Friday, November 29, 2013

Cooking the Bird

There are several collections of medieval recipes in existence, both in printed form and online; this blog has referenced them before. A new one may be making its way into the world soon. And by "new" I mean one that is very old.

Earlier this year, a researcher at Cambridge* discovered, while looking at a 12th century manuscript on medicines from Durham Cathedral, what she realized was a series of recipes that were culinary, not medicinal. The manuscript was produced about 1140, making these recipes the earliest known in Medieval England, predating any others previously discovered by about 150 years.

One of the recipes might be worth trying for Thanksgiving:
For “hen in winter’: heat garlic, pepper and sage with water.
This terseness is typical of medieval recipes. My linking of it with Thanksgiving is explained by the following:
The recipes are for sauces to accompany mutton, chicken, duck, pork and beef. There’s even a seasonal version of the chicken recipe, charmingly called “hen in winter”. We believe this recipe is simply a seasonal variation, using ingredients available in the colder months and specifying “hen” rather than “chicken”, meaning it was an older bird as it would be by that time of year. The sauces typically feature parsley, sage, pepper, garlic, mustard and coriander which I suspect may give them a middle eastern, Lebanese feel when we recreate them. According to the text, one of the recipes comes from the Poitou region of what is now modern central western France. This proves international travellers to Durham brought recipes with them. [source]
The Blackfriars Restaurant in Newcastle attempted to recreate the sauces and dishes in April 2013. Ultimately, an analysis of the manuscript and the refined recipes themselves will be published, giving us more insight into the medieval diet, cultural practices, and perhaps even international communication and trade.

*Professor Faith Wallis of McGill University, for the record.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Medieval Thanksgiving

In a document of 1051, the former Queen of Poland, Richeza, grants to her nephew, the palatine count Henry I, the possession of Cochem Castle. This is the first reference to Cochem Castle, which is believed to have been built about the year 1000.

Rising over 300 feet above the Moselle River, it was built with 12-foot thick walls enclosing an original 17x17-foot square keep in the Romanesque style. There is evidence of rebuilding/expansion around 1056, presumably by count Henry. King Konrad III (1093-1152) took control of the castle from the palatinate counts (who asserted extensive control locally), turning it into a castle under the rule of the king. The castle continued to change hands, however, finally ending up occupied by Louis XIV, the Sun King, in 1688. French troops destroyed the town and the castle with explosives in 1689. It lay in ruins until 1868, when it was purchased by a businessman who began rebuilding it in the neo-Gothic style as a summer residence.

Now, however, it is owned by the town of Cochem and managed as a tourist attraction by Reichsburg Cochem Ltd. Besides tours, one of the chief attractions is the restaurant, open daily until 6:00pm. They also offer a Medieval Feast, a four-hour event in which you eat with your hands and are entertained by jesters. These dinners are offered on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Which means that the feast hall is available on Thursday nights, especially in late November, when Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. If you are American military personnel stationed in Germany, you can take part in a USO-organized Medieval Thanksgiving Dinner at Cochem Castle. For $99/person, you get transportation to the castle with a USO guide, a tour of the castle, the aforementioned Medieval Feast, plenty of food, two drinks, entertainment, and a knighting ceremony at the climax of the evening.

By the time you read this, it will be too late to join (maybe), but you can always start planning for the future.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Christian Buddha

The Middle Ages loved stories about saints finding God. Here is one of them, that was repeated through the centuries:
Many inhabitants of India had been converted by the Apostle St. Thomas and were leading Christian lives. In the third or fourth century King Abenner (Avenier) persecuted the Church. The astrologers had foretold that his son Josaphat would one day become a Christian. To prevent this the prince was kept in close confinement. But, in spite of all precautions, Barlaam, a hermit of Senaar, met him and brought him to the true Faith. Abenner tried his best to pervert Josaphat, but, not succeeding, he shared the government with him. Later Abenner himself became a Christian, and, abdicating the throne, became a hermit. Josaphat governed alone for a time, then resigned, went into the desert, found his former teacher Barlaam, and with him spent his remaining years in holiness. Years after their death, the bodies were brought to India and their grave became renowned by miracles. [source]
Typical hagiographical story of the creation of Saints Barlaam and Josaphat. Never officially canonized, they were nonetheless embraced by the Roman list of martyrs (with a feast day of 27 November) and the Eastern Orthodox church with a feast day of 26 August (Greeks) or 19 November (Russians).

The story of Josaphat turning from the life of a prince to the life of an ascetic mirrors that of Buddha. On the other hand, it mirrors the stories of several Christian saints, so the identification with Buddha seems a little presumptuous. On the other hand, Josaphat is a curious name: it sounds like Joseph, which seems biblical; it took centuries before a scholar realized it really derived from Arabic Yūdasaf, which is derived from the Sanskrit Bodhisattva, "Enlightened One." A monk named Euthymios of Athos translated it into Greek in the early 11th century, his work was translated into Latin in 1048, and the story spread from there with the names transformed to Barlaam and Josaphat.

