Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim

A nun, a poet, a playwright— Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim has been called the most remarkable woman of her time, but she was hardly known until a manuscript of her works was discovered in 1494.

From information in her writing we can glean that she was born between 930 and 940CE to a well-to-do Saxon family. We do not know what prompted her to "take the veil" and enter a nunnery, but we know she took vows of chastity and obedience but not poverty, presumable because she did not want to give up comforts and freedoms she had grown up with.

In a preface to her poetical works, she writes of her education at the Abbey of Gandersheim:

I was trained first by our most learned and gentle novice-mistress Rikkarda and others. Later, I owed much to the kind favour and encouragement of a royal personage, Gerberga, under whose abbatial rule I am now living. She, though younger in years than I, was, as might be expected of the niece of an Emperor, far older in learning, and she had the kindness to make me familiar with the works of some of those authors in whose writings she had been instructed by learned men.

Among the works to which she was introduced were those of the Roman playwright Terence, and she decided she wanted to try her hand at that genre, making her the earliest known playwright—female or male—in the Latin West. Where Terence wrote women as shrews and courtesans, Hrotsvitha wrote them as innocents who were exemplars of Christian virtue.

She was the first female poet in Germany, writing several works in dactylic hexameter, including a history of the Ottoman Empire. and a history of Gandersheim Abbey.

She was the first Northern European to write about Islam. In her play Passio Sancti Pelagio ("The Passion of Saint Pelagius"), which she says is derived from an eyewitness to the martyrdom of Pelagius of Cordova, she refers to the character of Abd al-Rahman III, the Emir of Cordova from 929-961. Her plays read as dialogues, which means they are labeled "closet dramas" (a play meant to be read out loud, rather than performed). We know, however, that the Abbey enjoyed her writing, and she was asked to read to the other nuns, so it is possible that her plays were "performed" at Gandersheim.

The discovery and publication (in 1501) of her works made her a subject for study. In the 20th century, she became a feminist icon, which means I'll take a deeper dive into her works tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Theophilus the Penitent

Let me tell you about Theophilus the Penitent, a Christian cleric who was the archdeacon of Adana in Cilicia (now Turkey). He was known for being generous to the poor, eloquent when preaching, sympathetic to others, and for his asceticism. When the bishop died, Theophilus was offered the position, and was very strongly urged by all to take it.

Out of humility, he refused the position, presumably with the standard Latin phrase nolo episcopari, "I do not wish to be made bishop." (It is traditional that the candidate say this at least twice when offered a bishopric before finally accepting; if he says it a third time, he really means to refuse the promotion.)

Unfortunately for him, some people decided to malign him, spreading rumors that turned the populace against him and so unnerved him that he started spending all his energy in combatting the four rumors being spread, and attempting to find the sources of the rumors. The current bishop, hearing the rumors against him, fired him from his archdeacon position.

Finally, Theophilus appealed to a necromancer for help, who led him to a crossroads in the dark of the night and conjured up Satan. Satan offered a deal: in exchange for his soul, all calumnies against him would disappear. Theophilus agreed, and signed a contract with his own blood. The next day, he was summoned to the bishop's presence; the bishop had discovered that the rumors were false, Theophilus was a good man after all, and the bishop re-instated him in his position.

But Theophilus had no peace of mind. He paced his room night after night, regretting the foul bargain he had made, and he prayed. He undertook a fast of 40 days, praying every night, all night, until the 40th day when the Virgin Mary appeared to him. She rebuked him for his poor decision, and he asked her to intercede for him. This she agreed to do, and the following night she appeared in his dream and told him that her son had forgiven him. When he woke up the next morning, the static contract was with him.

That day being Sunday, he went to church, threw himself at the feet of the bishop to make his confession, and showed the congregation the contract. They destroyed the contract, Theophilus went home feeling unburdened...and died three days later.

People love a comeback story, and sinners repenting. Theophilus became the subject of poems and plays as well as sermons. The earliest version of the story claims to come from Eutychianus, a disciple of Theophilus who was an eyewitness. (The only Eutychianus who makes it into Christian records is a 3rd-century pope.) Legend tells us that Theophilus died in 538CE. There is a Latin version of the story (the original is Greek) from Paulus Diaconus.

It is in the 11th century that art depicting his story first appears, in carvings, but it really takes off in the 13th century in stained glass windows and illuminations. Above is supposed to be Theophilus building a church in his capacity as archdeacon. The usual portrayal is in four panes: signing the contract, Theophilus repenting, the Virgin recovering the contract from the devil, the Virgin returning the contract to Theophilus. Other than the Theophilus story, all examples of Marian art in churches and cathedrals are Bible stories.

One of the better-known composers of Theophilus-based poetry was Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, a name that is so familiar to me that I'm shocked to find that I have never mentioned her before in this forum. I aim to correct that defect tomorrow.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Making Stained Glass Windows

Creating sufficiently high temperatures needed to melt silica and fashion glass was difficult, but at some point we discovered that the addition of potash (potassium, from wood ash soaked in water), soda (sodium carbonate, from plant ash), and lead would lower the melting point, making production easier.

Now you have molten glass; how do you shape it?

The oldest stained glass windows were made from "muff" glass: a blob of molten glass, called a "gather," was placed on the end of the blowpipe. Using metal tools and wooden forms soaked in water, the glass was blown into a cylinder. The ends of the cylinder would be cut off, and the cylinder cut open so it could be flattened.

"Crown" glass (see illustration) started similarly with a gather of glass on the blowpipe; after introducing a bubble of air, the pipe would be spun back and forth quickly, causing the glass to spread out into a thin disk. This could also be accomplished by placing the molten glass on a contraption like a potter's wheel. The circle of glass could be cut to fit into square windows, or used round. Crown glass windows are recognizable because of the concentric circles formed during the spinning. They usually also have a "bull's-eye": the thicker blob at the center of the spun circle.

You may hear of "cathedral glass." This is rolled glass: molten glass poured onto a metal table and rolled thin with a metal roller. It was sometimes even put through a pair of rollers. This technique has nothing to do with medieval cathedrals, having been developed in the mid-1830s.

Coloring the glass was done by adding copper oxide (green or bluish green), cobalt (deep blue), or gold (wine red and violet). (Modern glass produces red using copper.)

For stained glass windows to survive wind pressure, it needed to be at least 3mm (1/8") thick. The production of red required a concentration of added material such that a 3mm window had so much coloring that the red was very dark; it could be mistaken for black without a very strong light source. This prompted the development of "flashed glass": adhering a thin pane of red to a thicker pane of clear.

Before we leave the subject of old windows, I want to tackle a common talking point that I have heard many times: "Glass is a liquid that flows very slowly; the proof is that medieval windows are thicker on the bottom than the top!" Sure, maybe. But let's remember Occam's Razor: common sense would tell the architect that a pane of glass that is not of even thickness—not an unexpected outcome considering the imprecise methods of manufacture—would be more stable if you put the heavier end as the base.

Being able to color panes and pieces of glass allowed creators of windows to offer elaborate pictures, such as stories from the Bible or history. Tomorrow I'll share a story of Theophilus, who was a common theme for church windows in the 13th century.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Stained Glass

The art of coloring glass was evident in articles from ancient Egypt and Classical Rome. "Stained glass" can mean any glass that is colored, by either adding particle or chemicals to the glass during production or by painting the glass later, but I am going to talk specifically about windows.

