Friday, May 30, 2014

Ivar the Boneless

Ivar the Boneless, played by
Vaclovas Kiselevicius in the TV show
"The Dark Ages"
The post on Vikings in Ireland mentioned Ivar the Boneless, which was just begging for more detail on this fellow.

He was born Ivar Ragnarsson, the son of Ragnar Lodbrok and Aslaug Sigurdsdottir. Viking sagas considered him a ferocious warrior.

He was a leader (with his brother Halfdan) of the so-called "Great Heathen Army" that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says invaded East Anglia in 865 and then a year later marched northward and took York from the Northumbrians. A few years later, he left England, either to rule Dublin or to go back to take up rule in parts of Denmark and Sweden.

Curiously, this fearsome warrior, who was said to be so large that he towered over everyone else, had the nickname "the Boneless." It might have been some snake metaphor suggesting "slipperiness of character." His brother had the nickname "Snake in the eye" which might suggest that you could not trust him. We are not sure of that. But Viking sagas describe him with:
Only cartilage was where bone should have been , but otherwise he grew tall and handsome and in wisdom he was the best of their children. [link]
It is possible, since he was such a great fighter, that the epithet "the boneless" (in Norse: hinn beinlausi) referred to an extraordinary flexibility, which would have contributed to his fighting prowess. Suggestions that it refers to sexual impotence cannot, of course, be substantiated, although there is no evidence that he fathered any children, or even took a wife.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Vikings in Ireland

A sign of Viking presence in Ireland:
a Viking ship built in Dublin c. 1042
As alluded to in the post on King Edmund I, Ireland was the target of raids from Scandinavian countries almost as much as England. Based on hints in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, some believe the earliest raids took place in 795 at the island of Lambay off the coast north of Dublin. (In fact, "Lambay" is from Old Norse for "lamb island.")

There were, in fact, two separate periods of Viking incursion, separated by less than a single generation. The first was from 795 until 902, when (according to the Annals of Ulster, mentioned here) "The heathens were driven from Ireland." Those heathens (descendants and followers of Ivar the Boneless) seemed to hang about the Irish Sea, hassling Northumbria and Strathclyde. They returned to the mainland in 914, taking over Dublin.

Ireland was a good place from which to stage incursions into northern England. It was this clan of Ivar's that produced King Olaf III Guthfrithsson, who succeeded his father to become King of York and was driven out by King Edmund in 942.

Although typical Viking raids tended to plunder monasteries and towns and then depart, Ireland was good land for settlements. Viking and Irish intermarried, and produced a group now called "Norse-Gaels." Between the 12th and 14th centuries, the English referred to the Norse-Gaelic people living in Ireland as Ostmen, "East men," because of their origin in Scandinavia. They were considered ethnically and legally distinct from Irish, and lived in their own communities. The modern Oxmantown, now a suburb of Dublin, derives its name from Ostmentown, where Norse-Gaels lived outside of Dublin. According to a 2006 paper, Norse DNA is still found in the Irish population, especially in the areas of Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Wexford.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Edmund I

from a genealogy of the kings of England
Edmund I
Edmund the Magnificent
Edmund the Just
Edmund the Deed-Doer

It isn't often that we run across an early king of England who had so much good will from his people, especially one who ruled for only a few years.

Edmund was the younger brother of Æthelstan (sometimes thought of as "the Forgotten King"), and grandson of Alfred the Great. He came to power when Æthelstan died in 939. Although Edmund was King of England for only a few years (he died on 26 May 946), he distinguished himself in the eyes of his people.

A national crisis is always a good reason for people to rally around their king. King Olaf III of Dublin invaded and conquered Northumbria and the Midlands during Edmund's reign, but Edmund succeeded in reconquering them in 942 and 943. Edmund also conquered Strathclyde in the north, but made a treaty with King Malcolm I of Scotland in which Malcolm got Strathclyde and Malcolm and Edmund became allies. Edmund also had good relations with Ireland, since he was godfather to King Olaf of York (not the same as the King Olaf mentioned above).*

He was married twice: first to Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, by whom he had two children who would later become kings (Eadwig and Edgar, the father of Æthelred), and after her death to Æthelflæd of Damerham.

