Monday, December 24, 2018

Why a Boar's Head?

From a feast at the University of Rochester
Most readers of this blog will be familiar with the Boar's Head Carol.

The version we use most often today (there are slight variations, including a version for serving poultry) was recorded in a book of Christmas carols printed in 1521. It has been a popular carol—and a Yuletide event—ever since.

At least one scholar links it to a Norse tradition brought to England with the Anglo-Saxons. Sacrificing a boar to Freyr, a Norse god amenable to mortals, was supposed to bring peace and prosperity in the new year.

There's another origin for the choice of a boar, which has a slight hint in a line in the carol itself. In a book about Christmas carols printed in 1868, we can read the following:
Where an amusing tradition formerly current in Oxford concerning the boar's head custom, which represented that usage as a commemoration of an act of valour performed by a student of the college, who, while walking in the neighbouring forest of Shotover and reading Aristotle, was suddenly attacked by a wild boar. The furious beast came open-mouthed upon the youth, who, however, very courageously, and with a happy presence of mind, thrust the volume he was reading down the boar's throat, crying, "Græcum est," [Latin: "compliments of the Greeks"] and fairly choked the savage with the sage.  [Husk, William Henry. Songs of the Nativity Being Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern]
I have included translations of the Latin lines below. The final one refers to Queen's College in Oxford. Husk was the librarian at Queen's College.

The boar's head in hand bear I,
Bedeck'd with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio [You who all feast in harmony]

Caput apri defero [The boar's head bear I]
Reddens laudes Domino [Singing praise to God]

The boar's head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedeck'd with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico. [serve with a song]


Our steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of Bliss;
Which on this day to be servèd is
In Reginensi atrio. [in the Queen's hall]

Friday, December 21, 2018

Was THIS Robin Hood?

Statue in Nottingham
We have established that the first mention of Robin Hood is in the 1370s. And in the mid 1400s, someone places him in 1283 living in "English Woods." In the legends as they developed later, Robin (along with a band of men) lives in Sherwood Forest, is opposed to an authoritarian king, and is opposed by the Sheriff of Nottingham. Supposedly, he is living in the time of Bad King John, and is saved from prison when Richard Lionheart returns from Crusade.

Was there anyone who acted in the manner we ascribe to the legendary Robin Hood, who lived about that time? Let me tell you about Roger Godberd. What we know about him starts with the Second Barons War.

The Second Barons war (1264-67) was all about curtailing Henry III's grasp as he requested more and more financing from his vassals. One of the chief battles was the Battle of Evesham in 1265, led by Henry's son, the future King Edward I. In it, one of the leaders of the barons, Simon de Montfort, was killed in that battle.

Roger Godberd was in the forces of de Montfort, and was declared by the Crown to be an outlaw after Evesham. He went on the run, settling in 1265 in Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. It was said that he was able to call on a hundred men to support him. He managed to elude the king's forces for four years.

A common Robin Hood story is of his capture at an abbey, and subsequent escape with the help of his men. Godberd was captured at Rufford Abbey by Reginald de Grey, the Sheriff of Nottingham. He escaped when a local knight named Richard Foliot came to his aid.

Godberd was eventually imprisoned and tried at the Tower of London. He was pardoned by none other than the man who led the forces at the Battle of Evesham. Now King Edward I, he pardoned Roger upon Edward's return from the 8th Crusade.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Robin Hood and the Monk

Although most depictions of Robin Hood place him in England when Richard Lionheart was away on Crusade and King John was messing up the country (the 1190s), there are no mentions of him in any literature until significantly later. The earliest is in Piers Plowman in the 1370s, and then only with a reference to the "rhymes of Robin Hood."

About 1420, Andrew Wyntoun's Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland mentions "Lytil John and Robyne Hude" living in the "Yngol Wood" (English woods) in his entry for the year 1283.

What these rhymes/stories were at the time we can only guess. The oldest tale we have, "Robin Hood and the Monk," is from about 1450. In it, a devout Robin wants to go to Mass in Nottingham, and is warned by Much the Miller's son that he should take 12 men with him for safety. He only takes Little John. Along the way they make a wager. Robin loses, refuses to honor the wager, and Little join leaves him alone. While praying at St. Mary's in Nottingham, the sheriff is called on him by a monk that Robin robbed on some earlier date.

Once Robin's men find out, they decide to rescue him. They find the monk, riding with a page. Little John kills the Monk and Much kills the page. The monk had letters for the king, which Little John and Much deliver, explaining that the monk died along the way. The king tells them to bring Robin to him.

Little John and Much deliver this message to the sheriff, explaining the monk's absence by saying the king made him an abbot. They enter the prison, kill the jailer, and free Robin, who pledges loyalty to Little John for being so good after Robin was so dishonest to him. Little John agrees to keep the previous arrangement of leadership. The king, learning of all this, is upset that he was hoodwinked, but decides to drop it.

We do not see any signs here of Robin being particularly good. But the story had adventure and plot turns, so it was fun to tell. It's a long time later when characters like Maid Marian and Friar Tuck get added, as well as the idea that he stole from the rich to give to the poor.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Andrew Wyntoun, Scot

When Robert Burns published his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), no one knew that it would become such a success that the reading public would be eager to lap up anything old and Scottish. But 1790 saw the publication of the Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland, by Andrew Wyntoun.

