Sunday, July 31, 2022

Some Fables

People love fables. Brief stories that offer a lesson or moral can be instructive as well as fun. A Castilian version of Arabic fables was mentioned here. And another fable was told here. Marie de France translated a large collection of fables, some from Aesop (c. 620–564 BCE), some from Avianus (fl. 400 CE), some from unknown sources.

Marie claims she made the collection for a Count William from an English version by "li reis Alvrez" (King Alfred, who did have an interest in history and literature), but no evidence exists for such a source work).

Many of the fables are recognizable from what we know of Aesop and Avianus, though some have small changes. Aesop's fable of the dog that sees its reflection while carrying a bone or piece of meat, and ultimately opens its mouth to attack the "other" dog and get its treat, loses what the dog had. Marie has the dog carrying a piece of cheese. The moral is the same, but did Marie originally hear the story her way, or did she change the dog's mouthful for a specific purpose. It is not clear.

Marie includes several previously unknown ones involving human characters, many of them with married couples. The story of "The Man and the Wife Who Quarreled" is a little gruesome while being funny. A husband cuts his wife's tongue out to stop her from quarreling, only to have her continue in sign language. Marie flips the gender of the moral, however, by saying "This fable shows what one can often see: if a fool talks foolishness and someone else comes along and speaks sense to him, he won't believe it but gets angry instead. Even when he knows he is absolutely in the wrong, he wants to have the last say, and no one can make him shut up."

One of her fables, "The Mouse Takes a Wife," is unique in western literature, though it has analogues from India and the Far East. It sets up a discussion about nature vs. nurture, and is worth a closer look, which we can do next time.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Marie de France

Marie de France (c.1160 - 1215) is called that because of one line from her writing: "Marie ai num, si sui de France." It means "My name is Marie, and I am from France." If that is not a pseudonym, then it sums up all we know factually about her life.

The desire to pin down who she was (and the fact that Marie was a very common name) has led to numerous guesses regarding her identity, none of which would make a difference in the study of her writings. (If Shakespeare's plays were written by the Earl of Oxford, how would that change our enjoyment of them? Not a bit.)

Those who have heard of her know of The Lais of Marie de France, a collection 12 lais. lai (English lay) was a lyric poem in octosyllabic couplets, popular in France and Germany in the 13th and 14th centuries, dealing with adventure and romance. The 12 are written in Anglo-Norman and often focus often on courtly love. A few of the stories exist separately in manuscripts, but there is one manuscript in the British Library that has all 12. That manuscript, Harley 978, presents them in what may be a deliberate order: the odd numbers show positive results for characters who love others; the even lais show the negative results of love that is imperfect. (Bisclavret is number four, an even number.)

Harley 978 also has a prologue in which we gain some insight into Marie. She writes that she wanted to create something that would be entertaining and morally instructive in the style of Greco-Roman literature. She therefore is recording Breton tales that she has learned. The prologue also dedicates the lais to a "noble king." From the time period in which they seem to be written, and her knowledge of Anglo-Norman and Middle English, the assumption is that she was known in the court of Henry II or possibly even his son.

A few other works are also attributed to her. She is credited with a retelling of the Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick, a French translation of a latin poem. "Purgatory" in this case is not a cosmic status between Heaven and Hell; it is a pilgrimage site in Northern Ireland, a cave that Christ showed to St. Patrick and explained was an entrance to Purgatory.

She also produced a re-telling of Aesop's Fables called Ysopet ("Little Aesop"), which has some fables not seen in Aesop. Many of her fables are about humans, and in many of those she presents tales of female cunning over male ignorance or foolishness.

Her fables would make a good topic on their own, so that's what we will look at next.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Bisclavret, the Werewolf

Just as there is a difference between the medieval werewolf and the modern, in medieval literature we can see distinctions between types of werewolf. One such distinction is made in the story Bisclavret by Marie de France. The word "bisclavret" means "werewolf" in Breton, and the character is clearly a werewolf. The author, however, distinguishes him by referring to other werewolves by the Norman French word for werewolf, garwaf.

Baron Bisclavret of Brittany disappears every week for three days. His wife begs him to tell her why, and he finally relents, explaining that he turns into a wolf. He tells her he hides his clothes so that he can find them after three days and turn back into a human.

His wife is a little freaked out by this revelation, and doesn't want to be with him any more. She tells a knight who has loved her top follow him and steal his clothes so that he cannot return to human form. The baron fails to return to his people, a search for him is to no avail, and the "widow" marries the knight.

A year later, while hunting, the king comes upon a wolf that rushes at the king and kisses his foot and leg. Amazed at the behavior, the king decides to bring the wolf back to the castle. The wolf's gentleness is remarkable, until... a large celebration, the knight who married Bisclavret's wife arrives and is attacked by the wolf. The king threatens Bisclavret, who backs down. The court assumes that the knight has somehow wronged the wolf.

Later, the king is visiting Bisclavret's former barony, and takes the wolf along. Bisclavret's "widow" comes to the king bearing gifts, but when the wolf sees her, he rushes at her and tears off her nose. A wise man links this unusual attack with the first attack: that the two are married, and the woman was married to the missing baron. The king has the woman tortured, whereupon she confesses what she did to her husband. The produce the baron's clothing, and he becomes the baron Bisclavret once more. The king restores his lands and exiles the baroness and her knight. Her descendants are born nose-less afterward.

Marie de France claims she heard this performed snd translated it from Breton, along with a collection of other stories. We have several stories from her, and I'll tell you more about her tomorrow.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Medieval Werewolves

The European Middle Ages had plenty of werewolf stories, but they were notably different from what we portray about modern werewolves. Let's talk about some of the differences.

First, how does one become a werewolf? In the Middle Ages, it was not a curse passed along by the bite of a werewolf, but either placed on you by a spell, as in the story of William and the Werewolf, or a "lifestyle choice" by putting on a wolf skin. Gerald of Wales tells the story of a priest who encountered a werewolf couple in Ireland who needed last rites for the she-wolf. When the priest refuses, the wolf skin is opened like opening a coat to reveal an old woman.

In the tale of Bisclavret, we do not know how he became a werewolf, but he explains to his wife that he has to hide his clothes so that he can return to them after three days and become human again. In this situation, the werewolf "curse" is innate, and negated after the period is over by wrapping himself in his original human clothing.

The medieval werewolf also retained its human understanding, and did not simply become a ravenous wolf. When a werewolf in medieval tales attacks someone, it is out of a sense of revenge due to wrongs done to the human host. Bisclavret demonstrates this, and I will go into those details next time.

Regarding phases of the moon: Gervase of Tilbury tells the story of Chaucevaire, who transforms according to the phases of the moon; however, it is the dark of the moon, not the light of a full moon. The moon link may also be part of the werewolf condition in Bisclavret because he transforms without his own choice every week for three days. The author does not specify that there is a lunar link—especially since it is each week, not month—but three days is there length of time often attributed to the full moon. 

The word werewolf includes the Old English wer- meaning "man." In the Middle Ages, a werewolf is a man who becomes a wolf. Modern horror films often have werewolves, but in many cases they are larger and more monstrous-looking than ordinary wolves, often standing on two legs. For the Middle Ages, the werewolf literally became a wolf, indistinguishable from other wolves until it acted in ways that wolves would not act.

