Monday, November 30, 2015

Medieval Eclipses

Eclipses were a mystery for awhile, but eventually enough took place that astronomers could spot the patterns. European astronomers in the 1600s were able to publish books explaining how lunar and solar eclipses took place. Prior to that, however, they were mysterious occurrences whose importance was tied to whatever was happening on the ground.

In 632, an eclipse that was visible in Medina on 27 January coincided with the death of Ibrahim, the son of the Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad interpreted this as a sign for his followers to pray for Ibrahim.

On 2 August 1133, a total eclipse took place. When King Henry I of England died months later, it "confirmed" for the popular culture that eclipses were bad omens for rulers. They knew that the eclipse portended bad news; they just had to wait a long time to find out what the bad news was.

There's a stone in Ireland whose carvings are interpreted as the first recorded eclipse. You can see it above. The two sets of concentric circles colliding in the middle represent the eclipse. The circular carvings above it represent the other stars that appeared in the sky at the moment of totality. The overall pattern enabled astronomers to determine when the eclipse took place. So it is pretty well established that the earliest recording of an eclipse was made on the Loughcrew Cairn Megalithic Monument in Ireland; the eclipse took place on 30 November, 3340 BCE.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving Leftovers

"A Grete Pye" should look like this [source]

What will you do with all that turkey on Friday? Why not a "Great Pie" from the c.1450 cook book known now as Harleian MS 4016?
Grete pyes. Take faire yonge beef, And suet of a fatte beste, or of Motton, and hak all this on a borde small; and caste therto pouder of peper and salt; and whan it is small hewen, put hit in a bolle. And medle hem well; then make a faire large Cofyn, and couche som of this stuffur in. Then take Capons, Hennes, Mallardes, Connynges, and parboile hem clene; take wodekokkes, teles, grete briddes, and plom hem in a boiling pot; And then couche al this fowle in the Coffyn, And put in euerych of hem a quantite of pouder of peper and salt. Then take mary, harde yolkes of egges, Dates cutte in ij peces, reisons of coraunce, prunes, hole clowes, hole maces, Canell and saffron. But first, whan thoug hast cowched all thi foule, ley the remenaunt of thyne other stuffur of beef a-bought hem, as thou thenkest goode; and then strawe on hem this: dates, mary, and reysons, &c. And then close thi Coffyn with a lydde of the same paast, And putte hit in the oven, And late hit bake ynough; but be ware, or thou close hit, that there come no saffron nygh the brinkes there-of, for then hit wol neuer close.
My translation:
Great pies. Take fair young beef, and suet of a fat beast, or mutton, and hack it all on a chopping board; and throw in ground pepper and salt; and when it is chopped small, put it in a bowl.
And mix them well; then make a fair large coffin (crust) and put some of this stuffing in.
Then take Capons, Hens, Mallards, Rabbit, and parboil them clean; take woodcocks, teals, great birds, and submerge them in a boiling pot; and then place all this in the crust, and put in there a quantity of pepper and salt.
Then take [rosemary?], hard-boiled egg yolks, dates cut in half, currants, prunes, whole cloves, mace, cassia (a type of cinnamon) and saffron.
But first, before you stuff the poultry mixture in, put the rest of the original stuffing of beef around it, as you think good; and then strew on it this: dates, rosemary, currants, etc.
And then close the crust with a lid of the same pastry, and put it in the oven, and let it bake enough; but beware, before you close it (the crust) that you let no saffron come near the edges of the pastry, for then it will never close.
Let me know how it turns out.

Happy American Thanksgiving. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Avignon Papacy

I like to link items in each post to previous posts that offer more info on those items. I have frequently referred to the time when the popes were not in Rome, but in Avignon; I have, however, not yet produced a post that explains the geographical shift.

The Avignon Papal Palace (It's no Vatican, but it'll do)
I suppose it might have started with conflict between King Philip IV of France, who was taxing the clergy to finance his ongoing wars, and Pope Boniface VIII, whose bull Clericis laicos forbade taxation of clergy with papal approval. After the death of Boniface and the death of his successor, Benedict XI, after only eight months, a Frenchman was elected, Clement V.

Clement V decided he did not want to live in Rome, and moved the papal court to Avignon, which is now in France but was then in the Kingdom of Arles. The French Clement was very friendly to the King of France, pretty much revoking Clerics laicos and beginning a string of seven popes, all French, who more and more came under the influence of the French crown.