Wyntoun (c.1350-c.1425) was an Augustinian canon of St. Sers Inch, a religious house  of Loch Leven, as well as a poet. The Chronicle is very pro-Scotland, especially regarding Edward I and his treatment of William Wallace and Scotland.

The Chronicle starts in the distant past (Alexander the Great, ancient Britons) and ends in 1420. It contains a number of "firsts": it is the earliest extant document in the Scottish dialect; it has the first use of the word "Catholic"; also, it contains the first mention in print of Robin Hood that ties him to a particular time (1283) and an area just south of the Scottish border in Carlisle. Tales of an outlaw who hides out in the woods and harasses the English king were of interest to the Scots, especially after William Wallace et alia did the same after Dunbar and Falkirk. It also includes the earliest version of MacBeth and the three witches.

Monday, December 17, 2018


Rabies, from the Latin rabies which means "madness," has been noticed for a long time. The Codex of Eshnunna (c.1930BCE), found on two cuneiform tablets and pre-dating the Code of Hammurabi, declares the owner of a dog who shows signs of rabies is to be fined if the dog bites someone. Aristotle in 300 BCE described rabies as a disease that can be transmitted from a dog to the dog's victim. Excess salivation was a sign that a dog owner should take care to prevent the dog from biting someone. Rabies was known to Avicenna, who explained its symptoms, method of transmission, and treatment.

Treatment almost always failed until the modern era. There were reported cases of people surviving before modern methods of treatment, but not until Louis Pasteur and Émile Roux developed their vaccine in 1885 was there an effective way to prevent the spread.

But the Middle Ages had a solution: St. Hubert's Key.

St. Hubert, or Hubertus, was the patron saint of hunters and hunting, and therefore of hunting dogs, and therefore of rabid dogs. St. Hubert's Key was an example of a sacramental, which is the church's word for an amulet or talisman. Whereas an amulet or talisman were supposed to have magical properties, a sacramental's effectiveness depended on the faith of the user.

St. Hubert's Key was a piece of iron: either a nail or a cross or cone. They were given out by the monks of the Benedictine abbey where Hubert's remains were, as tokens to go to folk who could not make the pilgrimage to the abbey. These items were hung on the wall of your house for protection against disease.

How did this cure rabies? The piece of iron would be heated and placed on the site of the bite by a priest. The practice is recorded in the 1870s in the Ardennes region (where Hubert was active while alive) of branding a dog with St. Hubert’s Key to guard him from rabies.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Patron Saint of Hunting

...and of mathematicians, and opticians, and metalworkers, and more.

Saint Hubertus' conversion from materialism to piety was first discussed here. After he died, on 30 May 727, his bones moved around a bit. He was buried in the church of St. Peter in Liège, but his bones were exhumed so they could be interred in a Benedictine abbey (now named St. Hubert's Abbey) in the Ardennes region. The Ardennes was important to him—his nickname was the Apostle of the Ardennes—because he originally loved to hunt game there. After his conversion he "hunted" folk in the region to be convert them to Christianity. He would not destroy their "idolatrous" sites, but give the converted the opportunity to destroy the sites themselves as proof of their new love for Christianity.

His coffin became a focal point for pilgrimages, until it disappeared during the Reformation. Just as his physical remains were disappearing from view, however, his spiritual reputation was building. Because he was of royal birth, he was considered one of the Four Holy Marshals in the Rhineland. (That's for another day.) Several military orders were founded in his name. In the Church of England, at least two churches were dedicated to him. There is a St. Hubertus brand of alcohol, and the image of the stag with the cross between his antlers is their logo.

Although he is most commonly referred to as the patron saint of hunters, he is also given patronage for an amazing and varied number of other areas. Here is the full list:
against dog bitefurriersopticians
against hydrophobiahunters, huntsmen, & huntingprecision instrument makers
against mad dogsforest workersmetal workers, smelters
against rabiestrappersLiege, Belgium
archersmachinistsSaint-Hubert, Belgium

I cannot find an explanation for the link to optics, but I can tell you a story about him that involves metal and connects to some of his prominent patronage areas. I'll get to that next.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Saint Hubertus

Saint Hubertus (c.656 - 30 May 727), also called the Apostle of the Ardennes, was said to be the eldest son of Duke Bertrand of Aquitaine. He was a well-liked young man who found fame and position wherever he went, ultimately being named "grand-master of the household" at the court of Austrasia at Metz, marrying the daughter of a count. His wife, Floribanne, died in childbirth, causing Hubertus to withdraw from public life out of grief. He went to the forests of Ardennes and lived by hunting.

Then, on the morning of a Good Friday, when the faithful were thinking of spiritual matters, Hubertus went out to hunt. Spotting a magnificent stag, he started pursuit, but the animal turned to face him. Hubertus beheld a cross suspended between its antlers. A voice spoke: "Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest an holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into hell!"

This anecdote was linked to Hubertus in the 15th century. It is connected at a much earlier time to the legend of St. Eustace from the 2nd century. (The historicity of Eustace was eventually challenged, but there was no sense letting a good conversion anecdote go, so it got attached to the life of a known hunter.)