Also, there are details of the story—like Barlaam showing Josaphat a vision of the pit of Hell that awaited him if he did not become a Christian—that are lifted directly from the story of Buddha.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The King That Almost Was

I mentioned here that, after the Battle of Hastings, another claimant to the throne of England had to flee to Scotland in the face of William of Normandy's success. There, Edward's sister Margaret married King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland, and Edward gave up the dream of his line ruling England.

There was, however, a chance for the throne to pass back to his family, after all.

William of Normandy divided his rule by giving Normandy to his eldest son, Robert Curthose, and England to a younger son, William Rufus. When William Rufus was killed in a hunting accident in 1100, the youngest son, Henry, became Henry I of England. In 1105, prompted by his older brother Robert's poor performance, Henry invaded Normandy, succeeding in claiming Normandy for his own within a year.

Henry was not just a good soldier; he was a decent politician. He chose to placate his Anglo-Saxon subjects by marrying a "local" girl, Matilda of Scotland. (There was a small snag, in that she was believed to be a nun, but that was settled eventually.) Matilda was the daughter of Malcolm Canmore and St. Margaret of Scotland, and therefore the granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, a previous Anglo-Saxon king. Marrying her and having heirs would put a combined Norman-Saxon king on the throne. That king was William Adelin ("Adelin" was a form of Ætheling, the Anglo-Saxon word for "prince" or "noble"). He was born in 1103, and while in his teens was called rex designatus [King designate].

Then came the night of 25 November, when William Adelin and his brothers made some bad decisions while in command of the White Ship on their way back to England from Normandy. Henry lost all his sons in the disaster. Henry's attempt to place his daughter on the throne led to a period called The Anarchy, after which the throne was taken by the very un-Saxon (and reportedly unpleasant) Stephen of Blois.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Second Pope

Clement being thrown into the sea,
by Bernardino Fungal of Siena (1460-1516)
If Clement truly was the second pope, following Peter (there are conflicting lists from the Classical Era), then he is too early for a Medieval blog, but he is connected to the previous post.

Clement was pope about 92-99 CE, during which time he penned one of the earliest known Christian documents outside of the New Testament, a letter to the Corinthians called the First Epistle of Clement, in which he advises them, among other things, that the recent removal from office of some presbyters was inappropriate, since they had not committed any moral offenses. He also suggests they consider the letter of Paul to the Corinthians. Paul mentions a companion named Clement in his letter to the Philippians (4:3); this may be the same Clement.

Clement was banished by Emperor Trajan to the Crimea. He continued to minister, organizing prayer and services among the inhabitants, establishing dozens of churches, and generally bringing Christianity to the country. A miracle is attributed to him at this time: slaking the thirst of 2000 men. Hearing this, Trajan had him thrown into the sea with an iron anchor tied to him.

One would expect that to be the final word on Clement and his martyrdom, but once each year the tide recedes so far that a chapel is revealed with the martyr's bones inside. This story, however, is not heard of until a few hundred years after Clement's death. (The story is known to Gregory of Tours.)

For this, he was named patron saint of sailors. Vikings embraced the story of someone who watched over sailors, which led to establishing churches and parishes of St. Clement as part of Viking settlements in England.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Viking Urban Renewal

When we think of the Viking invasions of England, we usually think of the destruction of villages and people's lives. This is understandable, since the Vikings were coming for land and plunder, not to make friends. Ironically, however, the Vikings were responsible for a significant expansion of urban centers in England at the end of the 9th century and beginning of the 10th.

Archaeological excavations of prominent towns in England show that many of them experienced a  surge in growth during the above-mentioned half-century span. York, Cambridge, Stamford, Lincoln and Norwich are just a few of the cities that show the features that characterize this expansion:
They came to form separate urban nuclei of a distinctive but hitherto unrecognized topographical type, which show common characteristics: they usually developed as linear settlements on low-lying ground along existing routeways leading to earlier centres, many of them at bridging points of major rivers. All of them occupied areas with easy access to river and estuarine navigation. [Jeremy Haslam, Early Medieval Towns in Britain, 2010, Shire Publications]
The assumed catalyst for this change from the British settlements to the more robust Viking towns is the opportunities for trade opened up by the new Viking inhabitants. The Vikings had more advanced ships, capable of longer trips, and they traded not only with Europe and the Scandinavian markets, but also with Asian markets.

There is an additional curious feature shared by many of these settlements. Many of them include churches dedicated to St. Clement. This is no coincidence, but that's a story for another day.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Deer Park

Deer park at Kentchurch Court, UK
A royal prerogative in many eras and cultures was to be able to hunt where and when the ruler wished. From at least Anglo-Saxon times forward, England had deer parks for the convenience of the ruling class.

