Saturday, May 21, 2022

The Cloud of Unknowing

Many works of Christian mysticism in the Middle Ages are biographies or autobiographies of mystics, sharing their revelations, their visions, and their interpretations of such. In the 2nd half of the 14th century, an anonymous author wrote a manuscript called "The Cloud of Unknowing" which was a guide aimed at a student on approaching God through mysticism.

The author shared three forms of prayer: reading, ordinary prayer, and contemplative prayer. Reading referred to contemplative or pious reading (in Latin, lectio pia). Ordinary prayer would be praying out loud or silently.

The last, contemplative prayer, inspired what is now called Centering Prayer, a form of Christian meditation with a strong emphasis on internal silence. The idea is to be more "present" and open to God.

Indeed, the point of the "Cloud" seems to be to avoid specific images and works and thoughts of God's attributes, and realize that God is not really knowable, that there is a vast "cloud of unknowing" between you and God. One must surrender all thought of specific aspects of God and open oneself to allow a glimpse of the true indescribable nature of God. This abandonment of trying to know God by specifics is the apophatic method, mentioned when discussing Maimonides' explanation of what God is by discussing what God is not.

The author felt that his approach was not for just anyone. At the start of the prologue, he says:

I charge thee and I beseche thee, with as moche power and vertewe as the bonde of charité is sufficient to suffre, [...] neither thou rede it, [nor] write it, [nor] speke it, [nor] [yet] suffre it be red, wretyn, or spokyn, of any or to any, bot yif it be of soche one or to soche one that hath (bi thi supposing) in a trewe wille [...] to be a [perfect] folower of Criste,

There are a few other works that are possibly written by the same author. One of them seems certain: "The Book of Privy Counseling" is only half the length of his most famous work, and explains further the concepts in "Cloud." The "Cloud" has 17 known manuscripts, and was clearly not as popular as the works of Richard Rolle, but interest grew in the 20th century.

One paragraph stands out for some thinkers:

If you want to gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can easily retain, choose a short word rather than a long one. A one-syllable word such as "God" or "love" is best. But choose one that is meaningful to you. Then fix it in your mind so that it will remain there come what may. This word will be your defence in conflict and in peace. Use it to beat upon the cloud of darkness above you and to subdue all distractions, consigning them to the cloud of forgetting beneath you. [Chapter 7]

Some see in this a strong similarity to Buddhist meditation and modern transcendental meditation, which got me thinking: was Buddhism known in medieval Western Europe? Let's find out tomorrow.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Heat, Sweetness, Sound

Richard Rolle's career as a hermit left him plenty of time for writing. He chose a wide variety of topics—although Psalms figured heavily—and wrote in Latin early on; after 1340 he mostly wrote in English, perhaps trying to aim his words of wisdom at a wider audience.

Incendium Amoris ["The Fires of Love"] was one of his most popular in later years. We still have 44 copies, one-third of them from outside England. In it he describes the stages of mystical experience that he perceived, the first of which was the purgative stage he called "open door." In it one has to purge oneself of all worldly thoughts that would stand between yourself and the divine. Then came the stages of calor, canor, and dulcor.

Calor was the first experience of mystic contemplation, what they called illumination; it is a glimpse of heavenly glory felt as heat:

I call it fervour when the mind is truly ablaze with eternal love, and the heart similarly feels itself burning with a love that is not imaginary but real. For a heart set on fire produces a feeling of fiery love. [Penguin Classics, translator Clifton Wolters]

Canor, or song, became the most constant and important to him. As he first described it in "The Fires of Love":

I call it song when there is in the soul, overflowing and ardent, a sweet feeling of heavenly praise; when thought turns into song; when the mind is in thrall to sweetest harmony. [Ibid.]

Last was dulcor, always a part of the other two:

This twofold awareness is not achieved by doing nothing, but through the utmost devotion; and from these two there springs the third, for unspeakable sweetness is present too. Fervour and song bring marvellous delight to a soul, just as they themselves can be the product of very great sweetness. [Ibid.]

Some of his other works:

Readings in the Office of the Dead taken from the Book of Job. It was popular enough to be printed in 1483 in Oxford and was used by clergy in York in the 15th century. It survives in 42 manuscripts.

*Commentary on the first 2.5 verses of the Song of Songs, of which we still have 30 manuscripts.

*Twenty manuscripts exist of Commentaries on the Psalter, in both Latin and English. The English version was for Margaret Kirkby, and was the only English translation of (part of) the Bible for 200 years.

*The Form of Living, written as a guide for Margaret Kirkby, exists in 30 manuscripts. 

His writing was enormously popular, copied and shared for several generations.

Not all authors of mystic writing are known to us; some maintained anonymity, whether through humility or simple obscurity. One such author, writing shortly after Rolle, produced a work of Christian mysticism with the evocative title, The Cloud of Unknowing. That will be next.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Richard Rolle

Richard Rolle (c.1300 - 30 September 1349) was born to a North Yorkshire farming family. He showed promise as a young man and was sponsored by the Archdeacon of Durham to attend Oxford to study philosophy. He gravitated more toward theology and biblical studies, but left Oxford while still in his teens to become a hermit.