Later reports embellished the story, especially in Germany, where it is said that the deer lectured Hubertus on responsible hunting, with rules still taught in Germany today:
Only shoot when you can be sure of a quick and painless death
Choose older stags, past their prime
Never kill a doe with fawns
Hubertus found Bishop Lambert in Maastricht, who became his spiritual mentor. This is when Hubertus left the position of Duke of Aquitaine to his younger brother, Odo, as well as the guardianship of his son. Hubert later replaced Lambert as Bishop of Maastricht. He became famous for his preaching and piety.

As is often the case, however, men become even more prominent long after their death, which was the case with Hubertus. I'll discuss that next, and maybe discuss his odd connection to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Odo the Great

The Umayyad Caliphate at the time of Odo
This blog has mentioned several men named Odo in the past, but never "the Great." He was born in southwest Gaul and became the Duke of Aquitaine as early as 679, or maybe 688, or even 692, but for certain by 700.

Gaul was a land mass, not a country: in that space were numerous areas ruled by different men. Odo was at odds with the political entity we normally think of as ruling Gaul at this time: the forces under Charles "the Hammer" Martel, who was the powerful "Mayor of the Palace" of the Merovingians and whose grandson would be known as Charlemagne and unite much of Gaul under his rule.

Martel's claim to fame (or one of them) was preventing the Muslim invasion of Europe, especially at the battle of Tours in 733. But Odo had already made some progress in that area. Odo's territory was just north of what is now Spain, bordering the Caliphate of the Umayyads. On 9 June 721, Odo defeated a Muslim army under Al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani at the Battle of Toulouse. He then married his daughter to a Muslim lord, Uthman ibn Naissa, making an alliance with the area that would become Catalonia. This seemed like a smart move.

Charles Martel didn't really hold with the idea of making friends with Muslims, however. Moreover, his goal was to possess more territory. He invaded Aquitaine in 731, and while Odo was being defeated by Charles, on his other border Odo's ally Uthman ibn Naissa was being attacked by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, who defeated Uthman and sent Odo's daughter to a harem in Damascus. As Abdul Rahman advanced, Odo engaged him and was defeated. He had no choice but to turn to Charles Martel for assistance, which was offered on the condition that Aquitaine swear fealty to Charles. So Charles wins at the Battle of Tours, and Odo fell into historical obscurity. In 735 or so he abdicated as Duke of Aquitane; we think he went to a monastery.

Odo was not the eldest son of the Duke of Aquitaine, and got the position when his older brother abandoned his rights to it. That brother was named Hubertus; I'll tell you about him next.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Medieval Advertising

These days, we are assailed by advertising, and we possess technology that allows us to find what we need merely by asking the right question into a hand-held device. (I wonder that anyone in their teen years knows what it's like to use the yellow pages, or if they are even aware of what the phrase "yellow pages" means to the older generation.)

Centuries ago, signs or symbols indicated certain places of business. When most of your population cannot read, you needed to find the right image to represent your profession, such as the mortar and pestle for an apothecary, a boot for a cobbler, scissors for a tailor, etc.

It might not be a painted sign. Roman custom was to hang vine leaves to indicate a tavern where wine was served. This custom was brought to Britain, but in the absence of grapevines they used holly. A bush of holly was a common indication that wine was served within. If you made and sold beer, you would hang a long pole outside, indicating what you stirred ale with. Leaves on a pole let the traveler know that both beer and wine were available.

Of course, where there is food and drink, there should be quality control.
In 1389, King Richard II of England, decreed that landlords must put signs outside their inns, so that inspectors could identify and visit them; there is a record from 1393 of a publican being prosecuted for not having a sign. [source]
Of course, not all advertising was static. A 13th century poet, Guillaume de la Villeneuve, wrote the poem "Les Crieries de Paris" [Street cries of Paris]. Here's a sample of how he felt about merchants advertising their wares or services:
Although they will not stop screaming
Through Paris until the night.
Do not think it tires them
For they will never stop.
Listen to what is being shouted at daybreak:
"Lords, go to the baths
And in the ovens without delay,
The baths are hot, I'm not lying!"
Then you will hear the sound [of]
Those who shout fresh herrings.
"At the tide, the others shout,
In sage and white herring, fresh salted,
I would like to sell my herrings."
The introduction of mass printing and cheap paper meant signs and flyers could circulate more easily, eliminating the need for criers.

Monday, December 10, 2018


With the holiday season upon us, folk are preparing to consume mincemeat pies at the conclusion of their meal. Growing up, I was told it was a dessert made from ground up fruit and spices and not to think of it as meat, and I was never tempted by it. Imagine my surprise, years later, to discover:
1. "meat" wasn't a euphemism
2. it's not a dessert, but a main dish
3. I loved it

Numbers one and three might not be a surprise or noteworthy, but number two was worth looking into. King Henry V had a mincemeat pie as a main dish for his coronation feast, and Henry VIII apparently preferred it as his Christmas supper. Its creation goes back further, however.

You might say it originated by accident. Crusaders returning home in the 12th century brought with them spices not found in western Europe before. These were tested as preservatives for meat, or ways to add flavor to dried meat. (The notion that spices were used to cover up the small of rotten meat should be dispelled. No one would eat rotten meat, and we had learned ways to preserve the meat of slaughtered animals long before this, through smoking/drying or salting.)

Cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg were the three chief spices used in the Yule dish, representing the gifts  brought by the Magi. These were added to minced (finely chopped) meat, often beef or beef tongue or lamb, as well as beef suet (the hard white fat from around the kidneys and loins). Early recipes add citrus peel and sugar, or dried and chopped apples.

Early pies were baked in an oblong shape, to represent the manger at the Nativity. Over time, the addition of sugar made them sweeter, and they began to migrate to the dessert course. At that point, they morphed into the traditional round pie shape, and then into tarts that could be easily picked up and eaten by hand.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Borromean Rings

You've seen them. Lots of times. Three circles interlinked. You find them in jewelry, and in the label of Ballantine beer. They may be used as a symbol of the Trinity, or the logo of the 25th International Congress of Mathematicians.

The name of the design comes from its use in the coat of arms of the Borromeo family. The family owns three islands in Lake Maggiore, and might have designed the rings to represent those. In any case, the design is used frequently in the Baroque palazzo and gardens built by Vitaliano Borromeo (1620-1690).

But the design goes back hundreds of years before Borromeo. We find its equivalent also in three triangles called "Odin's Triangle" or the valknut (Old Norse valr = "slain warriors" + knut = "knot"). The valknut was carved in stone pillars as far back as the 7th century.

One curious fact about the Rings is that, although we call them "interlinked" or "interwoven," they sort of aren't. In the above illustration, place your hand over the red as much as you can, and you'll see that the blue and green aren't linked. It's the same with any other two colors: no two are linked except by a third that runs through them. In this way, it is similar to a three-strand braid. Braid three ribbons together, and when you pull one out, the other two completely disengage.

And for a treat: how about some Borromean Onion Rings?

Thursday, December 6, 2018


Back here we spoke about the manufacture of glass, but when and where did glass come to be used for enhancing and correcting vision?

Ptolemy (c.100-170CE) wrote in his Optics about glass shaped so that it enlarged an image. His ideas were expanded on by the "Father of Modern Optics," Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, whose Book of Optics (c.1021) spread through Europe at (coincidentally?) about the same time that we get records of "reading stones."

A reading stone is a glob of transparent substance, flattened on the bottom but with a curved top, making it in essence a convex lens. It was (still IS, actually) meant to be placed on and slid along a line of text, causing the letters below to expand and be more easily read. I call it a "substance" because it wasn't necessarily glass. Early ones were ground from quartz, and they can be had today in glass or plastic.

Several lens-shaped items of quartz have been found in Viking graves on Gotland in Sweden, some mounted in silver. They date to the 11th or 12th centuries. They might be reading stones, although several are not shaped to be good at focusing.

But when were lenses put into a frame for enhancing vision? In 1301, in Venice, there were guild regulations governing the sale of eyeglasses. The Dominican friar Giordano da Pisa delivered a sermon in February 1306 in which he said:
It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses, which make for good vision... And it is so short a time that this new art, never before extant, was discovered. ... I saw the one who first discovered and practiced it, and I talked to him.
 So far as we can trace, then, eyeglasses were first made in Italy around 1290.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018


We are now in the Christian season of Advent, from the Latin adventus, meaning "coming." It comprises the four Sundays leading to Christmas Day, leading you to think it was started as preparation for the coming off the Nativity. Good guess, but that's not how it began.

First let us talk about the timing. We are not sure when it was first established, but probably in the 4th century Christians in Spain and Gaul began a period of penance and fasting starting on 11 November, the feast day of St. Martin of Tours (c.316/336-397). They were preparing for the baptism of new christians, which would take place on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. The activity spread, and Roman Christians in the 6th century started associating it with the coming of Christ's birth on 25 December.

These days, Advent begins on the Sunday nearest 30 November, the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, and only lasts four Sundays. It is therefore a "floating holiday" like Easter, and can start any day from 27 November to 3 December. The change seems to have come about by the 9th century: Pope Nicholas I mentions the shortened span in a letter to the Bulgarians. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates from 15 November until Christmas.

The Advent wreath, like so many traditions involving evergreens, began in northern Europe. The wheel-shaped greens represented the cycles of the year and the promise of life after winter. The candles represented the warmth of hope in the returning Son/sun. Three purple candles represent hope, peace, and love, and are lit on the 1st, 2nd, and 4th Sundays. The pink candle, representing joy, is lit on the 3rd Sunday. Purple was not a cheap color to produce, and dyeing candles with a royal color indicated the significance of Christ the King's birth.

(The Advent calendar? That was concocted in Germany in the 1800s.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Merino Sheep

The previous post on the Mesta mentioned the kings of Castile giving shepherds rights-of-way that overrode those of other landowners in order to get their sheep to good pasture. There aren't many shepherds or large flocks around these days, and so you might not realize the important stake the kings had in sheep, especially Merino sheep. Those flocks were owned by royalty.

Sheep provided wool, and Merinos were champions at it. Their wool was an incredibly valuable export because of its spinning count, or S value. The S value describes how fine the strands of wool are. The finer the strands, the more yards of fiber you can spin from it. One pound of merino wool, with an S value of 62, could produce 34,720 yards of yarn. (A "hank" is 560 yards.) Merino wool was much finer than other breeds, and produced not only softer wool, but more of it. Finer strands also enabled it to be more easily interwoven with other fibers.

