Monday, September 30, 2013

Controlling Sicily, et alia

The growing power and importance of Sicily in the Middle Ages was mentioned here. But the solution they found didn't quite last; controlling Sicily was an ongoing issue for many. Generations later a different pope faced the "problem of Sicily." That was Pope Nicholas IV.

Nicholas (born Girolamo Masci, 1227-1292) was a humble Franciscan friar before he was elected the first pope from the Order founded only 79 years earlier by Saint Francis.

In the four years that he was pope, he had few ambitions. Resolving the current Sicilian question was one. There were two men claiming control of Sicily, Charles II of Naples and James II of Aragon. Unfortunately for James (who was actually resident in Sicily), Charles promised to recognize the pope's suzerainty over Sicily—meaning that Sicily would be beholden to the papal state and offer it regular tribute. Charles, therefore, got the pope's blessing, and Nicholas brokered a treaty with King Philip IV of France and King Alfonso III of Aragon to expel James II from Sicily.

No sooner had the Pope completed this task than another concern reared its head: the kingdom of Acre in the Middle East fell to the Mamluks. Failing to get a Crusade started, Nicholas sent missionaries to the east to increase Christian conversions.

He also made some financial changes in the Vatican. One of them was to disburse among the cardinals one-half of the Vatican's income. As it turned out, the power this gave to the College of Cardinals would create problems for later popes. Nicholas also created a detailed system of evaluation and taxation for English and Welsh parishes. The records created for his Taxatio provide historians with a valuable look at the status of English and Welsh churches at the end of the 13th century.

He died peacefully on 4 April 1292, at the age of 64.  His death would trigger the difficulties that led to the story of the Pope Who Quit.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Trial by Combat—Marriage Edition

There is a lot more to say about Trial by Combat than can be put into a brief post. The history includes interesting anecdotes and surprising facets. One such facet is seen in the picture to the left. It comes from the 1467 Fechtbuch [German: "fight book"] of Hans Talhoffer (c.1415-1482), who was mentioned in the above link on Trial by Combat. Talhoffer produced at least five books on fencing, and apparently trained people for Trial by Combat.

As for the picture, translations of the captions should explain all:
Here is how a man and woman should fight each other, and this is how they begin.
Here the woman stands free and wishes to strike; she has in the cloth a stone that weighs four or five pounds.
He stands in a hole up to his waist, and his club is as long as her sling.
 [source]
That is correct. Trial by Combat was available to women—at least, it was as late as 15th century Germany. Supposedly, this was a method used by married couples to settle disputes...serious disputes. Since men were considered the superior sex, something needed to be done to even the odds between them, hence the hole in which he stands, reducing his mobility. Note also that they do not use cutting weapons: their blunt instruments are intended to bludgeon the opponent into submission, not cause the opponent to bleed to death.

Remember that non-aristocracy had to seek permission from a court to engage in a lawful Trial by Combat; hence the term "judicial duels." Husbands and wives could not just decide to dig a hole in the front yard and fight it out amongst the neighbors. There are no known recorded examples of such trials or their outcomes, but the casual way in which Talhoffer describes his sample fight (there are more illustrations in his manuscript) suggests that there was nothing shocking about this in his time.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Donating America

Christopher Columbus is about as late as a "medieval" blog should deal with, but to me it seems appropriate. The world that Columbus sailed from was still very much entrenched in the culture and technology of the Middle Ages (even though its artworks are considered part of the Renaissance). But the discovery of a new continent—and the new era of exploration of which it was a part—made radical changes to any remaining "parochial" attitudes of the Old World.

But what was the plan for the land he was to find? Was there a plan? Didn't he intend simply to find a new route to India for trade purposes?

Maybe not. On 4 May 1493, Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503) issued a papal bull, Inter caetera [Latin: "Among other (works)"], which granted to the kingdoms of Spain (Castile and Aragon) all lands west and south of a line 100 leagues west of the Azores or Cape Verde islands. If you look at the map below, the line on the right shows the boundary, west of which the lands belonged to Spain. Everyone involved realized very quickly that Columbus had discovered new lands, not the expected ones.

Portugal objected to this authority granted to Spain. It felt it had some precedent for authority over these new lands.

