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.