You will see this tomorrow in what is perhaps the best-known werewolf story from the Middle Ages.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

William and the Werewolf

Medieval Europe (and beyond) had a fascination with werewolves, but they were different from the modern horror-story representations. hey rarely had anything to do with phases of the moon, and they were not simply murderous beasts.

Such was the case of the story of Guillaume de Palerme, or "William of Palerme" which was later re-titled in English "William and the Werewolf." This story gives us in early English the first instance of the pronoun "they" being used to refer to  singular subject in the sole English manuscript dated to 1375, but the original French version was probably composed about 1200. The story was commissioned by Yolande, daughter of the Count of Hainaut, Baldwin IV (once mentioned here). The French version also exists in a single surviving manuscript from the 1200s.

The main character, William, is the son and heir to the King and Queen of Palermo, and his birth is welcomed by everyone except his uncle, who stood to inherit if the King had no heirs. The uncle plots to poison the child. Shortly before he can do so, a wold leaps the wall of the royal gardens, snatches the babe in its mouth, and flees. His parents mourn the loss, after a search fails to find the wolf.

Flashback! The author then tells us whence came the wolf. An evil queen in Spain, desiring to have her children by the king inherit rather than the king's eldest son by his first wife, transforms Prince Alfonse into a wolf. Alfonse, however retains his human understanding, In his wandering, the wolf Alfonse overhears the plot to poison the prince and decides to save the child. He teals him away and deposits him with a cowherd, who raises him.

Years later, the Emperor of Rome goes hunting in the wood and comes upon a young man with such regal bearing and handsome features that he insists on taking him away to raise him "properly." There, William and the emperor's daughter, Melior, fall (inappropriately) for each other. Their secret love is aided and abetted by Melior's friend Alexandra.

The emperor of Greece wants to marry his son to Melior, and her father agrees. The young lovers decide to flee, and Alexandra helps them by procuring two white bear skins, sewing the two into the skins (except the hands, so they can eat), and they flee. They are not really suited to surviving in the wild, but Alfonse the wolf reappears, bringing them fancy food and killing two deer so the pair can have nicer skins to live in and hide out as deer instead of white bears.

There's more, much more. You can read a modern English translation here if you like. Tomorrow? More about werewolves, the cool medieval kind, not the modern hour kind.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Medieval Pronouns

Medieval scholars from very early on were fascinated by grammar and analyzed it and language endlessly, trying to figure out how a word related to the thing the word signified.

Even as scholars were "complicating" things, English was becoming simpler, more streamlined. As an inflected language, for instance, English had various forms of pronouns depending on where in the sentence the pronoun was working at the time. (We still do this, but with fewer versions.)

Hwæt, I mean "Hey!" We even had a dual form when referring to just "we two" or "you two." Plurals used to be more interesting that way. (I like this, and would bring it back if I could when talking about me and my spouse versus other couples.) The plural "you" eventually replaced the singular "thou"; this was possibly a courtesy thing: plural forms of dress toward a single person seemed to be used as a sign of respect, as if the person were "more" than just "a" person. King Lear uses the plural "you" when praising Cordelia, but "thou" when speaking as her father to his daughter.

Old English also had a gender neutral pronoun, "man." It would be used the same way we now use "one," as in "I got vaccinated and boosted, as one does." It got associated with the masculine forms and disappeared.

Grammarians of more recent centuries tried to "lock down" singular vs. plural, the same way Webster tried to "lock down" American English spelling as distinct from British English. (The founder of Quakerism, George Fox, in 1660 labeled anyone who used "you" as a singular pronoun rather than "thou" was an idiot.) This created unnecessary confusion among speakers who used language in perfectly natural and understandable ways. The most prominent example of this is in the use of plural pronouns to denote singular subjects.

In 1794, an essay by three women in the New Bedford Medley used "they" as a singular, deliberately (they later had to explain) to conceal gender. A later to the editor criticized this as doing no ‘honor to themselves, or the female sex in general.’ They replied, challenging the mansplainer to come up with a better pronoun.

But "they" already was the better pronoun, and had been so for a long time. "They" was used in 1375 to refer to a singular person in the line "Each man hurried ... till they drew near ... where William and his darling were lying together."

So let us embrace "they" and its variants as useful pronouns for singular subjects following a 650-year-old tradition, and (in the words of Eomer to Eowyn) "think no more on it."

But what you should be wondering about is these men hurrying to "where William and his darling were lying together." What's that about? I've got a story to tell you next time!

Monday, July 25, 2022

Superstitions about Scissors

Human cultures can weave anything into a story. Opening an umbrella indoors might knock something over, and walking under a ladder (presumably set up so someone can climb it to reach something high up) might disturb it and cause someone to fall; these small bits of practicality can turn into homespun wisdom about what not to do. Passing along this advice without detailing the explanation can turn them into a superstitious injunction against causing "bad luck."

Scissors are made of metal, they are pointed and sharp, and so handling them must always be done with caution in mind. (I remember the dull-edged, blunt-nosed things we called scissors in the younger grades in school.)

In Turkey and elsewhere, passing scissors to someone (or a knife) was considered bad luck. Instead, you set the scissors (or knife) down where the other person could reach them. Clearly a health and safety response to scissors, but has become a "bad luck" warning.

Dropping a pair of scissors is also bad luck; of course, since dropping scissors from your hand means they are in the proximity of your feet, you can see why this is a bad thing. If they fall point first and stick in the floor, that is very bad (well, it means, had your foot been there, you would have effectively stabbed yourself).

There are good superstitions as well as bad, and in the Middle Ages scissors could be beneficial beyond their utilitarian purpose. Scissors were being made from iron instead of bronze as early as the first century BCE in the Roman Empire. Iron implements took on a special use as protection against fairies and magic. In the British Isles, a pair of (iron) scissors would be hung over a cradle to ward against night-time intrusions (and changeling replacement). The scissors could also be left open to form a cross.

The curious linguistic point about scissors is that they are referred to as both singular or plural, depending on the circumstances. I think it's a good time to talk a little about singular "versus" plural pronouns.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

The Shear Truth

A reference to sheep-shearing made me wonder about the origin of scissors. Apparently, some have given the credit to Leonardo da Vinci because he used shears to cut canvas. An inventive man, but he did not have to come up with scissors, because they existed long before he did.

First, some terminology. The Latin verb scindere meant "to cut"; from it, the noun scissor meant "one who cuts." Through Old French cisoires which came into Middle English as sisoures, it eventually got "corrected" by scholars who knew the Latin root. It is a plural noun ("these are scissors" rather than "this is scissors"), but is referred to also by the singular "pair of scissors."

Between 3000 and 4000 years ago, scissors were used in Mesopotamia. These were "spring scissors" (a sample is pictured above). They were two bronze blades connected by a flexible strip of bronze. They were aligned so that squeezing them together brought the two blades in contact; letting go allowed them to spring apart again. Egypt also had this type in 1500BCE made from bronze. The trick in manufacture, of course, was to make sure the blades came together closely and firmly.

The modern "pivoted" or "cross-blade" scissors were first noted in Rome in 100CE, using bronze and sometimes iron. This is now the most commonly used scissors, but the spring version was used extensively in Europe until the 16th century, especially in sheep-shearing.

