Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Pets and the Clergy

Christine de Pizan and her dog [link]
In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Prologue describes the Prioress as having small lapdogs that she dotes on, feeding them roasted flesh and milk. This behavior is similar to that of a noble-born lady, not a nun. As it turns out, nuns keeping pets was not uncommon, and it was not always a good thing.

Romsey, which was often the home to noble ladies, gives us an example of pet-based extravagance. John Pecham, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1279-1292, criticized the abbess for not providing adequate food to her charges, while at the same time keeping and dogs and monkeys (!) in her chamber.

William Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, wrote to Romsey's abbess in 1387:
...clear proofs that some of the nuns of your house bring with them to church birds, rabbits, hounds and such like frivolous things, whereunto they give more heed than to the offices of the church, with frequent hindrance to their own psalmody and that of their fellow nuns and to the grievous peril of their souls, therefore we strictly forbid you, ... to bring to church no birds, hounds, rabbits or other frivolous things that promote indiscipline;
... whereas through the hunting dogs and other dogs abiding within your monastic precincts, the alms that should be given to the poor are devoured and the church and cloister and other places set apart for divine and secular services are foully defiled, ... we strictly command and enjoin you, ..., that you remove these dogs altogether.
The keeping of pets was common for the upper classes, and monasteries and abbeys were frequently refuges for noble women who had no prospects of (on interest in) marriage. They clearly did not intend, however, to leave certain luxuries behind, and companion pets were clearly a desirable option.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Brothers-in-law

Among the groups in history that have long since disappeared, there are the Pechenegs. They were a semi-nomadic group that spoke a Turkic language, originally inhabiting the area north of the Black Sea, but being pushed westward until they came into conflict (and cooperation, but more often conflict) with others.

Pechenges versus the Rus, from a 15th century Russian history
The group's name, Pecheneg, derives from the old Turkic word for brother-in-law. We assume that the tribal units comprised people related by marriages. One of their early mentions in documents is by an 11th century Uighur scholar, who analyzed their language and declared it a Turkic dialect. In the 12th century, Anna Comnena described them as speaking a common language with the Cumans (a literary language of Central and Eastern Europe).

An invading group of other Turkish peoples drove the Pechenegs from their homeland. The Pechenegs pushed into Hungarian lands in the mid-800s. Some scholars of the time claimed that some Pechenegs remained in their homeland and were absorbed into the invaders' culture. A Byzantine historian of the 10th century wrote of those who stayed:
...even to this day they live among them, and wear such distinguishing marks as separate them off and betray their origin and how it came about that they were split off from their own folk: for their tunics are short, reaching to the knee, and their sleeves are cut off at the shoulder, whereby, you see, they indicate that they have been cut off from their own folk and those of their race. [Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Imperial Administration]
Moving westward, Pechenegs made an alliance with Byzantium, who used them as allies against other groups, such as Magyars and Rus. Alliances shifted, however. Some Pechenegs attacked Kiev (in 968), while some joined Kiev in attacking Byzantium (970-71). The Pechenegs eventually had no neighbors with whom they did not have a history of hostility. In 1087, a large migration/invasion of Pechenegs (estimated at 80,000) started moving toward Constantinople from the north, plundering as they went. Byzantium, after years of mis-management and weak leadership, was unable to meet this threat without help. Alexios I Comnenos offered gold to the Pecheneg-related Cumans to come to his aid.

In April of 1091, a combined force of Byzantines and Cumans met the Pechenegs at a place called Levounion. The Pechenegs, with their women and children, were not prepared for such strong opposition. The slaughter was extensive, and the few survivors were taken into servitude at Constantinople. Any mention of Pechenegs after this (and there are very few) lists them as soldiers under Byzantine rulers.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

St. Fructuosus of Braga

St. Fructuosus on Braga Cathedral
It is not unknown for rulers who have been harsh to try to "buy their ay into Heaven" near the end of their lives. Chindasuinth, who had been harsh in his dealings as king of the Visigoths, became very beneficent to religion in his final years. One of his accomplishments was financing the building of a monastery at San Román de Hornija in which he would be buried. His remains are there, next to those of his wife, Recciberga. (That may be San Román's only claim to fame; it has only a few hundred people living there these days.) The man who built the monastery was Fructuosus of Braga.

The son of a general, Fructuosus studied religion under Bishop Conantius of Palencia. When his parents died, he became a hermit in Galicia. He attracted others with his knowledge and piety, and thus began a monastery called Compludo. In all, he founded about 10 monasteries, including one solely for 80 virgins under the abbess Benedicta.

The monastic rules he wrote exist in two copies. The rule for his original monastery was extremely strict. Monks were not allowed to even look at each other, much less talk. Any thoughts, visions, or dreams were to be confessed to their superiors. There were bedtime inspections at any time of night. Infractions were punished by flogging and imprisonment for three to six months, on a diet of six ounces of bread.

In 654 he was asked to become Bishop of Dumio and given the job of fixing its finances; previously, the income was being used to help the poor and free slaves. Unfortunately, this rendered the diocese insolvent. Fructuosus was asked to make it solvent, but still be sensitive about the slave issue. Fructuosus, for whom the issue of political prisoners was an ongoing cause, was willing to balance the needs of the bishopric with the desire to free slaves.

On 1 December 656, he was made Archbishop of Braga, but remained a pious man who dressed so poorly that he was often mistaken for a peasant instead of a bishop.

He died on 16 April, 665, age unknown. In 1102, his relics were transferred from the Cathedral of Braga to Santiago de Compostela, but were returned to Braga in 1966.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Rebellion Among the Visigoths

In the 7th century, the Kingdom of the Visigoths covered much of the Iberian peninsula and a good chunk of what is now southern France. A Germanic tribe whose ruler was approved by all the nobles, there were some rulers who attempted to create a dynastic succession, so that they could hand the kingdom to their sons.

One such was Chintila (c.606 - 20 December 639), who took over from Sisenand at a time of unrest. Chintila was not a bad ruler. He held two Councils of Toledo (the 5th and 6th), in which (among other things) it was determined that the king must be chosen by the nobles and the bishops from the nobility: he could not be a foreigner, a peasant, or from the clergy. Chintila tried to leave the throne to his son, Tulga. This did not sit well with too many people, and so a warlord decided to stage a rebellion.

That warlord, Chindasuinth, may have been as old as 79. Commanding the frontier forces—and with much experience of rebellions from quelling them after the forced conversions from Arianism to Roman Christianity, and dealing with hostile Basques—he had himself declared king by his followers (but without the bishops). He marched his forces to Toledo, captured Tulga, and cut his hair. More specifically, he gave him a tonsure and exiled him to a monastery, because Tulga's father had helped establish that clergy could not ascend to the throne.

With his rebellion a success, Chindasuinth proceeded to rule, being properly anointed king on 30 April 642. But to rule successfully, he realized he needed to guard against—you guessed it—rebellion. So he decided to quell a rebellion pre-emptively. He rounded up and executed 200 members of the Gothic nobility and 500 members of the lesser nobility, without any pretense of a trial or even any evidence that a rebellion against his rule was being planned.

In October of 646, the 7th Council of Toledo retroactively ratified all of his decisions to take the throne and execute potential troublemakers. He then proceeded to make a pretty good king, establishing peace, heavily supporting the church, and refining the legal system.