There are some very early (4th- and 5th-century) Christian churches that have, not stained glass, but carefully carved thin slices of alabaster—a precursor to the elaborate stained glass windows of the Middle Ages.

Our earliest references to stained glass for religious purposes in medieval Europe comes from Benedict Biscop, who hired glass workers from France to create windows for his monastery at Monkwearmouth. Here and at his other monastery at Jarrow have been found hundreds of pieces of colored glass and lead (used to hold the glass together). These were constructed in the 7th century. The 10th century saw church windows in Germany, France, and England depicting scenes from the Bible.

I talked about Abbot Suger long ago, who re-built the Abbey of St.-Denis with special attention to the stained glass windows. He wrote down his thoughts and reasoning (and justification for spending an enormous sum of money on the renovations):

All you who seek to honor these doors,
Marvel not at the gold and expense but at the craftsmanship of the work.
The noble work is bright, but, being nobly bright, the work
Should brighten the minds, allowing them to travel through the lights.
To the true light, where Christ is the true door.
The golden door defines how it is imminent in these things.
The dull mind rises to the truth through material things,
And is resurrected from its former submersion when the light is seen.

Suger considered the beautiful windows to have an ennobling effect on the viewer, which was no doubt advantageous for making an impression on the congregation.

Glass-making takes a lot of heat, expertise, and knowledge of rudimentary chemistry to color the glass. What was that about? That is our next topic.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Medieval Paints and Pigments

Where did medieval manuscript illuminators get their colors?

Well, first thing to realize is that they weren't re-inventing the wheel: Romans had colored paints available to them. The Romans used the term minium to refer to pigment from ground cinnabar (brick-red mercury sulfide) or red lead (lead oxide). Some minerals that were dug up and ground included:

red ochre — iron oxide/hematite (rust color)
yellow ochre — silica and clay/iron oxyhydroxides (shades from cream to brown)
umber — iron and manganese oxides (from cream to brown)
lime white — dried lime/chalk (white)
green earth (Verona green) — celadonite/glauconite (green)
azurite — carbonate of copper (blue)
ultramarine — lapis lazuli (blue)

Pigments could also be made from plants. Red could be made from the root of the Eurasian madder plant. The Crozophora plant's seeds produced a violet-blue. Saffron gave yellow. Woad and indigo came from plants that carried the same name. Let's not forget insects, that could be crushed to give the bright-red carmine (from the cochineal or Dactylopius coccus scale insect). 

Preparation of paints was a careful process. The coloring was usually mixed gum arabic or with egg. Egg tempera (from the yolk) or egg glair (from the white) were ways to "fix" the pigment to the surface you were using. Because the egg tempera could crack, it was applied in paintings in thin layers.

Some colors were more special than others. Ultramarine (literally "beyond the sea"), the blue made from grinding lapis lazuli, came from Afghanistan and was very expensive to obtain. This brightest blue, however, was associated with the gown of Mary, the mother of Jesus, so it was greatly desired and worth the price.

Another questio0n regarding color in the Middle Ages comes to mind, however. How did they get the color into glass? That's for next time.

Friday, August 26, 2022

Masters of Marginalia

Marginalia—comments, doodles, annotations, etc., made in the margin of a manuscript or book—came in many forms. Here we talked about the attempts at educating and clarifying by scholiasts.

Today we look at the less serious additions made by monks who were no doubt bored and decided to exercise their sense of humor.

There are so many web pages where you can find more in varying stages of frivolity and obscenity if you simply search "medieval marginalia" the you can send days of diversion that it would be pointless for me to try to give you more than just a bare minimum of representative figures.

These marginalia don't make much sense, in that they don't generally have anything to do with the text they accompany except in the most tenuous way. For instance, the bottom illustration in the collection I have included shows a fox as a bishop preaching to a flock of different birds, which would normally be his prey. Commentary by a monk on what he really thinks about bishops and their attitude toward their congregations? Or just an attempt at an ironic drawing of animals?

Snails actually show up frequently, often involving combat. The top right shows a snail with an animal's head. Below that is a snail fighting a knight. There is conjecture that the shell of the snail, since it resembled a kind of armor, was an appropriate foe for a knight.

Some additions are attractive additions, like the unicorn, although right above it is a curious animal-headed set of tentacles or vines. I would call that simply a doodle.

Then you have pictures that are far more irreverent than a fox preaching to birds, such as the monk sniffing the butt of an ... animal? Demon? Hard to say what it is in that top-left illustration. At least it is very attractively enclosed in the curves and points of its surrounding frame.

We should note that the making of marginalia was not that impulsive; that is, the manuscript copyist did not say to himself "I'll just out a goose playing a lute here." These were added by someone who was sitting with access to multiple colors of ink in front of him. He was the monk tasked with "prettying up" the manuscript in order to make it more valuable and less likely to bore the reader. Hundreds of years later, these colors remain on the vellum, which has got me thinking: where did colored inks/paints come from in the Middle Ages?

I will look into that question, and get back to you. See you tomorrow.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

The Scholiasts

Marginalia are marks or notations or illustrations drawn into (obviously) the margin of a document. They have another name: apostils, from the Middle French verb apostiller, meaning "to add marginal notes." This in turn was from Latin postilla, "little post." The origin of postilla might be (we aren't sure) the Latin phrase post illa, which would mean (if Latin used it this way) "after these things."

Scholarly works and the Bible would have marginalia such as numbers to denote divisions of texts, or notes for liturgical use. There may even be scholia, ("comment, interpretation") which are corrections in grammar or translation or comments on the text referencing other works. Errors could creep into the arduous task of copying, and a subsequent copier of the copy could be aware that a mistake had been made, which he would seek to correct with a scholia. The person who added scholia was a scholiast, a word that goes back to the 1st century CE.

Additionally, a monk who had knowledge of a commentary on a document he was copying might decide to add scholia to offer an explanation on the particular passage in front of him. Modern book lovers debate over the propriety of writing in a book; these monks saw fit to "pre-write" into the work for clarification.

This is not to say that all scholia are to be trusted. Mistakes can be made. For example, there is a 1314 manuscript of a 3rd century text, Porphyry’s Homeric Questions (a discussion of problems that arise from reading the works of Homer). There are other manuscript copies of the works of Homer that have scholia that are clearly quoting Porphyry—and they are different. The person adding the scholia has mis-remembered the original; or did he? Maybe the person who made the 1314 copy was being sloppy while looking back and forth from the written to the being-written in front of him.

If I am in the position where I cannot digitally copy and paste, and must read + remember + type a longish passage, I must be extra careful because I know how easily my short-term memory can "smooth over" the original. I cannot imagine a monk would not try to speed up the tedious process of copying by spending less time shifting back and forth.

In the illustration above, a printed copy of Homer's Odyssey (printed in 1535), the printer Johann Herwagen (1497–1559?) has simply included (the narrower column) and additional scholia from other manuscripts, leaving the reader to decide which is preferred.

If the readers of this blog follow any other information about the Middle Ages, however, yesterday's reference to marginalia conjured images of, well, images. The phrase medieval marginalia usually makes people think of pictures, and I'll give you a representative sample of those next time.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

The Writing Room

An important function of medieval monasteries was the creation and copying of manuscripts. Copying religious and secular works for the edification of others was not only important to them, it has enriched immeasurable our understanding of their time and culture.

