Thursday, May 31, 2012

Statutes of Laborers

Controlling the Workforce

After the Black Death (1348-49 in England), the workforce was radically reduced. In a culture where 90%+ of the workforce was involved in agriculture, and every bit of it done by manual labor, this was potentially disastrous for lords who relied on peasants to plant and tend and harvest crops. The obvious solution was to offer better wages if peasants would leave their homes and settle in the lords' villages that had been deserted by the Pestilence.

This competition for labor did not sit well with most of society, who saw it as a disruption of the way things had been for centuries. The first Ordinance of Laborers was established by Edward III in 1349 to try to prevent the disruption of society that a "free market" could create. It stated:

  • Everyone under the age of 60 must be willing to work
  • Employers must not hire more workers than they need
  • Wages must remain at pre-Pestilence levels
  • Food prices must not be increased
Did it work?

  • 1350 saw the Stature of Laborers that fixed the wages of laborers and artisans.
  • 1356 saw regulations placed on the trade of masons. (Freemasons use this as proof that Freemasonry has been fighting "the Man" for centuries.)
  • 1368 saw the Statute of Laborers reaffirmed.
  • 1377 saw an act restricting the freedom of serfs to move from domain to domain.

Clearly, the laws had to be re-enacted because no one was listening. The attempt to suppress the freedom of the lower classes continued for the next two centuries; however, we will only concern ourselves with these few decades, because they led to the first occupy movement. I'll tell you about it tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lanfranc, Part 2 (of 2)

The Transformation of Matter

Of Lanfranc's (c.1005-1089) many accomplishments, perhaps the most far-reaching was his writing on the subject of transubstantiation, the doctrine that the bread and wine in the Christian mass become the body and blood of Christ.

Not all authorities agreed on exactly what was meant in Matthew, Mark and Luke when Jesus offered bread and wine to the Apostles. St. Ignatius of Antioch, in a letter to the Romans, was very clear in 106 CE when he said  "I desire the bread of GOD, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ." Paschasius Radbertus (785-865) wrote that the substance of the bread and wine was identical to the body and blood of Christ in heaven.

Although many early church fathers wrote in support of this, there was mild opposition for generations. A turning point came when Berengar of Tours (c. 999–January 6, 1088), a brilliant theologian, declared that the divinity imbued in the Eucharist did not rely on a change in its physical material. This was not radical enough to get him condemned--it acknowledged the special quality of the bread and wine--but Berengar wrote a letter to Lanfranc, chastising him for not rejecting Paschasius' view as well. The letter had to travel from Tours to Rome, where Lanfranc was at the time; by the time it reached Lanfranc, it had been read by several people, and the beginning of a public conflict was in the air. Lanfranc, knowing that Berengar's view was not looked upon favorably, and not wanting to prejudice the pope against Lanfranc's own future, took up the cause and wrote a public argument in opposition to Berengar. The world had a new and respected authority now for the transformation of the body and blood of Christ. The term transubstantiated was used to describe the change in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, and Protestant Christianity had a point of contention for centuries to come.

(Teaser: for me, the best piece of doctrinal explanation came from a student of Lanfranc, who also became Archbishop of Canterbury. I look forward some day to telling you about Anselm of Bec.)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Black Death, Part 4 (of 4)

Friar Clynn looks beyond the present

Friar Clynn was a Franciscan living in Kilkenny in western Ireland at the time of the Bubonic Plague. He wrote a work called "The Annals of Ireland," largely a history of military engagements. From what little we know, we assume he was writing it on behalf of a particular family, the de la Freignes.

The only reason we know his name is because he attached it to the following entry at the end of the Annals. (I quote from the translation found in T.H.White's Book of Merlyn.)

Seeing these many ills, and as it were the whole world thrust into malignancy, waiting among the dead for death to come to me, I have put into writing what I have faithfully heard and examined; and, lest the writing perish with the writer, or the work fail with the workman, I am leaving some pages for the continuation of it, in case any man may remain alive in the future, or any person of the race of Adam may escape this pestilence, to carry on the labors begun by me.

