Monday, January 31, 2022

Arthur's Grave

In 1184, Glastonbury Abbey was devastated by a fire in the monastic buildings. A new Lady Chapel was consecrated in 1186, after which progress slowed down. Pilgrimages—and the donations they bring—had fallen off.

In 1191, however, an excavation on the grounds was undertaken, inspired by (we are told) information passed onto King Henry II from "an aged British bard." The excavation turned up a large flat stone. On the underside of the stone a leaden cross was attached. When the cross was detached, on the side facing the stone they found letters proclaiming Hic jacet sepultus inclitus Rex Arturius in insula Avallonia ["Here lies buried famous King Arthur on the Isle of Avalon"]. Several feet below this was found a large coffin made from oak containing a very large set of bones, along with a smaller set. These were understood to be Arthur and Guinevere.

Well, pilgrimages soared, of course. The relics and lead cross were put in the church; a few eyewitnesses mention them, but they are long vanished now. So...what was it about? Does anyone today really believe that King Arthur's bones were found under Glastonbury? If the king were involved, what was his return on the investment?

Arthur was considered a national hero, and legend said he would return in time of the nation's need. Henry wasn't British: he was the current monarch resulting from the Norman Conquest of Britain. He didn't even speak English. Some have suggested that his involvement was to discourage Welsh nationalism by showing that their legendary king was truly dead and would never return. I believed this for awhile, until I noticed the dates involved.

That idea doesn't quite fit history. The story that Henry had the clue to finding the body comes from Gerald of Wales, a historian writing a few years after the discovery. Interestingly, Henry had died two years prior to the excavation, so Gerald's suggestion that Henry got his information from that anonymous British bard seems spurious to me. It is more likely that the Abbey itself arranged this to increase attention and income.

Henry was a fascinating character in his own right, however, and worth looking at next time.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Glastonbury Abbey

Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset may be the best-known of English abbeys. Originally founded in 712 with the construction of a stone church, it has been rebuilt and expanded many times. One of the expansions was under Dunstan (mentioned here) when he reformed it, expelled all the monks he considered unfit, and instituted the Rule of St. Benedict. It became an important site: King Edmund I was buried there, and an important charter of King Cnut's was disseminated from there.

Legend claims that an abbey was founded there in the 1st centuryCE by Joseph of Arimathea, the New Testament figure who provided the tomb for Jesus. This legend was described by Robert de Boron, a French poet of the late 12th century. His claim was that Joseph brought to Glastonbury 12 disciples as well as the Holy Grail containing drops of Jesus' blood, collected as he suffered on the cross.

For these and other reasons, Glastonbury became prominent as a pilgrimage site and a political power. A fire in 1184 destroyed the monastic buildings. Not wanting for money, reconstruction began right away, but the building of a large church and many buildings takes time. Pilgrimages—and the donations they bring—declined. In 1191, however, a discovery took place during excavation that would bring attention to Glastonbury once again, and shed light on an age-old legend.

But that's a story for tomorrow.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Elf Shot

Speaking of ailments caused by elves and other supernatural beings, "elf shot" was a concern in the Middle Ages, caused by invisible arrows shot by invisible elves causing sudden shooting pains. I am old enough to have experienced sudden sharp pains in limbs or my side, and I always assume it is simply the ravages of aging, or one of Hamlet's "thousand natural ills that flesh is heir to."

The Middle Ages understood enough about cause and effect to want to ascribe these pains to an external cause, and capricious and malicious elves was the best option. The Old English word aelfsogoða was used to describe internal pain from jaundice, and meant hiccups, also thought to be caused by elves.

The notion of "shot" was supported by archeological evidence; that is, folk in the Middle Ages occasionally found flint arrowheads left over from their neolithic ancestors. These were "evidence" of elf arrows. Dolled up and turned into amulets (see photo), they were worn as charms against witchcraft.

The cure was the concoction described in yesterday's post: feverfew, red nettles, way bread (European plantain); their vaguely spear-shaped leaves would make them suitable to counter an arrow wound.

Concerns about elf shot persisted. A report in 1884 from Orkney attributes the death of a cow from "her heart was riddled with fairy shot."

Going back a couple days...I mentioned St. Æthelwold's time spent at Glastonbury Abbey. It's a fascinating place, and will be the next topic.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Against a Sudden Stabbing Pain

I want to talk about Wið færstice, an Old English medical text whose title is pronounced (roughly) "with fair-stitch-uh" and means "against a sudden/violent stabbing pain." It is a charm meant to be recited along with the use of a potion to cure a certain kind of pain. The potion was made of feverfew, red nettle, and waybread (plantain). Boil them together, and then boil the result in butter. A knife was dipped into the potion and then applied to the pain.

The 'stice' part of the name of the charm is related to modern "stitch" when we refer to a sudden sharp pain in the side. Scholars do not know if there was a particular cause for the pain; rheumatism or lumbago have been suggested, but in my opinion it was more likely to be what it was called: a sudden sharp pain, the kind that seems to have no particular trigger.

The creators of the text guessed at the source of the pain, and claimed their remedy would help in several cases, according to these lines from the charm.

This for you as a remedy for the shot/pain of ēse;
this for you as a remedy for the shot/pain of ælfe,
this for you as a remedy for the shot/pain of hægtessan; I will help you.

ēse refers to the Æsir, the Norse gods; ælfe refers to elves; hægtessan refers to witches. The Wið færstice was supposedly good for pain caused by any of these supernatural sources. Whether it worked for anyone, we'll never know.

