nuns keeping pets was not uncommon, and it was not always a good thing.

Romsey, which was often the home to noble ladies, gives us an example of pet-based extravagance. John Pecham, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1279-1292, criticized the abbess for not providing adequate food to her charges, while at the same time keeping and dogs and monkeys (!) in her chamber.

William Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, wrote to Romsey's abbess in 1387:
...clear proofs that some of the nuns of your house bring with them to church birds, rabbits, hounds and such like frivolous things, whereunto they give more heed than to the offices of the church, with frequent hindrance to their own psalmody and that of their fellow nuns and to the grievous peril of their souls, therefore we strictly forbid you, ... to bring to church no birds, hounds, rabbits or other frivolous things that promote indiscipline;
... whereas through the hunting dogs and other dogs abiding within your monastic precincts, the alms that should be given to the poor are devoured and the church and cloister and other places set apart for divine and secular services are foully defiled, ... we strictly command and enjoin you, ..., that you remove these dogs altogether.
The keeping of pets was common for the upper classes, and monasteries and abbeys were frequently refuges for noble women who had no prospects of (on interest in) marriage. They clearly did not intend, however, to leave certain luxuries behind, and companion pets were clearly a desirable option.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Brothers-in-law

Among the groups in history that have long since disappeared, there are the Pechenegs. They were a semi-nomadic group that spoke a Turkic language, originally inhabiting the area north of the Black Sea, but being pushed westward until they came into conflict (and cooperation, but more often conflict) with others.

Pechenges versus the Rus, from a 15th century Russian history
The group's name, Pecheneg, derives from the old Turkic word for brother-in-law. We assume that the tribal units comprised people related by marriages. One of their early mentions in documents is by an 11th century Uighur scholar, who analyzed their language and declared it a Turkic dialect. In the 12th century, Anna Comnena described them as speaking a common language with the Cumans (a literary language of Central and Eastern Europe).

An invading group of other Turkish peoples drove the Pechenegs from their homeland. The Pechenegs pushed into Hungarian lands in the mid-800s. Some scholars of the time claimed that some Pechenegs remained in their homeland and were absorbed into the invaders' culture. A Byzantine historian of the 10th century wrote of those who stayed:
...even to this day they live among them, and wear such distinguishing marks as separate them off and betray their origin and how it came about that they were split off from their own folk: for their tunics are short, reaching to the knee, and their sleeves are cut off at the shoulder, whereby, you see, they indicate that they have been cut off from their own folk and those of their race. [Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Imperial Administration]
Moving westward, Pechenegs made an alliance with Byzantium, who used them as allies against other groups, such as Magyars and Rus. Alliances shifted, however. Some Pechenegs attacked Kiev (in 968), while some joined Kiev in attacking Byzantium (970-71). The Pechenegs eventually had no neighbors with whom they did not have a history of hostility. In 1087, a large migration/invasion of Pechenegs (estimated at 80,000) started moving toward Constantinople from the north, plundering as they went. Byzantium, after years of mis-management and weak leadership, was unable to meet this threat without help. Alexios I Comnenos offered gold to the Pecheneg-related Cumans to come to his aid.

In April of 1091, a combined force of Byzantines and Cumans met the Pechenegs at a place called Levounion. The Pechenegs, with their women and children, were not prepared for such strong opposition. The slaughter was extensive, and the few survivors were taken into servitude at Constantinople. Any mention of Pechenegs after this (and there are very few) lists them as soldiers under Byzantine rulers.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

St. Fructuosus of Braga

St. Fructuosus on Braga Cathedral
It is not unknown for rulers who have been harsh to try to "buy their ay into Heaven" near the end of their lives. Chindasuinth, who had been harsh in his dealings as king of the Visigoths, became very beneficent to religion in his final years. One of his accomplishments was financing the building of a monastery at San Román de Hornija in which he would be buried. His remains are there, next to those of his wife, Recciberga. (That may be San Román's only claim to fame; it has only a few hundred people living there these days.) The man who built the monastery was Fructuosus of Braga.

The son of a general, Fructuosus studied religion under Bishop Conantius of Palencia. When his parents died, he became a hermit in Galicia. He attracted others with his knowledge and piety, and thus began a monastery called Compludo. In all, he founded about 10 monasteries, including one solely for 80 virgins under the abbess Benedicta.

The monastic rules he wrote exist in two copies. The rule for his original monastery was extremely strict. Monks were not allowed to even look at each other, much less talk. Any thoughts, visions, or dreams were to be confessed to their superiors. There were bedtime inspections at any time of night. Infractions were punished by flogging and imprisonment for three to six months, on a diet of six ounces of bread.

In 654 he was asked to become Bishop of Dumio and given the job of fixing its finances; previously, the income was being used to help the poor and free slaves. Unfortunately, this rendered the diocese insolvent. Fructuosus was asked to make it solvent, but still be sensitive about the slave issue. Fructuosus, for whom the issue of political prisoners was an ongoing cause, was willing to balance the needs of the bishopric with the desire to free slaves.