The entry is followed only by blank pages.

We do not know the date of this entry.

We do know that he made an entry dated in June of 1349. By that time, the Pestilence would have swept through and been done with. There is, however, no evidence of his survival past this date. Did he survive the Plague and die from old age or some other cause? We don't know. What is interesting on a human level, however, is that he saw what looked like the end of the known world coming. A disease was sweeping through every country and devastating the population with no successful treatment. By the time it reached Ireland, the stories of massive loss of population in Europe would have added a level of horrifying inevitability to the experience. Here, however, was a man who looked beyond the despair around him and his own terror, who turned his thoughts not to his own salvation, but to an unknown future and the uncertain hope that somehow mankind would persevere.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Lanfranc, Part 1 (of 2)

Scholar and Teacher, Priest and Politician

There are two reasons why I want to mention Lanfranc today. One is because today is the 923rd anniversary of his death.* The second is because I want to discuss his most famous pupil in the future, and this is nice background for that.

Lanfranc (c.1005-1089) was born in Italy, educated in the liberal arts, and moved to France to teach, finally deciding to join the abbey at Bec in Normandy in 1042. In 1045 the abbot persuaded him to open a school in the abbey. His reputation drew students from France, Flanders, Germany and Italy.

His understanding and teaching of religious doctrine produced powerful thinkers who rose high in ecclesiastical ranks. Lanfranc himself ultimately became Archbishop of Canterbury, but not before a strange political somersault.

Duke William of Normandy, also called William the Bastard (and later William the Conqueror) wished to marry Matilda of Flanders. Two items stood in his way (three, if you want to believe the legend): his bastardy (he was the son of his father's mistress), and the fact that they were too closely related to satisfy custom and law. (The third thing is that Matilda supposedly refused to marry a bastard; and I guess there's a fourth thing, if you want to assume that she didn't like the fact that he was so angry with her that he angrily dragged her off her horse by her braids and threw her to the ground.) Lanfranc publicly opposed the marriage as inappropriate. Duke William (of Normandy, and Bec Abbey is in Normandy, remember) sent Lanfranc into exile; on the point of departure, however, he was forgiven and took on the task of persuading the pope to consent to the marriage! (I would love to tell you that he was the man for the job because the pope had been a student of Lanfranc's, but Pope Alexander II, who had been a student of Lanfranc's, didn't become pope until 1061.) Lanfranc's arguments succeeded, however, William and Matilda got married, William later decided to conquer England, and the rest is (English) history.

So when an Archbishop of Canterbury was needed years later, Lanfranc was rewarded for helping out William. His first job was to straighten out Thomas of Bayeaux, the Archbishop of York, who thought that York was empowered to operate independently of Canterbury's authority. Lanfranc was having none of that, and figured Thomas owed him one, since Lanfranc had given him passing grades years ago. Thomas, however, did not give in to his former teacher, so Lanfranc turned to Pope Alexander II who was now on the throne of Peter and agreed to allow Lanfranc to get it settled by a council of the English church, which met at Winchester. Lanfranc got the primacy he wanted, agreed to by the king and queen with their "X"s on the document. Before Alexander II could ratify the ruling on the Canterbury-York dispute, however, he died and was replaced by Gregory VII, who wasn't inclined to rubber-stamp England's rulings. The argument stretched out for years.

Lanfranc was a powerful help to the king, among other things foiling a conspiracy against the king and helping to ensure the succession of the next king. But what history cares about is his contributions to theological doctrine, of which more soon.

*To be honest, that date is disputed; some say it was May 24.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Black Death, Part 3 (of 4)

Concerning Nursery Rhymes

Ring around the rosie
A pocket full of posies
Ashes, Ashes
We all fall down!