The scriptorium or "writing place" was a standard part of a monastery's architecture, and an early non-agricultural example of an "assembly line." Some monks had an excellent hand for lettering, some were good at illustration. Of course, even before anything could happen in the scriptorium, someone had to make parchment and ink (see the links).

Cassiodorus considered scriptorium work so vital that he established careful training for scribes, and exempted the top performers from daily prayers and allocated extra candles so they could spend more hours copying texts. A scribe therefore might work from six hours per day up to twice that or more for the best ones.

Even good scribes, however, were not always happy in their work. The scriptorium was placed in the complex to be distraction-free. Imagine working long hours in a silent room, bent over, eyes close to the page, no "coffee breaks" unless it were for prayers, the pressure to copy texts exactly. The need for decent lighting meant having windows that were open to the cold air all winter; gloves would have interfered with the fine penmanship needed. Monks were stressed, and often gave themselves breaks by inappropriate notes sketches in margins. One manuscript ends with the personal observation “Now I’ve written the whole thing. For Christ’s sake, give me a drink.” (You can read all about it in here, page 40.)

The illustration above is likely not a good depiction of the actual environment. The light from the windows needs to be on the page, not in the monks' eyes. A better layout is seen in the Plan of St. Gall, which I wrote about here. It is a manuscript that shows the layout of the Abbey of St. Gall, and the scriptorium is clearly a room with desks around the edges and a worktable in the center. You can see it on the left side of the illustration to the right of this paragraph.

If you like the term "Dark Ages" and think there was no education for centuries in Europe, we must agree to disagree, but I will say that monasteries helped preserve culture and learning. They were not just copying the Bible and works by Christian authors like Augustine: Aristotle and others from the Classical Era were being preserved and shared, and the act of copying also educated the monk who was doing the reading. Abbot Trithemius (1462 - 1516) wrote

As he is copying the approved texts he is gradually initiated into the divine mysteries and miraculously enlightened. Every word we write is imprinted more forcefully on our minds since we have to take our time while writing and reading. (In Praise of Scribes)

All seriousness aside, however, much can be made of the frivolous illustrations tucked into and around the lines of text. They are definitely worth looking at next time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Copyright–A Brief History

As understood and discussed in modern culture, copyright is a very recent development. The Berne convention in 1886 gave international attention to the protection of authorial work. The Statute of Anne in 1710 (also called An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned) had established that right for Britain. This is usually called the first copyright law, and there's no argument there.

The reference to copyright that has been made in the last few posts is over the Cathach, the psalter (supposedly) copied by St. Columba from the scriptorium of Abbot Finnian of Movilla in the 6th century. Finnian objected to Columba having it and, when appealed to over the conflict, the High King of Ireland Diarmait said "To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy." Whether this was the actual cause of the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne is not firmly established.

Between those two dates were other attempts at protecting the written word. Aldus Manutius (1449 - 1515), who invented the paperback and italic writing, received a privilegio from the Doge of Venice in 1502 forbidding the use or imitation by others of his italic font. Earlier in Venice, Marc' Antonio Sabellico in 1486 was given from the Venetian cabinet the sole right to publish his work on the history of the Republic; the fine was 500 ducats.

There seems to have been a "right to image" in Classical Rome for death masks and statues of one's ancestors, but the "copyright holder" was the family of the person pictured, not the artist.

Medieval writers (such as Chaucer) were less likely to write something new than they were to take a familiar story (like the Trojan War) and put their own spin on it. Even Shakespeare was getting his plots from history and literature. This seems to be the opposite of why the Statute of Anne was made (see its full title). Encouraging authors to create more by protecting the originality of their work was not something on the mind of the medieval author.

It seems to me that a strong sense of copyright in Ireland of the 6th century, as suggested by the Cathach anecdote (whose link to the Battle was made long after the event and is not corroborated by any contemporary documents) would have led to more examples of evolution of actual law over time. Columba's desire to have a copy of a manuscript was not that unusual. One of a monastery's typical functions was to copy manuscripts for preservation and dissemination, and we'll talk more about that next time.

Monday, August 22, 2022

The Cathach

The oldest extant manuscript in Ireland is the Cathach. The Cathach is a psalter, a copy of the Book of Psalms from the Bible (actually, Psalm 30:13 to 105:13). Traditionally, it is associated with St. Columba, and is also called The Cathach of St. Columba. It is dated to the second half of the 6th century, which places it in his lifetime (Columba died 597).

There is a legend that it was made in one night, copied from an original in Movilla Abbey. Supposedly, Abbot Finnian of Movilla objected to Columba making and taking a copy, and the conflict led to a terrible battle. during which 3000 men were killed. This is sometimes referred to as the first war over copyright.

This is unlikely; it is, however, associated with battle for another reason. The O'Donnell clan possessed it, and as a holy book it was considered to give protection in times of battle. Safe in its cumdach (a reliquary specifically made for a book, pictured above), it was carried by a holy man or monk three times around the waiting army prior to battle, and a rallying cry of "An Cathach!" ("The Battler!") would go up from the troops.

The cumdach was made for it. It consists of a wooden box that has been re-decorated a few times. It has bronze and gilt-silver plates, and settings for glass and crystal "gems." Completed in  Kells in the second half of the 11th century, it was added to in the late 1300s with a Crucifixion scene, and then again in the 16th and 18th centuries. The cumdach is in the National Museum of Ireland. The Cathach itself is preserved and studied in the Royal Irish Academy.

What was the likelihood that a battle would be fought over copyright? Hard to say, especially since copyright as we think of it in modern times is a fairly new idea. Or is it? Let's talk about that next time.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Battle of Cúl Dreimhne

The Battle of Cúl Dreimhne likely took place in 560CE (estimates vary). Although there are different accounts of the reason for the battle, the most popular is that it was fought over a copy of the Cathach ("The Battler").

The Cathach is a psalter, a collection of the Psalms from the Bible. The original was at Movilla Abbey, in the possession of Saint Finnian of Movilla. A visiting Columba made a copy of it miraculously in a single night, in order to have his own, but Finnian objected to this.

The question arose: was the copy owned by Finnian because he possessed the original, or by Columba because he made it? The High King of Ireland, King Diarmait Mac Cerbaill, famously proclaimed "To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy." Then (according to this version of the story), Columba raised an army to fight for his right to keep the copy. It is far likelier that the battle was a dynastic conflict because of the way Diarmait had assumed the kingship after his predecessor's death.

Another theory for the start of the battle is the violation of the rules of sanctuary when a man under Columba's protection was forcibly taken and executed, whereupon Columba raised an army against Diarmait. Columba was exiled for his actions and required to create as many souls for Christ as had been killed in the battle (3000). There is no evidence that his missionary work after that time was the result of exile rather than a desire to spread Christianity.

But as to the battle itself: it was in northwest Ireland in what is now County Sligo. You can visit the site of the "Cooldrumman Battlefield" at the foot of Ben Bulben. Modern scholars point out that the earliest references to the battle do not mention a book at all.