The Avignon Papacy lasted from 1309 until January 1377. Pope Urban V wanted to move to Rome, but it was hindered by the War of the Eight Saints. His successor, Gregory XI, finally returned to Rome after (supposedly) being inspired to do so by Catherine of Siena.

The Avignon Papacy was sometimes referred to as the Babylonian Captivity, but worse was to follow.

After Gregory's death in 1378, conflict between his successor, Urban VI, and the cardinals created the Western Schism (1378 - 1417), when a series of rival popes were elected by renegade cardinals and took up residence in Avignon. The Avignon popes during this time are considered antipopes.

Monday, November 23, 2015

To Restore Rome

The Glory of the Roman Empire was seen by the Middle Ages as a Golden Age. Petrarch lamented the loss of learning and art between the peak of the Roman Empire and his own age. In Petrarch's lifetime, however, there seemed to be a chance to restore the greatness that was. The post of the supposed "King John I of France" mentions the figure who tried to elevate the humble Giannino di Guccio to the throne of France, Cola di Renzo (c.1313 - 8 October 1354).

Cola di Rienzo
at the Capitoline Museum
Cola di Renzo himself had humble origins. The son of a washer-woman and a tavern-keeper, he inspired himself with stories of Classical Rome, its literature and history and figures until he decided to make it his life's work to restore Rome to greatness. At this time, remember, Italy was a collection of city-states; Rome was the capital of nothing but itself, and even the popes had forsaken it for Avignon.

After becoming a notary, he was sent as a messenger to Pope Clement VI in Avignon, whom he impressed so much that he was given a place at the pope's court. He eventually returned to Rome and spent a few years gathering support for a "coup" to eliminate corrupt politicians. On the Feast of Pentecost in 1357 (20 May), dressed in armor, he made a speech at the Capitol in which he outlined his plans for a new and restored Rome.

The crowd accepted this speech, and the person who made it, and proclaimed him their ruler. Many politicians and public servants, seeing the tide of popular opinion turning against them, fled the City. Cola di Rienzo took the title of Tribune. Petrarch wrote a letter, urging him to continue in his great work.

Having succeeded in taking over Rome and making changes, he set his sights on restoring/uniting the entire Roman Empire, starting with Italy. He sent letters to all the major cities, bidding them send representatives. He also sent to the rival Holy Roman Emperors, Louis IV and Charles IV, to appear before him. He then celebrated a "festival of unity" in which he was officially proclaimed Tribune.

Unfortunately, although the Kingdom of Naples recognized him, no other political entity felt compelled to declare loyalty to him. Pope Clement VI, wary that di Rienzo's aim would include making the papacy subordinate to him, sent a league to arrest him. It was a little over six months since the speech in Rome that had seemed to cement his future good fortune. His initial success against his enemies did not last, and in December of the same year in which he was declared Tribune, he fled Rome, first hiding in Naples, and then for two years in a mountain monastery.

In 1350 he appealed to Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, who held him under arrest for a year before turning him over to Clement. He was condemned to death, but the sentence was delayed (possibly due to pleas for leniency from Petrarch) until Clement died. His successor, Pope Innocent VI, sent him back to Rome with the title Senator and the mission to revive his goal of restoring Rome's glory. Within weeks, however, his arbitrary decisions had led to his death by an angry mob.

When two of his goals—the unification of Italy and the reduction of the pope's temporal power—were achieved in the 19th century, Cole di Rienzo was seen as a visionary and a praise-worthy historical figure.

Friday, November 20, 2015

He Thought He Was King

In the post on short-lived reigns, I mentioned John I of France, sone of Louis X and Clémence of Hungary, who reigned five days because he only lived five days. That was in November of 1316. He was buried in St. Denis, and succeeded by his uncle, Philip V (the Tall).

Tomb of the infant John I
In 1354, a merchant in Siena named Giannino di Guccio received a summons that told a different story. Giannino was told that his mother had been a wet-nurse for the infant John I, and when her own child died, she switched the babes. France mourned, thinking that the heir to the throne was dead, and the wet-nurse, Marie, raised John I as her own child Giannino. The boy grew up in ignorance of his true heritage, until the senator of Rome, Cola di Rienzo, contacted him to tell him of the truth of his parentage.

That is how a merchant of Siena was convinced that he was the heir to the throne of France.