"Everybody knows"* that the preceding nursery rhyme was composed about the Bubonic Plague. It covers it all: the red ring around the flea bite, the flowers carried constantly to help the bearer avoid the stench of death, the ashes from the mass burning of bodies, and the inevitable death of everyone. It's all about the Black Death, clearly.

Except that it isn't.

Bottom line: this poem appears in the 1880s and no earlier. Aha! (you say) But "everybody knows" that our illiterate forebears transmitted their knowledge orally, and so this rhyme was probably around for centuries before that! Hmmm. Ever played the parlor game (do we even call them "parlor games" anymore?) called "Telephone"? Now imagine a game of telephone that extends for generations ... centuries ... and winds up in Modern English saying exactly what we would expect it to say about an event that hit the cultural consciousness hundreds of years earlier. I doubt anyone could compute the odds of this, but I'm willing to bet that they would be on a par with the odds of a royal fizzbin, ie., astronomical.

It turns out that Snopes has an excellent entry dealing with this rhyme, its various nonsensical versions, and the tendency of people to ascribe meaning to random collections of words.

*If you have ever studied a subject thoroughly, then you know that this phrase from a lay person usually kicks off a conversation that will not end well for someone.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


The ultimate character witness

Throughout several centuries and many countries, establishing your innocence or trustworthiness in a court of law could be done by the use of compurgators. The word comes from Latin com (with) + purgare (cleanse; hence the modern word "purge").

If you were accused of wrongdoing, you would gather compurgators to appear for you in court. Ideally, you would find 12 of the most respected members of the community who would be willing to stand there and say that they believe you when you say you are innocent. Mind you, if you were found standing over a dead body with a bloody knife in your hand, compurgators were not likely to save you. This worked well when you were accused of cheating on a debt or stealing a spoon and hard evidence did not exist against you...unless you had friends who were determined to protect you.

The opportunities for abuse of such a system were rampant.

Henry II, or instance, in 1164 made sure that compurgation would not be allowed in felonies; he did not like the fact that a cleric (priest) might literally get away with murder in an ecclesiastical court by merely being defrocked, while the royal courts would use capital punishment for capital crimes. The use of compurgation in any way as a defense in England was eliminated from the court system in 1833.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Black Death, Part 2 (of 4)

Hype aside, what do we know?

The Middle Ages called what was happening "The Great Pestilence."

The "Black Death" was a term coined in the 1600s to refer to the the grimness of the event.

The "Bubonic Plague" came into currency around 1885-1890 because of the swellings/bruises that resulted from infection. The Latin for bruise is "bubo, bubonis."

Yersinia pestis, isolated in the 1880s by bacteriologists Alexandre Yersin and Shibasaburo Kitasato (who were working independently; you can guess who "published first"), loves to breed in the digestive tract of the flea. Because its prolific duplication prevents the flea from being able to digest blood, the flea travels from host to host, biting furiously in an attempt to avoid starving. This causes bacteria to spill out and into the bloodstream of the mammal. Here's a pictorial view.

If you would like a more detailed graphic of how it works (and understand biochemistry more than I do), click here.

A dozen or so cases of Bubonic Plague are diagnosed and treated each year in the United States. The victims invariably (unless they exist solely for an episode of House) live in areas of poor sanitation.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Handkerchief

Richard II (1367-1400) had all of the elegance and none of the political savvy or military skill required of a king of England in the 14th century. He was given to--and ridiculed for--extravagances and fastidiousness that shocked many of his contemporaries. In an attempt to curb his excesses, he was put under the regency of a council called the Lords Appellant. Richard decided to negotiate a peace with France and devote his energies and finances to overthrowing the Lords Appellant. (Imagine what Congress would have done if, at the height of the Cold War, Lyndon Johnson had declared "I'm going to make peace with Russia and focus on controlling the GOP.") The Merciless Parliament of 1388 was called to curb him. During the process, Parliament convicted most of Richard's advisors of treason. The charges against them include lists of extravagances such as richly decorated garments and household furnishings.