Another term for a sudden stabbing pain with no visible source was "elf shot," which I'll talk more about tomorrow.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

The Elf Village

I mentioned previously that St. Æthelwold had a single church dedicated to him in England. It is in Alvingham, in the East Lindsey district of Lincolnshire. Alvingham is old enough to have been listed in the Domesday Book, a record of all towns and territories in England made in 1086, 20 years after the Norman Conquest. In the Book, it is called Aluingeham, which means "Home of the Ælfingas." Ælfingas means "the tribe of Ælf," and ælf means "elf."

Ælf or elf can be found used throughout Germanic languages, and is commonly the first element in a name. Many of those can be found throughout this blog. Some common medieval names incorporating a prefix for "elf" were:

Ælfric - "elf-powerful"
Alfred - "elf-advice"
Alphege - "elf-tall" (mentioned recently)
...and Germanic examples such as Alberich, Alphart, Alphere, Alboin. 

The word also appeared in place-names, such as Alvingham, Elveden ("Elves Hill"), and the Alden Valley, "Valley of Elves." The frequency of usage shows that elves were very much embedded in the culture of Western and Northern Europe.

The earliest references to elves, in fact, were from Old English medical texts. Elves were considered a source of illness in livestock and humans. Mental disorders and sudden sharp pains, for instance, were usually attributed to elves. Tomorrow I'll go into a little more detail, and take a look at an Old English text that dealt with the pain caused by elves.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

St. Æthelwold's Miracles

Æthelwold, one of the Three English Holy Hierarchs, saintly figures who spurred the revival of monasticism in England, was a truly saintly man. We know a lot about him from a surviving biography written by Wulfstan the Cantor.

He rebuilt or built many monasteries, including in Milton Abbas in Dorset, Chertsey in Surrey, Peterborough, and Ely. He reformed existing monasteries, driving out undisciplined monks and introducing the Rule of St. Benedict. His severity gives us the first example of miraculous events surrounding him: it is said that some monks who disliked his heavy hand put poison in his food, but he showed no signs of illness whatsoever. Speaking of food, while in Glastonbury, one of the duties he gave himself was cooking. One time, he resolved a scarcity of meat by praying, leading to a miraculous increase in the provisions.

Wulstan reports that he recovered unnaturally quickly from broken ribs after a fall from some scaffolding. Near the end of his life he was gravely ill, but bore his suffering patiently. After his death, on 1 August 984, miracles started taking place near his final resting place, and in response to prayers made to him for aid. A blind man from Wallingford was healed through prayers to St. Æthelwold.

His relics were then taken to the Cathedral in Winchester to signify their (and his) importance. Later, Abingdon Abbey received a finger, some hair, and arm, and his shoulder bone.

There is a single church dedicated to Æthelwold; it is St. Adelwold in Lincolnshire, in what would be fair to call an Elf village. I'll explain that tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

St. Æthelwold

Æthelwold was born about 910CE to a wealthy Winchester family. He served at the court of King Æthelstan (reigned 924-939), learning as much as he can and yearning toward a religious life. He and his friend Dunstan were ordained about 939 by the Bishop of Winchester, St. Alphege. Æthelwold and Dunstan went to the monastery in Glastonbury in Somerset about 940, where Dunstan was made abbot

At this time, Danish incursions into England had sacked and destroyed many monasteries. Monastic life in England was at a low point. Dunstan, who like Æthelwold was later made a saint, adopted the Rule of St. Benedict (mentioned a few times) for the Glastonbury monastery, and led the revival of monasticism in England. Dunstan, Æthelwold, and Oswald of Worcester and York would be called the "Three English Holy Hierarchs" for their work in reviving English Orthodox monasticism.

Æthelwold wanted to go to Cluny in France to experience their version of monasticism, but Dunstan and then-King Edred did not want to lose him, and they sent him to Abingdon-on-Thames to run the derelict monastery there. The patron saint of the place was St. Helena, because legend had it that she built a church there.

Abingdon became a strong monastic community. Æthelwold brought singers from Corbie in France to teach Gregorian chant, which was not common at the time in England.

When Æthelwold became Bishop of Winchester in 963, the priests were illiterate, lazy, guilty of drunkenness and gluttony; they were not good at the services, and most were married men. Æthelwold expelled the married men, tightened up discipline, and brought in monks from Abingdon as the nucleus of a new "monastery/cathedral" institution.

I'll say a little more about him tomorrow, including about the miracles attributed to him.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Wulfstan the Cantor

Of the countless people who lived in the Middle Ages and accomplished things—writing, building, etc.—a very few are remembered by name. One of them is Wulfstan, known as Wulfstan of Winchester or Wulfstan the Cantor.

A cantor sings liturgical music. The monk Wulfstan was a cantor of the Old Minster in Winchester, who became a precentor. A precentor is responsible for composing liturgical music himself, training the choir, and leading the choir or congregation in the music, singing solo lines to which they respond. He was a poet as well as a musician, and wrote a biography of St. Æthelwold, who was probably his mentor. He wrote several works, making him one of the most prolific Latin authors pre-Norman Conquest.

A 15th century commentary refers four times to a "Wulstan" and his work on musical theory, De tonorum harmonia ("On the harmony of tones"). It is likely that this reference is to Wulfstan; unfortunately, this work of Wulfstan's no longer exists. It would be the only known work on music written by an Anglo-Saxon. He is also responsible for the longest (3386 lines) Anglo-Latin poem extant, the Narratio metrica de S. Swithuno (A metrical narrative of St. Swithin).