Cola di Rienzo's source was the record of a Friar Giordano, to whom Marie confessed her actions at the end of her life. Long before this, Marie had sent her son to live with his father, and she had lost all track of him. Friar Giordano made it his quest to find the boy, eventually asking Cola di Rienzo for help.

Tales of royal babes switched at birth were not a new thing, but it was new for Giannino to be told that he himself was one such babe. Also, given French law, John I was, as the son of the last king, more legitimate than his uncle. If it were accepted that he was, in fact, John I, then the throne should go back to his lineage.

It is generally accepted that this whole affair was masterminded by di Rienzo, who would use the revelation of the try King of France to elevate his own status in Rome. Unfortunately for Giannino and di Rienzo (but probably fortunately for history), di Rienzo was assassinated shortly after, and so was unable to see his plan through. Giannino tried to follow up, visiting the court of Louis I of Hungary, the nephew of Clémence of Hungary, who accepted him as his relative.

The rest of Europe, however, was not willing to play along, although he did manage to amass a small number of troops and financing for a takeover. Coincidentally, while France and England were negotiating peace in late 1360 to wrap up that phase of the Hundred Years War, there was a "stray element" trying to assert his claim to the throne of France. In January of 1361, he was taken into custody and held comfortably in Aix-en-Provence. After an escape, he wound up in Naples under less favorable conditions. Before he died in 1363, he was able to write a memoir, from which we derive much of the knowledge of his actions, since historians did not deem his story worthwhile.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

We Hardly Knew Ye...

Queen Elizabeth II of England recently passed a milestone, becoming the longest-reigning monarch of England. I am not certain of the "longest reign" candidates from other countries, but there is well-documented evidence of those who reigned the shortest.

Of course we know about Harold Godwinson, whose nine months and nine days was cut short by William the Conqueror in 1066. Sad for him, but his reign—albeit filled with warfare—was more leisurely than some. With Harold's death, technically he was succeeded by Edgar II, but after one month and 25 days, he relinquished his claim to William.

Empress Matilda was a claimant for the English throne during the Anarchy (discussed here, here, here, and here). She reigned less than nine months in 1141.

King Edmund Ironside (died 1016) ruled Wessex in England for seven months. and seven days King Lulach of the Scots  "beat" him in 1057 by reigning five days fewer, while the Scottish Duncan II lasted less than six months. King Hildebrand of the Lombards was just under seven months, in 744. Dafydd ap Gruffyd lasted for six months and 11 days.

Alexios IV Angelus, who ran afoul of the European 4th Crusaders who helped him to his throne, managed five months and 26 days. But his father, Isaac II Angelus, lasted less than five months. Their usurper, Alexios V Doukas, lasted even less: two months and a week.

Charles II of Hungary was murdered after one month and 24 days, in 1386.

Svein Forkbeard usurped the throne from Æthelred II, but held it only one month and nine days; it went back to Æthelred on Svein's death in 1014.

Then there was the Year of the Four Emperors (in Rome), but that was in the first century CE, and a little too early for a blog with "medieval" in its name. (But, for the record, they were just post-Nero: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian.)

If you didn't know how short your reign was, would it matter? King John I of France and Navarre reigned five days. He was the heir of Louis X; John died on 20 November 1316, aged five days!

But... what if John I actually didn't die after five days? I will have a story for you tomorrow about that.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Women's Quarters

The posts called The Marrying Kind (Parts 1, 2, and 3) mentioned Zoe Porphyrogenita's nephew Michael confining her to "the women's quarters." This is a very common phrase for what was a more complex situation.

Women weaving in the gynaeceum, 500 BCE (Louvre)
Ancient Greek culture promoted separate areas for women and men in their dwellings.  The male quarters were the andron; the part of the building for women's use was called the gynaeceum. In the imperial palace in Constantinople, this space was called the gynakonitis, and was very elaborate, with its own staff and rituals.

When Zoe's third husband, Constantine Monomachos, insisted on bringing his mistress, Maria Skleraina, into the imperial palace, Zoe welcomed her into the gynakonitis. Zoe and her sister, Theodora, allowed the mistress to stand next to them during ceremonies. On nights when Constantine wanted to sleep alone, Maria would have stayed in he women's quarters.