Deer parks were often constructed with a bank topped with a pale, or fence. Inside the bank was a ditch, unenticing to deer. Rather than "corral" the deer, large parks were built in already forested areas where deer were likely to be, and deer leaps were constructed. A deer leap was a gentle ramp that led from outside the park over the bank and down a narrower ramp to the park. The ditch in that area would be much deeper, and the likelihood of deer wandering out again was slim.

The area inside was landscaped to make it suitable for deer and yet still attractive to garden-loving people. Trees were trimmed to make the deer more visible, and yet still give them a place to flee so that the hunt was not boring. Parks could be many miles in circumference—Woodstock, north of Oxford, was seven miles around—or small enough to be visible all at once.

Not all parks were for the use of the king. Other nobles with sufficient land could establish them, but only after being granted a royal license "to empark." This might be done less for sport than for ensuring a steady supply of venison. Because of the number of parks, deer could usually be hunted only by the nobility. Venison, therefore, became essentially a dish for the table of nobility, not a meat one could find at market.

Deer parks took effort to maintain, however, and this probably led to their demise. Henry III's bailiff, for instance, in 1251 had "to remove the bodies of dead beasts and swine which are rotting in the park"—a time-consuming task, given the area to be covered in the several deer parks owned by the king. There was also the trimming of trees to be done, and maintaining the pale. The fact that the deer were hemmed in sometimes led to starvation, especially in winter when they could not range for food. Few deer parks exist today, unless they have been revived by an interest in history.

...or ecology: at least one scholar sees value in studying deer parks now, saying
Where deer parks survive, and even this is rare, they do so as a unique landscape separated in time and function from their origins. They reflect the landscapes of the time and place they were emparked and the changes in economic function and ecology over a long lifespan. ["The Ecology and Economics of Medieval Deer Parks," Ian D. Rotherham, Landscape Archaeology and Ecology, 2007]

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Walking Dead

Orderic Vitalis (1075-c.1142) has been mentioned here and here for his history writing. The 13 books of his Historia ecclesiastica ["Ecclesiastical history"] told many tales of his time that had nothing to do with the Church. One of his anecdotes is truly outré.

While discussing some of the travails of William Rufus, he interjects a tale of a priest of Lisieux that took place on 1 January 1091. The priest, heading home at night from visiting a sick man, heard a loud noise coming along the moonlit road, as of an army. He decided to flee toward some trees in a field to hide himself, but as he ran toward them*
he was stopped by a man of enormous stature, armed with a massive club, who, raising his weapon above his head, shouted to him, "Stand! Take not a step further!" The priest, frozen with terror, stood motionless, leaning on his staff.
The giant stands by his side and awaits the arrival of the crowd making the noise.
a great crowd of people came by on foot, carrying on their heads and shoulders, sheep, clothes, furniture, and moveables of all descriptions, such as robbers are in the habit of pillaging. All were making great lamentations and urging one another to hasten their steps. Among them the priest recognized a number of his neighbours who had lately died, and heard them bewailing the excruciating sufferings with which they were tormented for their evil deeds. They were followed by a troop of corpse-bearers, who were joined by the giant already mentioned.
But there was more after this:
Then followed a crowd of women who seemed to the priest to be innumerable. They were mounted on horseback, riding in female fashion, with women's saddles which were stuck with red-hot nails. The wind often lifted them a cubit from their saddles, and then let them drop again on the sharp points. Their haunches thus punctured with the burning nails, and suffering horrible torments from the wounds and the scorching heat, the women pitiably ejaculated, woe! woe! and made open confession of the sins for which they were punished, undergoing in this manner fire and stench and unutterable tortures for the obscene allurements and filthy delights to which they had abandoned themselves when living among men.
He then sees a knight on horseback, who stops to speak to him, revealing himself as the priest's brother, and says:
"You deserve to die, and to be dragged with us to partake of the torments we suffer, because you have rashly laid hands on things which belong to our reprobate crew; no other living man ever dared to make such an attempt. But the mass you sang to-day has saved you from perishing. It is also permitted me thus to appear to you, and unfold to you my wretched condition. After I had conferred with you in Normandy, I took leave of you and crossed over to England, where, by the Creator's order, my life ended, and I have undergone intense suffering for the grievous sins with which I was burdened."
There is more (I have placed the whole story here). After this experience, the priest falls ill, but recovers to live another 15 years.

Orderic claims that he was told this tale directly by the priest who experienced it.

*Excerpts all from The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, trans. Thomas Forester, 1956.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Medieval Benghazi

The port at Benghazi, where it all began
Benghazi has been much in the news lately. As with any part of the Eastern Hemisphere, it has been around long enough to have medieval history.