The work for which he is best know, however, is the Vita S. Æthelwoldi (The life of St. Æthelwold), the principal source of information on St. Æthelwold, about whom I think we should talk next.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Winchester Troper

When priests and monks prayed the Canonical Hours, praising God through hymns was considered an important part of the experience. We are fortunate to have a thousand-year-old manuscript that holds many examples of the music used at such times.

trope is a theme or motif, and the Winchester Troper was named that because it includes different musical styles or motifs. The Winchester Trooper actually refers to two manuscripts of liturgical plainchant and polyphony, although the two manuscripts are not exactly connected; that is, they are not two parts of the same collection, just two manuscripts of the same type of music.

The music is in two forms: liturgical plainchant and two-voice polyphony. Plainchant (or plainsong) is simply a collection of chants used in the Western European Catholic Church, in which all singers follow the same tune. It was the primary type of Christian liturgical music until the development of polyphony in the 9th century, when two or more singers would harmonize. The Winchester Troper's examples of polyphony are for two voices.

As usual with many early manuscripts, authorship is unknown. A person once connected with scribing the Troper, but now determined to have been dead by the time the Troper was put together, was a character called Wulfstan the Cantor. I'll tell you more about him tomorrow.

If you would like to hear a sample of music from the Winchester Troper, click here.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Canonical Hours

Canonical Hours were fixed times during the day for prayers. The Bible was the source for planning multiple times during the day for prayer. In Exodus, God required sacrifice of animals in the morning and the evening; these sacrifices evolved into set times for prayer. Psalm 119 states (line 164) "Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws" and line 62 says "At midnight I rise to praise you."

The prayers for the Canonical Hours were mostly from Psalms, but there were also humans and other Bible verses. Over time, the specific passages became more regulated, requiring a system for keeping them straight and making sure that everyone was following the same script.

Saint Benedict of Nursia founded communities of monks, and produced the Rule of St. Benedict for them to follow. By that time (the Rule was written in 516), the Hours consisted of seven daytime prayers and one nighttime prayer. (Very few people outside of monasteries were determined to get out of bed to pray.) The Breviary (from Latin breviarium, "summary") was created to combine Psalms, the schedule for each day, the hymns needed, etc. Breviaries were copied and shared with other monastic communities.

When Pope Innocent III learned of breviaries, he adopted them for non-monastic priests as well. They and the daily prayers are still adhered to today, although there are now various forms.

I mentioned hymns, and I think it would be interesting to discuss (and listen to) some of the music used as part of the Canonical Hours.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Tide Dials

The Bewcastle Cross has what is considered the earliest surviving English sundial. It is actually a "tide dial." The "tide" part of the name comes from the Old English tīd, used to refer to hours, specifically canonical hours. The canonical hours are the specific times of day that require prayer. These times of prayer are also called "offices" or "divine offices," because they are an official set of prayers. The shift from "tide" to "hours" came after the Norman Conquest in 1066, when the Norman French hour replaced the Old English term.

So the tide dial shows the specific times when prayers are encouraged (but may also display hours of the day).

This is not to say that they did not recognize additional segments of the day. If you look at the illustration, you will see the words Prime, Tierce, Sexte, Nones. These refer to the First, Third, Sixth, and Ninth hours of the day. Prime was the first hour of daylight, so sunrise, and the time for the first set of prayers. The next set of prayers did not have to take place until the Third hour after that; three hours later, Sexte prayers took place, followed by Nones and finally Vespers, or evening prayers.

Because the length of time between sunrise and sunset varies throughout the year, the time between prayers was not precisely 180 minutes. With more regular timekeeping, fixed hours were designed for these times. Tomorrow I'll show you the canonical hours that are still used today.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Bewcastle Cross

The Bewcastle Cross is one of two stone monuments from the same era with similar iconography. Standing 14.5 feet high (it would be higher, but the actual cross top has broken off), it dates from the 7th or early 8th century, like the Ruthwell Cross (see the previous post).

Also like the Ruthwell Cross, it is covered with fine carving, Christian symbols, and runic inscriptions.

Images include John the Baptist holding a lamb, and Christ with a halo being held up by two beasts, similar to Christ being recognized as dominant over beasts on the Ruthwell Cross.

One difference from Ruthwell is that we have some idea of who made the Bewcastle Cross. A heavily weathered inscription has been interpreted by some to say "This slender pillar Hwætred, Wæthgar, and Alwfwold set up in memory of Alcfrith, a king and son of Oswiu. Pray for their sins, their souls". This may refer to Egfrid, who was king of Northumbria from 670 until 685. Presumably this dates the pillar to after 685.

One feature of the Cross that distinguishes it from Ruthwell is the earliest known English sundial. We will delve into that tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Ruthwell Cross

In a part of southwest Scotland that used to be in Northumberland stands a stone cross 18 feet high, the Ruthwell Cross, carved with runic inscriptions and Christian imagery. Anglo-Saxon runes on a work of Christian art are highly unusual, but these runic inscriptions are also significant for their link to poetry.

Some of the runes are lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood, giving us an opportunity to date the poem. The cross dates from the 8th century, which lets us know that the poem must have been well-known enough by then to be considered appropriate for carving.

Sadly, it was smashed in 1642 by Presbyterian iconoclasts. Fortunately, after smashing it, the destroyers left the pieces lying there, enabling a Scottish minister to re-assemble it 1818. Weathering and the destruction has obscured the carvings a little.

Besides traditional vine-scroll designs of leaves and birds, scenes show Mary Magdalene washing Christ's feet, Christ having dominion over the animals, Saints Paul and Anthony breaking bread in the desert (that one has a carved inscription that makes it clear), the healing of a blind man from the Gospels, and more.

The Ruthwell Cross is not completely unique, in the sense that there is another "cross" of similar vintage and style. We will talk about that next.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The Dream of the Rood

The imagery of the cross on which Jesus was crucified is common in religious writings. It even made its way into an Old English poem.