They were first made from cast steel and mass-produced in Sheffield, England by Robert Hinchcliffe around 1760. He received a trade-mark in 1791, and his company still makes scissors today.

Curiously, scissors are part of many superstitions. I'll share those tomorrow.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

The Wool Trade in England

Wool is different from hair in that it has a natural "crimp" to it that allows the fibers to bind together. This, and the fact that it can be found in abundance on the backs of sheep, made it an excellent source for textiles. Anyone with a plot of grass could have sheep, and anyone with sheep could learn the steps to make it into cloth.

The Low Countries, such as Flanders, did not have as much land to give over to grass instead of other human-based edibles, but they became excellent weavers whose textiles were in demand all over Europe. They needed the raw material, however, and England was an excellent source.

Wool as in such demand that it became the backbone of the English economy from the second half of the 13th century to the second half of the 15th. Everyone kept sheep for this purpose. Abbeys and monasteries often had large tracts of land given to them, and they became major sources of raw wool.

Wool was so popular a commodity that Edward I (1239 - 1307) realized it was a source of revenue for the crown as well. He instituted a tax on every bale and bag of raw wool that went out of the country. The beauty of taxation for the historian is that it means records are kept, so we know a lot about how much wool was exported. From 1281 to 1300, about 26,000 sacks of wool. How much was that, really? The English "sack," used for wool and coal, equalled 224 pounds. That equates to about 2900 tons of wool annually. In the first couple decades of the 1300s, the annual output averaged 35-40,000 sacks.

Edward III (1312 - 1377) needed a lot of revenue to manage expenses during the Hundred Years War, and raised the tax on wool. He promoted the wool trade by establishing the Woolsack, a large cushion of wool on which the presiding officer of the House of Lords sat.

Edward would make decisions that ultimately lessened the value of wool for his economy. He invited weavers from Flanders to relocate to England. Perhaps he though he could bring another source of revenue closer to home. His high taxes, however, started to discourage people from sending wool abroad, and they started making their own woolen cloth. An influx of skilled Flemish weavers meant less raw wool leaving the country to be taxed. The annual export started decreasing in the final years of his reign, and dropped below 20,000 sacks in the decade following. From 1400 to 1430, it didn't exceed 15,000 sacks, and after 1430 it fell below 10,000.

There was another reason: quality. English wool reigned supreme for generations, but experiments in cross-breeding in the Iberian Peninsula produced something else: Merino wool. The best guesses are Spanish ewes being bred with English and North African rams in the 12th and 13th centuries, and then increased stock over the years, produced a much finer wool that became all the rage for cloth. You can learn more about it in this post.

This web article opened with the following:

Wool as a raw material has been widely available since the domestication of sheep. Even before shears were invented, wool would have been harvested using a comb or just plucked out by hand.

I thought the second sentence was pretty superfluous, but then I asked myself: "Well, when did shears come into the picture?" So I did some looking, and now I know, which I will shear...excuse me, share tomorrow.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Wool—A Brief History

Before we talk about the wool trade, I think a few words about the history of wool is a good start.

There is evidence that sheep were domesticated 9000-11000 years ago, but no evidence that they were used for wool until much later. The oldest woolen garments found are dated to only 4000-3000BCE. The oldest known European woolen fabric comes from a Danish bog and is dated to 1500BCE. In the Roman era, wool was used along with linen and leather. Cotton and silk were rare, coming from India and China, respectively.

We jump now to Northeastern France in the 1100s and the County of Champagne. In various towns in the region, annual fairs were held, lasting 2-3 weeks, where merchants gathered to buy and sell textiles, leather, furs, and spices. These "Champagne Fairs" created economic opportunity and growth and, in the case of wool, they connected the weavers of the Low Countries, such as Flanders, with Italians, who not only were skilled in dyeing cloth, but also had the merchant fleets to distribute products all around the Mediterranean. Wool cloth from Flanders could reach from Spain to Constantinople, from Majorca to Cyprus.

Wool was the economic engine of the Low Countries in the 13th century. Where did the raw wool come from that the Low Countries cleaned and carded and wove so well? England. Nothing benefitted the medieval English economy as much as the wool trade.

In fact, wool was so important to England that it had so-called "wool churches": a church financed by merchants who had become wealthy through the wool trade. Wool was so important that King Edward III in the 14th century instituted "The Woolsack," a large cushion of wool in the House of Lords upon which the presiding officer sat (at the time the Lord Chancellor, now the Lord Speaker).

More specifics of the wool trade in England tomorrow.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

The Flemish Revolt, Part 2

To sum up yesterday's post: France considered Flanders their territory, Flanders under Count Robert III fought a war about that and lost, the treaty demanded an annual tribute. Count Robert and his son both died within two months, leaving Robert's grandson Louis in charge while still in his teens. Louis' father-in-law was the king of France, so his attitude toward France was much more supportive than previously in the Flanders ruling family—and more than the citizens of Flanders would have liked.

Louis was more concerned with being diligent about payments to France than his grandfather was, and so he raised taxes to cover the payments. That move, and his Franco-phile attitude, turned the general population of Flemings against him.

Resentment against the Count of Flanders started manifesting as small rural riots in late 1323—poor harvests that year contributed to the unrest—and ultimately boiled over into an organized rebellion that lasted until 1328. A rich farmer from Lampernisse named Nicolaas Zannekin organized his neighbors and other rebels and captured various towns, including Nieuwpoort, Ypres, and Kortrijk. In Kortrijk, they went so far as to capture Robert, the Count of Flanders. Louis was released on 30 November 1325 after promising amnesty to all the members of the rebellion; Louis fled to Paris the next day.

In April 1326, King Charles IV of France got involved, as their ruler (technically, but not in the eyes of Flanders' citizens). The Peace of Arques he established did not last.

The rebellion expanded, and gained a new leader, the mayor of Bruges, William Deken. Deken had become mayor in February 1328 when Bruges rejected the Count's appointed city magistrate and appointed its own officials. That June, Deken traveled to England to persuade the young King Edward III that he should renew his claim to the throne of France. (Clearly, he wished to distract France, Louis' strongest ally.)

King Charles of France died 21 February 1328, and King Philip VI organized an expedition into Flanders to end the rebellion once and for all. They met at the Battle of Cassel (pictured above), where the rebels were defeated and Nicolaas Zannekin was killed. William Deken fled to Brabant and looked for help from Duke John III, but John wanted nothing to do with the conflict and handed Deken over to France, where he was taken to Paris and convicted of high treason. After cutting off his hands, he was dragged through the streets and then hanged.

Back in Flanders, Count Louis confiscated the property of the conspirators; cities that cooperated were forced to pay heavy fines. The fortifications of Bruges, Ypres, and Kortrijk were destroyed so that they could never again resist an army. 

..and so ended the Flemish revolt. That time. When the Hundred Years War started a decade later, Louis stayed pro-French, even though Flanders' wool trade relied heavily on England. England boycotted Flanders wool, and a new revolt started. This was too much for Louis, who fled Flanders for good and was killed in 1346 at the Battle of Crécy, fighting for the French.