But then he tried what others had tried: he named his son his heir. He declared Reccesuinth a co-king while Chindasuinth was still alive, so that the people would get used to the idea of Reccesuinth ruling. Reccesuinth was the "front man" for years, doing everything "in Chindasuinth's name." When Chindasuinth died in 653, Reccesuinth simply continued making decisions.

Froya, a Visigothic nobleman who had not been executed 10 years earlier, took exception to this and staged (wait for it) a rebellion, reaching as far as the important city of Saragossa with the support of the Basques (who held a grudge against Reccesuinth's father). Reccesuinth managed to put down the rebellion, execute Froya, and send the Basques back into the mountains. Then he reigned for almost 20 years on his own.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Death of William Rufus

Recent posts have talked about the sons of William the Conqueror: how he left the kingdom to his second son, William Rufus; how the eldest, Robert Curthose, had a temper and was shunted off to Normandy; how the youngest, Henry, took the throne upon his older brother's death during a hunting accident. We haven't yet talked about the hunting accident.

from Ridpath's Universal History (1895) 
If it was an accident.

On 2 August, 1100, King William II, called "Rufus" (probably on account of a red face), went hunting with a party of men that included his younger brother, Henry. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that he was "shot by an arrow by one of his own men." A later reference says an arrow glanced off a tree and went through his lung.

Details are scant. This was somewhere in the New Forest; the exact location is unknown, although later legend has picked a spot. In fact, a few centuries later, a stone was erected purporting to be on the site of the oak tree from which the arrow glanced.

William of Malmesbury claims that an archer named Walter Tyrell was responsible for the errant arrow, despite the fact that he was considered an excellent shot. Rather than carry the king's body back for burial, the hunting party left it there. Henry rushed to Winchester to seize control of the treasury and declare himself king; he was confirmed the next day. A peasant later came across the body and caused it to be brought to Winchester for burial.

Some historians claim that, if Henry wanted his brother killed, he would have waited; that William and Robert were headed for inevitable conflict, and that he merely had to wait until one of them eliminated the other, and assassinate the remaining brother. We know, however, that Robert was still away on the First Crusade, the money for which he had been given by William. At that time, it looked like Henry's elder brothers were getting along. Henry might also have been aware of the agreement between his brothers to be each other's heir. If Henry wanted his chance to be king, he had to seize it and consolidate power while Robert was far away and in no position to assert his claim. Henry also used his coronation charter, the Charter of Liberties, to cement the loyalty of the nobles.

We will never know for certain if William's death was an accident, but the situation so clearly benefitted his younger brother that it is difficult to shake the suspicion that it was engineered.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Charter of Liberties

A copy of the Coronation Charter of Henry I/Charter of Liberties
When William Rufus died, his younger brother Henry assumed the throne. It should have gone to the oldest brother, Robert Curthose, who was away on the First Crusade, because of an agreement between William and Robert. After all, when their father died, Henry was given a chunk of money; he wasn't even given a plot of land to rule the way Robert was given the dukedom of Normandy and William got England. The nobles didn't want to accept Henry at first. It was probably the Charter of Liberties that changed their minds.

The Charter of Liberties is also known as the Coronation Charter. It is the earliest extant coronation charter from England. In it, the new king makes promises to uphold laws. The statements made in this particular Charter were popular because they undid many of the acts of William that were unpopular.

For instance, statement 1 promises that Henry "shall not take or sell any property from a Church upon the death of a bishop or abbot, until a successor has been named to that Church property." (William had left the position of Archbishop of Canterbury lie vacant after the death of Lanfranc, so that he could appropriate the revenue from the archbishop's lands.)

Statement 6 forgives "all debts and pleas which were owing to my brother, except those which were lawfully made through an inheritance."

Statement 8 reverses the practice of being forced to bribe the king: "If any of my barons commit a crime, he shall not bind himself to the crown with a payment as was done in the time of my father and brother, but shall stand for the crime as was custom and law before the time of my father, and make amends as are appropriate."

Other statements put more control in the hands of the barons, and promise that the Crown shall not act rashly. When Robert Curthose went on the First Crusade, William gave him 10,000 marks—the equivalent of 25% of the annual royal budget. William got this money from a very heavy tax levied on the whole of England.

Even though in the normal course of events Henry would not have been part of the succession, the Charter of Liberties presented at his coronation helped to "sell" him to the noble class.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Ralph Flambard, Robert, and Henry

The Battle of Tinchebray
When Ralph Flambard escaped from the Tower of London, he fled to Normandy to the court of its duke, Robert Curthose. Robert was the eldest son of William the Conqueror who failed to inherit the throne—twice. The first time was when he rebelled against his father, later seeing the throne going to the second eldest, William Rufus. The second time was when, despite an agreement with William Rufus to be his heir, Robert was on Crusade when William died, giving younger brother Henry the opportunity to take the throne.

Flambard convinced Duke Robert that he should assert his claim to the throne (despite Robert's agreement to not pursue it in exchange for 3000 marks/year). With Flambard organizing the fleet, Robert's army landed in England in July 1101. It didn't go well. Henry's army was larger, and England didn't really want another change on the throne, so the local support was all for Henry.

Within a couple weeks of landing, on 2 August, Robert and Henry agreed to the Treaty of Alton—Alton was where Henry's army met and stopped the advance of Robert's—in which Robert (again) agreed to renounce any claim to the throne of England in exchange for an annual payment. Flambard, no doubt part of the negotiating force, actually got reinstated as Bishop of Durham! But he chose to stay in Normandy for five years: Robert had thanked him for his help by granting him the see of Lisieux

In 1105, however, Henry broke the agreement. Despite the Treaty of Alton, Henry invaded Normandy and fought against his brother in the Battle of Tinchebray. Robert was captured and imprisoned (he died in 1134, in Cardiff Castle). After the battle, Flambard made his peace with Henry, returned to England, and took up responsibility for Durham again.

Back in England, Flambard continued major building projects: a cathedral, a defensive wall around Durham Castle, Norham Castle, and more. He died on 5 September 1128.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The First Prisoner

Ralph Flambard was born in Bayeux, Normandy six years before William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel and became King of England. When he grew up, however, he became intertwined with the affairs of William and his sons.

Depiction of Flambard in stone
for Christ Church, Dorset
He must have been a clever lad, because he was one of the people put in charge of the Domesday Book in 1086, to make an account of all the lands and towns in England. He also became the keeper of the king's seal; documents had to pass through him to be stamped as official. When William died, Ralph chose to serve the new king, William Rufus.

Under Rufus, Flambard showed notable talent at raising funds for the king—and himself. He took control of empty parishes (up to 16 at one point), so that rent from their tenants flowed to him. With the money he was raising for the Crown, he built the first stone bridge in London (but not London Bridge itself). It was at this time that the king's hall was built in Westminster, the walls of which are still standing.

When William Rufus died in 1100, Ralph Flambard, now Bishop of Durham, was made a scapegoat for the financial hardships put on the citizens of England. King Henry I made Flambard the first person to be imprisoned in the Tower of London.

He also became the first man to escape the Tower of London.

The story goes that his friends sent to him a large jug of wine. (Prisoners in the Tower were not fed well, and food and drink from family and friends were allowed in order to sustain them.) Inside the jug was a rope. Flambard offered his captors wine, and when they were drunk and sleeping, he extracted the rope, tied it to the middle strut of the window, and climbed down to where his friends were waiting with horses to take him and his elderly mother to a boat that would whisk him to safety in Normandy.

Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury arranged a papal trial for the crime of simony. Henry officially confiscated his lands. Archbishop Gerard of York took away his title of bishop. Flambard didn't care: he had had dealings with every important member of William the Conqueror's family except one—the out-of-favor eldest son, Robert Curthose. He made his way to Robert, the Duke of Normandy; he had a plan.

[to be continued]

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Sibling Rivalry

When William the Conqueror died in 1087, he decided to leave the throne of England to his second eldest, William Rufus. To his eldest, Robert Curthose, who had once rebelled against him, he left the Duchy of Normandy. (Robert hadn't even come to his father's deathbed, staying on the continent because of the bad blood between him and his family.) The youngest son, Henry, got £5000 silver (and two smaller provinces in France: Maine and the Cotentin Peninsula). William and Robert, as the two major landholders, agreed to make each other their heir.

Robert Curthose tomb in Gloucester Cathedral
That didn't last.

Months later, several barons decided to revolt against William Rufus in the Rebellion of 1088. Robert joined them. Verbally. He never actually traveled to England to take part in the rebellion with any troops; had he done so, the rebellion might have succeeded. As it happened, William invaded Normandy a few years later, capturing large parts of the Duchy from Robert.

They managed to reconcile, however, when they decided to team up and expand both their property holdings by taking Maine and Cotentin away from their younger brother, Henry. Henry lost the Cotentin (an important coastline on the English Channel) after a two-week siege, retaining only the smaller and now land-locked Maine.

William died in a hunting accident on 2 August 1100. At the time, Robert was returning from the 1st Crusade. He hurried back to England to claim the throne because of the agreement he had with William since 1087. Unfortunately for him, Henry was in a position to claim the throne before Robert returned.

Robert's troops landed at Portsmouth in 1101 to fight for the throne. Henry was awaiting him at Pevensey (coincidentally[?], near where their father had made his landing for the Norman Invasion of 1066), but caught up with Robert before he reached London, and defeated him. Henry convinced Robert to give up his claim to the throne for 3000 marks per year. That might have resolved their conflict—and it did, for a little while.

But then Ralph Flambard escaped from the Tower of London.

[to be continued]

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Robert Curthose

Yesterday's post mentioned Henry becoming king of England upon the death of his brother, William Rufus. Their father was William the Conqueror. William had more than two sons, however. In fact, neither Henry nor William Rufus was his eldest son.

His eldest was Robert Curthose (c.1051 - 3 February 1134). He might have eventually succeeded his father to the throne of England, but his own actions got in the way.

Robert had some admirable qualities, as noted by William of Malmesbury in his Gesta Regum Anglorum [Deeds of the Kings of England]:
...considered as a youth of excellent courage... of tried prowess, though of small stature and projecting belly... he was neither ill-made, nor deficient in eloquence, nor was he wanting in courage or resources of the mind. [Note the "small stature" line; the nickname, "curthose" likely derived from his legs being a little shorter than usual]
But he had a temper. In 1077—still a young man—his younger brothers were bored, and dumped the contents of a chamber pot on Robert from an upper gallery. The boys got into a fight, which their father had to break up. Enraged that his father did not punish the instigators, the very next day Robert tried to capture one of his father's castles, at Rouen. He failed, and fled ultimately to Flanders, where his mother secretly sent him money to support him. His mother, Matilda, arranged a reconciliation between father and son from that lasted from 1080 until her death in 1083, after which Robert left court and traveled Europe.

On William the Conqueror's death in 1087, he left England's throne to William Rufus, and £5000 silver to Henry. To his estranged and difficult eldest son, Robert, he left Normandy—a generous gift considering the troubles between them.

Robert continued to cause trouble for his siblings, however; a story for tomorrow.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Father of His Country

The phrase "Father of His Country" is usually reserved for George Washington, first President of the United States, for his role in the beginning of the system that the USA has today. But Henry I of England (1068 - 1135) was the father of his country in more than a symbolic sense.

As a son of William the Conqueror, his role was to continue the evolution of England to become a mixture of Saxon and Norman culture. When his brother, William Rufus, was killed in a hunting accident, Henry took the throne. He took as his queen Matilda of Scotland, with whom he had at least two children. A daughter, Matilda, was born in 1102 and lived until 1167. William Adelin, born in 1103, died in 1120 in the White Ship tragedy.

Matilda really wanted to be a nun, which may explain why she did not help to fulfill her "duties" to provide many heirs. After her death in 1118, Henry married a young wife named Adeliza of Louvain, with whom he had no children.

Henry had alternatives, however. By several different mistresses (some of whose names we know), he sired several "heirs":
  • Robert Fitzroy ["son of the king"] (c.1100 - 1147), became the first Earl of Gloucester.
  • Richard of Lincoln was raised in the household of the Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Bloet.
  • Reginald de Dunstanville (c.1110 - 1175) was Earl of Cornwall and High Sheriff of Devon.
  • Robert
  • Gilbert
  • William de Tracy
  • Henry Fitzroy
  • Fulk Fitzroy
  • William de Dunstanville
...and that was just the boys. He had, by best estimate from references in historical documents, at least 15 daughters, including:
  • Matilda Fitzroy, Countess of Perche (by becoming 2nd wife of Rotrou III, Count of Perche)
  • Matilda Fitzroy, Duchess of Brittany (by marrying Conan III, Duke of Brittany)
  • Matilda Fitzroy, Abbess of Montvilliers
How is that for a tribute to a first wife?

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Saluzzo and England and Griselda

Saluzzo, a town and principality in northern Italy, had some interesting connections to England. It was a simple tribal city-state in Roman times, but during the time of the Carolingians it became the hereditary property of the Marquesses of Saluzzo, who extended their control over a wider region in the north. It was frequently in conflict with its powerful neighbor, the Duchy of Savoy, which eventually assumed much of Saluzzo's territory. The Savoys were so powerful that the kings of England and France treated them very well.

Griselda's daughter is carried away [source]
One of the first strategic marriages between English and Italian noble families, however, was with Saluzzo. Alice of Saluzzo (d.1292) married Richard Fitzalan, the 8th Earl of Arundel. The marriage had been arranged by Eleanor of Provence, Queen to Henry III. Alice's father, Thomas I of Saluzzo, was an exemplary ruler under whom Saluzzo flourished like never before. This probably had a lot to do with choosing to form an alliance with Saluzzo by marriage.

Not all Marquesses of Saluzzo came off so well in history—or literature.

In Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, The Clerk's Tale tells of Griselda, whose hand in marriage is sought by Marquess Walter of Saluzzo. He marries her on the condition that she will always obey him, no matter what. She agrees. When she gives birth to a daughter, Walter decides to test her obedience: he has a soldier remove her daughter. Although Griselda has every reason to believe her daughter is being killed (actually, the girl is sent to be raised by Walter's sister), she remains obedient and kind to her husband.

Four years later, she gives birth to a son. Walter chooses a further test: he tells her son has to go as well, that he has permission from the pope to divorce her, and that she is to return to her father taking nothing but the smock she wears under her fine dress. She returns home, showing no signs of distress.

Years later, Walter summons Griselda to him. He tells her he is marrying again, a young wife this time, and wants Griselda to help prepare the house for a new young bride. Unbeknownst to Griselda, the new young bride is actually her now-grown daughter. Griselda patiently asks Walter to be kind to his new bride, who might not be able to endure his tests the way a woman raised in poverty could. Walter, much moved by her patience and faithfulness, confesses that they are still married, that her children are alive, and promises never to test her again. They live happily ever after.