The Dream of the Rood, like many Anglo-Saxon poems, is unsigned, and exists in a single copy, found in the Vercelli Book. The Vercelli Book is one of only four known collections of Old English poetry, most of whose entries are anonymous. It was discovered in 1822 in the city of Vercelli Library in Italy.

In the poem, the poet dreams in vivid imagery of a tree and the rood/cross. ("Rood" is from the Old English rōd meaning "pole" and is usually used to mean the crucifix.) He imagines a bejeweled cross that transforms into the plain wooden crucifix representing Christ's suffering. The cutting down and cutting up of the tree to make a rood is compared to the suffering of Christ. The rood itself speaks in the dream, telling how it received the body of Christ, saw his suffering, then was cut down and buried, only to be dug up and adorned with gems.

This story seems to be tied to the idea that Helena dug up the True Cross. Coincidentally, the Vercelli Book includes a poem, Elene, which tells the same story.

The date of them poem isn't certain, but there is a carved stone cross, the Ruthwell Cross, on which are inscribed lines reminiscent of several lines from the poem. The Ruthwell Cross was erected in the 8th century. If the lines were not carved at a later date than the creation of the Cross, then we know the poem was around prior to that, and known to people.

We should probably take a closer look at the Ruthwell Cross next. In the meantime, if you wish to read the poem (in Modern English, that is), here's a link.

Monday, January 17, 2022

The True Cross—Found!

Empress Helena of Constantinople went to Palestine from 326-328CE to find Christian relics, consistent with her recent conversion to Christianity. Among other acts, she tore down a temple built by Emperor Hadrian in the 130s. Excavating under it, she found three wooden crosses.

As excited as she may have been to find three crosses, Helena wanted absolute proof of their authenticity. She tested the crosses by having a dying woman brought to the site, having her touch the crosses. Touching the first two produced no change in her condition, but touching the third cross resulted in a sudden recovery. This provided Helena the proof she wanted, and she declared the third cross the True Cross, used to crucify Jesus Christ.

On the site was built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a version of which exists today.

This story of the dying woman comes down to us from a monk Rufinus (344-411CE), who was a translator of Greek Christian writings into Latin. He tacks this story onto his translation of an Ecclesiastical History by Eusebius. Strictly speaking, there is no contemporary account of this. Eusebius, who died in 339CE and was therefore a contemporary of Helena, wrote a Life of Constantine (Helena's emperor son) in which he mentions the destruction of Hadrian's temple and the construction of the church on the site, but does not mention anything about the finding of the True Cross.

Nevertheless, many later records purporting to be accurate histories of the finding tell variations of the above story. Relics of the True Cross were spread all over Christendom, and even inspired a well-known Old English poem. I'll tell you about it tomorrow.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Empress Helena of Constantinople

 Helena was a common name for Greek females all over the Mediterranean. One Helena, born to a lower-class family c.246CE, became anything but common in her lifetime. We know hardly anything of her origins and early life. Geoffrey of Monmouth's tale that she was a British princess and the daughter of "Old King Cole" is one of the more colorful theories.

Her lowly origins, even if they were known at the time, were glossed over after she became linked to Emperor Constantius Chlorus, either as his wife or concubine. Their son, Constantine I, was the first emperor to stop the harassment of Christians. His Edict of Milan in 313 stated that Christians—and, in fact, all religions—should be allowed to practice their faith openly. Constantine later in life declared himself a Christian, although he did not get baptized until he was on his deathbed.

Helena converted to Christianity after her son became emperor in 306. Constantine gave Helena the title of Augusta Imperatrix, a very high honor, and with it gave her an unlimited budget to find and retrieve Christian relics. She undertook a pilgrimage to Palestine where she built churches.

Various sites in the area had been identified as being significant to Christians. Supposedly, Helena built the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem at the site of Christ's birth, and the Church of Eleona on the Mount of Olives, from which Christ ascended to Heaven. There was already a temple on the site of Jesus' tomb, built after 130 by the Emperor Hadrian dedicated to Venus (or Jupiter).

Helena had this temple torn down, and began excavating. What happened next is a story for tomorrow.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

The True Cross

 The "True Cross" refers to the cross upon which Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. Although it would have been of ordinary wood, Classical and Medieval and Renaissance legends decided it had to be something more than that.

The Golden Legend by Jacob de Voragine has several different origin stories for the wood of the Cross. In one, the Cross was made from the wood of three trees which grew from three seeds that had been planted by Seth in the mouth of his father's, Adam's, corpse. Seth had taken the seeds from the "Tree of Mercy" (which is not part of the Biblical story).

Another version related by Voragine explains that the wood came from a cutting from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, also planted by Seth on Adam's grave.

From either of these origins, an elaborate provenance was created to get the wood from Eden to Golgotha. The wood was made into the rod of Moses, which was planted by King David in Jerusalem, from which grew a tree that enabled Solomon to carve a beam for his temple. Eventually, the tree was cut down for wood that was used to build a bridge used by the Queen of Sheba to visit Solomon. The Queen had a vision that a piece of wood from the bridge would lead to the replacing of God's covenant with the Jews (this would be Jesus and his message). Solomon, thinking this a tragedy, had the wood buried. It was exhumed years later and some was used to make the True Cross.

How did it come to be discovered after the crucifixion? For that, we must talk about a remarkable woman, the Empress Helena of Constantinople, which we will do next.

Friday, January 14, 2022

The Battle of Hattin

 The Horns of Hattin is an extinct volcano whose twin peaks overlook Hattin in the Lower Galilee. In 1187, a battle took place between the forces of Saladin and Crusaders that was devastating for the Crusaders.