If you spend any amount of time on the economy of Western Europe in the Middle Ages, you will learn that one of the most common and important phrases is "the wool trade." You can guess tomorrow's topic.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The Flemish Revolt, Part 1

About 60 years before the Peasants' Revolt in England over a poll tax, the lower classes of the Low Countries revolted against taxes.

Robert III, aka The Lion of Flanders, was the Count of Flanders. When he died sin 1322, he left behind a muddle: his son and heir, Louis I the Count of Nevers, had died two months previous, and the next in line was Robert's grandson, Louis. Louis at the age of about 18 became the Count of Nevers and Flanders. A couple years earlier, in 1320, Louis had married Margaret, the daughter of King Philip V of France.

This marriage made him a Francophile, while Robert III and his father had been anti-French. There was another big issue connected with Louis' reign, and that was taxation. Not that there wasn't a reason:

Louis' grandfather, Robert III, had signed a treaty with King Philip IV of France to conclude the Franco-Flemish War (1297-1305). The war started because, although Flanders had acted independently, it was technically a part of France since the Treaty of Verdun in 843. Philip IV decided to bring Flanders and its wealthy cities under stricter French control. We may discuss the war some other time; for now, suffice it to say that the Flemish forces were defeated.

The terms of the Treaty of Athis-sur-Orge were onerous, to say the least. Certain cities (Lille, Douai, Orchies) would fall under French rule, and fortresses protecting large cities in Flanders needed to be torn down. Expensive monetary re[arations were to be paid to France, and an annual sum. The Count of Flanders would hold Flanders as a fiefdom of France. Flanders was required to send 600 knights for there French army

...and this is where we get back to Louis, raising taxes to pay back his father-in-law and fulfill the terms of the treaty; but I feel I've already taken enough of your time for one day, so I'll finish this tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Attacks on Flemings

Whan Adam delf, and Eve span,
Wo was thanne a gentilman?

This was part of a sermon allegedly delivered in Blackheath the night before that group of peasants descended upon London during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Although the catalyst for the Revolt may have been a poll tax, resentments against the upper classes were always ready to boil over. Flemings were not generally a large part of the countryside peasant population.

Flemings were, however, mentioned specifically in one account of the Revolt, and it has two curious features. The account in MS Cotton Julius B.II. ends with the lines:

...and many fflemynges lost here heedes at that tyme, and namely they that koude nat say 'breede and chese", but "case en brode".

It was curious that Flemings were mentioned specifically. Also, contemporary references to language in the 14th century are extremely rare, so why distinguish these foreigners with a reference to their tendency to idiomatically express "bread and cheese" as "case and brode." (Modern German for cheese is still "Käse" and for bread is "Brot" with a long ō sound.)

One of the targets for destruction was the "stews" or brothels of Southwark, just south of London across the Thames. It was an area well known for prostitution, and that particular profession at that time was dominated by Flemings. One particular Fleming-run brothel was invaded and destroyed by the mob, but it was owned by the mayor of London, William Walworth, so the destruction may have been aimed at him as a representative of the upper classes—in the spirit of the first quotation above—rather than the foreigners specifically.

But it seems likely that the Revolt, as often happens, "broadened its scope" as the angry mob let its anger focus on several different targets, whether they were a rational reason for the start of the Revolt or not. Xenophobia has been a part of human culture since the beginning of human societies, I would wager, and 14th century England was no different. Distinguishing foreigners by their idiomatic expressions of everyday objects like "bread and cheese" is petty, racist, and perfectly believable.

There was, in fact, other acts of violence against Flemings on the same day of the Revolt, 13 June, as well as the following day, that are not mentioned in any chronicle of the Revolt itself, but come from the law courts. There is a pardon for a man from Holborn who killed seven Flemings just north of London, at Clerkenwell, on 13 June. On 14 June, 35 Flemings were dragged from St. Martin Vintry church and beheaded. The official London records confirm that rebels dragged Flemings from houses and churches in Vintry ward, resulting in 40 decapitated bodies in the street.

Hostility against Flemings continued in the week after the Revolt, and at various locations not connected to the Revolt. Chaucer even refers to the attacks on the Flemings. He was a likely witness to the event, since he was living in an apartment at one of the city gates at the time. In the Nun's Priest's Tale he refers to the shrill voices of the rebels as they killed Flemings.

Why the Peasants' Revolt turned into an opportunity to show extreme prejudice against Flemings particularly is unclear. Flemings would not have been the only foreigners in London, nor did they represent the upper classes, which was one of the targets of the Revolt. It may have been a case of "foreigners taking our jobs." Coastal flooding several years earlier in the Low Countries had caused many weavers from Flanders to seek a living elsewhere, and there was an influx of Flemish weavers into the English textile scene in the 1370s that caused hostility from the English weavers. This was not a new development, however: Edward III had encouraged Flemish weavers in the 1330s to settle in England. Of course his wife, Queen Philippa, was from the Low Countries, and his suggestion may have been at her suggestion.

It might also be that they wanted to help Fleming peasants who had held their own uprising a few years earlier, which we will look at next.

Monday, July 18, 2022

To be Flemish

The term "Flemish" has been used since the 1300s to refer to a certain group of people. What does it mean to be Flemish?

The word "Flemish" was first seen in print c.1325 as flemmysshe, although Flæming had been around since at least 1150, meaning "from Flanders."  Flanders was originally a small territory around Bruges, established in the 8th century. Flanders now is the Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium. The Flemings currently make up about 60% of the Belgian population.

Is there a Flemish language? The Flemish language is sometimes called Flemish Dutch, or Belgian Dutch, or Southern Dutch. In the illustration of Belgium to the left, the dark green area is where Dutch is spoken, the light green area is mostly French-speaking. (There is a small German area on the far right, and the lighter spot among the dark green is Brussels itself, where both Dutch and French have official status.

In 1188, Gerald of Wales (a historian mentioned, among other places, here) described the Flemings as:

a brave and sturdy people […] a people skilled at working in wool, experienced in trade, ready to face any effort or danger at land or sea in pursuit of gain; according to the demands of time and place quick to turn to the plough or to arms; a brave and fortunate people.

Gerald knew about them not because he traveled to the continent, but because many Flemings left Flanders due to population growth and the need for more land, many ending up in Scotland. In fact, the surname Fleming is fairly common these days, mostly because of Flemish families in Western Europe.

Flemings are even mentioned in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, in a reference that raises its own set of questions, but we can talk about that tomorrow.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

John van Ruysbroeck

John van Ruysbroeck was one of the foremost of the Flemish mystics, and even earned the titles "Admirable Doctor" and "Divine Doctor." He was born in 1293 at Ruysbroeck near Brussels to a very devout mother who stressed his religious upbringing. He did not seem very close to his mother emotionally, however, since the story goes that age 11 he ran away from home to join his uncle who was a priest at St. Gudule's in Brussels.

That uncle, Fr. John Hinckaert, arranged for his nephew's education with the intent for him to join the priesthood. Join the priesthood he did, in 1317, at St. Gudule's. (His mother tracked him down in Brussels and joined a beguinage; she died shortly before his ordination.)