On 1 December 656, he was made Archbishop of Braga, but remained a pious man who dressed so poorly that he was often mistaken for a peasant instead of a bishop.

He died on 16 April, 665, age unknown. In 1102, his relics were transferred from the Cathedral of Braga to Santiago de Compostela, but were returned to Braga in 1966.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Rebellion Among the Visigoths

In the 7th century, the Kingdom of the Visigoths covered much of the Iberian peninsula and a good chunk of what is now southern France. A Germanic tribe whose ruler was approved by all the nobles, there were some rulers who attempted to create a dynastic succession, so that they could hand the kingdom to their sons.

One such was Chintila (c.606 - 20 December 639), who took over from Sisenand at a time of unrest. Chintila was not a bad ruler. He held two Councils of Toledo (the 5th and 6th), in which (among other things) it was determined that the king must be chosen by the nobles and the bishops from the nobility: he could not be a foreigner, a peasant, or from the clergy. Chintila tried to leave the throne to his son, Tulga. This did not sit well with too many people, and so a warlord decided to stage a rebellion.

That warlord, Chindasuinth, may have been as old as 79. Commanding the frontier forces—and with much experience of rebellions from quelling them after the forced conversions from Arianism to Roman Christianity, and dealing with hostile Basques—he had himself declared king by his followers (but without the bishops). He marched his forces to Toledo, captured Tulga, and cut his hair. More specifically, he gave him a tonsure and exiled him to a monastery, because Tulga's father had helped establish that clergy could not ascend to the throne.

With his rebellion a success, Chindasuinth proceeded to rule, being properly anointed king on 30 April 642. But to rule successfully, he realized he needed to guard against—you guessed it—rebellion. So he decided to quell a rebellion pre-emptively. He rounded up and executed 200 members of the Gothic nobility and 500 members of the lesser nobility, without any pretense of a trial or even any evidence that a rebellion against his rule was being planned.

In October of 646, the 7th Council of Toledo retroactively ratified all of his decisions to take the throne and execute potential troublemakers. He then proceeded to make a pretty good king, establishing peace, heavily supporting the church, and refining the legal system.

But then he tried what others had tried: he named his son his heir. He declared Reccesuinth a co-king while Chindasuinth was still alive, so that the people would get used to the idea of Reccesuinth ruling. Reccesuinth was the "front man" for years, doing everything "in Chindasuinth's name." When Chindasuinth died in 653, Reccesuinth simply continued making decisions.

Froya, a Visigothic nobleman who had not been executed 10 years earlier, took exception to this and staged (wait for it) a rebellion, reaching as far as the important city of Saragossa with the support of the Basques (who held a grudge against Reccesuinth's father). Reccesuinth managed to put down the rebellion, execute Froya, and send the Basques back into the mountains. Then he reigned for almost 20 years on his own.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Death of William Rufus

Recent posts have talked about the sons of William the Conqueror: how he left the kingdom to his second son, William Rufus; how the eldest, Robert Curthose, had a temper and was shunted off to Normandy; how the youngest, Henry, took the throne upon his older brother's death during a hunting accident. We haven't yet talked about the hunting accident.

from Ridpath's Universal History (1895) 
If it was an accident.

On 2 August, 1100, King William II, called "Rufus" (probably on account of a red face), went hunting with a party of men that included his younger brother, Henry. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that he was "shot by an arrow by one of his own men." A later reference says an arrow glanced off a tree and went through his lung.

Details are scant. This was somewhere in the New Forest; the exact location is unknown, although later legend has picked a spot. In fact, a few centuries later, a stone was erected purporting to be on the site of the oak tree from which the arrow glanced.

William of Malmesbury claims that an archer named Walter Tyrell was responsible for the errant arrow, despite the fact that he was considered an excellent shot. Rather than carry the king's body back for burial, the hunting party left it there. Henry rushed to Winchester to seize control of the treasury and declare himself king; he was confirmed the next day. A peasant later came across the body and caused it to be brought to Winchester for burial.

Some historians claim that, if Henry wanted his brother killed, he would have waited; that William and Robert were headed for inevitable conflict, and that he merely had to wait until one of them eliminated the other, and assassinate the remaining brother. We know, however, that Robert was still away on the First Crusade, the money for which he had been given by William. At that time, it looked like Henry's elder brothers were getting along. Henry might also have been aware of the agreement between his brothers to be each other's heir. If Henry wanted his chance to be king, he had to seize it and consolidate power while Robert was far away and in no position to assert his claim. Henry also used his coronation charter, the Charter of Liberties, to cement the loyalty of the nobles.

We will never know for certain if William's death was an accident, but the situation so clearly benefitted his younger brother that it is difficult to shake the suspicion that it was engineered.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Charter of Liberties

A copy of the Coronation Charter of Henry I/Charter of Liberties
When William Rufus died, his younger brother Henry assumed the throne. It should have gone to the oldest brother, Robert Curthose, who was away on the First Crusade, because of an agreement between William and Robert. After all, when their father died, Henry was given a chunk of money; he wasn't even given a plot of land to rule the way Robert was given the dukedom of Normandy and William got England. The nobles didn't want to accept Henry at first. It was probably the Charter of Liberties that changed their minds.