At the time, there were many Western European forces in the Middle East, due to the Second Crusade, and Jerusalem was in Christian hands, with Guy of Lusignan currently the King of Jerusalem. Still, the desire was to have the entirety of the Holy land under Christian control, which meant further conflict. Likewise, Muslim forces wanted the Christians to withdraw.

Saladin controlled much of the territory surrounding the Crusader forces and promised his people that he would drive the Christians from Jerusalem. Saladin had made a private treaty with the Franks in 1185 to give them Jerusalem if the Crusaders would stop waging further battles. There was peace until 1187 when a Muslim caravan was raided by Raynald of Châtillon. Saladin swore he would kill Raynald and sent a force to raid an area held by the Franks. The Templars lost about 150 knights and 300 foot soldiers in this battle (the Battle of Cresson), which was a severe blow to Frankish morale.

Guy was advised to move against Saladin, and on 3 July 1187, his forces started marching towards the Sea of Galilee (known at the time as Lake Tiberias). They were harried constantly nay Muslim archers, and along the way found little fresh water to replenish their supplies. The Muslim forces prevented them from reaching Lake Tiberias and fresh water, and set fires to the dry grass to annoy the Franks further with smoke and heat.

Three times the Frankish forces charged Saladin's, and three times they were beaten back, the third time being definitive. Many European nobles were taken captive that day. Guy of Lusignan and Raynauld of Châtillon were taken to Saladin. Saladin offered water to Guy, a sign that Guy would be treated well; Guy offered the water to Raynauld, but Saladin slapped it from his hand, charging Raynauld with breaking the truce. Raynauld was executed.

Guy of Lusignan was taken to Damascus as a prisoner (released in 1188). Two-hundred Templars and Hospitallers were beheaded, as were many others. A piece of the True Cross was taken from the Crusaders and sent to Damascus, about which I will have more to say next time.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Pelagio Galvani

 Cardinal Pelagio Galvani (c.1165 - 30 January 1230) was the papal legate leading the Fifth Crusade. He hailed from the Kingdom of León, and became a canon lawyer. Pelagio was not a tolerant man: on a two-year mission to Constantinople, he tried to close Greek Orthodox churches and imprison their priests, and action that created so much chaos that the Martin Emperor of Constantinople, Henry of Flanders, reversed Pelagio's acts.

Crusades needed religious leaders as well as military ones, and Pelagio was sent to lead the Fifth Crusade by Pope Honorius III (Pope Innocent II, who had called for the Crusade, had died July 1216, before the Crusade had started out).

During the Siege of Damietta, while the Crusading army made some inroads in to Egypt, intending to use it as a staging area from which to conquer Jerusalem (see yesterday's post), the sultan al-Kamil made a peace offering: he would ensure the handover of the Kingdom of Jerusalem to the Crusaders, if they would depart completely from Egypt.

Given the main goal of the Crusades—to control Jerusalem—this would seem to be a win-win, and the secular leaders wanted to accept it. Pelagio, however, along with the Templars, the Hospitallers, and the Venetians, wanted to keep what they had taken. The Templars and Hospitallers would have shared Pelagio's religious reasons for converting the whole world to Christianity. In the case of the Venetians, I suspect they were more interested in the value of Damietta and the Nile as trade routes for their merchant fleets.

The Siege continued to attack Damietta under Pelagio's orders, and a further deal was offered by al-Kamil: this time he included to release any prisoners they had taken and to return the piece of the True Cross that had come into Muslim hands. Pelagio turned this and subsequent offers. Despite arrivals of more Crusader forces, the western army never gained a permanent foothold in Egypt. Finally, on 28 August, even Pelagio realized the Egyptian route was a lost cause. A nighttime attempt to use a canal to make further progress into Egypt on 26 August 1221 resulted in disaster for the Crusaders when the Egyptians detected them and attacked. The defeat was so demoralizing that even Pelagio decided to admit defeat. Two days later, he sent an envoy to al-Kamil. On 8 September 1221, the Crusading army left Egypt, abandoning the Fifth Crusade, having never come close to Jerusalem.

But how is it that sultan al-Kamil had a piece of the True Cross to offer? He got it at the Battle of Hattin, which I'll tell you about tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Fifth Crusade

Were the Crusades successful? If the objective as stated was to put Jerusalem under Christian rule and maintain that rule, then the Crusades were a failure. Some of them never even made it to Jerusalem.

The Fifth Crusade was called by Pope Innocent III during the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, intending it to start in 1217. It lasted until 1221, but although it was carefully organized and well-staffed, its strategy was flawed.

To be fair, the strategy seemed like a good idea at the time: sail to Egypt and attack, conquering what they believed to be an easier Muslim-controlled target. The Crusaders could then use Egypt as a staging area to attack the Holy Land. To make a long story short, the first of the Crusading fleet reached the Nile harbor town of Damietta on 27 May, 1218, and waited a few days for others to catch up. (It was not unusual that storms separated the ships, and so they did not all arrive simultaneously.) The most dynamic defender of that part of the world, Saladin, had died in 1193; his brother al-Adil took up the role of defender. al-Adil preferred to manage non-Muslims with treaties rather than jihad, and was disappointed in the Crusaders' next action.

The Siege of Damietta began on 23 June, but the town of Damietta had strong stone walls and a large stone tower that secured a chain across the mouth of the harbor to defend against ships. The first assault failed when scaling ladders collapsed and the town defended itself with a barrage of stones. The next day, however, the main tower was breached, the chain was cut, and ships could enter the Nile. al-Adil's son, al-Kamil, scuttled several ships upriver from the mouth of the Nile, preventing the Crusader ships from sailing further.