At a time when such excesses were worthy of condemnation, something like the following line--a description of an order from the king's tailor, Walter Rauf--would surely make heads turn and eyes roll:
parvis peciis factis ad liberandum domino regi ad portandum in manu suo pro naso suo tergendo et mundando
"small pieces made for giving to the lord king to carry in his hand for wiping and cleaning his nose"

Why does this stand out?

Prior to this, the sleeve was the primary receptacle for the things for which we now use handkerchiefs or tissues. Stella Mary Newton, in her Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince,  does not find any evidence of handkerchief use in the courts of Europe. This seems to counter the theory that Richard picked up this "foppish" practice from France.* We know the Romans used a piece of cloth called a sudarium for wiping sweat, but that is not likely where Richard got the idea, since there is no evidence that the sudarium survived as a custom in Europe. So maybe Richard did invent the pocket handkerchief.

For more details, see Margaret Roe Designs, who also covers the Roman use of the sudarium.

*Richard was raised in France, where his father, Edward the Black Prince, held much land thanks to Edward III's successes in the Hundred Years War. In fact, it's pretty certain that Richard never bothered to learn English.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Black Death, Part 1 (of 4)

A timeline for the Bubonic Plague

(An incomplete list of) Breakouts of the Bubonic Plague:

540 C.E. -- Breaks out in Egypt and reaches Constantinople in 542.
1334 -- Constantinople
1345 -- Volga River Basin
1347-1351 -- Constantinople again, then Alexandria, Cyprus, Sicily; Italy; France and Germany, London; Norway, Scotland, Wales and Ireland; then Eastern Europe; then Russia

Then approximately once each decade for the next century, it appears again. Having taken the weakest among the population in the first go-round, smaller percentages of the population die each time.

1679 -- One last small outbreak in England, but the Plague strikes central Europe hard.
1711 -- Austria
1770 -- Balkans for two years
1855 -- "The Third Pandemic" begins in China and spreads throughout the world, but with greatest losses in China and India; 12,000,000 dead
1877 -- Third Pandemic hits Russia, China, India again
1889 -- Third Pandemic finally peters out
1894 -- Alexandre Yersin isolates the bacterium that causes the Bubonic Plague (called Yersinia pestis after him); Yersin realizes rats are the mode of transport. The pandemic is ended in China in 1896.

2005 -- In September, three mice infected with Bubonic Plague go missing from laboratory in New Jersey.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Nicholas Oresme

Does the Earth rotate?

Born in  the 1320s, Nicholas (or Nicolas) Oresme likely came from humble beginnings; we assume this because he attended the College of Navarre, a royally funded and sponsored college for those who could not afford the University of Paris. He had his master of arts by 1342, and received his doctorate in 1356. ne of his published works was:

Livre du ciel et du monde
(The Book of Heaven and Earth)
In this work he discussed the arguments for and against the rotation of the Earth.
  • He dismissed the notion that a rotating Earth would leave all the air behind, or cause a constant wind from east to west, pointing out that everything with the Earth would also rotate, including the air and water.
  • He rejects as figures of speech any biblical passages that seem to support a fixed Earth or a moving sun. (Keep in mind even today we unanimously speak about the beauty of the sun setting when it's really the Earth rising!)
  • He points out that it makes more sense for the Earth to move than for the (presumably more expansive and massive) heavenly spheres and Sun to move.
  • He assures his readers that all the movements we see in the heavens could be accounted for by a rotating Earth.
  • Then he assures the reader that everyone including himself thinks the heavens move around the earth, and after all he has no real evidence to the contrary!

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Oxford Calculators

The men before Galileo

In the first half of the 1300s, a handful of scholars at Oxford University, most of whom were at Merton College, applied observation and careful thought to what had been proposed by Aristotle and other Classical philosophers.