Hundreds of years BCE (sources vary regarding the date of its founding), a city called Euesperides was founded by the Greeks on the coast of the Mediterranean. It was likely named in honor of the Hesperides, the daughters of Hesperus who tended a peaceful garden in the extreme West. Coins from Euesperides dating as far back as 480 BCE have been found, with Delphi on one side and the silphium plant on the other. Silphium, valued as a spice and a medicine, was a major export; today, however, we have no idea what plant species it was.

Herodotus mentions it in his History when the satrap of Egypt sends a force to conquer the Cyreneans there. The Greek historian Thucydides mentions it being besieged by "Libyans"; the town was saved that time by a fleet led by a Spartan general who arrived by accident due to unpredictable winds. One of their kings, Arcesilaus IV, competed in the Pythian Games* in 414 BCE.

Euesperides moved in the mid 3rd century BCE—presumably because of the silting up of the lagoon its ships used—and was renamed Berenice (for the daughter of King Magas of Cyrene. Ancient Berenice was located under what is now the center of the modern city.) The city later came under Roman rule and existed for several centuries, but dwindled to a small settlement. St. Anthony the Great may have traveled through there on his way to be a hermit in the desert.

In the 13th century, the location became a stopping place for Genoese merchants who wished to trade with the interior. (Remember, the Genoese were spreading out all over the mediterranean, even as far as Monaco.) By the 1500s, it was appearing on maps as Marsa ibn Ghazi. I have not discovered who the "sons of Ghazi" were for whom it is now named, but Ghazi is a Muslim title of respect, so it may have a non-specific origin.

Benghazi has been through many changes of name, and its long history is fraught with conflict and attempts—some successful—for regime change.

*The Olympian Games were not the only "world-wide" athletic competitions in the Classical World.

Monday, November 18, 2013

William Tell: The True Story

...and by "true story" I mean "the myth."

Today is the anniversary of William Tell's famous feat in which he shot an arrow through an apple on his son's head with a crossbow bolt. It happened in 1307, and here's the whole story.

In 1307, the new advocate of the Swiss town of Altdorf was an arrogant man named Gessler. He had a hat set on a pole in the town square, and all who passed were supposed to bow to the hat as a sign of respect for Gessler. One day, Wilhelm Tell and his son came into town and passed the hat without paying their respects, for which they were arrested. Gessler said they would be released if Tell—who was famous for his strength, his mountain-climbing skill, and his archery skill—could shoot an apple off his son's head. Tell drew two crossbow bolts from his quiver, and split the apple on the attempt.

Gessler asked him "Why the second arrow?" Tell admitted that, if he had missed and killed his son, the second arrow would have gone right into Gessler. Gessler had Tell re-arrested and sent to prison at Küssnacht castle. On the way there, the ship carrying him became endangered in a storm on Lake Lucerne, and Tell was unbound by the crew to help row to safety. Tell escaped the boat at a rocky site even now called Tellsplatte [German: "Tell's slab"]. Tell proceeded to Küssnacht and waited for Gessler, whom he killed with an arrow. His defiance helped inspire the rebellion that led to the Swiss Confederacy. He later fought for Switzerland in the Battle of Morgarten (1315). He died in 1354.

All this early-14th century detail comes from a history of Switzerland written about 1570 (and not published until a couple centuries later) by historian Ægidius (Giles) Tschudi, who is known to have been less than accurate in discussing his own career and family. William Tell's name is mentioned as early as 1475, but without all the detail offered by Tschudi, whose source for the story is unknown.

It also needs pointing out that the idea of a heroic archer who defies authority is seen earlier in England (Robin Hood, who supposedly harried Prince/King John in the late 12th century) and the Danish Palnatoki, who is forced in to the same contest by King Harald Bluetooth. Palnatoki also pulls more than one arrow from his quiver, intending to kill Harald if Palnatoki's son dies.

The legend of William Tell has inspired plays, operas, art and anecdotes, but his historicity is extremely doubtful.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Alchemist

Albertus Magnus and a hermaphrodite
Symbola aureæ mensæ
We haven't talked about Albertus Magnus since his birthday last year. We really should address the subject for which he is usually known by people who don't know anything else about him: alchemy. Unfortunately, the evidence that he knew any alchemy comes from legends and documents that accrued to his reputation after his death. In fact, his own words are interpreted to deny the possibility of producing something by magic. He wrote ars non potest dare formam substantialem [Latin: "Art alone is not able to make a substantial form"]. Later generations, amazed by his vast knowledge, attributed many writings on alchemy to him. In the absence of any other authorial data, they are now attributed to "pseudo-Albertus Magnus."