Archaeological evidence of these areas is determined by the presence of looms, olive presses, and other items associated with women's roles, being placed separately from the general living quarters. As dwellings became larger and more elaborate, these women's areas were increasingly placed further away from the front of the house, and had fewer lines of sight to the public areas, and more doors.

Although the placement of the women's quarters might be interpreted as a way to protect the "weaker sex," archaeologists and anthropologists see this elaborate segregation as a way to keep women out of the public sphere—women were not allowed to vote, for instance—and therefore under control domestically and politically by men.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Myth of Bad Water

One of the things that "everyone knows" about the Middle Ages is that there was no clean water to be had, and so they drank beer and wine all the time.

Of course, many people preferred ale or wine or some other drink (like cider). One of the reasons modern people might think that the Middle Ages did not drink water is because it is rarely mentioned in literature. Instead, references to wine and ale are frequently found. But who bothers mentioning drinking water, when it is so plentiful and common. In a pre-industrial age, sources of clean fresh water were numerous: they drank it, cooked with it, washed things with it. Medical advice included when to drink water, and that cool water was better, although some doctors warned about drinking too much, too fast. One source believed that drinking water during a meal retards digestion.

Still, the clear benefits of drinking water were known. Lupus Servatus was a 9th century Benedictine monk and a prolific writer. One of his bits of advice was:
Let us make use of a healthy, natural drink which will sometimes be of benefit to both body and soul – if it is drawn not from a muddy cistern but from a clear well or the current of a transparent brook.
Servatus' line shows that they understood how to choose good drinking water. The abbot Ælfric of Eynsham stated his drink preferences: "Ale if I have any, or water, if I have no ale."

The need for fresh water was so well understood that cities made it a point to secure sources. Thirteenth-century London established a system called The Conduit that brought fresh water to the center of London. They expanded this as the city grew. Messing with water could be illegal: an 8th century Bavarian law made fouling a public source of water punishable by a fine and being made to clean it up thoroughly.

Clean water was plentiful and much appreciated in the Middle Ages.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Saint of Mystic, Connecticut

Off the coast of Mystic, Connecticut is Enders Island. Only 11 acres in size, it is named for Dr. Thomas B. Enders, who purchased it in 1918 from the Sisters of Charity and used it as a private estate. In 1954, his wife gave it to the Society of St. Edmund.

Edmund Rich (1175 - 1240), who became St. Edmund, was born on the feast day of St. Edmund the Martyr (20 November), and therefore was named for that saint. His father was a wealthy merchant, hence the surname "Rich" sometimes attached to Edmund. He studied in England and France, and lectured on Rhetoric and Arithmetic at Oxford. It was said that he studied so long at night that he was known to nod off during lectures.

Some time in the early 1200s he was ordained, earned his doctorate in divinity, and started lecturing on theology. By 1222 he was made a parish vicar in Wiltshire, and eventually became Archbishop of Canterbury as a compromise candidate after Pope Gregory IX had refused to confirm three previous appointees. The confirmation was a surprise, since Edmund championed ecclesiastical independence from Rome. But Edmund also was opposed to foreigners taking important offices in England, so he took the job to avoid the chance of the pope putting an outsider in that chair.

Edmund was a powerful preacher and a strong politician. He fought Henry on his excesses against the Church. He also fought against the Pope, who wanted the Church in England firmly under papal control. On a 1240 trip to Rome, Edmund became ill at the Cistercian Pontigny Abbey and headed back to England, but died after 50 miles. The body was taken back to Pontigny. Within a year of his death, miracles were allegedly taking place at his grave, miraculous healings that motivated full canonization in only six years. His feast day is 16 November.

Although his body was left at Pontigny Abbey, relics were granted to other locations. One of his arms  made it to North America: it is in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Assumption at St. Edmund's Retreat on Enders Island in Connecticut.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Marrying Kind, Part 3

Part 1 tells how Zoe Porphyrogenita had one fiancee die, how she rejected another, and how her first husband died.

Part 2 tells how her second husband betrayed her, and how her adoptive son tried to banish her.

Zoe and Theodora on a gold coin called a histamenon
Empress Zoe was the conduit by whom others became Emperor, but she was never allowed to be sole ruler. The Court brought her sister, Theodora, out of a monastery to be co-ruler, but Theodora did not want the job, even though she proved adept at it. That, and the two sisters' hatred for each other, meant a rocky road ahead.