At first he tried to live simply near his family's home, but became worried that they would disapprove and try to "reclaim" him. One day he encountered a former fellow Oxford student, John Dalton, who was willing to set him up in a cell with the necessary provisions.

A few years after leaving Oxford, while living an ascetic life on Dalton's property, he had his first mystical experience. He expressed the feeling of mystical experience as calor, canor, and dulcor. Calor was a feeling of heat. Canor was an experience of sound. Dulcor was a sweetness that accompanied both the feelings of calor and canor. A combination of these feelings was with him always after that, about which he says "I did not think anything like it or anything so holy could be received in this life."

Having attained this level of mystic expression, he left Dalton's cell and started to travel. We know he spent time in Hampole, sharing his experience with a Cistercian convent. He also visited Margaret Kirkby, whom he had set on the path to the anchorite life. He was able to cure her seizures by his presence.

He stayed near the Hampole convent for the rest of his life. He died there in 1349, possibly having succumbed to the Black Death, although by fall of that year the worst of the plague was over. He was originally buried in the convent cemetery, but later moved to his own chapel space because of the attention his grave drew: visitors and supplicants came to pray and make offerings; miracles were claimed to result.

In the 1380s, canonization proceedings were begun; many of the details of his life (other than details he included in his many writings) came from recording the anecdotes from people who knew him or had heard of him during the process of preparing a biography as part of the canonization process. The process was never completed, however, so he never became Saint Richard Rolle, although the Church of England commemmorates him on 20 January. In the Episcopal Church in the USA, he is commemorated on 28 September along with the mystics Margery Kempe and Walter Hilton.

His writings were so popular that over 450 manuscripts survive that were produced between 1390 and 1500. His writings were more popular than Chaucer. We can look at some of them next.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Margaret Kirkby

Margaret Kirkby (c.1322 - 1391/4 CE) was an anchoress in a couple locations in England. Although she withdrew from public life to devote herself to a contemplative life worshipping God (in a cell like the illustration to the left), we  actually know quite a bit about her.

Growing up in a landowning family in Ravensworth, North Yorkshire, she made the acquaintance of Richard Rolle, the spiritual director of the Cistercian convent at Hampole. He wrote for her an English translation of the Psalms, with commentary relating the Psalms (which are, technically, songs) with his concept of canor, the idea that sound—specifically through singing things like the Psalms—can link the devout to God.

Rolle wrote his own version of the Ancrene Wisse, called The Form of Living, in which he warned her of the difficulties she would face as an anchoress cut off from his guidance. He also sent her copies of other of his writings.

Margaret Kirkby and Richard Rolle had an interesting relationship. She suffered from seizures while in her cell, and Rolle would sit at the window to her cell and comfort her with her head on his shoulder.

Margaret's career as an anchoress took an unusual turn in 1357 when she was allowed to leave her cell in Hampole and enter a cell at a church in Ainderby that would allow her to observe Mass. Remarkably, she reversed this in the early 1380s, returning to the Hampole convent for her remaining years.

Anchorites were not too numerous, and having an extremely devout person sealed away in the church (or some other building's) wall was rare enough that the spectacle drew visitors and donors. A silver ewer was bequeathed to her by one of her patrons, Sir Bryan Stapleton, in 1394. She did not get to enjoy its use for long, however, since she died in 1394.

The man who guided her to and through the religious life, Richard Rolle, became one of the most widely read authors in the hundred years after he died. We will meet Richard Rolle next time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

A Manual for Nuns

Sometimes, devoting yourself to a religious life meant a life of service: going out into the world to help others. Sometimes, pursuing a religious calling meant withdrawing from the world as a hermit, living simply on your own in order to contemplate God. Sometimes, the withdrawal was more severe, and your desire to withdraw from the world meant enclosing yourself in a small space and avoiding contact with the world. The men and women who took this path were called anchorites and anchoresses.

Many anchoritic cells still exist—called anchorholds—small cells built into the walls of local village churches. They might have three windows: one facing the altar for observing Mass, one for food and drink to be passed into the anchoress, one for light from the outside.

The Ancrene Wisse (Old English: "Rule of Anchoresses) was written in the early 13th century as a guide for young women wishing to live the anchoress life. The context tells us it was written for three young women known to the author. We can also guess approximately where it was written—or at least where the author grew up—because of the West Midlands dialect used.

Because medieval manuscripts were copied by hand, mistakes could be made. There are nine copies of the Ancrene Wisse in various British libraries with tiny alterations, but the main message is the same. One of the pieces of advice is: 

No anchorite, by my advice, shall make profession, that is, vow to keep any thing as commanded, except three things, that is, obedience, chastity, and constancy as to her abode; that she shall never more change her convent, except only by necessity, as compulsion and fear of death, obedience to her bishop or superior;

 and when you wake in the morning:

When you are quite dressed, sprinkle yourselves with holy water, which you should have always with you, and think upon God’s flesh, and on his blood, which is over the high altar, and fall on your knees toward it, with this salutation, “Hail, thou author of our creation! Hail, thou price of our redemption! Hail, thou who art our support during our pilgrimage! Hail, O reward of our expectation!”