His death could probably have been easily avoided. While at church on 26 May, Edmund saw a thief who was supposed to be exiled. He attacked the thief, Leofa by name, who fought back and stabbed the king. Leofa didn't survive the encounter, either: he was attacked by the nobles present and killed. But the damage was done. Edmund died, leaving the kingdom to his brother, Eadred, who ruled for the next ten years, after which Edmund's sons succeeded him.

*You may guess that Ireland had a "Norse problem" just as England did.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Academic Regalia

Because medieval universities were often designed as breeding grounds for educated clerics, clerical robes were a standard form of dress. As time went on, however, simple black robes were not sufficient to distinguish the various levels of student, and an elaborate system of colors and styles developed to account for various levels of achievement, various schools of study, and even for different universities. Much of what we consider proper academic style now is derived from the traditions of Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

There are three major parts of the regalia: gowns, hoods, and caps. Basic features are described below, but understand that each institution can modify the styles for its own use.*

Gowns come primarily in three varieties. The baccalaureate (bachelor's degree) gown is plain, with open sleeves. The master's degree gown has a long sleeve with a slit at the elbow for the arm to extend through; the rest of the sleeve hangs down and is enclosed (for storing handkerchiefs?). The doctoral gown has long voluminous sleeves with three velvet chevrons or bars encircling them.

Hoods are likewise a distinguishing feature for the three levels of academic achievement, with bachelors wearing the plainest hoods, about three feet long, with the narrowest velvet band (of about 3") that goes around the throat. Masters have a 3.5" band with a 3-4 foot hood whose inside lining is of the university's colors. Doctors have a longer and wider hood with a 4" band around the throat.

The hood is also where color can distinguish the school of study. Time has provided color schemes for everything from Accounting (Drab) to Nursing (Apricot) to Veterinary Science (Gray). See an extensive list of subjects and colors here.

The mortarboard is carried when indoors and worn outdoors. Women used to be required/allowed to wear them indoors. The tassel is worn over the left quarter; some graduation ceremonies make a point of starting with the tassel over the right, and switching it after the conferring of degrees. Tassels are black, but doctoral tassels can be gold.

*This is a very basic description of the differences in academic regalia, inspired by the 150th Commencement at Bard College this past weekend.

Friday, May 23, 2014

What Skeletons Can Tell Us

Yesterday we mentioned Dr. Sharon DeWitte of the University of South Carolina, who examines skeletons from the Middle Ages to determine what she can about their lifestyle. So far, her research has included over 600 skeletons from the 11th through 14th centuries. She has particularly studied skeletons from the period just before and just after the Black Death. She found something curious:
“I found that a significantly higher number of people were living to really old ages after the Black Death. Many people lived beyond the age of 50 and particularly above the age of 70,” DeWitte said. “I honestly was surprised by how dramatic the difference was in their survival. I’ve analyzed risks of mortality within the pre-and post-Black Death populations, and the preliminary results suggest lower overall risks of mortality after the Black Death.” [source]
She attributes this to a few things: those who survived the Plague were more likely to be from a segment of the population that was healthier to begin with. Also, the population loss led to a food surplus that promoted greater health. We have already noted, for instance, the Statutes of Laborers, rules that were established (again and again) post-Plague to try to keep peasants from moving to other estates. The shortage of laborers meant workers had new opportunities to seek better wages that would lead to better living conditions.

In the future, she intends to collaborate with others to look at genetic variation in humans before and after the Plague. Perhaps she can learn how the massive "die off" perhaps reduced certain genes that made humans more susceptible to Plague, leaving future generations healthier.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Autopsying the Middle Ages

When learning about people in the Middle Ages, you can only go so far with records and archaeology. Sometimes you have to go to the people themselves—and not be dissuaded by the fact that they are dead.

It is said that "dead mean tell no tales"—a phrase nowadays associated irrevocably with Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride, but probably originated by John Dryden in The Spanish Friar (1681), act IV, sc. i—but in fact we can learn a lot about dead men by examining their bones.

Someone who is learning a lot about the Middle Ages from bones is anthropologist Sharon DeWitte.* She spends her summers traveling from the University of South Carolina to London where she is able to analyze the bones from medieval English skeletons.