His uncle, and therefore by influence van Ruysbroeck himself, practiced an apostolic austerity that was becoming popular among lay people such as the Beguines. The groups that followed this lifestyle often developed their own tenets that clashed with the preferences of the Church. van Ruysbroeck wrote pamphlets against some of these "heresies," especially to counter the writings of a particular Brussels woman in the Brethren of the Free Spirit named Bloemardinne. van Ruysbroeck was not opposed to these groups and their desire to live a more simple and saintly life—he followed that urge himself—but he did not want those doing so to stray from orthodoxy.

His own desire for a less worldly life led him away from the Cathedral of St. Gudule. (Partly he seems repulsed by how his own writings against Bloemardinne kicked off a persecution of her.) He, his uncle, and his uncle's close friend, a fellow canon named Francis van Coudenberg, left the Cathedral to form a hermitage in 1343, in Groenendael. The Groenendael hermitage became very popular, and drew so many followers that the three had to organize it into a regular congregation, of which it became the motherhouse.

van Ruysbroeck did most of his writing during this period, including twelve books, all in Middle Dutch. One of them, The Twelve Beguines [link], discusses "different notions of the Love of Jesus" in a conversation between 12 Beguines. This book, so complimentary to the Beguines, as well as his reputation as a mystic, explains why he was at one time considered to be the author of A Mirror for Simple Souls, when its true author, Marguerite Porete, was temporarily unknown.

He passed away on 2 December 1381, leaving behind a massive reputation for holiness and wisdom. He was honored as a saint and his relics preserved, although they were lost during the French Revolution. He was beatified on 1 December 1908, although the pressure to have him canonized has abated. The illustration above is a common image for him: writing alone in the woods while caught up in mystical ecstasy.

And now for something completely different, to combat my own ignorance. While writing the opening sentence of this post, I found myself questioning the word "Flemish" and realizing that I did not have a firm grasp on its meaning. What does/did it mean to be Flemish? Does it refer to a language, a people, a place? I know very well there is no "Flemland." What did the Middle Ages consider to be Flemish? Let's find out together, tomorrow.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Marguerite Porete

One of the more notable Beguines was the French mystic Marguerite Porete. We know little about her life except what was recorded in her trial for heresy, for which she was burned at the stake in Paris on 1 June 1310. She also left behind a manuscript, Le Mirouer des simples âmes, which was the reason for her condemnation. The title, as well as the work itself, is Old French, and translates "The Mirror of Simple Souls." That was one problem with it: Latin was the only approved language for religious literature.

Her subject was the transformation of the soul through agape (Christian love, as distinct from physical or emotional love). Using poetry and prose, she outlined seven stages of the soul on its path to Union with God. 

The more important issue with the book was that it expressed ideas similar to those of the Brethren of the Free Spirit, a loose movement in the Low Countries between the 13th and 15th centuries. Some of those ideas were that Christ, the church, and the sacraments were not necessary for salvation, because the soul could be perfected on its own by connecting to God's love. In fact, the perfection of the soul meant that the soul and God were one.

Her book was copied and spread among Beguines and others. Authorities rounded up all the copies they could find, burned them, and then imprisoned Marguerite. She spent a year and a half imprisoned, speaking to no one. Finally, a trial was held, during which she refused to renounce the ideas expressed in the Mirror, or to promise to never express them again.

Her refusal led to her burning at the stake on 1 June 1310. Although it remained popular after the trial, and was widely circulated, Le Mirouer des simples âmes was known to modern times only through the record of her trial. In 1911, a purchase of old manuscripts by the British Library from a private collector turned up an English translation made in the 15th century. Three other manuscripts were eventually found, one in Latin. Various translations have been published since then.

There was a time when the copies circulated after her death were wrongly attributed to another author, John van Ruysbroeck. What made him a likely candidate for this mistake? We will meet him tomorrow.

Friday, July 15, 2022

The Beguines End

Although the Beguines were great role models for how to live a Christian life, all was not rosy. By the end of the 13th century, most regions in the Low Countries had at least one beguinage, a community of Beguines, and some had more. They would often support themselves by working in the wool industry. They also performed good works in the community.

Their Christian attitude did not always exist in their neighbors, or in the Church. Although Cardinal Jacques de Vitry supported them, and the Bishop of Lièges even created a rule for them, some communities cast an unkind eye upon the Beguines because of their ambiguous social status: they lived "in the world, but were not of it."

Beguines became viewed as ostentatious in their lifestyle, as hypocritical because they did not commit to a religious Rule, and even as obnoxiously superior to cloistered religious: the founder of the Sorbonne, Robert de Sorbon, pointed out that they were far more devoted to God than monks, since they pursued the religious life without vows and without being removed from the temptations of the world. This realization could annoy small-minded laity and clergy alike.

There is also the chance that the Church resented a large religious group over which they had no formal control. One well-known Beguine, Marguerite Porete, was burned at the stake on 1 June 1310 because of a book she wrote that was considered heretical. A year later, the Council of Vienne discussed the nature of the human soul. Because the Beguines believed the human soul could be perfected by proper Christian behavior in this world, the Council condemned them as heretics. This same Council condemned the Knights Templar, removing the pope's support from them at the instigation of the French king.

There are Beguines (or Beguine-ish) groups today: the Company of St. Ursula, and recent groups in Vancouver, America, and Germany. The Church also allows "Consecrated Diocesan Hermits," but they must take their formal vows in front of a bishop; then they can live on their own.

But let's go back to Marguerite Porete and find out what she and her book were about more specifically. See you next time.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

The Beguines Begin

Christianity inspired many different approaches to life: some became canons regular (parish priests), some joined monasteries or convents, some became mendicants (wandering monks/preachers), some chose to be hermits, and some decided to simplify their lives in a way that they deemed more "Christ-like."

In the early 1100s, some women in the Low Countries (where the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg are now) began devoting themselves to a simplified life of prayer and charitable work. They did not take formal vows of poverty or obedience as nuns would—though they embraced chastity—and there was no compulsion to remain in their chosen lifestyle, if for some reason they decided to change.

The trend among women grew, however, until in the following century it was apparent that this was a movement that stood out among towns and villages. Many women would move to be near each other, forming communities for mutual support. Local clergy would point to them as exemplars of Christian behavior. Jacques de Vitry even appealed to the pope to recognize them formally.

These groups never gained formal recognition by the pope, but local churches encouraged the behavior, even help establish the communities, called beguinages after the name Beguine. (The origin of "Beguine" is unknown; a theory that it came from a priest named Lambert le Bègue, "Lambert the Stammerer" seems unlikely.) Some of these communities were huge: The Beguinage of Paris had 400 women, one in Ghent had thousands of members.

Eventually the Beguines fell out of favor, especially after the Council of Vienne; why that happened will be the subject for tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Jacques de Vitry

It seems unfair that In mention Jacques de Vitry here and here and here, and don't really tell much more than he was a cardinal. He was actually an important figure in his lifetime, a historian of the Crusades and a theologian.

Born at Vitry-sur-Seine (hence the surname) near Paris about 1160, he studied at the recently founded University of Paris. After an encounter with Marie d'Oignies, a female mystic, he was convinced to become a canon regular (a priest in the church, not a monk), so he went to Paris to be ordained and then served at the Priory of Saint-Nicolas d'Oignies. He strongly preached for the Albigensian Crusade.