Although anchoresses by definition withdrew from the world, presumably avoiding fame and attention, at least one was well-known. Tomorrow we'll meet her.

Monday, May 16, 2022


Hospitals in the Middle Ages could be designed for different clientele. Some (like the Jerusalem Hospital) were specifically for pilgrims/crusaders who needed help in the Holy Land. Some were for the poor and infirm/elderly. Then there were hospitals specifically designed for those whom you wanted to keep distant from everyone else: lepers.

The word "leprosy" comes from Greek Λέπρα, literally "a disease that makes the skin scaly" (yep, they had a word for it!). The earliest English language use is in the Ancrene Wisse, a 13th century handbook for nuns. The word "leprosy" is falling out of use since the disease is less common. It is more commonly referred to as Hansen's disease, after the Norwegian physician who identified Mycobacterium leprae in 1873. Four strains have been identified, largely confined to geographical area.

Symptoms described in literature that could be leprosy have been recorded as early as 700 BCE in Sri Lanka and by Hippocrates (who was aware of a lot) in 460 BCE.

Lepers were not welcome in town or village, and leprosaria, a hospital for lepers, were few and far between. Covering the open sores with bandages was one way of dealing with it. 

Sometimes it could be treated with blood—a physician might think the leper had too much blood, and would make an incision near a sore to drain some blood. Because some thought leprosy was the result of sin, attempts to restore the victim to pre-sinful innocence involved a bath that was "medicated" by adding  some blood from an innocent infant or pure virgin. Supposedly, the corrupt blood would leave the body, to be replaced by the innocent blood. Another method to restore purity was an alchemist's concoction that contain the "purest" of elements, gold. Pliny and others thought snake venom was a potential cure; as recent as 1913 doses of bee stings were considered as a cure by someone named Boinet.

These days Hansen's can be controlled by bactericides and by the patient developing good habits: frequent VSE (Visual Surveillance of Extremities), cleaning any scratch/wound immediately, good hygiene.

Now to "turn on a dime," let's look at that manual for nuns next.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Of Hospitals and Treatments

Much of the medieval "medical" care happened in the home—herbal remedies and such—but hospitals did exist, run by religious groups such as the Order of the Hospital of St. John. This Order founded and managed the Jerusalem Hospital to support crusaders and pilgrims to the Holy Land. In the case of this Order, they were so committed to care that, in the words of an anonymous cleric who visited the Jerusalem Hospital:

It has happened on a number of occasions that when the space … proves insufficient for the multitude of the suffering, the dormitory of the brethren is taken over by the sick and the brethren themselves sleep on the floor.

Their charity did not know boundaries. Jerusalem had thousands of Muslims and Jews living there who were also in need of care. Therefore,

the sick are gathered together in this House out of every nation, every social condition, and both sexes, so that by the mercy of the Lord the number of lords increase in proportion to the multitude of languages. Indeed, knowing well that the Lord invites all to salvation and wishes none to perish [Ezek.18:32], men of pagan religion find mercy within this holy House if they flock thither, and even Jews.

Of course daily "treatment" would have included Christian instruction and daily prayer as well as food and medicine and ointments. Since sickness was often considered the result of sin, this made sense at the time.

The hospital and the care offered even tempted wealthy citizens to act poor so they could get treatment. 

There was only one type of person was outright refused entry to the Jerusalem (and other) Hospital.

Next? Lepers.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Ergot Poisoning

When the relics of St. Geneviève were paraded through there streets of Paris in 1129 during an outbreak of St. Anthony's fire, they seemed to work. The truth is, however, that St. Anthony's fire could abate as suddenly as it arrived, so coincidence might have figured in the miraculous cure. But what was (is) St. Anthony's Fire? Modern researchers put their money on ergotism, or ergot poisoning.

Ergot is a fungus— Claviceps purpurea—that grows on certain grains, especially rye. The early symptoms may not cause too much alarm: fatigue, nausea, diarrhea. Later, it can lead to convulsions. It becomes St. Anthony's Fire when the fungus causes the blood vessels in the outer extremities to constrict. The arms and legs do not get blood and oxygen and therefore develop gangrene. At that stage, amputation (or a miracle) is the only recourse. While the limbs were dying, the sensation of burning was intense, hence the reference to "fire." So why "St. Anthony"?

The Order of Hospitallers of St. Anthony founded hospitals to treat the disease. There was plenty of work to do. St. Anthony's Fire was a problem waiting to happen as soon as stored grain started getting moldy.

Ergot was known at some point: the black growth on the rye was studied. In 1582, a German doctor used small doses to produce contractions in pregnant women. In the 20th century, ergotamine was developed to help with migraines and cluster headaches.

Tomorrow I'll talk a little more about medieval hospitals and cures.