Chaucer did not invent this story. He probably got it from Boccaccio's Decameron, and the folktale of patient Griselda was around for a long time. Why the "villain" is a Marquess of Saluzzo is the mystery. But then, not all Marquesses were as beloved as Thomas I.  In Boccaccio's lifetime, Saluzzo experienced some civil strife. Manfred V of Saluzzo was forced to give up a claim to the throne in 1334 after being caught in a sex scandal with his own mother, then usurped the throne in 1341, but was forced to give it up a year later. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Our Daily Bread

Bread has all the characteristics of a staple food: the plant is easy to grow, the product is relatively easy and cheap to produce, and it is adaptable to various shapes and uses. Human beings have been eating it for about 30,000 years, based on residue of starch found on tools used for pounding grain into meal.

The earliest breads were probably flatbreads, before rising or leavening agents were discovered. Some leavening would take place naturally, by airborne yeasts landing on dough left out. Pliny the Elder reported that Gauls and Iberians added the foam from beer to make bread that was lighter in texture.

The earliest known Arabic cookbook, The Book of Dishes, by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq (10th century), explains:
Wheat bread agrees with almost everybody, particular varieties made with a generous amount of yeast and salt and allowed to fully ferment and bake well. Such breads are lighter and digest faster. Jizmazaj (thin bread with tamarisk seeds) and ruqaq (very thin bread) are by comparison less nourishing and digest much faster. Bread baked in malla (pit with hot ashes and stones), tabaq (large flat pan) and any other similar varieties that do not ferment or bake well are hard to digest and cause stomach aches. Only people used to strenuous labor can eat them more often.
Bread was considered so important to people and the economy that it was heavily regulated. The Assize of Bread and Ale during the reign of Henry III (1207 - 1272) determined "proper" weight and price and quality of bread.

Bread was such an important part of daily life that the name for someone with whom you spend a lot of time, companion, comes from the Old French compaignon, "one with whom one shares bread" (from Latin com="with" and panis="bread").

Monday, April 11, 2016


Memorial to Battle of Näfels
Military engagements between England and France were a large part of the 14th century in Europe, but those countries were far from the only two engaged in war. Much of the 14th century saw conflicts between Austria and the Swiss. The final engagement of that war was the Battle of Näfels in 1388.

The opponents were Glarus (one of the Cantons of Switzerland) and the Old Swiss Confederation against the Hapsburgs of Austria. In 1386, the Old Swiss Confederation besieged the Hapsburg village of Weesen. In 1387, Glarus rose up against its Austrian occupiers and declared itself free of Hapsburg control.

In retaliation, the Austrian army, in February 1388, drove the Swiss out of Weesen. In April, the Austrian army decided to attack Glarus; 5000 men marched toward Näfels, a municipality in Glarus; on the way, they were joined by a column of 1500.

Näfels had for its defense about 400 men. Outnumbered 16 to 1, after a brief resistance the men of Näfels scattered, disappearing off the fortifications and into the snow- and fog-filled night. The Austrians, emboldened, broke ranks and began to pillage the outlying farms.

But the Glarners had counted on that. They began appearing out of the fog and snow, picking off the Austrian soldiers in ones and twos. A quick attempt to pull together the ranks resulted in a brief battle, but the now disoriented and slightly demoralized Austrians decided to retreat, despite their overwhelming numbers. In crossing the Linth River, a collapsing bridge dropped many Austrians into the river to drown. Ultimate losses for the Austrians are difficult to estimate, but some say up to one-third of the army was killed over the course of a couple of days. A monument exists to honor the (only) 54 Swiss Confederation and Glarner men who were killed.

Friday, April 1, 2016


It is the first of April, and while you might expect something about pulling pranks and acting the fool, instead we are going to talk about...April. Chaucer's most famous poem starts with a mention of April and its sweet showers, but did he know what "April" meant?

April lovers from the Margaret de Foix Book of Hours
We are not sure why it is called April, from the Latin Aprilis. The Greeks call this month άνοιξη [ánoixé], which means "opening." This is because April is traditionally when the earth starts to renew itself and flowers and buds begin to open. Based on this, April might come from Latin aperture, "to open," from which we get words like aperture.

On the other hand, since the Romans liked to name their months for practical reasons, either after gods (January) or Caesars (July and August) or simply numerically (September, October, etc.), maybe we should see if April fits the pattern. Perhaps Aprilis was actually Aphrilis, as in Aphrodite, the Greek name of Venus. After all, Venus had a festival, the Veneralia, held on 1 April, in honor of Venus Verticordia ["Venus the Changer of Hearts"].

Maybe the Middle Ages knew of this origin, since illustrated calendars and books of hours often had pairs of lovers to represent April, as we see above. (To be honest, this was a later medieval trend; earlier, April just had someone holding a green branch to show life coming back to Nature.)

The Anglo-Saxons called it ēastre-monaþ; we don't know why. Bede tells us that it was named for a goddess, Eostre, and that this is why the Anglo-Saxons called the Resurrection "Easter." Einhard says the same, but he probably got it from Bede.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Hug a Medievalist

This is worth knowing.

A bear hunter hugging a bear?
Early 16th c. German "Geese Book"
Sarah Laseke, writer of a medieval blog here, in 2011 decided that if librarians get a "Hug a Librarian" Day, then medievalists should get a "Hug a Medievalist" Day. She started with a Facebook page, from which the idea gained widespread interest.

Folk in the Middle Ages knew about hugging, although it does not seem likely that it was a very public gesture. As one website puts it:
The nobility ... had plenty of space and did not press closely on each other. Gentlemen and ladies allowed a lot of personal space to each other. Hugging and hanging on each other was simply not done in public, especially not by ladies in a broad-spreading double-horned headdress, except with great care. Getting close enough for a kiss required a lady's co-operation... [link]
In the 21st century, however, we do not have the same taboos about personal space—or the clothing that prohibits closeness. Feel free to find and hug a Medievalist today, and we will return to more scholarly (and less self-serving) topics tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Seventh Crusade

King Louis IX of France could not convince any of the rulers of Europe to accompany him on a Crusade to free Jerusalem, which had been recaptured in 1240. He organized and funded (by taxing the church) the Seventh Crusade himself. It could have gone better.

Battle of Mansura
After wintering in Cyprus, he took the town of Damietta in Egypt to use as a base, then had to sit there for six months while the Nile flooded, which gave his enemies time to assemble their forces. Marching toward Cairo, he was stopped by a canal near Mansura, on the other side of which was an Egyptian army larger than his.

Louis tried building a causeway across the canal, but the Egyptians simply dug away at their side of the canal, widening it and putting their bank every farther out of his reach. After two fruitless months, he sent his cavalry to cross at a shallow ford 4 miles upstream. Louis' brother Robert was to hold the cavalry until a signal, but he charged into Mansura, probably seeking his own glory, and succeeded in wiping out most of the cavalry. The Crusaders were too weak to take and hold Mansura, and so Louis retreated to Damietta.

On 6 April, 1250, at the Battle of Fariskur, the Egyptian Mamluks defeated the Crusaders and captured Louis. His ransom was 800,000 gold livre and the return of Damietta to the Egyptians. Louis sailed to Acre in Syria, where he tried to get help to continue the Crusade. He negotiated with the Mongol Möngke Khan through his emissary, William of Rubruck, which infuriated the Mamluks, whose territory to the east had been invaded by the ever-spreading Mongols.