On the other hand, he was fascinated by the Beguines, a lay Christian group that operated outside the structure of the Church, and asked Honorius to recognize them as a legitimate group.

His reputation was such that in 1214 he was chosen bishop of St. John of Acre, in the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. From that experience he wrote the Historia Orientalis, in which he recorded the progress of the Fifth Crusade, as well as a history of the Crusades, for Pope Honorius III. He never finished the work. Besides leaving many sermons, he also wrote about the immoral life of the students at the University of Paris. 

In 1229, Pope Gregory IX made de Vitry a cardinal. A little later he died (1 May 1240) while still in Jerusalem. His body was returned to Oignies. His remains were held in a reliquary. In 2015, a research project determined that the remains in the reliquary likely were, in fact, de Vitry's. Forensic work on the skull and DNA evidence contributed to a digital reconstruction of his head and face.

The Beguines were only mentioned here briefly, and deserve more attention. They will come next.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Christina the Astonishing

Christina was born about 1150 in Belgium, the youngest of three daughters. She was raised by her two older sisters from the age of 15 when their parents died. Her life would have been spent as a shepherdess, except a seizure at the age of 21 was so severe it left her in (we must assume) a cataleptic state. Everyone assumed she was dead.

At her funeral, during the Agnus Dei, she suddenly rose up from her opened coffin with great vigor. It is reported that she rose in the air up to the rafters of the church. The priest told her to come down; she landed on the altar and announced that she had seen heaven and hell and purgatory, and had been returned to earth to pray for those stuck in purgatory.

According to Dominican professor of theology at Louvain Thomas de Cantimpré, who wrote a biography after interviewing witnesses, including Cardinal Jacques de Vitry, her life changed radically from that point. She claimed she could not abide the odor of sin she smelled on people, and would climb trees or levitate to avoid them. She started sleeping on rocks, wearing rags, and seek other forms of deprivation or mortification.

She would stand in the freezing water of the river Meuse, roll in fire without harm, hang out in tombs (according to the report by Vitry). She would claim at times to be leading recently deceased to purgatory, and leading souls from purgatory to heaven. Her neighbors had differing opinions: some called her a holy woman touched by God, some said she was insane. The prioress of the nearby St. Catherine's convent remarked that Christina was always docile and obedient when the prioress asked her to do something, regardless of her bizarre behavior at other times. She lived her remaining days at St. Catherine's.

Although never formally canonized (and therefore sometimes referred to as Blessed Christina instead of St. Christina), she was nevertheless added to the Tridentine calendar with a feast day of 24 July, the day of her death in 1224.

Jacques de Vitry has cropped up a few times over the years in this blog, but has never been discussed directly. I want to rectify that tomorrow.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Thomas of Cantimpré

Thomas of Cantimpré is one of those people for whom this blog exists: a significant figure in his day, all but forgotten in our time, who deserves a moment in the spotlight, however brief.

Born in a small town in Brussels in 1201, he was sent at the age of five to school in Liège to study the trivium and quadrivium. When he was 16, he was ordained a priest, but after 15 years at Cantimpré he entered the Dominican order and was sent to Cologne for more advanced studies in theology, which he did under Albertus Magnus. He moved a few more times, but near the end of his life traveled throughout Germany, France, and Belgium with the title "Preacher General."

Thomas wrote many works, some of which were copied again and again, and even published in later centuries. One of them, De natura rerum (On the nature of things), had 22 chapters ranging from human anatomy, sea monsters, "Monstrous men" of the East (including cynocephali), astrology, trees, animals, eclipses and planets, etc. He included in this encyclopedia information from Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, St. Ambrose, William of Conches, and Jacques de Vitry.

His other major work used a metaphor of bees in a hive to discuss moral and spiritual edification. Bonum universale de apibus ("Universal good for the bees") has one item I want to mention. Back here, we saw the Statute of Kalisz established that Jews could not be accused of blood libel, the kidnapping of children to use their blood for rituals. This was common for centuries. Thomas came up with a "logical" explanation of blood libel, or blood accusation. Thomas refers to the New Testament passage in Matthew 27:25, when the Jews tell Pilate "May his blood be on us and on our children." Jews killed Christians and used their blood, so the theory went, in order to release themselves from their ancestors' self-imposed curse.

He also wrote several biographies of saints, one of whom was born in Belgium like him. Let's talk about Christina the astonishing next time.

Sunday, July 10, 2022


Folklores from all over the world include tales of dog-headed humanoids. The phenomenon is referred to as cynocephaly, from the Greek words for "dog" and "head."

The Greeks may have been influenced by Egyptian gods with canine heads, and not just the jackal-headed Anubis; Wepwawet (originally a war deity) had a wolf head, and Duamutef (a son of Horus) had a jackal's head. The Greek physician Ctesias wrote two books in the 5th century BCE, Indica and Persica, about Persian and Indian lands, of a tribe of Cynocephali:

They speak no language, but bark like dogs, and in this manner make themselves understood by each other. Their teeth are larger than those of dogs, their nails like those of these animals, but longer and rounder. They inhabit the mountains as far as the river Indus. Their complexion is swarthy. They are extremely just, like the rest of the Indians with whom they associate. They understand the Indian language but are unable to converse, only barking or making signs with their hands and fingers by way of reply... They live on raw meat. They number about 120,000.

Other Ancient Greek writers including Herodotus, likely influenced by Ctesias, reinforced this knowledge, encouraging the Middle Ages to accept that there were strange races living beyond Europe. (Greek writers also say there was a type of monkey that was cynocephalic; we now assume they had seen baboons.)

With this "knowledge" in hand, it was easy to accept that Cynocephali would appear in other accounts, such as that of two dog-headed saints, Ahrakas and Augani, who served the Coptic Saint Mercurius (3rd century).

The best-known dog-headed personage was St. Christopher, who was sometimes depicted in the Eastern Orthodox tradition as dog-headed. This was likely a misunderstanding of an expanded history for him that referred to him as a Canaanite; this was mis-read as "canine-ish" and resulted in him being portrayed as a Cynocephalus who came from their tribe.

St. Augustine of Hippo in his The City of God addressed the topic of the Cynocephali. He accepted that they might not exist, but if they did exist, were the human (which to him meant mortal and rational). If they were both mortal and rational, then they were human, and therefore could have come from nowhere but a line of descendants from Adam.

Ratramnus (died c.868), a Frankish theologian, was concerned about the Cynocephali, because if they were human, then it was obligatory to bring Christianity to them. 

Even Marco Polo mentions them:

Angamanain is a very large Island. The people are without a king and are Idolaters, and no better than wild beasts. And I assure you all the men of this Island of Angamanain have heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes likewise; in fact, in the face they are all just like big mastiff dogs! They have a quantity of spices; but they are a most cruel generation, and eat everybody that they can catch, if not of their own race.

The one medieval writer who personally encountered anything approaching Cynocephali was Ibn Battuta (who was mentioned in passing a week ago regarding the Richest Man of All Time):

Fifteen days after leaving Sunaridwan we reached the country of the Barahnakar, whose mouths are like those of dogs. This tribe is a rabble, professing neither the religion of the Hindus nor any other. They live in reed huts roofed with grasses on the seashore, and have abundant banana, areca, and betel trees. Their men are shaped like ourselves, except that their mouths are shaped like those of dogs; this is not the case with their womenfolk, however, who are endowed with surpassing beauty.