Friday, May 13, 2022

St. Geneviève

St. Geneviève was born a peasant in Nanterre around 419/22 CE. One day, while St. Germanus was passing through Nanterre, she told him she wanted to devote herself to God. He told her she should live a life espoused to Christ. At the age of 15, she decided to devote herself to the Christian life and move to Lutetia.

She spent 30 years mortifying her flesh through extensive fasting and abstaining from meat. Her austerity was considered excessive by her ecclesiastical superiors, who urged her to deprive herself less. She drew many visitors due to her piety, even divine visitors: she reported so many visions of angels that those jealous of her threatened to drown her in a lake. A visit by St. Germanus convinced her detractors to trust her.

Her piety was so strong that, when Attila was approaching Paris in 451, she convinced the people to pray instead of fleeing; the strength of her prayers turned the Huns instead to attack Orléans instead (I guess they did not have a saint to pray for them). In 464, Clovis and his father Childeric were besieging Paris (Gallo-Roman clergy were very resistant to the Frankish attempt to bring all of Gaul under its banner), Geneviève crossed their lines to bring grain to the city, and presided them to be merciful to the citizens.

Clotilde, the wife of King Clovis, was a patron and supporter of Geneviève, and may have commissioned her biography. Clotilde—a Catholic whom Clovis married partially to placate the clergy, whose cooperation he eventually realized he would need—was known for religious patronage; you can read about an example here.

Clovis (no doubt at Clotilde's urging) built an abbey where Geneviève could live. After her death, her tomb at the abbey saw many visitors and many miracles. In 1129, an epidemic of ergot poisoning was ravaging the city; it subsided after her relics were paraded through town.

Louis XV ordered a new church for the "patron saint of Paris." Before it was finished, her relics were destroyed in 1793 during the French Revolution, but some were recovered, and the church was finished and reconsecrated in 1885.

I was going to talk next about why she moved to "Lutetia" (see the first paragraph) and yet was called the "patron saint of Paris," but right now I really want to talk about ergot poisoning, so that's next.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Germanus of Auxerre, Part 2

After Germanus defeated the Pelagians in Briton (through sheer force of his rhetorical skills, apparently, having studied eloquence and having argued the law), Germanus celebrated at the shrine of St. Alban (the first British Christian martyr). That night, St. Alban appeared to Germanus in a dream, telling the details of his martyrdom. Germanus had the story written down next morning. Our only record of St. Alban is the Passio Albani, ("Passion of [St.] Alban"), written in either the 5th or 6th century. Some scholars feel it is likely that we only have any information regarding St. Alban because Germanus had it written down.

Another anecdote about him in the Historia Brittonum ("History of the Britons," mentioned once before here) has him traveling to Britain a second time in the mid 430s or 440s, at which time he condemned for incest Guorthigern, the Vortigern of Welsh tales who figures into stories of Arthur. Vortigern tried to humiliate Germanus by having his daughter declare the bishop as the father of her child. In retaliation, Germanus cursed Vortigern, who fled into Wales pursued by Germanus and others. Vortigern holed up in a castle; Germanus and his group fasted and prayed for three days; fire from heaven fell on the castle, destroying it and all within. No historian gives any value to this story, but it is an example of Germanus' reputation.

He died in Ravenna; his feast day is 31 July.

His name lives on, at the Abbey of Saint-Germain d'Auxerre, at the church Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois which stands across from the Louvre, and several St. Germanus churches in England. He also makes appearances in literature and other media; his 2nd mission to Britain is included in the 2004 movie King Arthur, opposite Clive Owen as Arthur; in 2007, his character appears in The Last Legion where he leads the Romans and Britons against the Picts.

But back to that little girl he saw in Nanterre (see the illustration); what he told her more specifically was that she should live her life as if she were espoused to Christ. Apparently, that's exactly what she did. Tomorrow I'll introduce you to St. Geneviève of Paris.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Germanus of Auxerre, Part 1

There are some stories about Germanus (c.378 - c.445 CE) that are difficult to believe and hard to substantiate. The Vita Germani ("Life of Germanus") written c.480 CE by Constantius of Lyon, no doubt intended to inflate Germanus' reputation, gives us most of our information on him.

We are told, for instance, that he was from one of the noblest families of Gaul, receiving the best education in eloquence and civil law in Rome, where he practiced law before the Tribune. He married s noble lady, Eustachia, before being sent back to Gaul as one of six dukes.

Unfortunately, he made an enemy of the local bishop, Saint Amator. Germanus would hang the carcasses of his hunting expeditions on a certain large tree with many branches to age. This tree had been used as a site of pagan rituals. Amator was angered that Germanus was drawing attention to it, so while the duke was away, he had the tree cut down and burned, along with the carcasses. Amator feared the duke's reaction, fled to the prefect Julius, and requested permission to tonsure Germanus.

When Germanus came to the church to find Amator, Amator gave him the tonsure against his will, telling Germanus that he needed to amend his ways to be prepared to replace Amator when the bishop died, and ordained him a deacon. Surprisingly (for real life; not surprisingly for a saint's story), when Amator died, Germanus was unanimously chosen to replace him as bishop. Germanus was made bishop on 7 July 418.