The Crusaders then built a floating fortress to use on the river, but a storm on 9 November blew it toward the Egyptian camp, whereupon the Egyptians overtook it and slaughtered all but two Crusaders. The two survivors were executed by the Crusade leaders for cowardice, having managed to escape the assault.

At this point, al-Adil's sons, al-Kamil and al-Mu'azzam, made an offer: we will give up Jerusalem to you (with two small exceptions) if you evacuate Egypt. You would think this was a direct route to their goal, but something—or rather someone—stood in the way. I will address that next.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Holy Land Decrees

Desiring with an ardent desire to liberate the Holy Land from the hands of the ungodly, we decree with the advice of prudent men who are fully familiar with the circumstances of the times, and with the approval of the council, that all who have taken the cross and have decided to cross the sea, hold themselves so prepared that they may, on June 1 of the year after next (1217), come together in the Kingdom of Sicily, some at Brundusium and others at Messana, where, God willing, we (the Pope) will be present personally to order and to bestow on the Christian army the divine and Apostolic blessing. [link, bottom of the page]

Thus begins the Holy Land Decrees at the end of the Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Pope Innocent was extremely motivated to call for a Crusade, not only because he was the pope, and restoring Jerusalem to Christian rule was important to him, but also because of the disaster that was the Fourth Crusade that got sidetracked and ransacked Constantinople in 1204. The Crusade effort needed to be carefully organized to avoid that outcome. The Decree continues:

Moreover, that nothing connected with the affairs of our Lord Jesus Christ be omitted, we wish and command that patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, abbots, and others who have the care of souls, diligently explain the meaning of the crusade to those committed to them...

The Council wanted to make sure the Crusaders were absolutely committed to the goal, in order to prevent being sidetracked. The Decree went a little further, and you have to give them credit for thinking ahead. Getting to the Holy Land from Europe meant going by water (an overland march would take many months), and travel by water had its own dangers:

Since the corsairs and pirates too vehemently impede assistance to the Holy Land by capturing and robbing those who go there and those returning, we excommunicate them and their principal abetters and protectors, 

...and because no one wants any global distractions:

But, since for the success of this undertaking it is above all else necessary that princes and Christian people maintain peace among themselves, we decree with the advice of the holy council that for four years peace be observed in the whole Christian world,

So...with all this preparation, why does the graphic above show no Crusade taking place in 1217? What happened to the Fifth Crusade? See you tomorrow.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Jews and the Fourth Lateran

The Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages did not invent persecution of the Jews, but it worked hard to perfect it. The final four of the 70 Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 dealt specifically with Jews (and Saracens; pagans also get an honorable mention).

Jews being burned from a much later woodcut.

Canon 67 intended to protect "Christians against cruel oppression by the Jews," by which they meant being charged interest. The charging of "immoderate interest" would result in being denied the custom of Christians. Christians would likewise be compelled by "ecclesiastical censure" from doing business with Jews.

Canon 68 insisted that Jews and Saracens wear clothing that distinguishes them, so that there could be no mistake of a Christian, say wooing a non-Christian. The Synod of Narbonne in 1227 ruled:

That Jews may be distinguished from others, we decree and emphatically command that in the center of the breast (of their garments) they shall wear an oval badge, the measure of one finger in width and one half a palm in height. [link]

This was also justified by quoting Numbers 15:37-41, the rule to wear tassels with blue cords on the corners of garments as a constant reminder of the Lord's commandments.

Canon 69 forbade a Jew from holding any office that would give him authority over Christians.

The final Canon addresses Jews who have converted, declaring that they must not be allowed to return to their former lives. It "cleverly" quoted the Old Testament in junction against wearing clothing made from two different fibers [Deuteronomy 22:2], comparing it to the converted trying to live two lives by not completely abandoning the old one.

And that wrapped up the Fourth Lateran, except for an "Epilogue"—a series of decrees about the Holy Land—which was of particular importance to Pope Innocent because of what happened a decade earlier; but that's for tomorrow.

Sunday, January 9, 2022


The word "consanguinity" comes from Latin consanguinitas ["blood relation"], and refers to having a close kinship with someone through a common ancestor. Laws of consanguinity—determining the degree of consanguinity allowed for marriage—varied from time to time and place to place

The early Catholic Church followed Roman civil law, which stated that couples within four degrees of consanguinity were forbidden to wed. This was determined by generations: you would count up the family tree to a common ancestor, and then down to the intended spouse. In the 800s this was changed to seven degrees by the church, and was determined by counting back seven generations. This meant that you could not marry if you had the same grandfather (or grandmother), great-grandfather, g-g-grandfather, etc., back seven generations. You could not marry a cousin, second-cousin, third-cousin, right up to seventh-cousin.

This made finding. spouse increasingly difficult, and dispensations by the church were becoming more and more frequent. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 decided to deal with this by pulling back so that fourth cousins could marry at will.

Which brings me to Canon 50 of the Fourth Lateran, where the above change is stated and defended. But here's the funny part. In order to make a change to the rules of consanguinity, the Canon begins by stating that human statutes change over time, and after all God Himself changed things in the New Testament from what had been decreed in the Old Testament. With this reasoning, they state the change in the rules, after which it is stated:

Since therefore the prohibition of conjugal union is restricted to the fourth degree, we wish that it remain so in perpetuum, notwithstanding the decrees already issued relative to this matter either by others or by ourselves [Canon 50]

So...statutes can change, and that's why we can change this one, but it better never change again!

And speaking of laws that have changed, they also made some laws concerning Jews, which we will look at next.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

The Fourth Lateran

Debate during the 4th Lateran Council

Despite Peter Lombard's Sententiæ making the case for marriage not needing an officiant or consummation, the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 changed all that.