Between India and Sumatra is a tribe, the Mentawai, who practice the art of tooth sharpening. He may have encountered them.

Dog-headed humanoids were widespread in literature, mentioned in the Nowell Codex (that contains Beowulf); in a Welsh poem where King Arthur fights them in Edinburgh; lamented at by Charlemagne (in his biography) that he never had a chance to go to war against such a foe; in a Flemish Dominican's popular encyclopedic work corroborating their existence; and many more examples. After the European discovery of the continents west of the Atlantic Ocean, assumptions that the Cynocephali would be found were renewed.

But enough of that. Lots of options to move on from here, but I want to explore that Flemish Dominican who wrote some works that became very popular, based on the number of surviving manuscripts. Next time we will talk about Thomas of Cantimpré.

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Saint Christopher

The patron saint of travelers, popular with surfers and anyone making a journey. His medals are still sold all over; if you check Amazon, you'll see several versions with many happy reviews. In the United Kingdom, wall paintings of Christopher outnumber any other religious figure [link]. But it's time to talk about some hard truths about Christopher:

It is possible he did not exist.

And why was he pictured with a dog's head?

If you know one thing about St. Christopher, it is the story that he helped carry a child across a river, only to find later that the child was Christ. The fact that his name actually means "Christ-bearer" suggests that this was a made-up example of Christian charity. (Consider as well the story of Jesus on his way to Calvary and the woman who wipes his face, only to find his image on the cloth; her name is Veronica, "true image.")

There was supposedly a martyr named Christopher who was killed in either the reign of Emperor Decius (249-251) or Emperor Maximus Daia (308-313). The fact that churches were dedicated to him does not prove his historicity. Pope Paul

But why the dog head? Well, a thousand years after the martyr first lived, the Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend, a book of saints' tales) says he was a Canaanite originally known as Reprobus (again, a suspiciously apt name meaning "rogue" or "unprincipled person"). Reprobus strove to serve the mightiest lord available, and even served the devil, until at last he found Christ and converted. Then...

The pagan king of Lycia took him as a fool and beheaded him after torturing him. Before his ordeal, however, St Christopher instructed the king to make a little clay mixed with his blood to rub on his eye (which was blinded by an arrow that had been meant for St Christopher). The king did as he was told and said, ‘in the name of God and St Christopher!’ He was healed immediately and was converted to Christianity. St. Christopher performed his miracle in martyrdom. [link]

And this is why he is depicted with a dog's head in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, because they mis-read "Canaanite" for canineus (canine), and assumed he was a member of the race of Cynocephali, the dog-headed people.

And we will learn about them tomorrow.

Friday, July 8, 2022

The Canine Saint

A 1987 film, Le Moine et la sorcière (released in the USA as The Sorceress), tells the story of a Dominican Friar, Etienne de Bourbon, in search of heretics. In a small village he learns that women having difficulty with their pregnancy go to a woman who lives alone in the forest. She treats them with herbs, etc., and takes them to a place in the forest where there is a shrine to Saint Guinefort, where they undertake a ritual to promote safe childbirth. In death, Guinefort became a patron of babies.

In life, Guinefort was a greyhound.

The story is brought to us by Dominican monk Stephen of Bourbon (1180 - 1261) in 1250. A knight in Lyon left his baby to go hunting, secure that his faithful dog, Guinefort, would guard the child. When he returned, the dog's mouth was all bloody, the room a mess, the crib overturned, and the baby nowhere to be found. In a fit of sudden rage, the knight cut off Guinefort's head. Hearing a child's cries, they discovered him under the cradle, surrounded by the bloody body of a viper with dog bites all over it. Regretting his killing of Guinefort, they made a grave of stones surrounded with a grove.

Locals, learning of the dog's actions and martyrdom, visited the site more and more. It became a place to bring ill children, or mothers worried about the outcome of their pregnancy, to pray for the intercession of "Saint" Guinefort.

Finding this, Stephen of Bourbon records that he had the dog's bones disinterred and destroyed; the trees were burned down. He shows sympathy for the heroic dog so unjustly killed, but a dog saint? Not on his watch!

It was not allowed for a dog to become a saint, but was it possible for a saint to be a dog? Let me tell you about St. Christopher (yes, that one) tomorrow.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

The Tridentine Calendar

The term "Tridentine" refers to the Council of Trent (1545 through 1563), the 19th ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church convened in response to the Protestant Reformation. 

Among other things, Trent determined the liturgical calendar (see illustration). Part of this process involved establishing definitive feast days for saints, which may not be altered or added to except by the pope.

In the process, it was necessary to decide definitively which saints deserved feast days or other types of mention. Pope Pius V (ruled 1566 to 1572) removed some names he considered insignificant, such as St. Elizabeth of Hungary (mentioned here) and St. Anthony of Padua (mentioned here). How to determine of saints were worthy of inclusion in the liturgical year, with their names to be specifically mentioned at Mass, was to rank them. The 13th century created a ranking system of Double, Semidouble, and Simple. Pope Clement VIII created the rank of Major Double in 1602. Over the centuries, popes added or subtracted (mostly added) saints' rankings to the calendar. What do these terms signify about the saint in question?

As it happens, we do not know why the word "double" is used; it may have to do with the antiphon (a chant used as a refrain) were doubled before and after the psalms. Another theory is that in Rome before the 9th century it was customary to have two sets of Matins (prayers at dawn) on major feast days. Whatever the origin, the importance of a saint's feast day could be designated (in ascending order) as Simple, Semidouble, and Double; the Double rank included further strata (in ascending order) of Double, Greater/major Double, Double of the II Class, Double of the I Class.

With "semantic satiation" occurring by now, and the word "double" looking and sounding strange to the reader, we have to ask "Why?" What need was satisfied by ranking saints' days?

Well, a saint's feast day had its own liturgy, unique from the ordinary Sunday Mass. If a saint's day feel on Sunday, which Mass do you celebrate? Easter had a special Mass; what do you do if Easter Sunday happens to fall on 17 April, the Feast Day of the 2nd century Pope Anicetus? Sure, he fought against Gnosticism and was (supposedly) martyred—and already has more than one mention in this blog—but is he worth more than Easter? Well, his rank is Simple, so no, Easter liturgy takes precedence. (Actually, Easter takes precedence over every saint; I just wanted an example of a floating holiday.) This overlapping of important days was called an "occurrence"; the lower-ranking day could be referred to as a "commemoration" during the liturgy of the higher-ranking day.

On an ordinary weekday, the priest celebrating Mass can choose to use a liturgy of his choice: either a normal "votive Mass" or Mass for the dead (if a funeral was needed), or he could choose the liturgy for martyrs Cosmas and Damian on 27 September.

There were so many changes to this system that going into more detail would require listing all the revisions over the years, so we will just jump to the later 20th century. Pope Pius XII in 1955 abolished the Semidouble rank, turning them all to Simples (making the choice of which liturgy to perform easier), and reduced all Simples to Commemorations (so no liturgy, just an "honorable mention" during Mass if desired). Pope Paul VI in 1969 further simplified the liturgical choices, eliminating Commemorations and reforming other ranks to Solemnities (truly important days involving the Trinity, or Jesus, Mary, Joseph, or VIP saints; these days include a Vigil), Feasts (pretty much just the Nativity and the Resurrection), and Memorials, most of which were optional.