They were bred in southwestern Spain in the 12th century, and there are careful records of attempts to breed them to be even more useful. The original herds might have been brought by Berbers early on, but English breeds were introduced to help develop the Merino, as described in the entry on "Wool" in The New American Cyclopaedia (1858).

Spain held a monopoly on the finest wool in the world through the 16th century. In fact, export of living Merino sheep was a crime in Spain, punishable by death, through the 17th century! The monopoly started to wane when some were sent to Sweden in 1723, and then in 1765 when King Charles III of Spain (1716-1788) sent some to his cousin in Saxony to start a private flock. Merinos started trickling out to other countries, and Spain soon lost its pre-eminence in the world of fine wool.

But the Merino is still king.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Mesta

Merino Ram, bred in Medieval Spain
Consider the Iberian Peninsula in the early Middle Ages: the Moors controlled the southern part, and Christians held the northern regions bordering France. The border between them was far from firm, and there was a "buffer zone" that was frequently contested. It was therefore too risky for any group to settle there permanently, not knowing whether you might become surrounded by hostile foreigners.

It was suitable, however, for nomadic people, such as shepherds. Hundreds of square kilometers were open to anyone passing through, and if you had hundreds or thousands of sheep, and needed a place for them to graze, well... .

In 1212, Alfonso VIII of Castile, mentioned before because he founded the abbey whence comes the music of Las Huelgas, led a group of Christian leaders to push the Moors south, reclaiming a large part of the peninsula and making it safe for settlement. Folk started moving into what was previously a "no man's land," setting up farms and communities.

This meant clashing with the enormous number of sheep and their herders. Something had to be done, and by the late 1200s, Castile had struck an agreement that produced the most powerful agricultural union in Medieval Europe, the Mesta.

Its full name is Honrado Concejo de la Mesta ["Honorable Council of the Mesta"]. "Mesta" comes from Latin animalia mixta ["mixed animals"] because the enormous herd of sheep which you are guarding might not all belong to the same owner. Driving the sheep from location to location in search of pastureland would result in herds getting mixed together.

The Mesta had rights that persist to this day: the right to drive their sheep along certain pathways regardless of land ownership. These were called cañadas ["road along which livestock is driven"] or cañadas reales ["royal ways"; because they were established by the kings of Castile]. They still exist, and some roads through Madrid are designated as such. Sheep are not usually driven through the streets of Madrid, but nothing prohibits the practice.

Incidentally, mesta is also the root of mestengo ["ownerless beast"], where we get the word "mustang."

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The King and London

The Tower of London is the most visited tourist site in London. It was built by William the Conqueror to be the king's home when he was in London. It was built not to be just a home, however, but a fortress. London was not necessarily a safe haven for the king. Its citizens enjoyed a level of control over their own fates and weren't about to let the king change that.

William recognized this, and made sure that he had a secure place to stay when he visited London. The White Tower (named because it used to be whitewashed) was designed for this. More than that, he built another fortress at Windsor, where he could station troops that would be a day's march from London if he needed support.

William even built two more fortresses within London's walls: Baynard and Montfichet. He couldn't entrust his fortresses to local people, so he put them in the hands of Normans who followed him over the Channel. Baynard and Montfichet were barons into whose hands he put those properties.

Although he might have felt he would be reasonably safe from an uprising, he took to heart the importance of independence to the citizenry of London, the most important city on the island. There still exists his charter, granting to "all the citizens, French and English" the same "laws and customs as they were in King Edward's time."

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Secret Templar Initiation

In 1307, Philip IV of France arrested several Templar Knights, accusing them of horrible sins. Some of the worst sins took place during a "secret initiation" in which new members supposedly were asked to denounce and spit on the Crucifix, to practice sodomy, and to engage in improper kissing.

Pope Clement V insisted that the captured and excommunicated Knights be brought to him at Avignon to be questioned. The knights were not able to make the journey, so Clement had his emissaries meet them at Chinon. These emissaries included Bérenger Fredoli. The interrogations at Chinon were conducted on 17-20 August, 1308.

Interrogating the Knights actually turned out some surprising affirmatives. One Knight questioned, Geoffroy de Gonneville, admitted that he was asked to denounce and spit on the Cross, but that he refused and was admitted to the Order anyway. Others admitted to denouncing out loud but not in their hearts.

In 2001, a document known as the Chinon Parchment surfaced in the Vatican Secret Archives. It is the account of the questioning by Bérenger and the others of the Templars. It also includes this:
After this, we concluded to extend the mercy of pardons for these acts to Brother Jacques de Molay, the Grandmaster of the said Order, who in the form and manner described above had denounced in our presence the described and any other heresy, and swore in person on the Lord’s Holy Gospel, and humbly asked for the mercy of pardon [from excommunication], restoring him to unity with the Church and reinstating him to communion of the faithful and the sacraments of the Church.
Whatever they heard, they did not consider it damning enough to keep the Templars excommunicated. Examining this document has led some to suggest that the steps of the secret initiation may very well have included what look like desecration, but had a different purpose. The statement of de Gonneville, for instance, suggests that denouncing the Cross was not necessary, and perhaps was a test of faith. It has also been suggested that the initiation was intended to expose them to what they might encounter if they were captured by non-Christians during tours of duty in the Middle East.