What can she tell from skeletons?
DeWitte says where the two halves of the pelvis meet in the front and join in the rear provide consistent signs of adult aging. For children, teeth and the fusing of certain bones are among the best indicators of age. To determine sex, she looks for a wider pelvis in women and a squared jaw and skull made rugged along the forehead and back by testosterone in men.
She also examines for linear enamel hypoplasia, or little horizontal grooves that form on the teeth of children whose enamel formation was interrupted by malnutrition or infectious disease. Visible to the naked eye, these defects remain through adulthood and tell DeWitte the ages of when the health disturbances would have occurred.
Tomorrow, we will look at some of the other things she can discern about medieval disease and life-spans, and the surprising conclusions she has come to about the aftermath of the Black Death.

*This post inspired by and drawn from here.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Month of May from
British Library MS Harley 2332
I don't mean locating a mate, but the practice of locating a particular event somewhere in time. (And I don't refer to Phantom Time.) The Middle Ages kept records, and used dates for events, but interpreting those dates in a modern context can be tricky. The difficulty is not that they didn't have a calendar; it's that they had too many! Trying to understand dating conventions in medieval documents can be a chore because of the several methods that were in use.

DailyMedieval has already addressed one piece of the dating confusion: the shift from the Julian to Gregorian calendars, when correcting the calendar year to match the astronomical calendar required dropping 10 days from October of 1582 in Italy, Poland, Spain, and Portugal (other countries followed suit later).

Dates could be recorded in other ways that make life difficult for modern historians.

The calendar year began on 1 January, but for several centuries in England the civil and ecclesiastical year began on 25 March. (Four days after the spring equinox on 21 March was long enough for the naked eye to be certain that days were growing longer than nights.) So Chaucer could celebrate 1 January 1360 at home, but the Exchequer records would call it 1 January 1359; as far as the Exchequer was concerned, 1359 didn't end until 24 March.

Regnal years were the practice of starting a calendar with the coronation of the king. Henry VIII came to the throne on 22 August 1485. Therefore, events and records dated in "1 Henry VIII" took place from 22 August 1485 until 21 August 1486.

Things weren't always that simple, though. Events could be described in official documents by their relationship to known anniversaries, such as saints' feast days. "Five days after Michaelmas" (29 September) would be 4 November. Of course, one of the major ecclesiastical feast days around which events revolved was easter, but Easter was a movable date, and so altered each year.

These issues and more make translating dates found in medieval documents tricky.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A King, a Cardinal, and a College

Sancho in a contemporary manuscript
King Sancho IV of Castile (1258 - 1295), also known as Sancho the Brave, ruled the combined Iberian kingdoms of Castile, León, and Galicia for a little over ten years. Although his father wished Sancho's older brother, Alfonso, to take the throne, Sancho managed to gain support of the nobles. There was opposition to Sancho, but he offered a change from the elitist policies of his father, which helped maintain his support. Still, he could be harsh to opposition, such as when he executed 4000 followers of an opposition party.

Unfortunately, he could even be harsh to his own supporters. One of his most loyal supporters was Lope Díaz III de Haro—who was, among other things, Sancho's brother-in-law—but Sancho killed him in 1288 during an argument in which Lope threatened Sancho.

On 20 May 1293, King Sancho IV of Castile granted a royal charter to the Archbishop of Toledo to create a university in the city of Alcalá de Henares. It was called the Studium Generale ["School of General Studies"]. The archbishop, Gonzalo Garciá Gudiel, had been born in Toledo but studied at the University of Paris and become rector at the University of Padua. Wishing to create a university in the place of his birth, he convinced Sancho to give him some land and the charter. Sancho called him chanceller mayor en todos nuestros regnos ["great chancellor in all our realms"].

In 1499, an alumnus of the Complutense University (Complutum was the Latin name for Alcalá), Cardinal Cisneros, received a papal bull from Pope Alexander IV (seen here endorsing the Sorbonne) that allowed him to purchase more land for the expansion of the university. In the 16th and 17th centuries, students from all over Europe flocked to study there, in philosophy, canon law, medicine, philology, or theology. Famous alumni included Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.

Complutense granted a doctorate to a female student in 1785, 135 years before Oxford even accepted female students! The university grew so large that, in the 20th century, it was moved to Madrid and given more buildings to accommodate its needs.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Mother and Wife of Kings

Ælfgifu on the Bayeaux Tapestry
Ælfgifu of Northampton was once mentioned here as the wife of King Cnut. When King Svein Forkbeard of Denmark invaded England, the English capitulated quickly, and Svein married his son Cnut to a Mercian noblewoman, Ælfgifu.* Their first child was Svein Knutsson, the future King of Norway.