Thousands of men and women were designated saints in the first 1400 years of Christianity, and at least one dog. Recent centuries trimmed down that list, recognizing that many were likelynot real people, but simply anecdotes intended to teach a moral lesson.

Except the dog; that one happened. You probably want that one explained.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

The Saint Beneath the Stairs

The inspiration for the Waldensians was when Waldes heard a troubadour sing about St. Alexius of Rome, a man whose situation was similar to that of Waldes. Both were well-to-do, Alexius even more so.

The story goes that Alexius was born into one of the most prominent families in Rome in the 4th century, the son of Euphemianus, a Christian. The family was liberal with its wealth, with many offerings to the poor. Alexius grew up well-educated, steeped in a tradition of generosity, wanting for nothing; in turn, he was the pride and joy of his family.

By and by, his parents arranged a marriage to a young woman of great virtue and wealth. The wedding was grand and the wedding feast lavish. Later that day, however, Alexius was overcome with the urge to give up his wealth, his home, and his new bride. He went to her, giving her to take as tokens of his love jewels and riches. He then went to his own room, changed out of his sumptuous wedding garb, and left the household secretly. He went straight to the harbor and took the first ship to Edessa in Syria.

His disappearance caused his parents to send searchers high and low for him, but of course they never found him. He was living in voluntary poverty in Edessa, giving away all he had and clothing himself in rags. He fasted, slept for a few hours in the vestibule of a church dedicated to Mary, prayed all night, and spent an hour each day begging for alms. This style of living altered him so much that his friends and family would not recognize him. In fact, his parents' servants traveled as far as Edessa in search of the young man, and he was able to beg for alms from them without them recognizing him.

One day, the curate of the church where he resided heard a voice coming from the statue of Mary saying that the poor man in the vestibule was a servant of the Almighty whose prayers were very agreeable to God. The curate spread the word of this, and Alexius began to be visited and praised. This was the opposite of the humility he sought, and so he determined to leave Edessa. The first ship he took went to Rome. He was inspired by God to go to his father's house where, upon encountering his father, he said “Lord, for the sake of Christ, have compassion on a poor pilgrim, and give me a corner of your palace to live in.” Euphemianus, a pious man, took in the unrecognized son, instructing his servants to give him a place to stay and daily food. He was given a cubby under the stairs, where he stayed for 17 years, except for visits to church. Seeing his parents and bride still grieving for him was torturous, but he determined to remain anonymous, lest he be unwillingly returned to a life of luxury and leisure. When he felt his death was near, he went to Mass and Communion, went back home and wrote a brief biography of his years since his wedding night, folded it and held it in his hand. He then died peacefully.

Meanwhile, at Mass attended by Euphemianus and Emperor Honorius(384 - 423), and celebrated by Pope Innocent I (d.417), a voice was heard proclaiming that the servant of God at the house of Euphemianus was dead. The Pope and the Emperor accompanied Euphemianus to his house where they found the holy man dead, the paper held tightly in his hand until by praying the Pope was able to take it from him. They were all astonished at the reading. The house of Euphemianus was turned into the first church dedicated to Alexius.

Of course, as "detailed" as a story of a saint's life may be from 1600 years ago, we have to cast some doubt on it. There are several versions of this story. This is the Greek version. There I a Syriac version, and it seems likely that in Edessa there was a pious Roman-born beggar who was known to have given up a life of luxury. His legend grew over time and the Greek (Byzantine Church) version made Rome more prominent in the telling. The Eastern Orthodox Church venerates him on 17 July. The Tridentine Calendar of Saints in the liturgical year, however, however, has reduced the importance of his feast day over time from a Simple to a Semidouble, then a Double, and finally a Simple again in 1955. Now (as of 1960) it is a Commemoration.

...and since I assume you'd like to understand what all those terms mean, I suggest you come back to this blog tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

"Peter" Waldo

The first thing you'll notice is quotation marks around the "Peter" in the title. That is because Peter was likely not his name. For a long time after the founding of the Waldensians he was known only as Waldo, or Waldes, or Valdo, Valdes, Vaudès, de Vaux—there were numerous interpretations of the name. The first name was attached at least a couple hundred years after the Waldensians came to be, possibly because Peter in the New Testament is named by Jesus to take care of his followers.

An anonymous chronicle of about 1218 (so not too long after the founding of the group c.1173, and only a few years after Waldo dies in 1205, so perhaps fairly accurate), gives more detail regarding the founding:

And during the same year, that is the 1173rd since Lord's Incarnation, there was at Lyons in France a certain citizen, Waldo by name, who had made himself much money by wicked usury. One Sunday, when he had joined a crowd which he saw gathered around a troubadour, he was smitten by his words and, taking him to his house, he took care to hear him at length. ... When morning had come the prudent citizen hurried to the schools of theology to seek counsel for his soul, and when he was taught many ways of going to God, he asked the master what way was more certain and more perfect than all others. The master answered him with this text: If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all that thou hast," etc.

Then Waldo went to his wife and gave her the choice of keeping his personal property or his real estate, namely, he had in ponds, groves and fields, houses, rents, vineyards, mills, and fishing rights. She was much displeased at having to make this choice, but she kept the real estate. From his personal property he made restitution to those whom he had treated unjustly; a great part of it he gave to his little daughters, who, without their mother's knowledge he placed in the convent of Font Evrard; but the greatest of his money he spent for the poor. A very great famine was then oppressing France and Germany. The prudent citizen, Waldo, gave bread, with vegetables and meat to every one who came to him for three days in every week from Pentecost to the feast of St. Peter's bonds.

At the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, casting some money among the village poor, he cried, "No man can serve two masters, God and mammon." Then his fellow-citizens ran up, thinking he had lost his mind. But ... he said. "My fellow-citizens and friends, I am not insane, as you think, but I am avenging myself on my enemies, who made me a slave, so that I was always more careful of money than of God, and served the creature rather than the Creator. I know that many will blame me that I act thus openly. But I do it both on my own account and on yours; on my own, so that those who see me henceforth possessing any money may say that I am mad, and on yours, that you may learn to place hope in God and not in riches."

Other sources say the troubadour was singing a song about St. Alexius, who gave up his wealth to live in poverty like Jesus. Waldo puts is daughters into a convent, leaves his possessions to his wife, and began to travel Lombardy preaching the importance of poverty. He began to attract followers, and he and one of them traveled to Rome in 1179 to meet with Pope Alexander III. Waldo explained his primary beliefs: the value of voluntary poverty, the need for the Gospel to be in local languages, the belief in universal priesthood (that all men and women can preach the scriptures). Alexander approved the poverty, but not the preaching.

Waldo rejected the pope's declaration, and Waldensians continued to preach and grow followers, speaking out against other practices not found in the Bible: purgatory, indulgences, transubstantiation, prayers for the dead. They were persecuted for centuries for their beliefs—tortured, imprisoned, and killed—but they persevered to this day.

Who was this St. Alexius whose example inspired a successful merchant to make such a radical change? His story comes next.