Was the Cathach so important that a battle could arise over it losing its uniqueness and its place on Movilla Abbey. To answer that, we need to take a closer look at the Cathach itself, and that's what we'll do next.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

St. Columba at Loch Ness

Adomnán’s Life of St Columba, written around 700CE (keeping in mind that Columba died in 597) tells quite a few interesting stories. Maybe he did start the first war fought over copyright; maybe he left Ireland because his relative was physically dragged from him and killed (even though as a priest he was officially "sanctuary").

...and maybe he defeated the Loch Ness monster.

At the northern end of Loch Ness there is an outflow, the River Ness, that flows northward about six miles through Inverness to the sea. In 565, St. Columba was in Scotland, building abbeys such as Iona and converting Picts. He heard that a monster came from the river and killed a Pict. Columba came to the shores of the river and confronted the beast, which attacked one of Columba's companions, a disciple named Lugne. Columba saved Lugne and banished the beast back to the depths. Of course, the monster would return in the 20th century.

The abbey at Iona became the birthplace of Celtic Christianity. Iona is a small island on the west coast of Scotland, and the abbey he built there still stands as a church. A note on the name "Iona." The Life of St. Columba refers to it as "Ioua insula," and it seems likely that a mis-reading of the script called Insular Minuscule enabled readers to mistake the "u" for an "n." No other reference to it in the Middle Ages is similar to the word "Iona" at all.

Columba stayed at Iona until his death on 9 June 597 (also his feast day), and was buried there. The relics of this saint were removed to save them from desecration by marauding raids by vikings in the 9th century. He is considered one of the three patron saints of Ireland, along with Patrick and Brigid of Kildare.

Let's look in more detail about an incident in Columba's life that I've mentioned twice now: the war fought over copyright. See you tomorrow.

Friday, August 19, 2022

St. Columba

One of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland who studied under Finnian, Columba is best known for his time spreading Christianity in Scotland (you can see him preaching to the Picts in the illustration), and for defeating the Loch Ness monster.

"Columba" was not his given name, about which there is some debate. For the first five years of his life he lived in the village of Glencolmcille. The Abbot of Iona, Adomnán, who wrote a biography of Columba, believed Colmcille was his given name, and the village was later named after him. Other sources state that his given name was Crimthann ("fox"). "Colmcille" is Irish for dove; when writing about him in Latin, "Columba" is chosen because it also means dove.

He studied at a few different places before winding up, in his twenties, at Clonard under Finnian, where he became a monk and was eventually ordained a priest. Returning to Ulster years later, Columba became known for his powerful speaking voice. He founded several monasteries. He also planned a pilgrimage to Rome, but only got as far as Tours, whence he brought back a copy of the Gospels that had supposedly rested on the bosom of St. Martin for a century.

Columba's interest in holy literature turned into a controversy. He made a copy of manuscript in the scriptorium of Movilla Abbey, a place he had studied before his time at Clonard. The head of the Abbey, Finnian of Movilla, disputed his right to keep the copy he had made. Anecdotally, this led to a battle, the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne.

Another controversy in which he became embroiled concerned the concept of sanctuary. Prince Curnan of Connacht was a relative of Columba. When Curnan accidentally killed a rival in a hurling match, he sought sanctuary in the presence of his ordained relative, Columba. King Diarmait of Cooldrevny's men forcibly dragged Curnan away from Columba and killed him. Columba decided he should leave Ireland.

Columba went to Scotland in 563 with twelve companions where he started preaching to the Picts. For his founding of one of the most important centers of Christianity in Western Europe, and his conflict at Loch Ness, come back tomorrow.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

The Teacher of Irish Saints

Finnian of Clonard was an Irish cleric who built schools, monasteries, and churches to spread Christianity. His schools thrived for centuries after his death.

Born about 470CE in the Kingdom of Leinster, he was placed at an early age under the care of a bishop. He is said to have studied at the monastic center of Martin of Tours. Later, after spending 30 years in Wales, he returned to Ireland.

Around 520, he was led by a vision of an angel to Clonard, where he built a chapel of wattle and daub, and a small hermit's cell for himself. His reputation for learning and piety drew pilgrims wishing to see and scholars wishing to learn. He established a monastery at Clonard, known (based on the Martin of Tours system) for strictness and asceticism. It drew great numbers: at one time supposedly had 300 students in the school.

Finnian's brilliant teaching of Scripture and reputation for asceticism inspired a generation of students, among them a group known as the "Twelve Apostles of Ireland." The Twelve were not designated during his lifetime that we know of; their names were gathered in the 1600s, although this might have been based on earlier unwritten tradition. One was St. Brendan, called the Navigator. The rest were also saints, and many of them were bishops. The list has one fluctuation: Finnian himself is the first of them in some versions; in others, it is St. Ciarán of Saigir.

He is said to have died during the Plague of 549-50. The School lived on, and Clonard grew as a town, becoming the diocesan center of East Meath in the 12th century.

One of the Twelve who went on to become well-known in his own right was St. Columba, who provides us with the earliest sighting of the Loch Ness monster; but that can wait until next time.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

St. Brendan

Brendan of Clonfert was born 484CE in County Kerry, southwest Ireland. Fostered by a nun, at the age of six he was sent to St. Jarlath's monastery and tutored by Finnian of Clonard, whose students were so well-received that they include the "Twelve Apostles of Ireland."

Ordained at 26, he embarked on a series of voyages to found monasteries and monastic cells, traveling to the Aran Islands, Argyll, Wales, and Brittany. His most famous voyage is recorded in Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot), written over 300 years after his death (in 577). In it, he heads into the Atlantic with several followers (numbers vary in different manuscripts).

The voyage takes seven years and visits many odd islands: the Isle of Birds, Isle of Sheep, the Island of Strong Men, an island with silent monks. The first island they come across is uninhabited, but one of his companions dies there (two others will die at different locations).

One interesting stop they make is on an island where everything seems calm and peaceful. When they light a fire, however, the island starts to move; they realize the "island" is actually the back of an enormous fish that has been floating on the surface of the ocean long enough for plants to grow on its back. The narrative calls this monster "Jasconius." It is a common legendary encounter in classical and medieval literature, but by a different name.

Was any of this narrative based on fact? Well, Brendan did voyage to islands to spread Christianity. The Navigatio says that Brendan finally reached the Promised Land for Saints before returning to Ireland. One of the places he found in 512 is referred to as St. Brendan's Isle: a land of thick vegetation where the sun never set, surrounded by a thick mist. He spent 15 days there. This island was put on future maps. The Portuguese prince known as Henry the Navigator (1394 - 1460) claims to have landed there, and later sailors reported seeing it.

A theory arose that St. Brendan's Isle where it was always day may have been Greenland, where the summer months see 24 hours of sunlight. There is a Saint Brendan Society that claims Brendan discovered North America, and at least one writer believes the details of the voyage prove that Brendan discovered Brazil! A man named Tim Severin proved that a boat like the one Brendan used could make the voyage from Ireland to Greenland.

Post-voyage, he continued to found monasteries, as well as a convent in Annaghdown for his sister, Briga. It was during a visit there to see his sister that he died. He was interred in Clonfert Cathedral. The Catholic Church recognizes his sainthood, and celebrates his feast day on 16 May. He is the patron saint of sailors and travelers.