So maybe they did do the "terrible" things of which they were accused, but the reality/intent was very different from the appearance.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Berenger Fredoli and the Rebellious Canons

Bérenger Fredoli was a Frenchman with a successful religious career. Little is known about his youth, except that he was born in Vérune about 1250. Some of his career highlights include:

  • Becoming chair of canon law at the University of Bologna.
  • Being chosen by Pope Boniface VIII to help write the books of Canon Law known as the Decretals.
  • Playing a prominent role in the dispute between Boniface and Philip IV over papal vs. monarchic authority.
  • Becoming a cardinal in 1305 thanks to Pope Clement V.
  • Almost becoming pope on the death of Clement V (but it went to John XXII).
  • Became Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals in 1321.
In July 1321, a document with his name on it was sent to Maiden Bradley Priory in Wiltshire, England. Maiden Bradly was founded in 1164 as a leper hospital. A few decades later, it was placed under the authority of Augustinian canons, but it had been not living by the proper Augustinian statutes. For these transgressions they had been excommunicated.

Bérenger's letter was on behalf of Pope John XXII, notions that they had seen the error of their ways, punished the offenders, and were granted absolution, lifting their excommunicated status.

Berenger's name cropped up on another letter just a few years ago, regarding the persecution of the Templars. We will look at that next.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Doctors in Dreams

I mentioned that Cosimo de' Medici was named for Saint Cosmas, as in Cosmas and Damian. They were two Arabian physicians of the 3rd century CE, possibly twin brothers.

They were known for treating people and not charging for their services—which seems very unlike doctors, but let that go. Because they were Christians, they were martyred in Syria in 287 CE.

...and that's all we have on their lives. Afterward, however, the legends grew. As saint physicians, the healing power of their relics was considered prodigious. Not long after their martyrdom, churches were springing up dedicated to them. Numerous pilgrims came for healing, and through the Middle Ages pilgrims would sleep in their churches, hoping for a healing dream.

Healing dreams were common in classical and medieval times: the belief that a spirit would appear in your dreams and diagnose or cure you. The picture here is a 1495 painting by the Master of Los Balbases. It represents the story of a man with a w withered leg sleeping at a shrine dedicated to the saints. When he woke up the next morning, he had a healthy leg, but it was from a black man. Assuming it had been transplanted from the corpse of a black man recently deceased and buried in the church graveyard, they exhumed the man's body and found that, indeed, his leg was missing.

Their feast day is 27 September.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Cosimo de Medici

The Medici family name is known to many casual readers of history. Let's talk about the man who started it all.

Born on 27 September 1389, Cosimo di Giovanni de' Medici was described by Edward Gibbon as:
...the father of a line of princes, whose name and age are almost synonymous with the restoration of learning; his credit was ennobled into fame; his riches were dedicated to the service of mankind; he corresponded at once with Cairo and London; and a cargo of Indian spices and Greek books were often imported in the same vessel. [The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire]
Cosimo never became pope (like three later Medicis did), but he did rise to prominence in Florence due to his wealth. He operated a powerful bank, using the money this brought him to influence politics and arts. Although he never overtly "ruled" Florence, he was a de facto ruler because politicians functioned according to his whims. The man who later became Pope Pius II said "Political questions are settled in [his] house. The man he chooses holds office... He it is who decides peace and war... He is king in all but name."

His birthday was not his birthday. He was actually born on 10 April. He was born with a twin, called Damiano. His parents named their children after the twin saints Cosmas and Damian. Later, Cosimo would celebrate his birthday on the feast day of those saints, 27 September. (Damiano died shortly after birth.)

In 1410, he made a loan to Baldassare Cossa, who used it to make himself a cardinal. When he later became (the anti-) Pope John XXIII, he repaid Cosimo by making the Medici Bank the official bank of the Vatican. Cosimo used this connection well, until 1415 when John XXIII was deposed. After that, the Medici Bank had to compete with other banks.

In 1415 he married Contessina de' Bardi, a daughter of the family that once controlled the powerful Bardi bank, before its collapse in 1345 (the subject of one of the very first entries in Daily Medieval, and a factor in the novel portrayed on this page to the right). Although their family bank had collapsed, the family was still prominent in Florence. He died on 1 August 1464, at the ripe age of 75, leaving behind a family line that would remain powerful for generations.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Second Council of Nicaea

We have talked about the Council of Nicaea before, but always the First Council in 325. There were several ecumenical councils. The seventh was the second to be held in Nicaea, and was called to deal with the subject of iconoclasm.

I addressed iconoclasm before: the idea that images of religious figures should be forbidden came from Moses' third commandment about not making "graven images."  In 787, the Second Council met to deal with the subject (they hoped) once and for all.

Arguments for included invoking various lines from the Old Testament:
  • Genesis 31:34 : "Now Rachel had taken the images, and put them in the camel's furniture, and sat upon them. And Laban searched all the tent, but found them not."
  • Exodus 25:19, regarding the fashioning of the Ark of the Covenant: "And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end."
  • Ezekiel 41:18: And it was made with cherubims and palm trees, so that a palm tree was between a cherub and a cherub; and every cherub had two faces
...and others.

Over the course of three weeks (24 September to 13 October), presentations were made followed by debate. At the end, the use of religious images was allowed, reversing the edict against them made by Byzantine Emperor Leo III decades earlier. The official statement made declared that veneration offered to the image was actually passed to the subject of the image, and was therefore a good thing.