There is, for instance, a legend that he managed to transform simple metal into gold, using the Philosopher's Stone. Supposedly, he gave the Stone to his pupil, Thomas Aquinas, prior to Magnus' death. The legend fails to take into account that Aquinas died six years before Magnus. The legend further states that Aquinas destroyed the Stone, fearing a connection with less-than-divine powers. This is recorded in a 1617 work on alchemy called Symbola aureæ mensæ [Latin: "Symbols of the golden table"], by Michael Maier. It is also said that he changed the weather of a winter day to a warm spring day with flowers blooming so that a party could be held outside.

He is also credited (supposedly according to eyewitnesses) with having created an automaton in his laboratory that could speak and perform menial tasks.

As for writings that we can firmly attribute to him, there is little there about alchemy. His De mineralibus [Latin: "Concerning minerals"] alludes to the occult power found in stones, but never explains what those powers might be. His chemical experiments seem to have led to the discovery of arsenic and silver nitrate.

His commentaries on Aristotle, and his ability to blend Aristotelian logic with Christianity, as well as his various (legitimate) experiments, gained him such a reputation for intelligence that it is not surprising that future authors would assume he achieved magical results.

Thursday, November 14, 2013


from a Latin copy of Gynæcology by Soranus of Ephesus
Hysteria describes two different states: exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement, and as a psychological disorder in which psychological stress can manifest physical symptoms. The word is derived from the Greek word for uterus, ὑστέρα [hystera]. Hysteria was once assumed to be solely a female medical problem.

It seems to have started with Hippocrates (c.460-c.370 BCE), who maintained that men and women had entirely different bodies: men's humors were hot and dry by nature, women's were wet and cold. Women also had different processes, such as menstruation. Hippocrates did not pass judgment on these differences; they merely needed to be addressed by the practitioner of medicine.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE), however, had other ideas. He postulated that processes like menstruation could be harmful to men, who should avoid women during that time. He also felt men's bodies were perfect and women's were flawed. Women were irrational and unbalanced—literally "unbalanced," because he believed that the uterus "wandered" in the body.

By the time medieval medicine came along, the authority of Aristotle made it clear: over-emotional women were suffering from being unbalanced because of their womb. Hysteria could be treated by removing the source of the unbalance, and the hysterectomy was "born." (Sorry.) Unfortunately, as summarized in this abstract:
The procedure was performed by Soranus of Ephesus 120 years after the birth of Christ, and the many reports of its use in the middle ages were nearly always for the extirpation of an inverted uterus and the patients rarely survived. [source]
The procedure wasn't considered remotely safe until antiseptic techniques began in the 19th century. Even so, it wasn't until the 20th century that diagnoses of hysteria declined, possibly because the general public came to understand that "hysteria" was too easily used as a label for anxiety.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


The word "iconoclast" today usually denotes someone who challenges tradition, but the origin of the word was in the religiously and politically charged world of Constantinople in the Early Middle Ages.

To be honest, "iconoclast" (a destroyer of religious images belonging to his own culture) and its opposite, "iconodule" or "iconophile," were terms created much later by historians to describe the iconomachia (war of icons) of the late 8th and early 9th centuries in the Byzantine Empire.

Each side had its arguments, of course. The iconoclasts invoked the third of Moses 10 Commandments against "making graven images." They argued that any proper image had to be made from the same substance as the original, and therefore wood and stone were not appropriate to portray flesh. The only substance available to represent Christ was the Eucharist, which had been decreed to be Christ's flesh. Also, images were incapable of representing Christ's divinity as well as his humanity. Images had been condemned in churches by the Synod of Elvira in 305, because they might distract people from the true reason for being in church.

The iconodules had their own reasons. Once God incarnated as Jesus, representations of the divine on Earth became justified. God did tell Moses to add cherubim to the Ark. Although idols might be false, icons represented important real people and things. Also, there were miracles associated with icons, attesting to divine approval.

There were two periods, called the First Iconoclasm—from 726-787, begun by Emperor Leo III when he replaced an image of Christ with a cross at the entrance to the palace—and the Second Iconoclasm—in 814-842, when Emperor Leo V thought his military failures were the result of displeasing God. Leo III's major opponent was the venerable St. John of Damascus. Leo V had to contend with the prolific pen of St. Theodore of Stoudios.

Iconoclasm was largely an Eastern Christian conflict. Western Christianity never became seriously concerned with it, to the delight of art historians.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The First Abolitionist

St. Theodore of Stoudios (759-11 November 826 CE) was a highly educated member of a well-connected family in Constantinople. His father and uncle were public officials who controlled a large part of the finances in the reign of Constantine V (741-755). He was probably in line for a very nice civil service position, but his uncle's influence changed his fate.