Brendan is remarkable for the account of the legendary voyage ascribed to him many years later. A more remarkable figure in that time was Finnian of Clonard, about whom you'll learn more tomorrow. See you then.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022


Fastitocalon is the name given to a sea creature in an Old English poem called "The Whale."

This time I will with poetic art rehearse, by means of words and wit, a poem about a kind of fish, the great sea-monster which is often unwillingly met, terrible and cruel-hearted to seafarers, yea, to every man; this swimmer of the ocean-streams is known as the asp-turtle.

His appearance is like that of a rough boulder, as if there were tossing by the shore a great ocean-reedbank begirt with sand-dunes, so that seamen imagine they are gazing upon an island, and moor their high-prowed ships with cables to that false land, make fast the ocean-coursers at the sea's end, and, bold of heart, climb up on that island; the vessels stand by the beach, enringed by the flood.

The weary-hearted sailors then encamp, dreaming not of peril.
On the island they start a fire, kindle a mounting flame. The dispirited
heroes, eager for repose, are flushed with joy. Now when the cunning
plotter feels that the seamen are firmly established upon him, and have
settled down to enjoy the weather, the guest of ocean sinks without
warning into the salt wave with his prey (?), and makes for the bottom,
thus whelming ships and men in that abode of death.

Such is the way of demons, the wont of devils:
The poem then shares a moral, comparing the experience of Fastitocalon with the Devil, who entices men with a promise of safety and security before turning and "sinking" them into their own destruction.

The poem continues, explaining another trait of the monster: when it is hungry, it opens its enormous maw, from which a "perfume" emanates that draws a host of fish inside, when it then snaps its jaws shut. This suggests that sailors may have actually seen a whale opening its mouth to feed.

Fastitocalon is the name given to the creature, but that is the Old English version of the original. The poem (and two others) is found in a Bestiary called the Old English Physiologus, part of the Exeter Book. In the Latin version, the creature is called aspidochelone, combining Greek aspis (shield) and chelone (turtle). The Old English version has become more popular (and familiar) thanks to Tolkien writing a poem of that name in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.

Where did the story of this giant sea-creature-as-island originate? There is a Greek Alexander Romance written in the first few centuries CE that contains a whale-island anecdote in a letter from Alexander to Aristotle. The first voyage of Sinbad (composed c.8th-9th centuries CE) tells a similar tale. Pliny the Elder talks about enormous fish as well. The Babylonian Talmud and Inuit of Greenland folklore both contains legends of a fish so large that it resembled an island and inspired sailors to land on its back. There are many more examples from different parts of the world.

Even St. Brendan encountered it, and gave it a name that has since been used by the Magic: The Gathering card game. I'll share more tomorrow.

Monday, August 15, 2022

The Eddas and Tolkien

The first and much-talked -about poem in the Poetic Edda is the Völuspá ("Prophecy of the Seeress"). In it, a seeress tells Odin the story of the Creation of the world and its upcoming end and rebirth. J.R.R.Tolkien (3 January 1892 – 2 September 1973), medievalist and author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was intimately familiar with the Eddas and all things northern. When the Völuspá lists the creation of the dwarves, we see some familiar names:

There was Motsognir | the mightiest made
Of all the dwarfs, | and Durin next;
Many a likeness | of men they made,
The dwarfs in the earth, | as Durin said.

11. Nyi and Nithi, | Northri and Suthri,
Austri and Vestri, | Althjof, Dvalin,
Nar and Nain, | Niping, Dain,
BifurBofur, | BomburNori,
An and Onar, | Óin, Mjothvitnir.

12. Vigg and Gandalf | Vindalf, Thorin,
Thror and Thrain | Thekk, Lit and Vit,
Nyr and Nyrath,-- | now have I told--
Regin and Rathsvith-- | the list aright.
13. FiliKili, | Fundin, Nali
15. There were Draupnir | and Dolgthrasir,
Hor, Haugspori, | Hlevang, Gloin,
DoriOri, | Duf, Andvari,
Skirfir, Virfir, | Skafith, Ai.

You can see here the source of familiar dwarf names in his stories, and one extra: Gandalf (appropriately tinted gray). The name is interpreted as "wand elf" and seems to denote either a magical dwarf or a dwarf with a staff. Speaking of Gandalf the Grey, the illustration above is a postcard in Tolkien's possession which he said was the inspiration for the character of Gandalf. It is called Der Beggeist ("The Mountain-spirit"), and was painted by a German artist in the 1920s. The character's colors are off for Gandalf, and his obvious connection to nature suggests rather Gandalf's colleague Rhadagast the Brown, but something about it caused Tolkien to label it "Origin of Gandalf."

Now, to get from a 20th-century scholar back to medieval scholarship: Tolkien wrote poems, one of which, Fastitocalon, referenced a giant mythological sea creature. This was from an Old English poem called "The Whale," and it's worth taking a look at next time.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

The Poetic Edda

The Poetic Edda (author[s] unknown) is our name for a collection of narrative poems in Old Norse. It is distinct from the Prose Edda whose author is known, but Snorri Sturluson certainly found a source for some of his stories in the Poetic Edda. Of all the versions that exist, the "common ancestor" is a manuscript called the Codex Regius or Konungsbók ("King's Book"). The Codex was discovered in 1643; it was made a gift to the king of Denmark in 1662; in 1971 it was taken to Iceland, its likely place of origin.

The poems are all alliterative and use kennings. Authorship is impossible to determine, as well as original composition date for most. They were likely orally transmitted over generations before being committed to written form. Dating of a few can be done by internal information. One poem's title, for instance, Atlamál in grǿnlenzku ("The Greenlandic Lay of Atli") could not have been composed before 985, since Greenland had not been settled before that year. Occasionally a poem will mention an actual historical person, indicating the poem's composition obviously later than that person's life.

Another way of dating and locating the poems is by considering the flora and fauna mentioned. If a story contains wolves, for example, it could not have taken place in Iceland. There is always the chance, however, that poetic license was used to enhance a story.

The best-known and most-examined story in the Edda is the Vǫluspá ("Prophecy of the seeress") in which a seeress tells Odin the story of the creation of the world, its coming end, and its rebirth. It exists not only here, but also in another manuscript, and parts are quoted in the Prose Edda. Although dated to the 10th century, prior to the Christianization of Iceland, some think the idea of rebirth after destruction was influenced by Christian ideas of redemption and Heaven.

Speaking of Norse culture, Christianity, literature, and the Eddas, I hope you'll indulge me in discussing their influence on a 20th century Roman Catholic writer and medievalist named Tolkien; but that's for tomorrow.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

The Prose Edda

Written about 1220, the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson is a detailed telling of the Scandinavian creation of the world, mythological stories of the gods, the ending of the gods, and other tales besides. It is the most thorough source we have for Norse mythology.

It has four sections. The Prologue tells the basics of the gods, treating them as if they were real people whose exploits became exaggerated over the years. The second part is called Gylfaginning ("The deluding of Gylfi"). Gylfi is tricked by a goddess and tries to sail to Asgard. He winds up elsewhere and is taken to a castle with three kings, who ask him questions about the creation and destruction of the world. After answering, the castle vanishes, leaving him alone.

Part three, Skáldskaparmál ("The Language of Poetry") is over twice as long as part two, and consists of a dialogue between two mythical characters: Ægir (the sea) and Bragi (god of poetry). They discuss the nature of poetry while discussing Norse mythology, and Bragi lists numerous acceptable kennings. A kenning is a phrase that can be used in poetry to stand for something else. An example would be "the wave horse" to refer to a ship.