Their first disagreement came when Theodora wanted to punish Michael V for banishing Zoe and precipitating a crisis. Kind-hearted Zoe wanted to pardon him, but Theodora, after offering him a pardon, had him blinded and forced into a monastery. The truth is, Theodora had the tough mindedness and skills at governing that were not possessed by Zoe. The jealous Zoe decided to marry a third time—the Greek Orthodox Church allowed her three marriages—in order to shut out the need for Theodora. But whom to pick?

There was Constantine Dalassenos, considered a potential groom years earlier, but his current attitude toward Zoe's actions made her reject him. There was Constantine Atroklines, one of her lovers during the time of Romanos, but he died a few days before the wedding—possibly poisoned by the woman he was divorcing in order to marry Zoe. What about Constantine Monomachos? He had been an earlier lover as well. They married on 11 June 1042; it was the third marriage for each of them.

Emperor Constantine IX had his own ideas about marriage to Zoe, one of which was that he be allowed to continue—quite publicly— his relationship with his mistress, Maria Skleraina. Zoe, now 64, and Theodora seemed fine with a third woman in the household. Zoe seemed to be capable of enduring anything, so long as she had a husband who did not abandon her. She spent her remaining days in entertainment and making perfumes and lotions and potions. She was considered a great beauty, with looks that lasted until she was sixty.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Marrying Kind, Part 2

[continued from Part 1]

After Emperor Romanos III Argyros was found dead in his bath, suspicion fell on Michael the Paphlagonian. Michael had been having an affair with the Empress Zoe, who spoke openly about making him emperor. The only way that could happen was by marriage to Zoe.

The murder of Romanos II by Michael the Paphlagonian
from the Manasses Chronicle
...which is exactly what happened,  on the day immediately after Romanos was found dead. Zoe wasn't messing around. The Patriarch Alexios I was reluctant to officiate, but 50 pounds of gold helped him make up his mind. He wedded the pair, and crowned Michael IV as emperor.

Michael proved to be no more devoted (or trusting) a husband to Zoe than Romanos. Good-looking and charming, he was uneducated and suffered from seizures. Struggling with the complexities of running a government, he came to rely more and more on others, such as his brother John (John "the Eunuch" had been a government official for years). Also, fearing that Zoe would betray him like she did Romanos, he shut her out of power and confined her to the women's quarters, refusing to see her—virtually guaranteeing that she would want to betray him.

Zoe, however, was cut off from exercising any free will or political power. Her status as porphyrogenita remained valuable, however. She was the link to the imperial throne, no matter what. When it was clear in 1041 that Michael was ill and dying, John the Eunuch schemed to keep power where he could control it. He did not wish to force a marriage to Zoe. Instead, he forced her to adopt Michael, the nephew of Michael IV. Therefore, when Michael IV died on 10 December—still refusing his wife, who wanted to see him one last time—the young Michael V was crowned emperor.

John's scheme to keep control of the empire through his nephew failed, however. Emperor Michael V was a grown man (26 years old), and wanted to do things his way. Michael banished John to a monastery, welcomed back nobles whom John had banished as enemies, and declared himself as sole ruler, banishing Zoe.

Zoe, however, was too important in the eyes of the people to be dismissed. The morning Michael announced her banishment, there was a revolt demanding her reinstatement as ruler.

Zoe had endured enough. She declared Michael deposed. He fled, was pursued and, even though he had fled to a monastery and taken vows, he was killed. He had reigned four months.

Feeling that Zoe should not be sole ruler, the Court insisted that he sister Theodora be brought out of her monastery so that they could be co-rulers. The two sisters did not get along, and soon (very soon) Zoe would remember another former lover.

[to be continued]

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Marrying Kind, Part 1

Even if women were not allowed to ascend to the throne, they were often the link to a throne for someone else. The rulership might not be theirs, but they could be the "carrier" of the condition for some lucky man—or, in some cases, men.

Zoe mosaic at the Hagia Sophia
Zoe (978 - 1050) was the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VIII. She was Porphyrogenita [Greek: "born to the purple"], meaning she was born to a reigning emperor. This made her special: a link to the Byzantine throne for some man, or a particularly good choice for marriage to an important ruler in another country. A marriage was arranged between her and the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto III. In January 1002, the ship carrying Zoe to her intended arrived at Bari, Italy, to discover that Otto had died (possibly from malaria).