Pope Innocent III spent years arranging the Council. His purpose was to make necessary reforms, and to commit to liberating the Holy Land from non-Christian rule. Innocent wanted to make sure that the changes made were disseminated across all of Christendom, so hundreds of representatives were invited from all dioceses and abbeys. Seventy Canons resulted, covering topics from Jews not holding office to marriage to not appointing competent persons to the priesthood. The decisions on marriage are today's topic.

It is not until Canon 50 (of a total of 70) that marriage is first discussed, regarding consanguinity. Canon 51 is our focus today, however, since it addresses the idea of clandestine marriage. A brief summary says:

Clandestine marriages and witness to them by a priest are forbidden. Marriages ... must be published in the churches by the priests so that, if legitimate impediments exist, they may be made known. If doubt exists, let the contemplated marriage be forbidden till the matter is cleared up. [link]

The canon declares that any children of a union not properly contracted/announced/witnessed be considered illegitimate. Also, a priest who performs such a union without first assuring that no impediment to the union exists should be suspended for three years. On the other hand, if someone were to try maliciously to create or falsify an impediment, the perpetrator should be punished.

Tomorrow we will go back to Canon 50 and the consideration of consanguinity.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Clandestine Marriage

Peter Lombard (c.1096 - July 1160) was the Bishop of Paris and the author of Four Books of Sentences which became the standard theological textbooks for centuries. It was a compilation of sententiæ, authoritative statements on biblical passages. I'd like to talk about his conclusions on marriage.

Marriage customs varied among countries and cultures, and modern christian marriage requires an officiant (priest) and public statements about the intent to marry (banns) so that reasons why the marriage should not take place could be brought forth (such as a previous marriage, but yesterday's post made clear that more danico was not concerned about marriage being to only one person). Also, consummation was important, partially as a proof of the bride's prior status as a virgin.

Lombard had a different take on marriage, from his understanding of the Bible. Mary was married to Joseph, but she remained a virgin her entire life, rendering the need for consummation with a husband unnecessary. Pope Alexander III supported this notion.

Moreover, there was no priest to perform a ceremony in the Garden of Eden; it was sufficient for that marriage to take place in the sight of God. Therefore, what was the need for a priest? According to Lombard, the husband and wife need only profess their intent to marry. They could exchange the words "I take you as my husband" and "I take you as my wife" and their marriage ceremony was complete!

This was very liberating for young romantic couples (and older ones, I suppose), but this freedom was only to last for a couple generations. Innocent III would put a stop to it in 1215. Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

More Danico

I mentioned yesterday that, although Richard and Gunnor had several children, when one of them as an adult and Richard tried to make him Archbishop of Rouen, the church refused because Robert was considered illegitimate until his parents wed in a Christian ceremony. This does not mean that Richard and Gunnor were having children "out of wedlock"; just that their marriage was of a different form, in this case more danico.

The phrase simply means "in the Danish manner" ("Danish" in this case meaning Norse, not just what transpired in Denmark). Germanic culture did not immediately adopt Roman law, but more danico marriages were not the same as modern common law marriage, which requires the couple to start living as and presenting themselves to the community as married. More danico usually involved a powerful male ruler taking a highborn (but lesser) woman and required the consent of the parents. (The consent could be gained later, in the event of, say, an elopement.) It also, we believe, involved a ceremony or ritual of some kind, maybe a simple handfasting. The children of such a union were not considered (in German culture) as illegitimate or non-inheritors. 

More danico also allowed polygyny, the practice of a man to have more than one spouse, or to dismiss a wife with a word in order to take another; she had no say in the "divorce." The Roman Church increasingly discouraged any other ceremony than Christian marriage.

I'll tell you about one of my favorite christian marriage historical facts tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022


I mentioned that Emma of Normandy's mother was an interesting character. Gunnor (c.950 - c.1031) was a countess of Normandy by virtue of her marriage to Count Richard the Fearless. How they met is an interesting story—assuming it is true. Supposedly, Gunnor was living with her sister Seinfreda, who was married to a local forester. Richard heard of the beauty of the forester's wife and ordered that she be brought to his bedchamber. Seinfreda sent her unmarried sister, Gunnor, instead, saving Seinfreda's virtue and introducing Richard to the woman he would eventually marry. Besides Emma of Normandy, they had two other daughters and three sons. Gunnor was very active in the kingdom. She had the authority to certify ducal charters, she performed as regent of Normandy when Richard went on tours, and she was often used as a judge. She knew several languages, and had such a good memory that she was an important source of details for a history of the Normans written by Dudo of St. Quentin.

After Richard's death, she gave in a charter two alods to the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel for the soul of her husband. (An alod is a feudal property with no superior; that is, it did not owe a tithe to a higher lord, so any wealth of the property was the property of the owner, which was now the abbey.) The picture here is of her granting the charter.

Above, I said "the woman whom he would eventually marry." They originally lived together with Gunnor as his concubine. The Normans were fine with this, but when Richard nominated their son Robert as Archbishop of Rouen, the church would not recognize his legitimacy. Richard and Gunnor married "according to the Christian custom" in order to legitimize their children in the eyes of the church. The Norman custom of ... let's say "cohabitation" was called more danico, and I'll explain that a little more tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Emma of Normandy

Emma of Normandy (c.984 - 6 March 1052) was queen of England, Denmark, and Normandy. As the daughter of Richard the Fearless of Normandy, she was a desirable marriage prospect for King Æthelred to form better relations between England and Normandy. Æthelred hoped the union would help stave off Viking raids on England, which were often staged from Normandy.