Inter caetera was not the first papal bull regarding the disposition of the New World. Pope Nicholas V (1397-1455) had presented a bull on 18 June 1452 called Dum diversas [Latin: "Until different"], allowing Alfonso V of Portugal (1432-1481) to seek out and capture pagans and seize their kingdoms. Portugal believed that Spain's rights granted by Inter caetera conflicted with Portugal's rights granted by Dum diversas. Spain and Portugal tried a diplomatic solution, to no avail. Spain urged the Pope (who was Spanish) to help. The result was a new bull, Dudum siquidem [Latin: "A short while ago"] that gave Spain:
all islands and mainlands whatsoever, found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered, that are or may be or may seem to be in the route of navigation or travel towards the west or south, whether they be in western parts, or in the regions of the south and east and of India. [Dudum siquidem, 26 September 1493]
 The intent was clear, and Spain started sending conquistadors.

In truth, there were several bulls over the years that granted authority to different countries to take over other lands. A specific subset of these dealing with the New World is known collectively as the "Bulls of Donation." Spain and Portugal finally came to an agreement with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, dividing up the New World between them.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Trial by Combat

The dueling area was typically
60 feet square.
One of the things "everyone knows" about the Middle Ages is the idea of Trial by Combat: the act of fighting to determine who is right in a dispute. It was a custom followed primarily by Germanic culture; it was later brought to Great Britain.* It was recognized as a valid part of German tribal law as far back as the early 8th century in the Lex Alamannorum [Latin: "Law of the Alemanni"; the Alemanni were a Germanic tribe on the Upper Rhine].

The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, in an effort to tamp down this sanctioned violence, tried to ban Trial by Combat in favor of Trial by Jury. "Judicial duels"—that is, a fight sanctioned by the local legal system—were too unpredictable a measure of justice. German countries kept up the practice, however. The 15th century fencing master, Hans Talhoffer, detailed the ways in which judicial duels could be carried out, and listed seven offenses that merited such a trial: murder, treason, desertion of your lord, unlawful captivity, heresy, perjury, rape.

Commoners were required to take their dispute to court first in order to have Trial by Combat sanctioned by the local legal system. Nobility, however, could take it upon themselves to duel over a dispute, leading to the "gentleman's duel" of later years. The combatants would each bring a "second" to help arrange the particulars, everything from the location to making sure the horses are saddled properly. Sometimes these seconds would meet separately to discuss a more peaceful solution that the combatants could not discus face to face due to their pride.

The combatants had some duties, too, besides fighting. They would attend (separate) church services prior to combat, and make a donation to the church. They had to be ready to begin the combat by noon, and it had to be concluded by sundown.

The last official judicial duel is unknown, but we know that King Charles I of England intervened to prevent a couple, one in 1631 and one in 1638. In 1818, Abraham Thornton, already acquitted of the murder and rape of Mary Ashford, had an accusation brought by Mary's brother, William. Thornton claimed the right to Trial by Combat; the court decided that he was justified, since the "evidence" for his guilt was circumstantial and disputable, and because Parliament had never removed the right to Trial by Combat from the books. Ashford backed down. The following year, Parliament abolished Trial by Combat.

*It is not to be confused with Trial by Ordeal which involved causing an accused to suffer some ordeal that would "prove" his guilt or innocence.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Cosmati Floors

Cosmati floor, Westminster Abbey church, during a recent cleaning.
When discussing the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey yesterday, I mentioned labor coming from outside of London; sometimes it came from far outside of London. Records mention workers named Matthew and Henry de Rems who likely came from Rheims in France. Richard Norman and Richard of Caen would have come from Normandy, probably for their expertise in stonework. Other expertise in stonework came from even farther away than Normandy. For in front of the high altar, Henry III commissioned a floor in the Cosmatesque style.

It wasn't known as "Cosmatesque" at the time; that is what we call it now, because the style was made popular by the Cosmati family of Rome. The Cosmati (members of whom were active for generations, from at least 1190 until at least 1303) used opus sectile [Latin: "cut work"] in stone to design intricate inlays. We know some dates for members of the family because they occasionally signed their work.

Cosmati floor from Rome.
The Cosmatesque floor in Westminster (created in 1268) is also signed, though not with a name known to be a member of the Cosmati family. A brass inscription proclaims (in Latin) "the third King Henry, the city, Odoricus and the abbot put these porphyry stones together." Another inscription reads "The spherical globe here shows the archetypal macrocosm." Explanation of the floor's symbolism has filled pages of speculation; you can find what Westminster itself has to say here.

A TV program made about the Cosmati floor during and after its recent restoration can be found on YouTube.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Building Westminster Abbey - Part 2

I started this here with the origins of what we now call "Westminster Abbey." A major rebuilding campaign began about 1245 by Henry III (1216-1272), who desired both to enhance the resting place of Edward the Confessor, whom he admired, and to create his own royal burial site. (Like Edward, Henry was buried in Westminster long before the construction was complete. Edward was re-interred in 1269 in a newly completed shrine.)