She returned to Constantinople. Years later, she was asked to consider marriage to another Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III. Zoe and her father rejected this marriage: it was 1028, Zoe was 50, and the groom was only ten years old.

Zoe was not fated never to be a bride; just the opposite, actually. Near the end of 1028, she was married to Romanos III Argyros. We're not completely certain of his origin, but Constantine had chosen Romanos as his successor, and forced Romanos to divorce so that he could marry Zoe and therefore become emperor. Three days later, Constantine died, and Romanos and Zoe ascended to the imperial throne.

Zoe cared about the dynasty, and wanted to have a child as soon as possible. She tried all manner of charms and potions, but pregnancy eluded her, which made relations strained between her and Romanos. He stopped sharing her bed, and reduced her allowance. She started having affairs, which at first he ignored, until she started talking openly about making one of her lovers into emperor.

On 11 April, 1034, after three and a half years of marriage, Emperor Romanos III Argyros was found dead in his bath.

[to be continued]

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Deciphering Zero

Ah, numbers. We use them every day. We also know that there are different sets of numbers. We have Arabic numerals for everyday use, and we have Roman numerals for special events, like Superbowls and the year a movie came out.

Roman numerals were used exclusively in the Middle Ages for a long time. They were inconvenient for large sums, but Western Europe had no other option. Eventually, however, along came so-called Arabic numerals. They were introduced by Leonard of Pisa, better known today as Fibonacci. Fibonacci's Liber abaci ("Book of calculating"; it wasn't about the abacus) introduced Arabic numerals (which probably came originally from India) and a decimal system, with "places" for ones, tens, hundreds, and so forth. With these new numbers came something very new and strange to them: what we call "zero."

Of course they did not call it "zero" when it was first introduced. The Arabic word was ṣifr, or zephir, which when filtered through Old French became cifre and eventually the English cipher. John Sacrobosco (c.1195 - c.1256; mentioned here) in The Craft of Numbering explained:
A cipher tokens nought, but he makes the figure that comes after to betoken more than he should; thus 10. Here the figure of 1 betokens 10, and if the cipher were away, ..., he should betoken only 1, for then he should stand in the first place. [paraphrased]
The concept of the zero was so mysterious, the new number system so different and difficult to master (the British Exchequer clung to Roman numerals—at least partially—until the mid-17th century), that using them seemed like a secret code. The words encipher and decipher grew from the ability to make and read this code and understand the zero.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich was a Christian mystic who lived (based on internal references in her writings) from about 1342 to 1415. We know little about her personal life: biography was not a common genre at the time. We are not even sure that he name is Julian; she is called that because she was an anchoress at the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England.

Statue of Julian in Norwich Cathedral
She became deathly ill at the age of 30. While a priest held a crucifix over her while giving last rites, she began to experience visions. In her book Revelations of Divine Love, she describes the visions she had over the following 16 hours, after which she recovered from her illness. She wrote about the visions, starting immediately after her recovery. (This may be the first book written by a woman in the English language.) Many years later, she wrote her own explication of her visions in a much longer book, called The Long Text. (It was 63,500 words, whereas the Revelations was 11,000.)

This blog has previously discussed her metaphor of "God as Mother," but she was known for a couple other particular philosophies. She believed more in a God who loved and wanted to save everyone than a God who judged and condemned some to everlasting punishment. She felt that sin was the result of ignorance, not evil; people sinned through lack of knowledge, and through sinning gained the knowledge that God had a role in their lives. Sinning was failure, and through failure we learn; also, the pain that resulted from sinning mirrored the suffering that Christ endured, and therefore brought people closer to Christ.

Some of her ideas were very controversial; however, there is no evidence that she was criticized in her lifetime. This was not due to obscurity: she was very well-known in England and beyond. Copies of her texts were edited by well-known clerics of the day. It may be that the Church simply did not put much credence in her writings because of her sex. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

An Arabian Polymath

Abū Muḥammad ʿAlī ibn Aḥmad ibn Saʿīd ibn Ḥazm—let's just call him Ibn Hazm—was a prime example of how medieval scholars could be very "contemporary." To be honest, some of his "modern" thinking resulted from his literal interpretation of the Koran, but the results were very interesting for his time.

Ibn Hazm (November 7, 994 – August 15, 1064) was born into a family with powerful political connections, and from an early age he had more access to education and insights into politics than most. His close exposure to politicians gave him a healthy skepticism about the inherent (un)goodness of human beings. As a result, he turned to God as the only reliable source of morality.