By 1254, Louis had run out of money and, word coming that his mother, Blanche of Castile, who had been running France in his absence, had died, he had to return to France. Louis would try another Crusade, the Eighth, in 1270, where he would die on 25 August in Africa from "a flux in the stomach." He should have simply stayed home.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Crusade Nobody Wanted

In 1244, allies of the Egyptian Mamluks, retreating westward from the advancing Mongols, stopped at Jerusalem long enough to recapture it from European Christian control. Jerusalem had come under Christian control during the Sixth Crusade under Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1228.

King/Saint Louis sailing on the Seventh Crusade
King Louis IX of France, whose devotion was so great that he became Saint Louis, immediately began planning an action to return Jerusalem to Christian control. He sent word throughout Europe to join him in a Seventh Crusade.

Europe's response to this calamity was not what one would expect. The truth is, Europe was pretty busy with its own problems. The Pope, Innocent IV, who under usual circumstances would have been the one to call a Crusade, was locked in a political struggle with Frederick II over the question of which of them controlled the Holy Roman Empire. Henry III of England was dealing with Simon de Montfort's rebellion. (Henry did agree not to attack France while Louis was away.)

Louis appealed to Hungary, but King Béla IV was rebuilding after a Mongol invasion. Louis even appealed to King Haakon IV of Norway. Haakon was interested in making deeper European ties, and had made a vow of Crusade once, but then converted it to a vow to fight against pagans in the north (Mongols had started coming north). Louis sent Matthew Paris to offer Haakon command of the French fleet, but Haakon refused.

The only person in Europe who was keen for this Crusade was Louis himself, but as a "one man show" he was very well organized. He commissioned ships to be built specifically for transporting his men and horses and supplies, and raised money by collecting a tithe (tenth) from churches. He sailed to Cyprus for the winter, negotiating with other forces (such as the Knights Templar) for mutual help. He then went to Egypt, where he took the town of Damietta to use as a base. Then the annual flooding of the Nile took place, and he was grounded for six months.

From there it went downhill.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Saint Who Said "No"

Saint Isabella, at a
church in Paris
Isabella of France (1224 - 1270) was the daughter of King Louis VIII and Blanche of Castile. Her brothers became King Louis IX of France, Count Alfonso of Poitiers, and King Charles I of Sicily. Her royal upbringing included not only the typical feminine arts like embroidery, but also study of Latin and literature, such as romances and religious works.

She became attracted to the mission of the Franciscans, and by special dispensation of Pope Innocent IV, she was allowed to have Franciscans as her confessors, rather than regular priests. She was very devout, and took special interest in applying her embroidery skills on priestly vestments. Once, while making a nightcap, her brother the king asked for it. She said "No. This is the first of its kind and I must make it for my Savior Jesus Christ.” She finished the nightcap, gave it to a poor person, and made her brother another,

As devout as she was, however, she was still a royal princess, with obligations beyond what most daughters experience. She was betrothed to marry Hugh, the future Count of Angoulême and of La Marche. Isabella was determined to remain a virgin, and so said "No" and would not carry through on the wedding plans. Unable to secure an heir, Hugh looked elsewhere. (This did not cause harm to the relation between the two families: Hugh later joined Isabella's brother Alfonso on the Seventh Crusade, where he was killed in Egypt.)

Later, she was betrothed to Conrad IV of Germany, son of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Politically, this match would have been more impressive than the one with Hugh, and everyone thought it a good idea, even Pope Innocent IV, who entreated her to agree to it. But Isabella said "No" again. She explained to the pope that she wished to live a religious life, though not entering a religious order, and part of that involved remaining a virgin.

Isabella asked to be able to found a monastery of Poor Clares (Clare was the sister of Francis of Assisi). Sanction from Pope Alexander IV dated 2 February 1259 shows that the Monastery of the Humility of the Blessed Virgin was completed by that date. Isabella lived in the monastery, but apart from the nuns' cells. Offered the position of abbess, she again said "No": if she were abbess, she would have to give up the riches available to a royal princess, and would not be able to support the monastery.

After her death and burial, her body was exhumed after nine days and observed to be uncorrupted. That, and the reports of miracles happening at her grave, caused her to be declared a saint. Her feast day is 23 February.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Name Glastonbury

Glastonbury is a small town in Somerset, England, that has been inhabited since Neolithic times. A recent post discussed the discovery of early medieval glass-making furnaces at the site of the now ruined Glastonbury Abbey. This prompted some to point out to me that Glastonbury "must have been known" for glass production—it is "right there in the name." Let us address that.

Remains of the nave of Glastonbury Abbey
In his book The Flowering Hawthorn, Hugh Ross Williamson tells the story of St. Collen. Collen was a 7th century hermit who took up residence at what is now Glastonbury. Williamson relates how the saint encountered Gwyn, King of the Fairies, in a magical glass castle on Glastonbury Tor. Rejecting the fairies' offer of food and drink, he cast holy water on them, causing all to vanish. Numerous versions of this story exist, but Williamson's 1962 book is the only version that introduces glass as the material involved. As a source for the site's name, this is not reliable.

William of Malmesbury refers to its earliest name as Ynys Witrin, which some translate as "Isle of Glass" based on the fact that English "vitreous" comes from Latin "vitrum" meaning "glass." "Isle of Glass" would more properly be Ynys Gwydr, however. "Witrin" is a puzzle, but no serious scholar thinks it is from Latin for "glass." (The "Isle" makes sense because, in earlier times, higher sea levels turned some hilly areas into islands.) Malmesbury does suggest that the place was named for someone named Glast. Since the first recording of the name is Glestingaburg, the place of Glestinga. No one knows exactly to what Glestinga refers.

But it's not about glass.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Glass and Recycling

In 1977-79, a shipwreck off the southern coast of Turkey was investigated. It was determined to have sunk about 1025. The ship's hold contained three tons of broken glass and chunks of glass. (This amount of glass would make about 12,000 Coke bottles.)

Jesse Tree at York Minster (1150-70); some of the oldest
stained glass of the Middle Ages
Glass requires extreme heat applied to a mixture of silica, soda, and lime. Silica was derived from sand; soda happens to reduce the temperature at which glass can form; lime makes the glass "chemically stable." Impurities—by accident or design—added color to the glass.

We know little about how glass-making came about; records do not explain the technique, but anecdotal mentions tell us a little. Pliny's Natural History tells us that the best sand for glass comes from the mouth of the Belus River near Akko, Israel. The shells in that sand provide the lime needed to make the glass stable. William of Tyre (1130-1186) and Jacques de Vitry (1170-1240) around 1200 both mention the same source. It is thought that the ancients did not understand why that source was the best, chemically, that they did not understand that the shells contained necessary lime.

In England, the Glastonbury Abbey Project has discovered evidence of a stone structure on the site of Glastonbury Abbey dating to c.700. They have also found evidence of early Roman and Saxon activity from before the Abbey's founding. Remains of glass-making furnaces have been uncovered, showing archaeologists that Saxons were recycling Roman glass brought from Europe. The Glastonbury site was possibly the first Saxon glass-making factory in England.