The task of reconstruction was enormous, and the fact that it took so long had nothing to do with a casual attitude to getting it done. The pace of some stages of work was staggering for the time. We have some of the records involved. Numbers of laborers fluctuated depending on the season and the finances available. There were some financial realities that caused occasional work stoppages. Only two people were paid a continuous wage: the two masters of the works, Master Henry and Master John of Gloucester.

Records for part of 1253 (end of April until early December, when most work would have paused for the winter), list the following workforce:
For wages of 39 white cutters [freestone masons] 14 marblers, 20 layers, 32 carpenters, together with John of St. Albans, 3 painters, 13 polishers, 19 smiths, 14 glaziers and 4 plumbers, £14 12s. For the wages of 150 laborers with Keepers, clerks and the charges of two carts daily £6 16s. [quoted in John Steane, The Archaeology of the Medieval English Monarchy]
The labor would have come from local hires or specialists who traveled from all over England to join the project. What about materials, however? The two Masters of the Works would travel to find suitable materials (we know this because the records showed them being paid double for travel expenses). For convenience, "buying local" would be best, and we know that many suppliers were London-based. For example, Richard of Eastcheap had apparently managed a monopoly on the wood used for scaffolding and ramps. Agnes of London not only was a major source of burnt lime used for concrete, she was responsible for organizing 440 cartloads of sand to the work site. Other references exist for two cartloads of charcoal provided by Roger of Barking, and carved stones from Roger of the Tower. Henry of Bridge supplied ironwork, especially nails. A 1265 record mentions a Richard who submitted a bill for 16.75 hundredweight* of lime. Some of these names re-occur for other building projects, such as the Tower of London.

The materials themselves would have come from all over. Some master masons came from Oxford, and   it is known that the Windsor Castle upgrade used stone quarried in Whately, a mere few miles from Oxford. Much of the material might have come from storage very close by: the southern end of London Bridge was home to a public works yard that maintained large stocks of timber, stone and ironwork to aid in the necessary upkeep of the Bridge.

*A hundredweight in England was approximately 116 pounds.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Building Westminster Abbey - Part 1

Panel from Bayeaux Tapestry; Edward's body carried to Westminster.
The Collegiate Church of St. Peter at Westminster was begun on a site near the Thames where a vision of St. Peter was seen by (appropriately) a fisherman. The fisherman, named Aldrich in the anecdote, may be fictional, but the abbey was fact: we know that a church was there by the early 970s when King Edgar supported St. Dunstan in establishing a community of Benedictine monks. (Edgar was obviously very interested in supporting abbeys: see his other mention here.) The Aldrich story would explain the practice of the Abbey receiving an annual tribute of salmon from Thames fishermen—a tradition that is carried on to this day, with a single salmon being presented to the Abbey annually.*

The Abbey's real prominence came during the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066), who decided it would be suitable for his burial place, but only after some serious upgrading. Edward's building campaign—the first in the Norman Romanesque style to be built in England—resulted in a larger structure whose details are now lost to us, except in the stylized image we find on the Bayeaux Tapestry. Edward died 5 January, 1066 with the Abbey decades away from completion (in 1090), but he made sure it was consecrated while he was still alive, so that he could be buried there right after his death. (The Tapestry even seems to show—in the upper left of the picture above—the work still progressing even while the funeral procession approaches.) The Abbey was used for the coronation of William the Conqueror in late 1066, after that whole Invasion mess. Very little of this era's structure survives now.

Westminster Abbey, as we know it today, was reconstructed during the reign of Henry III. We have more records of materials and workmen surviving from that era, which I will share with you next time.


*At least, some sources report this; however, it is not found anywhere on the Company's website. I'm dubious.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Button, Button

Bronze-Iron Age buttons as ornament. [source]
Although evidence of buttons exists as far back as the classical era, it appears that they were used as ornamentation on clothing rather than a way to fasten clothing,
the earliest known being found at Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley [now Pakistan]. It is made of a curved shell and about 5000 years old. [Ian McNeil, An Encyclopedia of the History of Technology]
Rows of buttons as a necessary part of clothing were unknown. Usually a single button—a flat decorated surface with a loop attached to the back—was put on clothing to pin up a single fold of fabric.

The first evidence of "functional buttons"—used to attach clothing so that it fit snugly about the body—is found in art. Statuary on the Adamspforte ("Adam's gate") at Bamberg Cathedral (carved c.1235) in Germany shows a button holding clothing together.