Another outcome of his experience with politics was his respect for language. His analysis of language led him to the conclusion that Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac had all sprung from a common source and changed over time as their peoples separated from each other. Contrary to the opinion of his peers, he saw no reason to consider Arabic to be superior to other languages.

This and other ideas of his caused him to be considered wise, yet controversial. He was famous in the Muslim world for finding no reason that women should be prohibited from prophethood, because the Koran did not forbid it.

The Koran also convinced him that the earth was round. In a passage in which it is stated that "He makes the Night overlap the Day, and the Day overlap the Night" the word for "overlap" derived from the word for "ball." Experimentation with models led him to conclude that the Earth was indeed a globe, and that at any moment of the day the Sun would be vertical to some point on the Earth.

He experimented with echoes in the Mosque at Cordoba to prove that sound travels at a certain speed. Also, he linked lightning and thunder, explaining the delay between the two by using his ideas about the speed of sound. He stated, but could not prove or explain in detail, that lightning caused the thunder.

His bold and controversial statements made him enemies of other scholars, but at a public burning of some of his works (we believe he produced 400 works, of which only 10% survives), he declared that the destruction of the materials did not destroy the ideas inside them.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Hiring a Magical Hitman

The year was 1324. King Edward II of England was making a mess of things with his apathetic and arbitrary approach to ruling the kingdom. He handed a lot of authority to the powerful Despensers, his chamberlain Hugh the Younger, and Hugh the Elder.

(Prop wax doll from the movie
The Witches of Eastwick
In Coventry, a group of citizens were very unhappy with their local Prior, who had the authority of the Despensers behind him as he taxed the citizenry at exorbitant rates. Twenty-eight citizens of Coventry decided to do something about this situation. They lacked any military or governmental power, so they had to find an alternate solution. They found it in John of Nottingham.

John of Nottingham had a reputation as a magician. He was asked if he could eliminate the causes of their misery. John agreed to bring about the deaths of the Prior of Coventry, King Edward II, Hugh Despenser the Elder, Hugh Despenser the Younger, and (for good measure) the Prior's caterer and the Prior's steward. To do so, he and his assistant, Robert Marshall, used seven pounds of wax and two yards of cloth to fashion wax effigies of the targets.

This took time, and it wasn't until 1325 that he was ready to test his method by experimenting on a certain Richard de Lowe, a Coventry citizen who was apparently expendable. The experiment worked, according to later reports: the wax effigy of Richard de Lowe was stuck with lead pins in the head and heart, and Richard died shortly thereafter.

Unfortunately, when the hypothetical experiment became real, Robert Marshall lost his nerve and turned his boss in to the authorities—or maybe he turned against John for other reasons. The case came before the King's Bench (the English superior court) that year, with John of Nottingham and all 28 citizens as defendants for the murder of Richard de Lowe. The King's bench would not, however, rule that the evidence for magical murder was sufficient to convict, and John of Nottingham was declared innocent.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Green Grow the Rushes O!

Rushes. There are about 400 species of the Family Juncus, a round-stemmed grass-like mostly perennial plant that grows in wetlands. One species in Japan is used for the soft covering of tatami mats (the mat base is composed of rice straw). Some rushes, particularly the species called "sweet flag," was used as a floor covering in Western Europe; it gave a softer surface for walking, and absorbed spills; once sufficiently dirty, it would be swept up and replaced with fresh rushes. Another popular use, accessible by any home, was to make rushlights.

Rushlights were the poor man's candles. Harvested in late summer, rushes were laid out to dry, then carefully peeled apart. The soft pith inside the rush was the "wick" of the light, and a strip of the tougher outer skin was left on to hold the pith in place. The "body" of the rushlight was tallow, rendered animal fat. Fat was heated in a shallow pan until it liquified, then the rush pith was dragged through it a few times to create a very slim taper.

There is a structural difference between candles and rushlights. In a candle, the wick is surrounded by the substance that is burned; in a rushlight, the wick itself is infused with the tallow, and there is not much tallow surrounding it. This meant you could make a lot of rushlights from a pan of tallow and a heap of rushes. This was necessary. Although the benefit of making rushlights is that it was easy and free to any household, rushlights burned very quickly: a typical 12-inch rushlight burned for 10-15 minutes. You also needed a metal holder for the thin rushlight; you could not just set it on a flat surface as you would with a candle. Because the widespread use of rushlights did not extend to the Industrial Age, metal rushlight holders were never mass produced. Existing ones are all hand-made antiques, and extremely valuable to collectors.