The remarkable thing about glass is that it is recyclable, like metals. Although it took a lot of energy to process, every bit of broken material (unlike wood or stone or pottery) could be re-smelted and re-cast. It is possible that the glass in windows like the example above was even older than our estimates, having been re-used from earlier glass objects that broke or had outlived their usefulness.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Biggest Guild

A 1568 German woodcut showing a shoe shop
Which guilds were the biggest? Not the most powerful, but those with the most members? Let's look at a sampling. The tax lists for Paris in 1292 list the numbers of members of 130 guilds. Here are some of the largest:

21 - woodcarvers
21 - glove makers
22 - hay merchants
24 - harness makers
24 - rugmakers
24 - sculptors
24 - innkeepers
26 - rope makers
27 - locksmiths
29 - doctors
34 - blacksmiths
35 - spice merchants
37 - beer sellers
41 - fish merchants
42 - meat butchers
43 - laundresses
51 - chicken butchers
54 - hat makers
56 - wine sellers
58 - scabbard makers
62 - bakers
70 - coopers
70 - mercers
86 - weavers
95 - carpenters
104 - masons
106 - pastry cooks
121 - old clothes dealers
130 - restaurateurs
131 - jewelers
151 - barbers
197 - tailors
214 - furriers
...and the guild with the largest number of tradesmen in it:
366 - shoemakers
Why so many shoemakers? These days, we think of shoes as something with sturdy rubber soles, sealed to canvas or nylon or leather. What we have today is considered very durable; when they wear out, we dash to a store where the shelves are lined floor to ceiling with clearly marked lengths and widths of mass-produced footwear. Not so in the Middle Ages.

In the Middle Ages, and the centuries before, footwear was "bespoke"; that is, designed specifically for the foot it was supposed to enclose. A shoemaker would take your measurement, discuss materials and binding, and then set to work crafting shoes that would fit your feet, and not the feet of your neighbor or family member.

These shoes were not necessarily fitted with hard soles, either; in many cases, they are essentially slippers made of leather, and with every step they would scuff thinner and thinner. The leather used had to be soft and supple to fit snugly around your feet; it was mostly from goatskin or sheepskin, as opposed to the tougher cow leather used for saddlery, for instance. In fact, one term for a shoemaker, cordwainer, comes from Cordovan, because Cordoba in southern Spain was a source of goatskin commonly used for shoes.

Another note on terminology: These were not cobblers, but shoemakers. A cobbler did not make shoes: he repaired them.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Guilds for Women

Women weaving
Guilds in the Middle Ages seemed to exist for every conceivable occupation (except, perhaps, midwifery). What about women? Were guilds open to them as much as to men?
Although women were accepted as members and sometimes founded guilds, they seldom held office, just as it was rare for a woman to serve as churchwarden of the parish church, a reflection on women's subordination in the medieval world. [Women in England in the Middle Ages, by Jennifer Ward, p.186]
Women were able to participate in numerous trades in the Middle Ages, sometimes supporting their husband's business, often being in business for themselves. The Paris tax registers for the early 14th century list several craftswomen whose craft was different from their husbands. Women were often brewers and bakers; more often than not, women ran the local food service businesses.

That does not mean, however, that women were relegated to domestic trades. In early 15th century Wurzburg, for instance, records show over 300 building site workers were women. records of medieval women in jobs include:
brewer, laundress, barrel and crate maker, soap boiler, candle maker, book binder, doll painter, butcher, keeper of town keys, tax collector, shepherd, musician, rope maker, banker, money lender, inn keeper, spice seller, pie seller, woad trader, wine merchant, steel merchant, copper importer, currency exchanger, pawn shop owner, lake and river fisherwoman, baker, oil presser, builder, mason, plasterer, cartwright, wood turner, clay and lime worker, glazier, ore miner, silver miner, book illuminator, scribe, teacher, office manager, clerk, court assessor, customs officer, porter, tower guard, prison caretaker, surgeon and midwife. [link]
Almost the only occupation in which we do not find the presence of women is that of blacksmith, whereas the textile industry was well represented.

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Bit About Guilds

Guilds, companies of folk who follow the same occupation, are associated with the Middle Ages. They actually existed in the Roman Empire. Called collegia, they were authorized by the government, who used the structure to impose taxes on their professions. When Rome fell, collegia disappeared for six centuries, reappearing in Western Europe as guilds. (In the Eastern Empire, collegia survived the Fall of Rome; they were also a structure for the government to produce revenue by taxing craftsmen.)

Medieval Guild of Tailors [source]
The medieval guilds seem to have developed independently, rather than being an import from Byzantium. The development of towns around 1000—with their concentrations of population, coalescing of workers with similar skills, and need for local government—enabled merchants to evolve from traveling peddlers to stationary shopkeepers.

By banding together, members of a guild could support each other socially and financially against outsiders. A guild could set prices, and prevent foreigners from conducting business in their locale. Guild members joining town councils gained even more power for their colleagues.

To ensure quality, guilds created a system of apprenticeship. A master, an established and accomplished craftsman, would accept apprentices who lived with him and learned his trade in exchange for bed and board. A family might pay a lot of money to a master to have a son become his apprentice. After several years, a suitably trained apprentice would find another master with which to intern, finally getting paid for his work. At this stage he was called a journeyman. After proving his mastery of the craft, he could become a master himself, and could set up his own shop and accept apprentices of his own.

Guilds also gave back to society. All professions had some patron saint, and guilds would often fund a chapel dedicated to their patron saint.

After the Reformation, the rise of strong national governments removed some of the local autonomy that allowed guilds to control so much of their towns. Also, merchants began to develop international connections, mega-corporations that overshadowed the effect of a local guild.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Templars, Absolved

Everyone knows about the Templars, or Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. Their avowed goal was to protect travelers to the Holy Land. For almost two centuries they offered protection en route to sites in the Holy Land and, as a trustworthy order with members in several countries, became wealthy by being a reliable way to transfer money from one country to another.

The Chinon Parchment
Although endorsed by the Church, King Philip IV of France engineered their downfall in France and arrested and tortured a number of them in 1307, confiscating their property in the process. This was very handy for Philip, since he was greatly in financial debt to them. Through use of the Inquisition, they were linked with heresy, accused of consorting with the devil, etc. The Templars' very secret initiation rite made it easy to fabricate lies about what they did.

In 1312, Philip persuaded Pope Clement V to disband the Templars for good, so that no one stood in Philip's way when he executed their Grandmaster, Jacques de Molay. The Templars went out in disgrace for political reasons, vilified for non-Christian practices, after having been one of the most respected groups in Christendom.

The Vatican Secret Archives (Archivum Secretum Apostolicum Vaticanum) contain all the documents of the popes, as opposed to official and public documents. They are "secret" in that they are technically a private library and one cannot simply walk in and check out a book. Popes can give access, however, and recent popes have done so. In 2001, historian and paleographer Barbara Frale discovered a document now known as the Chinon Parchment.

It turns out that Clement wanted to interview the heads of the Order, but their imprisonment and torture made it impossible for them to travel to Avignon to meet him, so he sent his legates to meet with them at Chinon, questioning them about their beliefs. This meeting at Chinon took place in August 1308, as related and notarized in the Chinon Parchment. Even though Clement suppressed the Templars a few years after, due to pressure from Philip, the Chinon Parchment tells us that the pope granted them forgiveness and absolution for their sins and restored to them the right to receive the sacraments.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Art of the Deal

One of the very first posts on this blog years ago was about the collapse of the powerful Florentine banking corporation, the Bardi. One of he reasons often given for that collapse is the default by England's kings on repayment of loans used to fight their wars. The head of the London office for the Bardi was Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, whose job in 1347 was to deal with the results of the Bardi bankruptcy.

Still in (Italian) print!
Pegolotti (who flourished from 1310 to 1347) did something else, however, that would outlast him and the Bardi. He wrote a book, the Pratica della mercatura [Italian: "Mercantile practice"], that was a guidebook for years to come on international trade.