Svein Forkbeard died in 1014, and our old friend Æthelred the Unready moved in, forcing Cnut to flee to Denmark. While there, Cnut and Ælfgifu had another child who would grow up to be Harold Harefoot (King of England from 1035-1040, and mentioned here).

In 1016, Cnut re-conquered England, and then cemented his power base there by putting Ælfgifu aside and marrying the widow of Æthelred, Emma of Normandy. This doesn't mean that his first wife was completely removed from power: he sent her to Norway with young Svein where she apparently ruled while acting as regent for their son. This period in Norway is remembered for heavy taxes and shortages.

Back in England, Cnut's death in 1035 created a conflict. Cnut and Emma had a son, Harthacnut, who was next in line. Ælfgifu wanted the throne for her son Harold, and probably made a lot of the decisions during his five-year reign. Harold died in March of 1040 and was buried at Westminster Abbey. Harthacnut at the time was preparing to launch an attack on England; he was able to just step in, take the throne, and have Harold's body dug up and thrown into a swamp. (Loyal followers later found it and buried it again.)

After 1040, the woman married to one king and mother to two more fails to show up in any records.

*She was called "Ælfgifu of Northampton" in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to distinguish her from other Ælfgifus, such as those of Exeter, York, and Shaftesbury; it was a popular name!

Friday, May 16, 2014

My Lips Are Sealed

Confidentiality is expected in many relationships: doctor-patient, lawyer-client, ... and priest-penitent. The so-called "Seal of the Confessional" is the practice/policy of priests to protect the pronouncements of penitents.

The Decretum Gratiani ["Decrees of Gratian"] is a collection of canon laws published by the jurist Johannes Gratian c.1150. It includes the line "Let the priest who dares to make known the sins of his penitent be deposed."

We are not sure when this idea was first expressed, but the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which  laid down rules for the whole Catholic Church, explained the practice thusly:
Let the priest absolutely beware that he does not by word or sign or by any manner whatever in any way betray the sinner: but if he should happen to need wiser counsel let him cautiously seek the same without any mention of person. For whoever shall dare to reveal a sin disclosed to him in the tribunal of penance we decree that he shall be not only deposed from the priestly office but that he shall also be sent into the confinement of a monastery to do perpetual penance.
No explanation is given for this secrecy, but an English jurist in the 1400s, William Lyndwood, explains that the sacrament involving confession practically by definition requires that the "secret" be kept quiet. Even the secular authorities recognize this relationship. A priest may suggest to a confessed criminal that he turn himself over to the courts, but the courts do not compel a priest to reveal what he knows.

Well, not all secular authorities. In March 1393, John of Nepomuk (born c.1345) was tortured and thrown into the river by King Wenceslaus IV (who was otherwise fairly tolerant). Wenceslaus was angry with him because he was the Confessor to Wenceslaus' wife, the Queen of Bohemia, and would not tell her husband what she talked about. John was canonized as Saint John of Nepomuk, and is considered the first martyr because of the Seal of the Confessional and the patron saint against false witness.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

More on Torture

We've talked about torture before, regarding the Templars, and the "ultimate" torture of being hanged, drawn and quartered; and, of course, when HD&Q was first applied to a rebellious Welshman.

Torture in the Classical Era had limits: at first it would only be applied to slaves. In fact, evidence given by a slave was required to be given under torture, because slaves could not be trusted to be truthful on their own!

In the Middle Ages, torture was admissible for getting evidence, but it was not to be used randomly; there had to be some proof that the person was guilty before it was appropriate to use torture to get a full confession.

Although torturous methods of execution were a chance for public exhibitions (so that they could be a deterrent to crime), torture used for extraction of information was private. The methods were numerous: the Rack (seen above), thumbscrews, hot irons applied to the body, hot pincers pulling the body apart, etc.

Torture took a significant turn on 15 May 1252 with the papal bull ad extirpanda, by Pope Innocent IV. It is called ad extirpanda from the opening words in Latin, which translate as "To root up from the midst of Christian people the weed of heretical wickedness...". The point of it was to authorize torture for use against heretics. Even so, it had limits:
  • It was to be used when there was certainty that the subject was guilty of heresy
  • It was to be used on a person only once
  • It was not to cause loss of life or of a limb
Actual execution of a convicted heretic was to be carried out within five days by the secular authority, which was also allowed a share of the property of the convicted.