The flame was brighter if the rushlight were held at a 45-degree angle. There were, however, "night lights" consisting of a rushlight braced vertically inside a metal cylinder with holes to let the light shine through. The vertical rushlight would burn more dimly, but last longer, and provide some minimal light in a dark room.

Rushlights were common in Medieval England, but their use was revived briefly during World War II.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Chandler

From a site that sells reproductions.
Consider the candle. Today it is a quaint device used for "mood" lighting, romance, or to create a historical-looking scene. Want to suggest a pre-Industrial Age home? Use candles. Of course, cinematic scenes pack as many candles as possible into the space in order to provide justification for the well-lit setting. In the Middle Ages, however, and right up through the Industrial Age, candles were too expensive to place them all over and light them. The family would gather around the table with a single candle in the center, each family member working on his or her project: sewing, knitting, reading, or playing.

Candles were expensive—depending upon what kind of candles they were, that is. A chandler, or candle-maker, produced one of two types: tallow or wax candles.

Tallow candles were made by rendering animal fat and dipping the wick (made from a braided string) into it. The fat would cool and harden, and you would then dip the result into the melted tallow again, pulling it out when a new layer of fat was deposited and before the original layer re-melted.

Tallow candles were cheaper than beeswax candles. Many households had their own livestock and could produce their own fat. To make a lot of tallow candles, however, required a lot of tallow. Tallow was also used for soap, and the household's animal fat had to be divided up between candle-making and soap-making. Professional tallow chandlers would procure large amounts of tallow by dealing with butchers, and could produce and sell tallow candles in large quantities.

Tallow candles were a yellowish color because of their source material, and although they provided light, they also produced an unpleasant odor. Not only that, they were a draw for rodents, who loved to gnaw on what was essentially congealed animal fat. For that reason, those who could afford it would purchase candles made from beeswax.

Beeswax was more difficult to come by, since it had to come from hives. You would not want to devastate the hive by taking all its wax and causing harm to the bees, so you had to carefully harvest the wax. Wax candles were lighter in color, depending on their treatment. Initially yellowish, if the blocks of wax were left out in the sun long enough, they bleached white.

Wax candles did not give off the odor of burning animal fat, and were much preferred by churches and wealthier households. It was possible to supplement the wax with some tallow. Later laws put an upper limit to the amount of tallow that was allowed in wax candles, however.

Monday, November 2, 2015


The European Middle Ages did not like bland food, and used spices extensively—often in combinations we would find odd or downright unappealing (although cinnamon-flavored pork tartlets are surprisingly very tasty). Among the many spices cultivated and grown in Europe was ginger.

Ginger has a long history of use for medicinal and culinary purposes. References to it indicate that it was used thousands of years ago in Southeast Asia, spreading elsewhere as trade routes were established. Ancient Rome procured it from trade with India and valued it greatly. By the Middle Ages, Arab cultures were spreading westward and carrying ginger rhizomes with them to plant and sell.

The name "ginger" [Zingiber officinale] is from the Old English gingifer, the adaptation of the Medieval Latin gingiber, from Classical Latin zinger, the Romans name for the spicy root they used in cooking and healing. (No, this is not the source of the modern term "a zinger," although relating a "zinger" to spiciness is tempting.) One author's history of ginger called it "the Alka-Seltzer of the Roman world." Ginger ale is still considered good for an upset stomach. The University of Salerno, famed for teaching medicine, claimed that a recipe for a happy old age was to "eat ginger, and you will love and be loved as in your youth."

From the 11th century, ginger became more popular as a flavoring agent, used in all sorts of medieval dishes. It became so popular that its import (it would not grow in the cold wet climates of the north, although it can be grown in well-warmed greenhouses, such as the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew) made the value (in 14th century England) of a pound of ginger equivalent to an entire sheep (1 shilling and 7 pence, if you must know).

There is a legend that Queen Elizabeth I created gingerbread men cookies as gifts for the men of her court. That is unverified, but gingerbread definitely was known to the Anglo-Saxons. A recipe for medieval gingerbread can be found here.