What is so valuable about the book? For a start, it has a glossary of all the terms used at the time in the field of mercantilism and taxes. It also contains a list of the 20 (!) languages it is good to have knowledge of if one wishes to be a successful merchant, everything from English and "Saracen" (Arabic) to several dialects of the Italian peninsula.

It lists several trading routes, everywhere from England to Persia to "Gattaio" (Cathay=China), and the stages one goes through to get to your destination. He also explains the business practices and customs of each of these places, to aid the merchant in successful dealing.

We also learn from Pegolotti what goods were to be had from each country, and where to go to find them. He lists, for instance, many monasteries in England and Scotland as sources of wool. Along with the goods, he explains the local systems of weights and measures, the local currency, and the formulæ needed to convert between them and one's own system.

Among the lists and tables included, we learn an enormous amount of detail about the 14th century:

  • Lengths of cloth
  • Fineness of gold and silver coin
  • Spices and their packing
  • Compound interest tables
  • Valuation of pearls and precious stones
  • Buying and selling grain
  • Shipping
  • Calendar tables
  • Fineness of gold and silver
  • Types and qualities of spices and other trade goods
No original manuscript exists, but the book remained in use, initially for its utility in international trade dealings, and now because of its historical value. The earliest copy we have is from over a century later, in 1472. An 18th century historian included the Pratica in a multi-volume history of Florentine finance. There is a 1936 edition that can still be found.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Siege of Montségur

The Cathars, mentioned yesterday, were a largely peaceful group that attempted to lead lives of Christian simplicity, rejecting the material world as much as possible. Their beliefs challenged official Church doctrine, and the Inquisition and the Albigensian Crusade were chief instruments in suppressing them. They were not completely successful, however.

The remains of a later structure on Montségur
In May 1243, over 200 Cathars took refuge in a stone chateau on a peak called Montségur in southern France, surrounded by French military. Montségur wasn't a last resort of fleeing Cathars, however: it had been granted to them as the headquarters of their Cathar Church by its sympathetic owner, the Occitan nobleman Raymond de Péreille. (For his trouble, he was interrogated by the Inquisition after the Siege concluded.)

The Siege took nine months. The usual tactic is to outlast the besieged while their food and water runs out. Montségur was well-provisioned, however, and sympathetic locals snuck in with supplies. Also, the Cathars were accustomed to deprivation, so emergency rations were no hardship for them. For these reasons, the 10,000 royal troops waited in vain until the decision was made to attack. After much difficulty, a position was established on the eastern side of the peak, where a catapult was constructed. The bombardment enabled the attackers to take control of the chateau's defensive gateway, the barbican, and therefore move the catapult closer in order to do more damage to the walls and interior.

The besieged were given two weeks to depart safely, on the condition that they renounced Catharism. Death by burning was the alternative. The Cathars spent the two weeks fasting and praying in preparation for departing from a world they considered sinful anyway. On 16 March, 1244, over 200 of them marched downhill to the pyre that had been prepared and of their own volition climbed onto the stacks of wood. The place is now known as Prats de Cremats [Occitan: "Field of the Burned"].

Catharism survived in southern France, but not in any organized fashion. The presence of the Inquisition caused many Cathars to emigrate to more hospitable regions, such as Spain and Italy.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016


The Cathar symbol
The Cathars were a heretical sect that first appeared in historical records of Europe about 1143. In truth, the term was used earlier: the first Council of Nicaea in 325 discussed allowing "Cathars" to convert to the approved Christianity, and the 8th century St. John Damascene's book on heresies mentions Cathars, but the group of which we know more in the Middle Ages was probably not related to those earlier groups.

The confusion would come from the name itself. "Cathar" comes from the Greek katharoi, meaning "the pure ones." The later medieval Cathars were a dualist movement: they believed that there were two opposing forces of equal power, good and evil. The good was represented by a single God (no Trinity for them!) and the spiritual side of life; the material world was the result of a god of evil, Satan. They therefore rejected (as much as possible) the material world., since it was all tainted with sin by its connection to Satan. One aspect of the material world that they rejected was sex and its partner, marriage, as this blog discussed here.

Groups of Cathars flourished in the 12th century in the Rhineland, France, and northern Italian cities. Their lifestyle was a radical departure from the norm, but it was not objectionable to many. Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the strongest voices in Christianity of his day) said of them:
If you question the heretic about his faith, nothing is more Christian; if about his daily converse, nothing more blameless; and what he says he proves by his actions ... As regards his life and conduct, he cheats no one, pushes ahead of no one, does violence to no one. Moreover, his cheeks are pale with fasting; he does not eat the bread of idleness; he labours with his hands and thus makes his living. Women  are leaving their husbands, men are putting aside their wives, and they all flock to those heretics! Clerics and priests, the youthful and the adult among them, are leaving their congregations and churches.... [Sermon 65]
They were ascetic Christians living the Christian life, harming no one. They rejected, however, the trappings of Roman Catholicism. Pope Innocent III tried to bring them back "into the fold" by sending missionaries to preach to them. One of these, Pierre de Castelnau, was murdered on 15 January, 1208, during one such attempt, supposedly by Count Raymond of Toulouse, whom he was accusing of being too lenient with the Cathars. After this act, Innocent abandoned his attempts to win over the Cathars, and instead decided to wipe them out with the action known as the Albigensian Crusade.

Monday, March 14, 2016


When Guy de Chauliac mentioned midwives in his great work on surgery, it was only a mention: he declined to express details because the field was dominated by women; men were not even allowed into the room when a woman was giving birth. In fact, "One Henne Vanden Damme, for having hid behind a staircase to eavesdrop upon his wife, she being in labour of childbirth, which thing doth not befit a man, for the said eavesdropping was fined 15 livres." [source]

Later in the Middle Ages, there was regulation of midwifery, but midwives, unlike doctors, were not associated with any formal training. In fact, some of the early manuals produced on midwifery—by the rare individuals in the profession who were literate—do not even demonstrate current medical knowledge. Midwives never formed into guilds, as other professions did with regularity. So far as we know, the qualifications for becoming a midwife were gained from on-the-job experience. Even Trotula, the famous female doctor and professor of medicine, discussed many female conditions but not the subject of childbirth.

According to Joseph and Frances Gies:
During labor the midwife rubs her patient's belly with ointment to ease her travail and bring it to a quicker conclusion. She encourages the patient with comforting words. If the labor is difficult, sympathetic magic is invoked. The patient's hair is loosened and all the pins removed. Servants open all the doors, drawers, and cupboards in the house and untie all the knots.
When the baby is born, the midwife ties the umbilical cord and cuts it at four fingers' length. She washes the baby and rubs him all over with salt, then gently cleanses his palate and gums with honey, to give him an appetite.
[Life in a Medieval City, pp.60-1]
Some historians have noted that the regulation of midwifery started generally around the same time as persecutions for witchcraft. This is, of course, not true in all countries, but it would be difficult to miss the similarity between two different practices of trying to place controls on a segment of society that was in a position of potential harm, either through neglect (on the part of midwives) or design (on the part of witches).