The last section is Háttatal, ("Tally of Meters"). In it, Snorri explains the different types of verse forms in Scandinavian poetry, using his own works as examples. Rhyme is not as important to this poetry as are number of syllables per line and alliteration.

The origin of the word edda (plural eddur) is uncertain. It is identical to the word for "great-grandmother" in another Eddic poem, the Rígsþula. Another Edda as important to our understanding of Norse mythology and culture is the Poetic Edda. I'll talk about it, and its connection to Tolkien, tomorrow.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Who Was Snorri Sturluson?

Snorri Sturluson (1179 - 1241) was one of several children in a powerful clan. His father died when he was young, and he was raised by Jón Loptsson (or Loftsson), one of the most powerful and respected chieftains in Iceland. Through this connection he had a far better education than he would have received otherwise, learning all about Icelandic history, law, and Norse legends.

Snorri was married in 1199 to Herdis; from his father-in-law he inherited an estate and a chieftainship. He had at least two children with Herdis, but his philandering ways resulted in him leaving her behind to become an estate manager in western Iceland called Reykholt. He fathered at least five more children with three different women.

Known for his knowledge of law, he was made lawspeaker at the Althing, the national parliament of Iceland. He was also known, however, as a poet, and it was that reputation that garnered an invitation to Norway from King Hákon Hákonarson. He was given gifts and a ship, and he wrote poetry about them. the king made him a skutilsvein (knight), and hoped Snorri's loyalty thereby would help Hákon extend his realm to Iceland, by having Snorri speak on his behalf in the Althing.

Unfortunately for Snorri, his attempts to join Iceland to Norway, even as the most powerful chieftain in Iceland from 1224 to 1230, turned much of the island against him. Snorri eventually realized he did not want to support Hákon's plans, and while meeting with the king back in Norway in 1238 famously said (supposedly) "ut vil ek" (literally "I wish out" or "I want out" but idiomatically meaning "I will go home"). He returned to Iceland in 1239.

Snorri became a target of assassination when Hákon sent men with orders to kill or capture him. In 1241, he was confronted in his house in Reykholt. Cornered in the cellar, he died after saying "Do not strike!" to his attackers. The manner of the well-known poet's death raised the ire of people in both Iceland and Norway, and the king backtracked, saying he would have lived had he simply given himself up for capture. (In 1262, the Althing ratified union with Norway.)

Regarding his poetry: Snorri's most consequential work was the Prose Edda, which gives us the most detailed information on the non-Christian religious beliefs of the Scandinavian world. I will go into more on that next time.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Norse Beliefs

I recently mentioned a seiðr worker called in to prophesy. The term describes a range of magical and shamanic activities (magical healing, spirit journeys, prophecy, helping heal the soul). 

There were seiðr rituals for divination and clairvoyance; for seeking out the hidden, both in the secrets of the mind and in physical locations; for healing the sick; for bringing good luck; for controlling the weather; for calling game animals and fish. Importantly, it could also be used for the opposite of these things – to curse an individual or an enterprise; to blight the land and make it barren; to induce illness; to tell false futures and thus to set their recipients on a road to disaster; to injure, maim and kill, in domestic disputes and especially in battle. [Price, Neil S. 2002. The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia]

A practitioner was called a seiðkonur. A woman who practiced was sometimes called a vōlva (seeress). The Norse word for witch was norn; norns could also practice seiðr. A seiðkonur could be male or female; however, there is a suggestion that there was an ergi ("unmanliness") to it. Even the ultimate practitioner of seiðr, Odin himself, was labeled with this epithet in works by Snorri Sturluson. 

How it developed in Scandinavian countries is unknown, but its demise took place gradually as Christianization took over.

Snorri Sturluson was one of the big names in Norse literature. Although I have mentioned him before, I haven't talked much about him. I'll fix that gap in our medieval discussion next time.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Saga of Erik the Red

The Saga of Erik the Red is not about Erik the Red. Erik is in it, as well as his son Leif Ericsson, but it focuses more on the actions of Thorfinn Karlsefni and his wife, Gudrid, with references to exploration and the spread of Christianity.

The first few chapters are background, explaining how Erik the Red gets banished from Iceland and discovers an island he calls Greenland, hoping the name would attract colonists—which it does. A difficult and famine-laced winter causes them to ask a seiðr worker (magician/prophet) to prophesy when their fortunes will change. She needs someone to sing warding songs. A young girl, Gudrid, knows the songs even though she has converted to Christianity. She sings the songs, the prophet predicts the famine will soon end and that Gudrid will make two marriages, one in Iceland and one in Greenland.

Gudrid marries a son of Erik the Red, but he dies in an epidemic. He appears to Gudrid after his death, asking her to make sure asking her to make sure Greenland starts to bury their dead in consecrated ground., tells her to not marry another Greenlander, and says she should give their money to the Church.

A few chapters (and several years) later, Thorfinn Karlsefni visits Greenland as a wealthy merchant, for the purposes of trade. He stays the winter and helps co-host a Yule feast with Erik the Red which becomes a wedding feast when he asks Gudrid's hand in marriage. The newly married couple, with 160 others in two boats, set out for Vinland.

One of the boats goes astray and has several difficulties. Thorfinn's and Gudrid's group reach Vinland where they find plenty of game and fish, and where grapes and wheat grow. They encounter the natives, called the Skrælings, who use boats made of animal skins. When the Skrælings bring a delegation and appear to want to trade, the Norse trade red cloth for animal pelts but refuse the Skrælings' desire for swords and spears. The Skrælings later return in a large group and fling arrows and large stones at the Norse.

The final chapter relates that Thorfinn realizes the hostility will not end, and he and Gudrid eventually return to Iceland and raise their family. Their grandchildren will become the parents of three bishops.

The saga reads like a travel documentary, but is also seen as a glimpse into the non-Christian beliefs of the Norse in Iceland and Greenland. For more on the seidworker and similar figures, come back tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The Skræling

Of course, there were inhabitants in North America when the Norse arrived.

The Saga of the Greenlanders tells of an Icelander named Bjarni Herjólfsson who drifted off course while sailing to Greenland in 985 or 986. He spotted land that he suspected was not Greenland. Later sailors such as Leif Eriksson explored past Greenland and found lands they gave names to, such as Helluland (Baffin Island), Markland (Labrador), and Vinland (Newfoundland). Leif built some houses on Vinland in his short time there, delighted that grapes and wheat grew wild.

After returning to Greenland, his brother complained that they had not spent enough time exploring the new territory, so Leif gave his brother, Thorvald, his ship and told him to go ahead. It is Thorvald who would record the first contact with people living in the new lands west of Greenland.

First contact was not amicable. Thorvald's crew was attacked on the beach, and killed eight of the natives. Then the Saga tells us:

'I have been wounded under my arm,' [Thorvald] said. 'An arrow flew between the edge of the ship and the shield into my armpit. Here is the arrow, and this wound will cause my death.'