"Spontaneous religiosity" was a theme in anecdotes about Germanus. When he was sent from Rome to go to Britain to fight Pelagianism, he passed through Nanterre in Gaul. Walking through a crowd, he spotted a young girl and told her she should devote her life to Christ, and she did.

Germanus—who, remember, was a duke and soldier before he became a bishop—also helped the Britons against Pictish and Saxon raiders. Leading his army into a vale in North Wales, he told them to shout at his signal. Once the raiders approached, he shouted "Alleluia!" three times. The Christian army repeated his call, and the sound echoed so much between the mountains that the raiders fled, thinking themselves vastly outnumbered.

There are more stories, including one that tangentially connects him with the Arthurian legends. I'll share those next. (And eventually I'll get back to that little girl in Nanterre; we're not done with her.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Pre-Patrick Palladius

Although St. Patrick gets credit for spreading Christianity widely in Ireland, he was not the first Christian sent there for that purpose. He was preceded by Palladius (fl.408 - 431; died c. 450 CE), the first bishop of Ireland.

Some of what we know from him comes from accounts of St. Patrick, who was his contemporary, along with St. Prosper of Aquitaine. Palladius came from a noble family in Gaul, and had a wife and daughter. We don't know what happened to the wife, but at one point, after becoming an ascetic, he placed his daughter in a convent in Sicily and in 415 was ordained a priest. He seems to have lived in Rome from 418 - 429; we assume he is the Deacon Palladius who convinced Pope Celestine I to send a bishop named Germanus to Britain to fight growing Pelagianism.

Celestine also sent Palladius with relics of saints Peter and Paul to be the first bishop of Ireland. According to a later account, the Book of Armagh, Palladius had a difficult time in Ireland: the natives did not want his preaching, and he did not want to live in a strange land.

After 431, he went to Britain and served among the Scots for 20 years. Scottish historians acknowledge that Palladius was the first bishop and "first apostle" of Scotland. There are several dedications in the village of Auchenblae suggesting he spent most of his time there, and perhaps died there in 450.

We know more about the Germanus sent to Britain; he's next.

Monday, May 9, 2022

The Annals of Ulster

History is written by the victors, or so it is said, and I was warned in graduate school always to question an author's intent. Everyone who write something down has an agenda, a point they intend to get across. That point might not be completely objective.

The Annals of Ulster might be in the same category, but their entries are usually simple lists of events without editorializing. This give the historian a separate check on other more detailed accounts, just in case the longer account is presenting a skewed version to get across the author's political point.

Another benefit of the Annals is that they cover more than ten centuries, from 431 CE until 1540, and so reach back further than many historical records. The first entry for 431 is:

Kalends of January
The year 431 from the Incarnation of the Lord.

Palladius, having been consecrated by Celestine, bishop of the city of Rome, is sent to Ireland in the consulship of Aetius and Valerius as first bishop to the Irish so that they might believe in Christ—in the eighth year of Theodosius.

The first several decades are compiled from other accounts, before the contemporary writers take over.  For the next year, for instance, we see:

Kalends of January sixth feria, fifth of the moon, [AM]4636. AD 432 according to Dyonisius.

Patrick arrived in Ireland in the ninth year of the reign of Theodosius the Less and in the first year of the episcopate of Xistus, 42nd bishop of the Roman Church. So Bede, Maxcellinus and Isidore compute in their chronicles.

The contributors to the Annals seemed to like following kings and their events and battles, as well as the activity of the viking invaders of Ireland. Another benefit to historians is that the Annals are written mostly in the Irish language, with only a few entries in Latin. Linguists have used the Annals to study the evolution of the Irish language.

But here's a question: if you're writing a history of Ireland, and obviously St. Patrick is an important part of that, it might make sense to use that as your starting point. They started, however, with Palladius. So ... who was he?

Sunday, May 8, 2022

The Battle of Clontarf

The Battle of Clontarf took place on 23 April 1014. It turned Brian Boru into a national hero, although that may have had more to do with public sentiment and creative re-telling than factual outcome, since Boru did not survive.

Boru (c.941 - 23 April 1014) had grown in power until his kingdom of Munster was unparalleled in Irish history. The king of Leinster, Máel Mórda, challenged Boru at the Battle of Glenmama on 30 December 999, lost and had to submit. A few years after, in 1002, Brian Boru's political and military authority caused him to be recognized as "High King" of Ireland.

Meanwhile, Viking raids on Ireland the previous few centuries had resulted in settlements on the coast, including one that grew into the Kingdom of Dublin. At the time of Clontarf, the king of Dublin, Sitric Silkenbeard, was nephew to the king of Leinster.

They all should have been on good terms. Brian's ex-wife Gormlaith was Máel Mórda's sister, and Sitric was her son by a previous husband. One of Brian's daughters from a previous marriage, Sláine, was Sitric's wife! Unfortunately, the lust for power does not take a backseat just because of familial ties.