This Council also declared that every altar should contain a saint's relic. Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches still adhere to this practice.

Monday, September 24, 2018


When Catholic missionaries in the Middle Ages went to a new land, how did they deal with language barriers? They had to make their own lexicons, or find one made by someone who went there before them.

The Codex Cumanicus, found in the Library of St. mark in Venice, includes a language guide to the Cuman language, spoken by the Turkic nomads of Western Eurasia. As early as the 11th century, Hungary and Italian city-states such as Genoa attempted to open trade with the region, and the need for understanding the language became an important goal.

The Codex was probably assembled in the 12th or 13th centuries. I say "assembled" because it is a collection of various documents clearly created by different writers. It can largely be divided into two sections: the "Italian" section which is a glossary of the Cuman-Kipchak language and Italo-Latin words, as well as Persian; and a "German" section, which includes several religious texts translated into Latin and Middle High German.

It was important to teach the natives how to pray in their own language. The Paternoster ["Our Father"] in the Codex reads:

Atamız kim köktesiñ. Alğışlı bolsun seniñ atıñ, kelsin seniñ xanlığıñ, bolsun seniñ tilemekiñ – neçik kim kökte, alay [da] yerde. Kündeki ötmegimizni bizge bugün bergil. Dağı yazuqlarımıznı bizge boşatqıl – neçik biz boşatırbız bizge yaman etkenlerge. Dağı yekniñ sınamaqına bizni quurmağıl. Basa barça yamandan bizni qutxarğıl. Amen!
Some of the Cuman words you can learn from this lexicon are:
tizgi tiz - knee
bitik bitiv - book, writing
sag sav - healthy
kyeg kyv - bridegroom
yag yav - fat
tag tav - mountain
ekki eki - two

It also includes riddles:
"The white kibitka [a carriage] has no opening." (an egg)
"My bluish kid at the tether grows fat." (ripening melon)
"Where I sit is a hilly place. Where I tread is a copper bowl." (a stirrup)

The Codex is a mere curiosity now, the languages involved having changed radically over the years.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Pirate Monk

There were many reasons why someone would become a pirate, I suppose. It was probably rare that a monk would do so, however.

Eustace Busket was more than a monk and a pirate. Born about 1170 near Boulogne, he was a younger son of minor nobility who, not being likely to inherit much in the way of lands or titles, went to Toledo in Spain to study, where supposedly he took up "black magic" and produced marvels. For some reason, he gave up that life, returning home to join a Benedictine monastery at St. Samer near Calais.

At some point he left the monastery and became the seneschal and bailiff for Count Renaud de Dammartin. Eustace was accused of mismanaging his duties, and about 1204 he fled his responsibilities and the accusations. He was declared an outlaw, and became a pirate, sailing the English Channel looking for plunder.

He was a well-known figure, and King John paid him occasionally between 1205 and 1212 to harass Philip II of France. He would sometimes raid the English Coast for fun and profit and be declared an outlaw again, but King John always forgave him eventually to continue the harassment of Philip. John also gave him 30 ships to use in his missions.

In 1212, Eustace switched to supporting France, and when English Civil war broke out in 1215 (ultimately leading to Magna Carta), he supported the English barons against King John. Eustace carried Prince Louis of France to England to join the Barons, and on a 1217 mission to bring Louis aid, he got caught up in the Battle of Dover. Eustace managed to escape, but his enemies caught up with him, and on 24 August 2017, at the Battle of Sandwich, he was caught. We do not know exactly how he was executed, but Mathew Paris portrays him as being beheaded (depicted above).

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Medieval Pirates

Piracy on the seven seas goes back a long way.

Think of fairly small ships roughing it on the open sea with little defense, not the rows of cannons you see in ships of later centuries. Even a "royal navy" would be small and not necessarily able to swiftly come to the aid of each other if a couple vessels of well-armed and determined sailors approached them. Also, maintaining a navy could be expensive. Even Henry VI in the early 15th century got rid of his standing navy, prepared to hire ships if ever he needed them.

Not that piracy wasn't a known peril; it just wasn't easy to control, although attempts were made. Of course it was outlawed, but catching and punishing a pirate was not the easiest of tasks.

The image here is a modern translation/copy of the earliest known record of punishment for a pirate prior to the 1700s. It reads:
An order was given to the Bailiffs of York as to the ship which they caused to be arrested because William de Briggeho, who was afterwards hanged for consorting with malefactors who robbed her off Sandwich, was found on board her.
The lord the King, has ascertained by inquisition that the ship, together with the chattels on board her, belonged to William Belemund, of Grimsby, and he commanded the bailiffs that they should cause her to be delivered to William Belemund without delay.
Witness, &c.
September 19th is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Liar Paradox

Medieval philosophers categorized several logic puzzles as insolubilia, unsolvable things. Probably the most common of these was (and still is*) the Liar Paradox.

Consider the statement "I am lying." If I am truly lying at that moment, then what I just said was true. If the statement is therefore true, however, then to say "I was lying" would be a lie. So which is it?