Her wedding gift included properties in Devonshire, Oxfordshire, Rutland, Suffolk, and Winchester, as well as the city of Exeter. Her children by Æthelred were sons Edward the Confessor and Alfred Ætheling, and daughter Goda of England. Upon her husband's death in 1016, she remained prominent in politics.

This made her a valuable prospect for marriage when Cnut of Denmark went looking for a bride. Actually, Cnut was looking to conquer England, and Emma may have had a hand in saving her sons' lives by agreeing to marry Cnut. She became Queen of Denmark and England with Cnut starting in 1018. When Cnut conquered Norway in 1028, she became queen likewise of Norway.

She was not, however, just a pretty face or a way to link kingdoms peacefully through matrimony. As the richest woman in England in her time, she also held significant authority over ecclesiastical offices in the lands she owned. She is also one of the first medieval queens to have her likeness portrayed in documents. Pictured here is a page from the Encomium Emmæ Reginæ, or "Praise for Queen Emma." The title is clearly meant to flatter her, since the three-part history within discusses the conquest of England by Sweyn Forkbeard, the defeat of England by Cnut and his reign, and the events after Cnut's death (which do involve Emma's seizing of the royal treasury to keep it safe from Earl Godwin of Wessex, who disputed the choice of Cnut's successor).

She was buried alongside Cnut in the Old Minster in Winchester, but parliamentary forces during the English Civil War disinterred and scattered the remains. They were eventually recovered; Winchester has a mortuary chest that contains the remains.

Emma's life was eventful and influential, which may have been luck or a trait she got from her mother, Gunnor. We'll take a look at Gunnor next.

Monday, January 3, 2022

The Book of Life

In the previous post, I mentioned that a certain name showed up in the Liber Vitae, a title which literally means "Book of Life" but was actually a list of names associated with a monastery or convent. There are several of these, also known as confraternity books.

Confraternity books exist for the Abbey of St. Gall, for Reichenau Abbey, and for Durham Abbey, among others. The Durham book was recorded as early as 840, and continued into the later 11th century. A reorganization in the 12th century seems to have resulted in the loss of some pages. Recovered from the Cotton Library, it now resides in the British Library. Despite the incomplete nature of what we have, confraternity books still have value in helping us understand more about the past.

One of the values of the confraternity books is to linguists and historians, who can make surmises about culture and language from the names. The New Minster Liber Vitae is arranged in columns, with typical Anglo-Saxon names—Dunstan, Leofric, Ethelred, Wulfgar—in the center. To the left, however, are added names that were common after the Conquest in 1066: Baldwin, Simon, Richard, William. In it we see the cultural shift from the Germanic roots of the Anglo-Saxons to the new Norman French/Latin language shifts.

The picture here is from the New Minster Liber Vitae, produced in Winchester in 1031. It portrays King Cnut and Queen Emma, here called Ælfgifu. I'll tell you about her tomorrow.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

An Unknown Medieval Bishop

So far as medieval records go, we usually have good lists of rulers and church personnel, especially since churches/abbeys are most likely to keep records. Every once in awhile, however, a chance archaeological find brings us new and unexpected data.

A metal detectorist in 2014 turned up a collection of Viking-age objects from around the tenth century, now called the Galloway Hoard. This hoard includes objects gathered from Britain and Ireland, mostly silver bullion, but also some unique relics.

One such relic took years to examine, because it was wrapped in a textile pouch. The decayed nature of the fabric stymied the researchers until they managed to use 3-D X-ray imaging to see what was inside without destroying the pouch.

The pouch contained a 2-inch tall jar made from rock crystal artfully wrapped with gold wire. The bottom of the jar has a gold base with delicate designs and the Latin inscription "Bishop Hyguald had me made." The name suggests a Northumbrian bishop, and is unknown in any existing records.

Martin Goldberg, senior curator for the National Museum Scotland, calls it unique: 

“The ones that I have seen are in the Vatican collection, where there are different forms of carved crystal columns. And so it was maybe 500 years old by the time it was transformed in the late eighth or early ninth century into a gold-wrapped jar.”

So the medieval relic could even be a classical Roman crystal jar, originally designed to hold perfume, but came into the hands of a Bishop Hyguald at some point who had the gold added for his own purposes. Although we have no specific record of a Bishop Hyguald, the name does show up in the Liber Vitae, but that's a story for tomorrow.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Why January 1?

It seems obvious to Westerners that the new year should start on the first of January, which we then named New Year's Day. This is fairly arbitrary, however. If it is truly a "new year" why do we start it in the middle of winter? Why not in Spring when things truly seem "new"? Or, if you like another astronomical reason, why not after the winter solstice (usually 21-22 December) after which nights shorten and more light returns to our waking day?

The Romans named the first month starting after the winter solstice after Janus, the god of doorways, and therefore of openings and beginnings. His two-headed demeanor was appropriate for looking back at the old year and forward to the new. Roman consuls chose 1 January as the start of their term in office as of 153 BCE.

Not everyone was attached to the January date, however. The Babylonians celebrated their new year on the first new moon following the vernal equinox (the date on which night and day are of equal length in Spring). In Egypt, the new year started with the annual flooding of the Nile in Spring.

Christians in medieval Europe frequently used dates of religious significance, celebrating Christmas, or 25 March (the Feast of the Annunciation), which also coincided with the return of Spring, since it would have been shortly after the vernal equinox. It was Pope Gregory XIII who reestablished our modern New Year's Day in 1582, when he reformed the calendar.

Of course, we don't celebrate the start of the new year so much as we celebrate the end of the old year. Celebrations begin in the waning hours of the old year, on the final day of December, extend briefly into the hours of the new year, and then the celebrants usually fall asleep and spend the 1st of January recovering!