The uncle, Platon, left civil service during the reign of Constantine's successor, Leo IV (775-780), and entered a monastery in Bithynia (east of Constantinople, on the shore of the Black Sea). Upon the death of Leo, Platon persuaded his sister's entire family to take monastic vows. They all returned with him to Bithynia, and established the Sakkudion Monastery on the family estate.

The family did not exactly stay away from politics, however. Leo was succeeded by Constantine VI (776-797), who decided to put aside his first wife and marry her lady-in-waiting. In the absence of evidence that the first wife was an adulterer, this was not easy for anyone to swallow. The Patriarch Tarasios eventually consented to the divorce, but he refused to perform the second wedding (as was customary for a ruler), leaving it to a priest named Joseph of the Hagia Sophia.

Despite the fact that the new wife was a cousin of Theodore, he objected to the whole affair and called for the excommunication of Joseph and everyone who received sacraments from him, which would necessarily include Constantine and his new wife. He had no authority to enforce this, so no actions were taken. The emperor tried to make peace with his new wife's relatives; they refused; Constantine sent troops to the monastery to disperse the community and send Theodore and other monks to exile in Thessalonika. A year later, however, Constantine was deposed and his mother became the Empress Irene. She undid many of her wayward son's actions, including lifting the exile on the monks of the Sakkudion Monastery and imprisoning Joseph.

When an Arab attack in Bithynia forced the monks of Sakkudion to flee to Constantinople, Empress Irene offered Theodore the leadership of the defunct Stoudios monastery. He set about restoring the library and scriptorium, and redecorating the church. (Theodore was opposed to the strong Byzantine element of iconoclasm that forbade images.) He also started writing letters; lots of letters, which he sent to fellow monks near and far. In one of them he makes the first known statement against slavery. Writing to one Nicolas, he says:
Do not obtain any slave nor use in your private service or in that of the monastery over which you preside, or in the fields, man who was made in the image of God. For such an indulgence is only for those who live in the world. For you should yourself be as a servant to the brethren like-minded with you, at least in intention, even if in outward appearance you are reckoned to be master and teacher. [source]
It is interesting that he seems to condemn slavery because it is a "worldly" activity, not necessarily because it is inherently "bad." But it was a start.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Making Parchment

The term parchment is often applied to any animal skin used for writing on, but historically it was used for sheep or goat skin. Cow or calf skin was also used, but was turned into vellum. Very fine vellum came from very young calves, or even still-born calves. These pages were smaller than the pages that could be made from adult animals.

Although vellum is from the same word as calf, Latin vitellus, parchment has nothing to do with the material. It derives from Pergamum, where it is said parchment was invented during a dearth of the export of papyrus out of Alexandria.* According to Pliny (27-79 BCE), this was under King Eumenes; he does not distinguish, however, if this was Eumenes I (263-241 BCE) or Eumenes II (197-158 BCE).

The person who turned animal skins into parchment in the Middle Ages was called a parchmenter. The parchmenter needed to pick skins carefully. The hair of the animal was a consideration, since the skin below would match it. Black-furred animals would yield darker parchment, less suitable for writing on.

Making parchment in the Middle Ages was fairly straightforward. The skin was placed in cold water for at least a day to clean off any blood and dirt. A lime solution was next, to eliminate the hair. For a week, the skins would be stirred with long wooden poles a few times each day. After the lime bath, they would be stretched on a wooden frame, with thread or leather thongs attached through numerous holes around the edge to ensure that it stretched and dried flat. The skin would be scraped with a curved blade to remove any remaining hair. The occasional oval hole seen in parchments was not the result of bookworms. Imperfections from tick bites in the living animal produced holes in the skins that would expand during the stretching and drying process.
Scraping the parchment was an ongoing process. By the 12th century, scraping skins to tissue thinness was common. Extensive rubbing with chalk and pumice helped produce a smooth surface that would take ink without spreading through the imperfections in the surface.

After the treatment, it was removed from the frame. It was soft and supple enough to roll up until needed, when it was cut into sheets that were usually sold by the dozen.

*Supposedly, Alexandria was using so much of the papyrus reed that it was being over-harvested; they simply could not afford to export any.

Friday, November 8, 2013

More About Books

We know that books were rare prior to the development of the movable type printing press, but they weren't unknown. They could be a status symbol, and so those who could afford them had books made (which usually meant copied from existing works) for their private libraries. The post-medieval Robert Cotton liked collecting books, including manuscripts from the generations prior to his.

How rare were books? Who had them? What would constitute "a lot" of books?

We know of about 76,000 wills that survive from the 14th and 15th centuries. You expect wills to be made by people who had items of value that were worth disbursing to specific people. An examination of one-tenth of these wills reveals that only 388 mention books. Presumably, books would be mentioned specifically, given the care and expense they represented. But there were books around, so who had them? Here's one case of a private library.