Torture of heretics was rescinded by another papal bull in 1816.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Richard's Lionheart

Box that held Richard's heart. The inscription reads:
"Here is the heart of Richard, King of England." 
Once Richard the Lionheart died from a crossbow bolt that was removed by a clumsy surgeon, the debate over appropriate interment began. Like saints, "There's such divinity doth hedge a king" (to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare*) that the body is special, and many people for whom he was their lord would want his memorial to be in their territory. His body was sent to Fontevraud Abbey to be interred near the body of his father, King Henry II. (See the picture in the post linked to above.)

But that was just his body.

Supposedly, on his deathbed he told his mother that he wanted his heart to go to Rouen, where it was placed in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Rouen was the base for English forces in France at the time. His other internal organs were removed and buried in Chalus, where he died.

Over time, the location of the heart and entrails were lost, but an excavation at Notre Dame in 1838 uncovered a lead box inscribed with "Here is the heart of Richard, King of England."

Technically, the "heart" doesn't exist: 800 years has reduced it to dust, but that dust contains clues to 12th century embalming techniques. A 2006 "autopsy" was performed to find out what it could about the heart. It found several components:

  • Human proteins associated with cardiac muscle
  • Fragments of linen (the heart was probably wrapped in it)
  • Some lead and tin (probably leached into the dust from the box)  and mercury (used during embalming)
  • Pollens: pine, oak, poplar, plantain, bellflower (in the air when he died, so probably incidental)
  • Myrtle, daisy, mint (not in bloom in spring, and probably used during embalming to give a nice aroma)
  • Frankincense (used for embalming and symbolically because of the Three Wise Men's gifts)
  • The remains as they look today, in a crystal container.
  • Calcium (probably from lime used to preserve the heart)

Of interest to historians is the elements found that can only be accounted for by attempts to embalm/preserve the heart. The Church frowned on embalming, because it was known to be a pagan practice.

The shoebox-sized reliquary, and the crystal box that contains the remains of the heart of Richard, now sit in the Museum of Natural History in Rouen.

*Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5, line 98

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Richard the LionHeart's Death

Richard's tomb at Fontevraud Abbey
Richard the Lionheart (1157 - 1199) died from complications after being hit by a crossbow shot by a follower of the Viscount of Limoges. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

In March of 1199, Richard besieged the town of Châlus near Limoges, because the lord of Châlus held a Roman treasure that had just been discovered by a farmer plowing his field. Richard, as overlord of the area (he was the Duke of Aquitaine, after all), demanded the treasure. His demand was refused.

On the evening of 25 or 26 March, an archer shot at Richard—who had neglected to put on his chain mail—while he stood outside the walls, driving the shaft deep into Richard's left shoulder. From this point on, things might have gone differently, but carelessness and circumstance had their way with Richard. In pulling out the crossbow bolt, the shaft broke, leaving the head inside. A surgeon removed the head, but did much additional damage to the wound, and infection set in.

Richard knew he wasn't going to live much longer. A message was sent to his mother (but not his wife), Eleanor of Aquitaine, who rushed to his side. The siege was successful while he lay incapacitated, and the archer was brought before him. Although different chroniclers identify the archer as one of four different men, all stories agree that Richard magnanimously forgave the archer, saying "Live on, and by my bounty behold the light of day,"and gave him 100 shillings and his freedom. Sadly, for the archer, Richard's followers had other ideas. Richard died on 6 April, and either Richard's captain Mercadier or Richard's sister Joan (depending on which chronicle you read) had the archer flayed alive and then hanged.

But that's not what I wanted to talk about. I really wanted to discuss what happened to Richard's body afterward, but I seem to have run out of time. We will look at that subject tomorrow.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Child Lionheart

The vineyards of Cognac
Today is the 823rd wedding anniversary of King Richard I of England, called Lionheart, and Berengaria of Navarre. They had no children, which is why Richard's brother John later took the throne. Richard, however, had a son from an earlier assignation, whose mother is unknown.

He was named Philip, probably after Richard's friend (and sometime adversary) Philip II of France. We don't know his birth date, but he was old enough in the 1190s to be married to Amelia of Cognac, heiress to Itier V, the Seigneur of Cognac* in Charente, in west-central France. When Amelia died, Philip inherited the castle, which later passes into the hands of his seneschal, Robert of Thornham, who had distinguished himself during the Crusades.