In 1013, Máel Mórda and Sitric Silkenbeard rebelled against Boru's authority. Boru decided he needed to make a strong statement, so he sent his son Murchad into Leinster who "plundered the land ..., burned the whole country, and took great spoils and countless captives." [Annals of Ulster]

Other skirmishes led Brian Boru to bring his army to Leinster in September 1013, where he positioned them outside Dublin. Sitric sailed east to find Viking support. According to Njal's Saga, he approached both the Earl of Orkney and a warrior from the Isle of Man and offered each to be the king of Ireland if they would aid him against Boru. (Njal's Saga is a later work of poetry and cannot always be relied on for factual details. See what it says about valkyries.)

Sitric's viking allies sailed to Dublin the week before Easter. (Easter in 1014 was 25 April, about as late as it can get, so the weather was amenable to sailing and fighting.) The armies met at Clontarf (the name means "meadow of the bull"), an area north of Dublin, on Good Friday. A blow-by-blow of the Battle of Clontarf does not exist in the contemporary Annals of Ulster or the Annals of Inisfallen, nor in the poetic Njal's Saga. The dead included Brian Boru, his son Murchad, his grandson Toirdelbach, his nephew Conaing.

On the other side, Sitric survived, because he stayed in Dublin to protect it; he could see the fighting from the city walls. His brother Amlaíb led the Leinster forces, and died because of it. Máel Mórda was killed, as were the two leaders from Orkney and the Isle of Man.

In all, estimates are that 7,000 - 10,000 were killed in the battle, but not all by bloodshed. The battle started at dawn and continued all day. The tide was in near the end of the day, preventing the retreating vikings from reaching their ships, and many drowned while trying to retreat. The viking and Dublin influence on Ireland was severely diminished.

After Boru's death, his remaining forces were led by Máel Sechnaill Mac Domnaill. He had been High King before Brian Boru, and was restored to that position after Clontarf, since Boru's male issue had been killed.

It was not called the Battle of Clontarf at the time: the 12th-century Book of Leinster has a list of kings where it states that Brian Boru died in the "Battle of Clontarf Weir." The date of the battle itself may be false, Good Friday being first mentioned in later medieval sources. There is a theory that Good Friday was chosen symbolically to link Brian Boru's death with that of Christ's sacrifice. Boru was hailed ever after as a national hero, although his victory was a pyrrhic one.

I'll talk a little more about the value of the Annals of Ulster next time.

Saturday, May 7, 2022


Everyone is probably familiar with the valkyries, the "choosers of the slain" in Norse legend. They didn't just carry the dead to Valhalla, however. Norse soldiers who died in battle had two possibilities: Valhalla or Fólkvangr.

Fólkvangr (Old Norse "folk field") was the domain of Freyja, Odin's wife and goddess of love, beauty, fertility, sex, war, gold, and seiðr. (Going forward, when you see the character ð, pronounce it as a voiced th, as in these.) There she sits in her hall Sessrúmnir (Old Norse "seating room"). Besides warriors, Egil's Saga (composed in the 13th century) has a non-warrior woman remarking that she will not taste food again until she dines with Freyja.

The other half of slain soldiers are carried by valkyries to Valhalla. There they are called the einherjar (Old Norse "once fighters") who prepare for the final battle at Ragnarök. Valkyries in Valhalla serve mead to the einherjar.

Visual depictions of valkyries are ... vague? We have Viking Age art with women in it that could be valkyries, but we just don't know. Silver amulets with women holding drinking horns are numerous, especially in graves. A silver-gilt figurine found in Denmark and dated to 800 CE shows a female with bare arms holding a shield and sword. When you look for females carrying drinking horns, you will find them all over Northern Europe, in metal and carved on rune stones.

Outside of Scandinavia, the Anglo-Saxons also had a similar concept. The Old English word wælcyrge might have been a loan-word from Old Norse or an independent idea. The charm "For a Swarm of Bees" seems to compare a swarm of bees to a ride of the valkyries.

How did the idea of female choosers of the slain arise? We'll never know for certain, but some scholars think they were originally demonic entities who swarmed over the dead in battlefields. As concepts shifted and battle became more glorified, warriors were honored with an afterlife. Getting to that afterlife required a mechanism, and the demonic entities connected with death became noble entities carrying fallen soldiers to their reward. They go from Furies to Norns, involved in the fate of warriors.

It is likely that poetry helped re-shape the idea and function of the valkyries. Njal's Saga is an Icelandic saga that describes events between 960 and 1220. It describes an incident in which a man secretly observes valkyries at a loom, weaving and singing about who will die at the Battle of Clontarf (Dublin, 1014 CE). They then ride off, singing "start we swiftly with steeds unsaddled—hence to battle with brandished swords!"

If you were to search, say, Facebook for the name "Valkyrie," you would find several. Whether that is a given name or a nickname the person has chosen for herself isn't clear. I personally know an actual "Valkyrie" who reads this blog. Hi, Kyrie!