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Pact of Umar

Copy of the Pact [source]
The Pact of Umar is a document that outlines rights and restrictions for Christians living in Muslim-held territory. Its true origin is uncertain, and different versions exist. Some of the points gleaned from the various versions follow:
  • The ruler would provide security for the Christian believers who follow the rules of the pact.
  • Prohibition against building new churches, places of worship, monasteries, monks or a new cell.
  • Prohibition against hanging a cross on the Churches.
  • Muslims should be allowed to enter Churches (for shelter) in any time, both in day and night.
  • Prohibition of Christians and Jews against raising their voices at prayer times.
  • Prohibition against teaching non-Muslim children the Qur'an.
  • Palm Sunday and Easter parades were banned.
  • Funerals should be conducted quietly.
  • Prohibition against burying non-Muslim dead near Muslims.
  • Prohibition against telling a lie about Muslims.
  • Prohibition against adopting a Muslim title of honor.
  • Prohibition against engraving Arabic inscriptions on signet seals.
  • Prohibition against non-Muslims to lead, govern or employ Muslims.
  • The worship places of non-Muslims must be lower in elevation than the lowest mosque in town.
  • The houses of non-Muslims must not be taller in elevation than the houses of Muslims.
It could have been worse: there could have been no Pact at all.

There is a legend that it was negotiated by Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem until his death on 11 March 638. After Arab armies conquered Jerusalem in 637, Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab came to Jerusalem; he and Sophronius (a Syrian Arab by descent) toured the city together. When the time came for Umar to pray, they were near a Christian church. Sophronius suggested to Umar that he enter the church to pray. Umar (supposedly) declined, because future Arabs might take it as a precedent and want to replace the church with a mosque. Sophronius was moved by the ruler's graciousness, and gave him the keys to the church, which remain in the hands of an Arab family to this day. (For a more historically accurate accounting of the keys, see here.)

Many scholars prefer to believe that the Pact is of later origin, and was retroactively ascribed the Umar because he was the first Arab ruler of Jerusalem. Another possible source is Caliph Umar II (no relation)

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Ballista, Catapult, Trebuchet...

...Onager, Mangonel, Springald, Polybolos—all words for devices that propelled heavy objects toward an enemy; not to mention Cheiroballista, Manuballista, Carroballista, and Couillard.

Ever since early man learned that hitting someone in the head with a rock was an efficient way to win an argument, he probably started thinking "Hmmm. If only I could hit him without getting too close."

The invention of the catapult [Latin "catapulta" from Greek "kata"=down and "pallo"=to hurl] is credited to the ancient Greeks—as this blog has mentioned previously—although a similar device is described even earlier in the Old Testament:
And he made in Jerusalem engines, invented by cunning men, to be on the towers and upon the bulwarks, to shoot arrows and great stones withal. And his name spread far abroad; for he was marvellously helped, till he was strong. [King James Bible, 2 Chronicles 26:15]
Not all catapults are alike. The various names for such devices distinguish different types of them. For instance, the onager [Greek: "wild ass"] was so named because when fired it "bucked and kicked" like a donkey. The trebuchet used a counterweight to provide the thrusting power, rather than the tension of pulling the arm back, as in the standard catapult. The couillard was a French modification on the trebuchet; it used a two-part counterweight, each half swinging to the side of the central arm. The most famous trebuchet was probably one called Warwolf, used by Edward I in 1304 to bring down a section of the walls of Stirling Castle.

The manuballista [Latin: "hand thrower"] was exactly what it sounds like: a hand-operated throwing device, such as used by young boys through the ages and pictured above. The cheiroballista [Greek: "hand thrower'] is considered to be the same device, even though descriptions are not included in the references. The carroballista? A catapult mounted on a carro, a cart, for easy transport.

The springald was essentially a crossbow: smaller, and therefore less tension and less damage, used best against individuals in closer quarters. It first appears in a Byzantine manuscript of the 11th century.

Most of these devices threw a single mass in order to cause great damage to a defensive wall. Occasionally, however, you might want smaller damage but over a wider area. That is when you used the polybolos [Greek: "many thrower"]. Equivalent to a gatling gun rather than a shotgun, the polybolos could fire repeatedly: Philo of Byzantium (c.280-c.220 BCE) describes the mechanism that could fire bolt after bolt—eleven per minute!—once you loaded it up.

If you wish to build your own device, consider this store.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The @

We note with sadness the passing of Ray Tomlinson on 7 March 2016, whose name and history are unknown to the general populace but whose innovation is used hundreds of millions of times each day by folk on every continent. Ray Tomlinson, while working as an engineer in Boston, in 1971 was tasked with figuring out uses for the new ARPANET.  He invented a way to send a message from one computer to another; today we call it email. While figuring how to keep, in a line of text, the recipient separate from the address, he chose the @ on his keyboard, since it was used for little else. One article eulogizing Tomlinson said that the @ would probably have fallen out of use and off of keyboard layouts if not for him.

Of course, it was used before Tomlinson to designate a rate, such as "1 apple @25¢."

But...where did it come from?

To the left we see it in a record of a shipment of wheat from Castile to Aragon in 1448. There it was an abbreviation of Spanish arroba, meaning "a quarter" and being equivalent to 25 pounds of weight.

One theory holds that its use in other countries derived from a monastic scribal abbreviation to save space, reducing Latin ad [at, toward, by, about] to an a with a lower-case d curving around it. This would save ink and expensive parchment.

The earliest manuscript in which we find it, however, is a real puzzle. In a 1345 Bulgarian copy of the Greek Manasses Chronicle, a history written by Constantine Manasses (c.1130-c.1187), we find the word "Amen" written as "@men." Why it would be used for an upper-case "a" is unknown. Clearly, the symbol was a known figure that the audience was expected to understand.

In English we call it the "at" sign or symbol, but other languages have different names for it. French, Spanish and Portuguese call it arroba or arobase, a unit of weight (already mentioned). But other countries have more colorful names. Norwegians see a "pig's tale"; Hungarians see a "worm"; it is a "duckling" in Greek and a "rose" in Turkish.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A Day Late, A Dollar Short

Abu ʾl-Qasim Ferdowsi Tusi (940 - 1020) was a Persian poet, creator of the longest single-author epic poem in the world. The poem in question, the Shahnameh [Persian: "Book of Kings"] is the national epic of Iran.

Tomb of Ferdowsi [link]
The reason for its length might not have been only because of the grandeur of the subject matter. The legend of Ferdowsi is that he was offered one gold piece per couplet by the Sultan. This sounds like a set-up to a story, but it is not as ludicrous as you might think. The Sultan, Mahmud of Ghazni (971 - 1030), was known for numerous plundering expeditions into India, whence he gained the wealth to promote culture back home. He built a library, a museum, and a university.

Ferdowsi asked that the payment come as a lump sum when the work was finished and in the hands of the Sultan. Shahnameh was completed on 8 March 1010. When the Sultan would have paid, the courtier assigned to deliver the 60,000 gold pieces decided to deliver silver pieces instead. The poet was enjoying a bath house when the money was delivered, and was so insulted by what he thought was the Sultan's reneging on their deal that he gave the money away to the bath house staff. The courtier told the Sultan that Ferdowsi had insulted him by giving away his payment, so Mahmud threatened execution. The poet fled into exile and wrote a satirical poem about Mahmud.

Eventually, Sultan Mahmud learned of the deception perpetrated by his courtier on the poet, and banished the courtier (or maybe executed him; we are not sure). Many years later, Ferdowsi wished to return to his home, the city of Tus. Sultan Mahmud assembled 60,000 gold pieces and sent them to Tus. As the servants bearing the long-awaited payment entered the gates of Tus, the funeral procession of Ferdowsi was departing. He had died of heart failure the day before.