One wonders if Philip cared for his noble birth, or simply yearned for a quiet life. He does not keep the estate in Cognac, and we only see his name later in the Pipe Rolls (the financial records of the kings of England). In 1201, during the reign of King John, we find the entry: "And to Philip, son of King Richard, one mark as a gift." A report that there is a record of him "selling his lordship" to King John is just a rumor.

Roger of Hoveden claims in his Chronica that Philip avenged his father's death by killing the Viscount of Limoges, because the crossbow that led to Richard's death was fired while Richard was suppressing a revolt by Limoges. Hoveden's is the only reference to this event, however, and it seems unlikely, especially for a figure who seems so undistinguished and anonymous in all other ways. Except for life as a character in Shakespeare's King John, and as the potential successor to King John in the TV movie Princess of Thieves, Philip of Cognac has passed out of human memory...or interest.

*As you may guess, cognac brandy comes from this region.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Headless Saint

How to keep your head? In you hands!
Saint Solange was born in the 9th century near Bourges, France, to a family of poor but very devout Christians. Growing up, she herded sheep and devoted herself to Christ at the age of seven. She was considered so holy that her mere presence as a child healed people and exorcised devils.

One day in the year 880, while tending her sheep, a young man (some legends say it was Bernard, the son of the Count of Poitiers, who has been mentioned briefly in this blog as Bernard Plantapilosa) approached her, making advances which she rebuffed. So Bernard did what any entitled nobility would do (whose mother wrote books of advice that her sons probably never received): he drew his sword and cut off her head.

Her head said "Jesus" three times, then her body picked it up and walked to the church of Saint-Martin in the village of Saint-Martin-du-Crot and dropped dead. Saint-Martin-du-Crot is now known as Sainte-Solange. A cult of veneration developed around her relics—particularly her head—and pilgrims came for miraculous cures. Her head was used in processions through the town when drought threatened.

She is a patron saint of victims of sexual assault. Her feast day is 10 May.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Saint John the Dwarf

In the 5th century, a very short man was born in Egypt to a poor Christian family; he became known as John Kolobos, from the Greek Ιωάννης Κολοβός [Ioannes Kolobos, "John the Dwarf"]. Early in life he decided he wanted to join the monastery in the Nitrian Desert run by St. Pimen the Great (also called Saint Pambo) with John's brother, Daniel.

Life at the monastery inspired him to greater sacrifice—or made him unhappy with the demands of the lifestyle—and he thought of a plan to live even more simply:
...St John told his elder brother that he did not want to be concerned about clothing and food, and that he wished to live like the angels in Paradise. Daniel allowed him to go to a deserted place, so that he would be afflicted. He removed his clothing, John went out from the cell. It was very cold at night, and after a week John became hungry.
One night John went back to the monastery and began to knock on the door of the cell. “Who is it?” Daniel asked.
“It is I, your brother John.”
Daniel replied, “John has become an angel, and is no longer among men.”
John continued to knock, but Daniel would not let him in until morning. Then he said, “You are a man and must work again if you want to eat.” St John wept bitterly, asking for forgiveness. [link]
Having realized that he needed to think more rationally about his expectations of the monastic life, he was given an assignment by St. Pimen. St. Pimen understood that John needed to learn obedience—and perhaps some humility—and gave him an assignment: John was to water a dry stick every day until it bloomed. The process took three years, after which the stick bore leaves and fruit. There is a tree in the Nitrian Desert called the Tree of Obedience that purports to be from the stick watered by John the Dwarf.

John became a guide to many others, such as St. Arsenius the Great, and authored the "Life of Saint Paisius." His feast day is celebrated on 17 October.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014


Lovely ceiling tiles at Cleeve Abbey with asbestos in them
Pliny the Elder has a chapter in his Natural History on something he calls "live" linen:
It is generally known as “live” linen, and I have seen, before now, napkins that were made of it thrown into a blazing fire, in the room where the guests were at table, and after the stains were burnt out, come forth from the flames whiter and cleaner than they could possibly have been rendered by the aid of water. It is from this material that the corpse-cloths of monarchs are made, to ensure the separation of the ashes of the body from those of the pile. [Book XIX, Chap.4]
The Greeks, we are told, call this material asbestinon* ["inextinguishable"]. It was used to wrap royalty for their funeral pyres, because their ashes could be kept separate from the wood ashes. Charlemagne also used to entertain his guests by throwing the tablecloth into the fire after the meal, then removing it with all the stains burned off. Marco Polo was also shown cloth that whitened in fire and did not burn.