And now for something completely different: the Battle of Clontarf. See you tomorrow.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Bee poetry?

I remember the character Queenie in the TV show "Lark Rise to Candleford" (based on the partially autobiographical books by Flora Thompson) speaking to several hives of bees, saying "Bees, bees, your master's dead; I must be your mistress now." The need was to explain to the bees that the person maintaining the hive was gone so that they could mourn properly and then attach to a new owner, not just fly away to seek a new home. The illustration here is "The bee friend" by Hans Thoma (1839-1924). He is speaking to his bees, because tradition holds that the bees must be informed of important events.

Bees were important for wax and honey, and a hive/colony could be kept going for years, with a strong bond developing between the family and the bees. You would not want the bees to have a reason to "swarm" and leave, so keeping them "in the loop" was important. Besides just "telling the bees," you could use a spoken charm to try to keep them.

One such charm was the Lorsch Bee Blessing, written down (we think) in the 9th century in Old High German and used to keep the bees from leaving. Translated, it says:

Christ, the bee swarm is out here!
Now fly, you my animal, come.
In the Lord's peace, in God's protection,
come home in good health.

Sit, sit bee.
The command to you from the Holy Mary.
You have no vacation;
Don't fly into the woods;

Neither should you slip away from me.
Nor escape from me.
Sit completely still.
Do God's will.

There also exists "For a Swarm of Bees," an Anglo-Saxon charm intended to prevent the bees from swarming and going to a new location.

Settle down, victory-women, sink to earth,
never be wild and fly to the woods.
Be as mindful of my welfare,
as is each man of border and of home.

Clearly each poem/charm indicates how important a thriving hive was for the person needing the wax and honey.

The "victory-women" of the first line of "For a Swarm of Bees" is curious. The Anglo-Saxon word is sigewif  and Jacob Grimm (of Grimm's Fairy Tales) and other scholars think it may be drawing a poetic comparison to the valkyries of Norse myth. Perhaps the bees are compared to valkyries because of their weapon (sting) and the way they ride to battle (swarm)?

Speaking of Valkyries, I mentioned one once when discussing the real historical figure portrayed in the 2013 TV show The Vikings. I think the valkyries need a little more explanation.

Thursday, May 5, 2022


Sugar cane was cultivated thousands of years ago—in Southeast Asia; mass cultivation and importation to Europe was not available in the Middle Ages. But Europe had honey.

Honey can sweeten food.

Honey is a preservative.

Honey can be used in medicine.

But there were also more...creative uses.

For instance, a peasant working on a manor could pay his rent in beeswax and honey.

At least one late medieval manual tells us Jewish children would learn their letters by, once having written the letters on a slate, covering the slate with honey. "The child then licked them so that the words of the Torah might be 'as sweet as honey'." (No reports exist on the efficacy of this pedagogical method.)

Manuals had differing recipes for mead, but one suggests to crush the honeycombs by hand or pestle (and mortar), strain the honey, mix it with water in a ratio of 1:4, let it sit for three days, then boil until it is at the concentration you prefer. It was then strained through linen and allowed to ferment. Mead was very popular, and so common that in 1015 in the city of Meissen, Germany, mead was used to put out a fire because the town had more mead at hand than water. This would have required a lot of honey available for the brewing.

Regarding its medicinal use: the Romans used it in medicinal concoctions, mostly for flavoring, but after the fall of the Roman Empire very little is written about honey's uses in medicine. Its antibacterial effects were not demonstrated until 1892 by a Dutch scientist.

I've got a few more things to say regarding bees themselves next time, and then we'll turn to something else.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022


The value of honey was no doubt discovered long before human beings started keeping written records. The Egyptians were maintaining bees as far back as 2450 BCE. In the Middle Ages, bees were seen as a source of not only honey, but also wax for candles wanted by the church and the aristocracy. They had other methods of lighting, such as tallow and rushlights, but wax candles were the best. 

Many people kept bees for these purposes, but the practice was so common that there was no need to explain it, and so the "rules" of beekeeping are scarce. The Geoponika, a 20-volume Byzantine collection of agricultural knowledge from the 900s includes "of the management of bees" in book 15.

The bee is the wisest and cleverest of all animals and the closest to man in intelligence; its works is truly divine and of the greatest use to mankind. Its social life resembles that of the best regulated cities. In their excursions bees follow a leader and obey instructions. They bring back sticky secretions from flowers and trees and spread them like ointment on their floors and doorways. Some are employed in making honey and some in other tasks. The bee is extremely clean, settling on nothing that is bad-smelling or impure;

Initial beekeeping was finding the trees the bees themselves had used and watching them. Holes would be bored, or even small wooden doors installed, to give access to the honey inside and to be able to seal up the hive against inclement weather. Once humans decided to keep the bees closer, they built hives of any material available: clay, wicker, straw, wood. Some documents warn against stone and clay, because the summer heat would make them unbearable. Pliny the Elder mentions hives made from horn and translucent stone, but there is no evidence that any hives made like that ever existed.