Their first innovation was to distinguish between kinematics (motion of bodies regardless of the forces acting upon them) and dynamics (the study of the forces that initiate or affect motion). Their use of observation, experimentation, and mathematics led them to understand that Aristotle was wrong when he said the motion/speed of a falling body was determined by its weight (which, to Aristotle, was affected by the proportions in the object of the four elements; water and earth tended to make it fall faster, while a greater amount of fire or air made it fall more slowly). They understood that two bodies of different weights accelerated similarly; they were able to prove this with math. This knowledge spread to universities on the continent. Nicholas Oresme, a bishop in France, and Giovanni di Casali, a Franciscan in Italy, were each inspired to produce graphs and diagrams to explain this motion.

Despite this dissemination of information, it is assumed that these works were not likely to have been known by Galileo (1564-1642), who gets the credit in physics texts for developing the theory of falling bodies.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

International Banking

The Collapse of the 1340s

Florence was the headquarters for some powerful families in the Middle Ages who used their wealth and business acumen (and the stability of the Florentine gold florin) to create the first international banking corporations. Two of the biggest, run by the Bardi and Peruzzi families, collapsed in 1346 and 1343, respectively. The excuse for the collapse is usually given as Edward III of England's default on loans he took to pay for expenses during the Hundred Years War. Estimates put Edward's debts at 900,000 florins to the Bardi and 600,000 to the Peruzzi--an enormous sum in any age.

More recent assessments of the situation, however, spread the blame. Edward's expenses were incurred earlier, and the two banks survived for some years afterward. Also, a third bank, the Acciaiuoli, failed in 1343 without having loaned any money to England. Various Florentine banks also loaned money to finance a war against Castracane of Lucca, and to put down a peasant revolt in Flanders. Also, an uprising in September 1343 in Florence created vast property damage that would have affected the banks (according to the 16th century historian Giovanni Villani).

It is impossible to understand every aspect of the collapse of the 1340s, especially since records such as we expect modern companies to maintain were not kept, and records that were kept did not necessarily survive until today. We do know that, in a world where nations did not maintain careful accounting practices, or have "social safety nets" established, it took very little to create widespread economic turmoil.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Domus Conversorum

from a sketch by Matthew Paris
 In 1232, King Henry III of England established the Domus Conversorum, the "House of Converts" or "Converts Inn." Jews who wished to convert to Christianity were encouraged to give up all their possessions and enter the Domus, where they would have their needs met and would be instructed in their new religion. A tax was laid on all Jews in England aged 12 and above for the upkeep,  and several religious houses made contributions as well. Men in the Domus received 1.5p (pence) per day, women received 1p.

In 1290, when Edward I expelled all the Jews from England, the Domus contained only about 80 converts. A chaplain and a warden attended to the spiritual and material needs of the converts. Over the centuries, as the number of converts waned, the building (situated on Chancery Lane on what was originally the western border of London) became used for storage of public records, and the warden was put in charge of keeping the records.

From the mid-14th century until the early 1600s, only a few dozen Jews entered the Domus, having arrived on England's shores for one reason or another. An act of Parliament in 1891 finally eliminated the official purpose of the Domus Conversorum. The Records Office in London occupies the site today.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Town vs. Gown

Town vs. Gown
The St. Scholastica Day Riot

This phrase is commonly used to refer to conflicts between members of a university and the community in which it was located.

Perhaps the most famous instance of Town vs. Gown took place on February 10, 1355, in Oxford. Two students (Roger de Chesterfield & Walter Spryngeheuse) complained about the ale at the Swyndlestock Tavern (located at the southwest corner of the intersection called Carfax). The argument led to the students flinging their drinks in the face of the tavern keeper and beating him. When the mayor of Oxford asked the university chancellor to punish the students (all students fell under the jurisdiction of the university, not the town), and the chancellor refused, a mob of students decided to attack the mayor and town. The town called for help from the surrounding countryside, and attacked the university. The resulting riot lasted two days and killed (supposedly) 63 students and 30 townspeople.