A few years later, Thorfinn Karlsefni attempted to colonize Vinland about 1010, which may explain the settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows.  (The illustration shows the routes of different voyages. I have added a green star for the location of L'Anse aux Meadows.) His encounter with natives was initially peaceful, trading native pelts for red woven cloth owned by the Norse. This is in the Saga of Erik the Red, which describes them:

They were short in height with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads. Their eyes were large and their cheeks broad.

Later records called these natives Skræling, used to refer not only to Vinland inhabitants, but also to Inuit they encountered in Canada and the proto-Inuit with which they shared Greenland. One likely origin is from the Old Norse skrá, which means "dried skin" and probably referred to the animal pelts they wore. It could also be related to Old Norse skrækja, "shout or yell"; his could be an etymology similar to the Greek barabaros for barbarian, which refers to the nonsensical sounds the Greeks considered any non-Greek language. Modern Icelandic skræling means "barbarian."

Thorfinn had brought livestock, and when a bull broke loose from its pen and rampaged, the natives were frightened and attacked the Norse. Two Norsemen were killed, and many natives. Thorfinn realized that his colony would be under constant threat of attack, so he retreated to Greenland.

The Saga of Erik the Red is a mine of information about these events and more. I'll delve into that mine a little tomorrow and see what can be found.

Monday, August 8, 2022

The Norse in North America

The Medieval Warming Period may have helped the Norse discover North America by reducing North Atlantic ice, making the crossing easier.

They didn't necessarily get far into North America, but on the extreme northern tip of the island of Newfoundland in Canada, there is an archaeological site at L'Anse aux Meadows (Meadows Cove). Begun in 1960, the remains of three structures were found whose timbers via tree-ring dating showed they were cut down about 1021CE. (Model of the village to the left.)

One of the structures contained iron slag, showing that it was a smithy. Stone weights found in one building are consistent with the type used in looms. These suggest the place was not just a seasonal hunting camp, but intended to be a long-term settlement.

One question that remains about this site is: is it the Vinland mentioned in literature? In 1073, a German cleric writes

He [the Danish king, Sven Estridsson] also told me of another island discovered by many in that ocean. It is called Vinland because vines grow there on their own accord, producing the most excellent wine. Moreover, that unsown crops abound there, we have ascertained not from fabulous conjecture but from the reliable reports of the Danes.

Vinland is mentioned in two Icelandic sagas: the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders. They discuss the discovery by Norse Greenlanders of land to the west of Greenland that they call Vinland. Although there is no direct evidence to support the theory, many are content to link the settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows with Vinland. Why didn't the settlement grow and continue? The sagas suggest that internal conflict among the Norse as well as conflict with the peoples native to Vinland caused the failure of the settlement. 

I'll talk a little more about the Norse encounter with the natives tomorrow.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Medieval Warm Period, Again

I did mention the Medieval Warm Period in 2012, from the viewpoint of how Greenland must have been warmer than currently. There is, of course, more that can be said.

Also known as the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA), research suggests that the warmest decades (about a 50-year span, in fact), occurred at different times in different regions between about 1000 and 1250CE.

Cores taken from sediment in the Sargasso Sea area suggest that the MCA was 1°C warmer. Further sediment cores from the Gulf Coast and Atlantic coastline from New England to Florida show a peak in North Atlantic tropical cyclone activity, consistent with warmer ocean temperatures.

Calling it the "Medieval" Warm Period or Climate Anomaly is, of course, eurocentrism at its finest. Other parts of the world were affected. The climate in Africa was notably drier during this time. Analysis of bones from the Canary Islands shows a drop in temperature of 5°C from the MCA to the later time known as the "Little Ice Age." A study in 2013 found that the water of the Pacific Ocean was 0.9°C warmer in the years in question.

How did it affect daily life and culture is an important question. One belief is that the warmer temperatures benefitted agriculture in Europe, leading to better harvests. This led to healthier individuals and an increase in population. That larger population was more at risk of being culled when disaster struck, such as the Great Famine of 1315-1317.

One other phenomenon the warmer climate might have supported was the Norse colonization of North America, due to less sea ice to deal with, and a convenient stopover at Greenland, but we'll go into that tomorrow. See you then.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

The Great Famine of 1315-1317

In 1315, Europe's spring rains never stopped.

The rains kept coming, flooding the fields. Crop failures followed, lasting right through until the summer harvests of 1317. Full recovery took another several years. Hunger and disease devastated the population. People starved; cannibalism is hinted at in records; there is some evidence that parents might have abandoned children to fend for themselves. (The story of Hansel and Gretel may have originated in a famine: the children have been cast out by the parents during a famine.) Records of the city of Bristol report

...such mortality that the living could scarce suffice to bury the dead, horse flesh and dog's flesh was accounted good meat, and some eat their own children. The thieves that were in prison did pluck and tear in pieces, such as were newly put into prison and devoured them half alive. [link]

Harvests were not the only casualty. Marshland that had been reclaimed for crops or grazing was returned to marshland. Constantly wet ground—and a lack of forage—is not good for livestock. Disease killed off cows and sheep. Records from Ramsey Abbey show one manor going from 48 cows to only 2 at this time.

Villages themselves physically suffered. Not only were some abandoned due to dying population and un-tillable soil, but some coastal villages disappeared. The rains and storms reclaimed shoreline communities. One of the wealthiest ports in England, Dunwich, lost almost 300 houses, barns, and shops. 

Of course, prices soared. Edward II stopped at St. Albans on 10 August 1315, and there was not enough bread for him and his entourage; he tried to freeze food prices (in Lorraine, wheat prices rose by 320%), but vendors simply refused to sell for so little, and Parliament overturned the king's decree in 1316. What grain there was was wet, and needed to be dried before using, but it resulted in a poorer quality product. People were forced to consume the grain hey had set aside for planting the following year. Begging and stealing became rampant. Groups of roaming peasants looking for work and food were common, having abandoned their farms and villages.

What caused this weather? Well, like the volcanic winter of c.536, a likely candidate is the 1314 eruption of Mount Tarawera in New Zealand spewing ash into the atmosphere that precipitated rain for two years. Also, this all took place just after the Medieval Warm Period, a three-century span of milder temperatures that were ideal for agriculture; this coincided with a boom in population—a population that could not be maintained when harvests became so poor.

It's been over ten years since I had anything to say about the Medieval Warm Period. I think it's time for another look. See you tomorrow.

Friday, August 5, 2022

Extreme Weather

"Volcanic winter" is a frightening phrase. It is the result of a volcanic eruption that spews so much ash and dust into the atmosphere that it encircles the globe and prevents sunlight from reaching the surface of the Earth. 

A volcanic winter took place in the 530s CE, the most severe drop in temperature in the Common Era. An eruption of sulfate aerosols possibly in late 535 dropped summer temperature averages in 536 by at least 4-5 degrees Fahrenheit. In 539-540, a second volcanic eruption caused summer temperatures to drop another 5 degrees.

This was recorded in the Northern Hemisphere by contemporary writers in Constantinople. Procopius, whose writing revealed the secret of where silk came from, records of 536 

...during this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness … and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear."

Cassiodorus, in a letter in 538, describes the sun's rays being weak, no shadows from people at noon, the sun's heat being feeble, the moon "empty of splendor," prolonged frost, unseasonable drought, frosts during harvest, the need to use stored food because harvests were so poor.

The Annals of Ulster mention a failure of bread in the year 536.