One 20th century philosopher used Jean Buridan (c.1300-c.1361, mentioned elsewhere in this blog) to claim that it wasn't really a paradox. Arthur Prior said it wasn't really paradoxical because every statement includes an assertion of its own truth. The statement "I am lying." is therefore taken as true—it carries its own truth independent of other sentences or context— and considering it a paradox is an unnecessary complication.

Buridan actually used the Liar Paradox to prove the existence of God. He put forth two statements:
"God exists."
"None of the sentences in this pair is true."
The only consistent way to assign truth values, that is, to have these two sentences be either true or false, requires making “God exists” be true. In this way, Buridan has “proved” that God does exist. [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
This particular paradox first appears in the middle of the 4th century BCE. Eubulides of Miletus made a list of seven puzzles, one of which was “A man says that he is lying. Is what he says true or false?” His commentary on whether it is true or false is lost to time.

*Those readers of a certain vintage will remember the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "I, Mudd" in which a controlling super-robot is rendered useless by its inability to process the two statements "Everything Harry Mudd says is a lie." followed by Mudd saying "I am lying."

Monday, September 17, 2018


I have mentioned The Forme of Cury [Forms of Cooking] a few times before. It's the cookbook that gathers the best recipes from the cooks of King Richard II. If I had my choice, I'd eat Mortrews frequently!

The original recipe reads:
Mortrews. Take hennes and pork and seeþ hem togyder. Take the lyre of hennes and of þe pork and hewe it small, and grinde it al to doust; take brede ygrated and do þerto, and temper it with the self broth, and alye it with yolkes of ayren; and cast þeron powdour fort. Boile it and do þerin powdour of gynger, sugur, safroun and salt, and loke þat it be stondying; and flour it with powdour gynger.
 An excellent website has translated this as:
Mortrews. Take hens and pork and boil together. Take the liver of hens and of the pork and cut it small, and grind it to a fine powder; take grated bread and add, and mix with the broth, and mix it with egg yolks; and add powdour fort. Boil it and add ginger, sugar, saffron and salt, and make sure it's thick; and garnish with ginger.
The "powdour fort" was a mixture of ground spices.

It could be served as a soup, with more broth, or as a which stew with less broth and more bread. The name apparently comes from the fact that it is all ground up/mixed in a mortar. It sounds to me like an ideal use for leftover meat and bread. If you try it, let me know what you think.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Cassiodorus and Colleges

Yesterday's post mentioned Cassiodorus (c.485-c.585), a contemporary of Boethius, and his description of the relationship between Arithmetic and Music. His full name was Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator. He was not a senator; that was part of his name, although he was a statesman under Theoderic the Great, king of the Ostrogoths.

He served in several different roles in government, and his literary skills were so well recognized that he was often asked to draft important documents while he was in Ravenna. (Why Ravenna and not Rome? That is for the next post.) Whether because he was a devoted statesman, or just because of personal inclinations, his writings try to unite the cultural differences between the Eastern and Western Roman empires, between Greek and Roman cultures, between the Roman culture and the invading Goths, and even between established Christian doctrine and heresies. After his retirement from public life, he founded a monastery and turned to writing about religion.

The immediate reason for bringing him up in a medieval blog, however, is his link to medieval universities, which didn't exist for several centuries after his death. We are familiar by now with the medieval curriculum of the trivium (Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic) and the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, Astronomy). You might be surprised to know that Cassiodorus not only listed these fields of study, in that order, but also that he derives them from the study of the Bible.

In his Expositio Psalmorum ["Explanation of the Psalms"], he interprets Psalm 18.5
"Their voice resounds through all the earth, and their words to the ends of the earth"
as the teachings of the Bible being spread throughout the world, and that these teachings are the origin of secular studies. Therefore, mastering the secular arts helps bring one back to better comprehension of the Bible. This was, in fact, considered the original purpose of medieval universities: to train better clerics.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Philosophy of Music

Much of the medieval attitude about music and its forms came from Boethius (c.480-524 CE). In his de institution music [Latin: "On the laws of music"] he distinguished three types of music:
Instrumental music
Human music
Mundane music
Detail from copy of De musica [source]
Although today we use the word "mundane" to refer to something ordinary, it comes from Latin and refers to the world; Boethius uses it to refer to the music made by the world, that is, the so-called "music of the spheres": that sound, inaudible to human ears, that was made by the friction of the spheres surrounding the Earth in which the planets and other heavenly bodies traveled.

Instrumental music referred to music made by one of several different agents. It could come from something under tension (such as with stringed instruments), by wind, by water, or by percussion. It should be noted that Boethius was not referring to "musical instruments" as much as he used the term to mean that some physical agency was causing the sound. That could be a rushing stream, the wind in the trees, and falling rocks as much as manufactured devices in the hands of a musician. Later writers included singing as part of this category.

Human music was therefore not referring to singing by humans. For the Middle Ages, "music" was all about harmony, and the "harmony" between the physical body and the spiritual side was a serious topic. For example, you must nourish the physical body, but you must not eat so much that you fall into the sin of gluttony. Proper proportion was everything.

In fact, music (as opposed to mere noise) was all about harmony and proportion. That is why Music was studied in the medieval university only after mastering Arithmetic. A contemporary of Boethius, Cassiodorus (485-c.585 CE), compared the two by explaining that
Arithmetic is the discipline of absolute numerable quantity. Music is the discipline which treats of numbers in their relation to those things which are found in sound.