Asbestos was not just for cute tricks. It was used as insulation for armor, and in 9th and 10th century Afghanistan it was used to eat off. It also promoted belief in miracles:
the most fascinating use of asbestos during the period was as a magical cross sold by traveling merchants.  The crosses, cut from asbestos, looked like very old, worn wood and were advertised by merchants as "true crosses" made directly from the wood of the cross upon which Jesus Christ of Nazareth died.  To illustrate the magical cross's powers, the merchants would throw the wood into a fire where it would remain undamaged. [link]
The health risks of asbestos did not escape notice, however. Pliny did note that slaves who worked weaving asbestos had lung problems. Romans—who called it  amiantus, "unpolluted" (because of its ability to come clean from a fire)—understood that buying slaves who worked with asbestos was a bad return on investment, because they died younger than other slaves.

*"Asbestos" is used to describe six silicate minerals with thin fibrous crystals that can be woven into thread and thence into cloth.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Fighting Bishop

Tomb of Remigius, Lincoln Cathedral [link]
A "ship list" exists of the ships used by William of Normandy when he conquered England in 1066. It records who contributed the ship and in many cases the men and supplies aboard. One of the ships was provided by Remigius de Fécamp, a Benedictine monk.

The exact participation of Remigius is in dispute. According to the historian Henry of Huntingdon (c.1088 - c.1157), Remigius fought at the Battle of Hastings, bringing 20 knights along with his ship. Gerald of Wales, however, who thought so highly of Remigius that he tried to get him canonized as a saint (it never happened), said he only came along with 10 knights that were sent from the region of Fécamp.

His contribution must have been significant, because after the Conquest he was made the Bishop of Dorchester, which at the time was the largest diocese in England. But he had to continue "fighting": his ordination by Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury was a point of contention when papal legates came to England in 1070 and pushed Stigand out of his office, also reversing the appointment of Remigius to Dorchester. Stigand's successor, Lanfranc, wouldn't touch the subject of Remigius' legitimacy, and Remigius had to travel to Rome in 1071 to seek forgiveness from Pope Alexander II and become "properly" re-appointed as a bishop.

Was there smooth sailing now that he was recognized as Bishop of Dorchester? Not quite. There were two archbishoprics in England—York and Canterbury—and each one claimed that Dorchester belonged in its territory and Remigius' loyalty was to that archbishop. Lanfranc and the Archbishop of York, Thomas of Bayeaux, appealed to Pope Alexander II who, even though he was a former pupil of Lanfranc's and held him in high esteem, refused to take sides, pushing the debate back to the king's council in England.

The council ruled that Dorchester (and Lichfield and Worcester, to which York also lay claim), belonged to Canterbury. Still, Thomas would occasionally ask for help from Remigius, such as during the consecration of the Bishop of the Orkney Islands. Remigius, not wanting to set a precedent that he "worked for" York, appealed to Canterbury to keep him away from the ceremony.

Remigius had a long and busy career, taking part in William's courts, and sitting on the commission that produced the Domesday Book. He died on 7 May 1092 and was buried in Lincoln Cathedral, where his bones, chalice, paten, and half of his crozier were recovered in 1927.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Skincare for Women

Madonna of the Recommended,
Lippo Memmi (c.1291 - 1356)
Cosmetics were known as far back as early Egyptian culture, so it is no surprise that ways to maintain good skin were known through the Medieval Era. The materials needed for cosmetics were derived from some of the same sources as medicines—such as lily root or white lead—so much cosmetic advice came from physicians.

An example of ideal skin was the 1350 painting by Lippo Memmi, "Madonna of the Recommended." Trotula of Salerno offered recipes for fair skin. "Fair skin" was not necessarily light-colored skin, but referred to smoothness  and a lack of blemishes. A woman could be considered "fair-skinned" if she were a pale Englishwoman or an olive-complexioned Mediterranean. Frequent smallpox epidemics made fair skin a rarity.

There were several ways to treat a less-than-perfect complexion. Rubbing a saliva-coated amethyst over pimples to remove them was one method, or just hold the amethyst over a pot of boiling water and use the moisture that gathers on it.