By the late 1300s, buttons were being applied to all sorts of clothing in order to make it fit more closely to the body. One of the modifications that made buttons work well was the addition of reinforced button holes to clothing, which spread in the later 1200s.

A late medieval button from England [source]
Besides a change in fashion, was the addition of buttons and buttonholes significant? Well, one theory (shared by James Burke of Connections fame and Lynn White, author of several essays and books on the history of technology) is that the spread of better-fitting clothing made people warmer in cold weather and therefore increased their health...or, at least, decreased susceptibility to any illnesses that were exacerbated by cold temperatures.

This seems odd to the modern age, because we take form-fitting clothing for granted. Didn't they have looms and weaving? Of course. But much form-fitting fabric in the Middle Ages didn't appear until the development of knitting.

But that's a story for another day.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen shown with a psaltery.
One of the oldest known composers of liturgical music—and perhaps the earliest medieval dramatist—was a nun who lived in Germany in the 12th century known as Hildegard of Bingen (c.1098-1179).

What little we know of her early years tells us that she was the youngest of several children born to a lower-class family in Sponheim, Germany. Whether because she was sickly, or because she was very young and not likely to be able to inherit much, or because she was said to have mystic visions at an early age, she was given to the church while still very young (between the age of eight and 14).

Although cloistered, she was exposed to some education, learning enough rhetoric to be a forceful and compelling speaker and enough music to play the psaltery (a dulcimer-like instrument, shown above). She used a Latin in her writing that was very simple (she devised her own letters and made words up). There is some debate regarding whether this was due to a lack of formal education or the deliberate need to create her own form of expressing herself. Her writings on theological matters and on her visions led to attempts to canonize her. The canonization process stretched over centuries, until two recent popes (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) started referring to her as a saint; Benedict XVI declared her officially a saint in 2012. Her feast day is 17 September.

Outside of the church, she is mostly known for her music. Sixty-nine musical compositions are known to have been produced by Hildegard, and many modern recordings of them are available. They are monophonic, possessing a single melody, and are often closely related to the text with which she accompanies each musical piece. Because she does not use musical notation as we know it today, there is much room for interpretation of her work.

Here is a sample:

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Harald Tangle Hair

Praise the northern tribes of Europe and their tendency to give descriptive names to significant people, so that we can remember them in our history lessons!

Harald (already showing unkempt hair in this depiction)
receiving the kingdom from his father.
When Halfdan the Black (so-called because of his hair color, not for any defect of character) died c.860, he left to his son, Harald, a very small territory called Vestfold, mostly on the southern coast of what is now Norway. Norway at the time was divided into several small areas, each ruled over by different tribes. Harald, with the help of his uncle Guthorm, established firm rule over Vestfold. With this, he may have been content, but then...

According to the Heimskringla,* Harald proposed marriage to Gyda, the princess of a neighboring kingdom, Hordaland. Although Hordaland was no larger than Vestfold, Gyda thought it fitting to demand that she marry no less than the king of all Norway. The fact that there had never been a "King of all Norway" did not deter her ambitions—or Harald's. He took a vow never to cut or comb his hair until he achieved the title "King of Norway." This, of course, immediately gave him a new title anyway, and he was called "Harald Tangle Hair" or "Harald Shockhead" in the following years.

He fought a large battle c.900 in which he defeated two of his most prominent rivals in Norway, after which there was so little resistance to his goal of conquest that he could rightly be called King of Norway.

The tangle of his hair was matched, however, by the untamed nature of his lust. He is believed to have fathered many children with different mothers (he never married Gyda, that we know of), including between 10 and 20 sons, many of whom wanted to rule the kingdom (or, at least, part of it) after his death or even before. Rule of Norway passed to his youngest son, Hakon the Good (called so because of his Christian faith), but another son, Erik Bloodaxe (called so because of his Norse faith) spent 15 years trying unsuccessfully to take the crown away.

It is likely that you have never heard of "Harald Tangle Hair" before—at least, not by that name. It took much of his life to unite Norway and be proclaimed king, but he did achieve his goal, and therefore he could reverse his earlier vow. When he started cutting and combing his hair again, he was rewarded with the epithet "Fair hair" (Norse harfagr). "Harald Fairhair" is how we call him these days, forgetting his youthful vow.


*Heimskringla is the best known of the Old Norse kings' sagas. It was written in Old Norse in Iceland by the poet and historian Snorri Sturluson (1178/79–1241) ca. 1230. The name Heimskringla was first used in the 17th century, derived from the first two words of one of the manuscripts (kringla heimsins - the circle of the world). [Wikipedia]

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