Skeps—domes of straw with a small hole—became common in the 14th century. They were easy to make, but to get at the wax and honey you needed to disturb the bees. Another problem with skeps was that they were small and easily stolen. Wax and honey were that important. We know the wax was for candles, but honey had lots of uses.

We will go into that next.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Childeric I

Childeric I was presumably a child of Merovech, and the first king of the dynasty called Merovingians. He lived from about 437 until 481 CE. Records are sketchy, but if we are to believe Gregory of Tours, Childeric in his youth was a "wild child" who was exiled to Thuringia (now central Germany) for eight years on account of debauchery and his tendency to seduce the daughters of his subjects.

While in exile, the Gallo-Roman Ægidius, who was briefly ruler of the short-lived kingdom of Soissons, started calling himself "King of the Franks." Meanwhile, in Thuringia, the Queen Basina left her husband to marry Childeric, claiming "I want to have the most powerful man in the world, even if I have to cross the ocean for him."

Later, in 463, Childeric and Ægidius fought together to repel Theodoric II and the Visigoths from Orléans. He is also reported to have fought with "Odovacrius" (Odoacer of Italy?) against the Alemanni (but not the people we usually call Alemanni).

With Basina he had all least four children. One of them, Clovis I, because king after Childeric. His other children were Audofleda, who married Theodoric the Great of the Ostrogoths; Lanthechild, who was an Arian Christian but converted when Clovis did; Albofleda, who died soon after converting with Clovis to Christianity.

In 1653, Childeric's tomb was discovered. A ring was found with the inscription CHILDIRICI REGIS (Latin: "Childeric King"), the first hard evidence that he was considered a king. The tomb included gems, gold coins, and 300 golden bees (they could have been some other insect, like cicadas, but in general they are called bees). Napoleon liked Childeric's bees as a symbol of the French empire in 1804.

Unfortunately, in November 1831, Childeric's treasures were stolen from the Bibliothèque National de France along with several kilograms of other gold treasures and melted down. Childeric's treasure is gone, except for two bees.

...which is as good a transition as any to talk about medieval beekeeping next time.

Monday, May 2, 2022


The Merovingians were the predecessors of the Carolingians (Charlemagne's family) and can be considered the founders of France. I've mentioned the Merovingians a few times (check the list to the right), but hardly spoken about their eponymous founder, Merovech.

Merovech (aka Mérovée, Merowig, and in Latin Meroveus) was on the scene from about 411 until 458 CE. He was king of the Salian Franks, the tribe that became the primary tribe in France. Details are hazy, but his father may have been Chlodio, also king of the Salian Franks.

The Roman historian Priscus, writing about the conflicts between Attila the Hun and Rome, mentions a beardless youth with long hair adopted by Roman general Aetius. This turns out to be Merovech, looking for Roman support in his bid to succeed Chlodio. His rival was his elder brother who aligned with Attila the Hun. The Romans fought the Huns in Gaul, and Merovech became king.

At some point, it apparently became necessary to enhance Merovech's origin. The Chronicle of Fredegar states that Chlodio and his queen were at the sea shore when she went bathing. She was attacked by a sea creature and became pregnant with Merovech. Adding a veneer of divinity wasn't unusual in the Classical and Medieval periods to elevate a ruler's reputation. This origin was adopted and exaggerated by writers in the 20th century to link Merovech to the bloodline of Jesus, to the Illuminati, to Masonic lore, and to horror fiction.

But all this is largely...legendary. The Merovingian dynasty—although named for Merovech—starts officially with Childeric I. He is next up.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

The Dove of St. Nivard

St. Nivard was one of those early medieval saints of whom we know next to nothing. He was archbishop of Reims from before 657 CE until 673. He was the brother-in-law of Childeric II (King of Austrasia). The best info has to offer is the his feast day, 1 September

Charles Forbes, the Count de Montalembert, a member of the French Royal Academy, published in 1861 The Monks of the West, from St. Benedict to St. Bernard. In a chapter called "The Monks under the First Merovingians" he writes:

In the following century, St. Nivard, Archbishop of Reims, visiting his diocese on foot, arrived in the fine country which overlooks the course of the Marne, opposite Epernay; and, finding himself fatigued, slept under the shed of a great beech, on the knees of his companion, Berchaire. During his sleep he saw a dove descend from heaven upon the tree, and, after marking the same circuit three times by flying round it, reascend to the skies. Berchaire, who had not slept, saw the same saw the same vision. They agreed to build an abbey there, which was called Hautvillers. Berchaire was its first abbot; and the high altar rose upon the same spot where the tree had stood when the dove alighted, a sweet symbol of the tranquil innocence which was to reign there.

From there he discusses the many legends of holy men encountered tearing animals and taming them.

Where Forbes found the original story is still a mystery to me, but at least one faithful reader of this blog "need[ed] a few more details about this dove." I had been less than thorough in my origin story of Hautvillers, so I hope this helps.

Next time, I'll talk about who these "First Merovingians" of the chapter title were.