The Charter of Liberties is also known as the Coronation Charter. It is the earliest extant coronation charter from England. In it, the new king makes promises to uphold laws. The statements made in this particular Charter were popular because they undid many of the acts of William that were unpopular.

For instance, statement 1 promises that Henry "shall not take or sell any property from a Church upon the death of a bishop or abbot, until a successor has been named to that Church property." (William had left the position of Archbishop of Canterbury lie vacant after the death of Lanfranc, so that he could appropriate the revenue from the archbishop's lands.)

Statement 6 forgives "all debts and pleas which were owing to my brother, except those which were lawfully made through an inheritance."

Statement 8 reverses the practice of being forced to bribe the king: "If any of my barons commit a crime, he shall not bind himself to the crown with a payment as was done in the time of my father and brother, but shall stand for the crime as was custom and law before the time of my father, and make amends as are appropriate."

Other statements put more control in the hands of the barons, and promise that the Crown shall not act rashly. When Robert Curthose went on the First Crusade, William gave him 10,000 marks—the equivalent of 25% of the annual royal budget. William got this money from a very heavy tax levied on the whole of England.

Even though in the normal course of events Henry would not have been part of the succession, the Charter of Liberties presented at his coronation helped to "sell" him to the noble class.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Ralph Flambard, Robert, and Henry

The Battle of Tinchebray
When Ralph Flambard escaped from the Tower of London, he fled to Normandy to the court of its duke, Robert Curthose. Robert was the eldest son of William the Conqueror who failed to inherit the throne—twice. The first time was when he rebelled against his father, later seeing the throne going to the second eldest, William Rufus. The second time was when, despite an agreement with William Rufus to be his heir, Robert was on Crusade when William died, giving younger brother Henry the opportunity to take the throne.

Flambard convinced Duke Robert that he should assert his claim to the throne (despite Robert's agreement to not pursue it in exchange for 3000 marks/year). With Flambard organizing the fleet, Robert's army landed in England in July 1101. It didn't go well. Henry's army was larger, and England didn't really want another change on the throne, so the local support was all for Henry.

Within a couple weeks of landing, on 2 August, Robert and Henry agreed to the Treaty of Alton—Alton was where Henry's army met and stopped the advance of Robert's—in which Robert (again) agreed to renounce any claim to the throne of England in exchange for an annual payment. Flambard, no doubt part of the negotiating force, actually got reinstated as Bishop of Durham! But he chose to stay in Normandy for five years: Robert had thanked him for his help by granting him the see of Lisieux

In 1105, however, Henry broke the agreement. Despite the Treaty of Alton, Henry invaded Normandy and fought against his brother in the Battle of Tinchebray. Robert was captured and imprisoned (he died in 1134, in Cardiff Castle). After the battle, Flambard made his peace with Henry, returned to England, and took up responsibility for Durham again.

Back in England, Flambard continued major building projects: a cathedral, a defensive wall around Durham Castle, Norham Castle, and more. He died on 5 September 1128.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The First Prisoner

Ralph Flambard was born in Bayeux, Normandy six years before William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel and became King of England. When he grew up, however, he became intertwined with the affairs of William and his sons.

Depiction of Flambard in stone
for Christ Church, Dorset
He must have been a clever lad, because he was one of the people put in charge of the Domesday Book in 1086, to make an account of all the lands and towns in England. He also became the keeper of the king's seal; documents had to pass through him to be stamped as official. When William died, Ralph chose to serve the new king, William Rufus.

Under Rufus, Flambard showed notable talent at raising funds for the king—and himself. He took control of empty parishes (up to 16 at one point), so that rent from their tenants flowed to him. With the money he was raising for the Crown, he built the first stone bridge in London (but not London Bridge itself). It was at this time that the king's hall was built in Westminster, the walls of which are still standing.

When William Rufus died in 1100, Ralph Flambard, now Bishop of Durham, was made a scapegoat for the financial hardships put on the citizens of England. King Henry I made Flambard the first person to be imprisoned in the Tower of London.

He also became the first man to escape the Tower of London.

The story goes that his friends sent to him a large jug of wine. (Prisoners in the Tower were not fed well, and food and drink from family and friends were allowed in order to sustain them.) Inside the jug was a rope. Flambard offered his captors wine, and when they were drunk and sleeping, he extracted the rope, tied it to the middle strut of the window, and climbed down to where his friends were waiting with horses to take him and his elderly mother to a boat that would whisk him to safety in Normandy.

Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury arranged a papal trial for the crime of simony. Henry officially confiscated his lands. Archbishop Gerard of York took away his title of bishop. Flambard didn't care: he had had dealings with every important member of William the Conqueror's family except one—the out-of-favor eldest son, Robert Curthose. He made his way to Robert, the Duke of Normandy; he had a plan.

[to be continued]

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