The Chaucer scholar Derek Brewer tells us about William Ravenstone, a schoolmaster at the Almonry* Cathedral School of St. Paul's in London. Ravenstone had 84 books, which was an extraordinary number for a private library. He had Latin books on grammar, poetry, mathematics, music, and various Roman authors. In 1358, his will left them all to the school (where some argue the students would have access to them).

Thirty years before the Ravenstone collection was left to the school, it received the collection of a previous almoner, William Tolleshunt. His library included books on logic, grammar, natural history, medicine, civil and canon law, and theology.

Winchester College in 1446 and Eton College's charter written in 1440 (Eton opened in 1443) established libraries. At Eton (as at other libraries of the time), the books were chained to desks so that they could be read but not taken away.

Each college required only a single room to house all their books.

*An almonry was a place where alms were given out to the poor; those who worked there distributing alms were called "almoners."

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Medieval Meteors

Woodcut showing meteorite coming to Ensisheim.
Today is the anniversary of the first meteorite the exact date of whose fall to Earth has been recorded. It was in 1492, around noon, when a young boy heard an explosion and observed a rock fall from the sky, burying itself in a wheat field outside the town of Ensisheim in what is now France (but was then Austria). The sound of the explosion was heard up to 150 kilometers away. Townspeople came to investigate and found a 127-kilogram triangular rock in a pit a meter deep. They retrieved it from its trench and immediately started chipping pieces from it, until a local authority stopped them, ordering the rock to be delivered to the steps of the local church and preserved pending an investigation.

But that was far from the first meteor or meteorite recorded.* The Journal for the History of Astronomy in 1978 published "Meteors, Meteor Showers and Meteorites in the Middle Ages: From European Medieval Sources." The article lists every meteoritic phenomenon it could find by carefully scouring historical texts, and includes items such as:
453 or 454 — Tres magni lapides (three big stones). Three meteorites fell in Thrace 
518 — Alius ignis . . . instar scintillarum (another fire sparklike). A meteor. Date uncertain. Theophanis Chronographia 
557 — Discursus stellarum (moving stars). A shower lasting the whole night that caused terror. Date uncertain. G. Cedrenus
There are several pages of entries. Meteoric phenomena could be seen as good or evil, often depending upon their proximity to events in the lives of the observers.

As for the Ensisheim Meteor, it currently resides in the Ensisheim museum and is toasted every year by The Brotherhood of Saint-Georges of the Guardians of the Meteorite of Ensisheim. Maximilian I (1459-1519), son of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, visited the rock shortly after its fall and declared it a wonder from Heaven. He took some chips for himself and a friend. After years of people taking parts of it away, the rock is now roughly spherical and has been reduced to about 56 kilograms. I guess everyone wanted to have their little piece of Heaven.

*A meteor (first coined in the 16th century, from a Greek word meaning "lofty") is a rocky object that streaks through the atmosphere, heating up via friction and creating a streak of light; a meteorite is a meteor that reaches the ground. A small percentage of meteorites are composed of nickel and iron.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Gorleston Psalter

A friend dared me to comment on this article on vulgar scenes from illuminated medieval manuscripts. Never one to avoid a challenge, I picked a particular (and the least vulgar) piece from a particular manuscript.

The Gorleston Psalter is so-called because of its association with the church of St. Andrew in Gorleston, Norfolk. Psalter is from an Old English word that originally came from Greek and refers to a stringed instrument. It is used to refer to personal prayer books, or books with the  Old Testament Psalms. They are frequently illuminated—by hand, since they were made decades before printing. The illuminations are frequently a far cry from any pious topic or image, and seem designed to distract the viewer from boredom.

The illuminations of the Gorleston Psalter are usually represented by a fox carrying a goose in its mouth (the duck is actually saying "queck"); this may be because it is the only straightforward image that doesn't take a left turn into the fantastical. Above (from the article) is a bishop bowing his head before the executioner's axe; the executioner is a rabbit.

Go here and see how the British Library has put the Psalter online. You can see the creature with a bill and a man's face coming out of its ass, and many other odd and exotic combinations of personified animals or human-beast hybrids.

Interest in the Gorleston Psalter was revived about a decade ago when the Macclesfield Psalter unexpectedly surfaced. The artwork in the Macclesfield was so similar to the Gorleston that it is accepted that the artist and copyist was the same for both. Internal cues link both to the church of St. Andrew's in Gorleston. The owner put the Macclesfield Psalter up for auction at Sotheby's. It was about to go to California until a coalition of several British celebrities began a funding campaign that matched the winning bid of £1.7 million and kept the Psalter in England.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Ransom of Captives

St. Felix of Valois
Among other accomplishments, the Crusades created a large number of Christians held captive by non-Christians. These captives, held in far-off lands, could languish for years in horrible conditions. There was no Amnesty International to care about them. That changed, starting with an unassuming man named Felix of Valois (16 April 1127 - 4 November 1212).