Dendrochronology (tree ring analysis) shows very poor growth in Irish oak in 536. Ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica show substantial sulfate deposits around 534±2 years, which offers evidence for the volcanic eruption. Which volcano was the cause, however, has never been agreed upon. The 536 event was worse than 1816, when the explosion of the Mount Tambora volcano caused the "Year Without a Summer."

As mentioned in the prior post, the line regarding the Battle of Camlann in the Welsh Annals that says of 537 "there was great mortality in Britain and Ireland" is likely a reference to the famine that resulted from the volcanic winter.

The 536 event was not the only severe weather crisis in the Middle Ages. Next time, let's jump forward to the Great Famine of 1315-17.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Three Futile Battles

The Welsh Triads are several statements that group things in threes. They can be basic knowledge, such as "There are three primary musical forms, namely: string music; bellows music; and music of the tongue." They can be historical, such as "Three princes of the Court of Arthur. Goronwy son of Echell Fordwyten; and Cadreith son of Porthfaurgaddu; and Fleidur Fflam."

Accordingly, there were "Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain." They were the Battle of Arfderydd, the battle of Camlann, and the Battle of the Trees. Arfderydd was mentioned in the previous post, because the outcome—the death of Gwenddoleu, ruler of Arfderydd (now Arthuret)—drove his bard Myrddin/Merlin mad, causing him to flee to the forest and live among birds and beasts. This battle is said to have taken place in 573CE, according to the Annales Cambriae, the Annals of Wales.

The Battle of Camlann is also mentioned in the Annales Cambriae, taking place in 537, with very little detail except to call it "strife of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell, and there was great mortality in Britain and Ireland." Although Medraut is naturally equated to Mordred, there is no clue in the entry that they were enemies.

The Battle of the Trees is a Welsh poem found in a 14th century manuscript, The Book of Taliesin. In it, the Welsh magician and warrior Gwydion enchants the trees to fight as his army against Arawn, lord of the Underworld.

The reason they are called "futile" is because the battles came about because of small, pointless actions. Arderydd is said to have been brought about because of an argument over a lark's nest. The Battle of the Trees comes about when Amaethon, Welsh god of agriculture, steals a dog, a lapwing, and a roebuck from Arawn. Camlann is brought about because of an argument between Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) and her sister, Gwennhwyfach. Some sources specify this as a slap (hence the illustration above), which became part of another Triad: "The Three Fatal Slaps" or "The Three Harmful Blows of the Island of Britain."

Although this slap, and the hostility between Guinevere and her obscure sister, are not seen outside of Welsh legend, it is interesting that Malory does make Camlann's big battle the result of something "futile": during a parley between Arthur and Mordred, a soldier reflexively draws his sword because he sees a snake in the grass before him. This act causes the opposing side to assume treachery, whereupon they draw their swords, and the fight is on. Something that should be insignificant causes great destruction.

But, as mentioned, the earliest reference to Camlann includes none of this. There were extreme weather events in 535-36 that led to great famine; this could easily have led to fighting between groups struggling for food. Some suggest Camlann was a disastrous cattle raid for food. Next, let's talk about the weather.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Merlin the Madman

I've mentioned before that this blog is about discussing the things about the Middle Ages that are outside the mainstream, so no talking about the things "everyone knows": jousting, King Arthur, "wiping your hands on the dog because they had no napkins" (sorry, inside joke). Merlin has been mentioned in passing several times, but never discussed in any sort of detail. For those readers who have an image of Merlin in their heads from literature and cinema, here's a fresh (and authentic) take.

In short, Merlin spent time as a madman, acting like a beast in the wilderness. Mary Stewart's wonderful Arthurian take on post-Roman Britain has him "lost" for several months after being drugged.

In truth, this may be Merlin's "natural state"; that is, originally, the character who comes down to us as the Merlin of legend may be based on a real figure whose chief feature was being not quite sane. This is the story of Myrddin Wyllt.

Myrddin Wyllt (pronounced like "murthin wilt") is a character in medieval Welsh legend (where many Arthurian stories originate). The name means "Myrddin the Wild"; he is also known as Myrddin Emrys (Emrys=Ambrosius), Merlinus Caledonensis ("of Caledonia"), and Merlin Sylvester's ("of the woods"). Born supposedly c.540CE, he was a bard (perhaps the chief bard) who goes mad after the Battle of Arfderydd. Having become irrational for some reason, he takes to the forest (some versions say the Caledonian Forest in Scotland). There he gains the power of prophecy (often associated with being not quite right in the head).

The "Life of Saint Kentigern" tells of the saint (also known as St. Mungo) encountering a madman in the Caledonian Forest named Lailoken or Laleocen in the late 6th century. A later (15th century) story about "Lailoken and Kentigern" includes the line "...some say he was called Merlynum." This link between the two names may have been influenced by a 12th (?) century poem, a dialogue between Myrddin and his sister (?) Gwendydd in which his sister calls him Llallwgan, the Welsh form of Lailoken.

Some scholars assume a conflation of several different characters:one in Wales, one in Scotland, maybe more. The Merlin story is convoluted, obscure, and largely probably untrue, but much of it starts with a mad bard. Because of the time period, his legend much later became linked to Arthur's court as a wise man and prophet. But in the beginning, his chief feature is his sudden madness.

Why did he go mad after the Battle of Arfderydd? It was an important turning point, one of the "Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain," which I'll explain next time.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Nature vs. Nurture

The English polymath Francis Galton (1822 - 1911) framed the debate calling the terms

...a convenient jingle of words, for it separates under two distinct heads the innumerable elements of which personality is composed. Nature is all that a man brings with himself into the world; nurture is every influence that affects him after his birth.

He could not have known that in the year of his death a French manuscript from six centuries earlier would surface that used the same terms (although it spelled one of them "Noreture"). It tells the story of Cador of Cornwall, whose just-born daughter would not be allowed to inherit property and title, so he decides to raise her as a boy. Named Silentius (Silence), she turns out to be the equal of any boy in various chivalric pursuits.

Throughout her life there are two personifications, Nature and Nurture, who address Silentius with their opinions on her lifestyle. Nature tries to convince her to act like the woman she was born as. Nurture supports Silentius' desire to be what she wants to be. Silentius knows that if she reveals herself to be a woman, her parents will be dishonored.

Ultimately, in a Twelfth Night-style twist, the "young man" travels to the court of King Eban, whose queen, Eufeme, falls in love with the talented and beautiful young Silentius. Silentius, not willing to betray the king by having an affair, and of course not willing to have her true sex discovered, rebuffs the queen's advances. The queen, enraged, decides silence must die, and sends her/him off to capture Merlin, an impossible task, since Merlin "cannot be captured by a man."

Silence succeeds, and brings Merlin back to court. Merlin reveals that Silentius is actually female. Silence reveals that the queen was in love with her, etc., causing King Eban to execute Queen Eufeme for faithlessness and cruelty and make the now-named Silentia his new queen.

I have severely abbreviated the story, which has many more details and events. The ultimate lesson is that Nature wins out. This may be perfectly natural for a culture that believed some were born royal and some were not, and there was a difference between the two.

Here's a question that might be raised after this story: why would anyone try to (or need to) capture Merlin? Because Merlin was a mad beast running wild, that's why. If you didn't know that about Merlin, you should read tomorrow's post.