Hildegard of Bingen (c.1098 - 1179) is known today largely for her devotional musical compositions, but as this blog has noted in the past, she also gave medical advice for, among other things, clear skin:
Pulverize ginger with twice as much galingale* and a half portion of zedoary.** Place in a tied cloth in vinegar and then in wine so it doesn't become too dark. Smear the skin where eruptions are, and he will be cured.
Rosemary, also mentioned previously in this blog, could be mixed with white wine and applied to the face as a beauty treatment. And if you wanted to get rid of freckles, the Liber de Diversis Medicinis ["Book of Diverse Medicines"] from 14th century England (found in the Lincoln Thornton Manuscript in Lincoln Cathedral) suggested the blood of a hare or bull.

I feel compelled to add the caveat: Don't try these at home!

*Galingale was a plant from the ginger family.
**Zedoary is a perennial herb native to India. Also called "white turmeric," it has largely been replaced in western cuisine by ginger.

Friday, May 2, 2014

May Day Quiche

Baking, pulled from a neat food history site for kids
The Earl of Bradford once produced a cookbook. That makes it sound more historically interesting than it really is (apologies to the earl), because it was just a few years ago. In it, he and his co-author mention that English peasants, in the week after the vernal equinox, had the right to the milk that would normally have gone to the lord on whose land they were tenants.

With this extra milk they could make cheese and butter that would last for awhile. In that honor, I present a cheese tart recipe from the Forme of Cury book (mentioned before) assembled by the cooks of Richard II. The recipe is for "Tart de Bry" and reads like this:
Tart de Bry. Take a crust ynche depe in a trap. Take yolkes of ayren rawe & chese ruayn & medle it & þe yolkes togyder. Do þerto powdour gynger, sugur, safroun, and salt. Do it in a trap; bake it & serue it forth.
Let's see how the translation works if we stick closely to the original:

  • Take a crust an inch deep in a trap [trapped in a pan/dish]
  • Take yolks of eggs raw & autumn* [older; not soft] cheese & mix it and the yolks together.
  • Add thereto powdered ginger, sugar, saffron, and salt.
  • Put it in the trap.
  • Bake it and serve it forth.

Pretty straightforward—forgetting for the moment the near-complete lack of measurements. Keep in mind that precise measurements for baking did not really exist until 20th century United States and the invention of Betty Crocker, with the intent to make baking easy for any household. Medieval cooks no doubt had their own tools and cups with which they learned to make the same dish over and over, relying on memory and experience.

We are pretty sure that the "Bry" of the title would have resembled our modern Brie, but was probably not as soft as modern Brie. Another version of this recipe gives directions to grate the cheese, so it would have to be more firm than we expect Brie to be. If you are interested in more medieval cookery, there are many websites devoted to it, especially this one.

Hope you had a happy May Day!

*ruayn was a word for cheese made from the milk from cows that grazed the autumn fields. Remember that tenants were allowed to graze their animals on common land after the harvest.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The New Church

Explanation of cross-in-square from this fascinating site.
Today is May Day, and the anniversary of the consecration of the Nea Ekklesia [Greek: "New Church"] in 880.

It was built by Emperor Basil I the Macedonian (c.830 - 886). Although he started as a peasant, he advanced politically until he was in a position to usurp the throne of Emperor Michael III in 867. He set out to create a new golden age of Byzantine art, and he wound up being considered one of the greatest Byzantine emperors. In his desire to reproduce the glory of the reign of Justinian I, he started a building campaign. The pinnacle of this campaign was the Nea Ekklesia, which he considered his answer to the magnificent Hagia Sophia.

One of the things that made it "new" was the floor plan, something called "cross-in-square." Typical churches before that time—and, truthfully, after that time as well—were laid out like a cross, longer than they were wide. Nea Ekklesia broke that mold. Byzantine architecture had already shown a preference and flair for domes, and mounting them on a square base with a feature called a pendentive. Nea Ekklesia was a new style that filled out the cross shape by centering it in a square and putting several domes over the four additional sections. (See the illustration above for an example of a standard cross-in-square.)

As important as the Nea was, it was eventually turned into a monastery (called, perhaps predictably, "New Monastery") in the 11th century. After the Ottomans conquered the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the building was used to store gunpowder. It was destroyed in 1490 when it was struck by lightning.