Felix, born in the province of Valois, decided at an early age to renounce the worldly life and become a hermit in the woods of the Diocese of Meaux. His saintly reputation drew a priest, John of Matha, to come stay with him. John convinced Felix that they should found an order focused on redeeming captives held by non-Christians.

The two men traveled to Rome, where they met with Pope Innocent III. Innocent (who would later be responsible for approving the Franciscans) approved their order, The Order of the Most Holy Trinity for the Redemption of the Captives. The members are called Trinitarians. They returned to France where King Philip Augustus offered them financial support. The first hermitage was built in Meaux, on the site where Felix had been a hermit for years. Within 40 years, 600 Trinitarian houses had been established.

Felix died at the age of 85. No record of canonization exists, but the Trinitarians claim he was canonized by Pope Urban IV on 1 May 1262. The order founded by him remains, as well as other signs of his legacy. A St. Felix Church exists in Clifton Springs, NY;* it is part of the Diocese of Rochester NY. His feast day is 4 November.

*It was originally dedicated to St. Agnes, but the name was changed in 1895.

Monday, November 4, 2013


Recent stamp commemorating al-Khwārizmī
Algebra—a method for doing computations using non-number symbols (such as "x" and "y") in equations—keeps coming up in conversations around me lately, and I realize I haven't addressed its Medieval origins yet.

Perhaps I should say Classical origins, since the Babylonians developed an arithmetical system for dealing with linear and quadratic equations. The Greeks, Chinese, and Egyptians used a kind of geometric algebra in the centuries BCE. A Greek mathematician in Alexandria in the 3rd century CE, Diophantus, is sometimes called the "Father of Algebra" based on his series of books, Arithmetica, that deal with solving algebraic equations.

Diophantus has a rival for that title, however.

An Arab mathematician named Muhammad ibn-Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (c.780-850) wrote a book in Baghdad in 825 called Kitab al-jabr wal-muqubala ["The book of restoration and balancing"]. Specifically, the process of turning the equation x - 2 = 12 to x = 14 was called jabr because one was "restoring" the x. The process of turning x + y = y + 7 into x = 7 was muqubala because one was "balancing" the two sides.

The word al-jabr, "restoration," eventually became the sole label for this method of mathematics.*

A Latin translation of his work was circulating in Europe in the 12th century. Fibonnaci is believed to have been exposed to Arabic mathematics, which might be why he was able to come close to solving the equation x3 + 2x2 + cx = d.

So al-Khwārizmī gets the title "Father of Algebra" because the branch of mathematics is named for his book describing it. He also gets the honor of naming a different mathematical term: his name was Latinized into Algorithmus, from which we derive the term "algorithm."

*Interestingly, this word's non-mathematical definition of "restoration" made it suitable for other uses.  It made its way into European parlance via Arabic, and "algebrista" became a title for a "bone-setter." The term could also apply to barbers, because they did bone-setting as well as blood-letting. (The term for a blood-letter was "sangrador.")

Friday, November 1, 2013


Yes, marshmallow. (Maybe Halloween has put me in mind of sweets.)

Althaea officinalia (the "marsh mallow") is a perennial that grows wild in salty marshes. Egyptians discovered that the root contained a sweet sap that could be used to sweeten cakes. The delicacy was reserved for Pharaohs.

The Greco-Roman world embraced the substance in mallows and believed it had medicinal value. The 1st century Dioscorides (cribbing from Pliny) wrote:
boiled in ... wine or chopped on its own, it works against wounds, tumors of the parotid gland[*], swellings in the glands of the neck, abcesses, inflamed breasts, inflammations of the anus, bruises, swellings, tensions of the sinews ... It works also against dysentery, blood loss and diarrhoea. [Hippocratic Recipes: Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth- and Fourth-century Greece, p.264]
Medieval Europe, willing to try anything suggested by the Classical world, discovered how sweet the mallow concoctions were and started using them as a sweet treat—with the bonus of them being healthful. An Italian cookbook of the 1400s—De Honesta Voluptuate et Valetudine [On Right Pleasure and Good Health], by Bartolomeo Platina—suggested several ways to season the substance. Medieval monks grew the mallow for its sweetness and medical properties. Herbalists turned it into treatments for sore throats and coughs, indigestion and toothache.

The marshmallow sap was used for liquids in the Middle Ages; it was 19th century French confectioners who whipped it into a solid candy by mixing it with egg whites and corn syrup. Nowadays it can be made without any recourse to the mallow plant. My personal favorite recipe is here (you would be surprised how easy it is to make, and how sticky it is to work with after it has "set"). If you would rather make it from actual marshmallow root, go here.

*The "parotid gland" is a salivary gland in the back of the mouth.