Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Some of Matthew Paris's favorite words

Extortions, oppressions, legate.

There's always a bad papal legate practicing extortions and oppressions.

Image: A legate at work, drawn by Matthew Paris.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

A truly worthy teaching from Geoffroi de Charny

There's much to dislike about medieval chivalry, but every once in a while...

From Charny's Book of Chivalry:

...those who have the will to achieve great worth [who] because of their great desire to reach and attain that high honor … do not care what suffering they have to endure, but turn everything into great enjoyment. Indeed, it is a fine thing to perform great deeds, for those who rise to great achievement cannot rightly grow tired or sated with it; so the more they achieve, the less they feel they have achieved; this stems from the delight they take in striving constantly to reach greater heights. And great good comes from performing these deeds, for the more one does, the less one is proud of oneself, and it always seems that there is so much left to do.

A lot of Olympians understand this.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Hawley and Shakell hit the stage

I have a bad feeling that someone told me about this (Will McLean?) and I can't remember who. But it's not in my blog, or his, as far as I can tell so here goes.

A few of you may remember that back at the end of the year I said that there was a story waiting to be told about , who captured a Spanish count in the 14th century wars and spent decades trying to cash in on their "good fortune." Hawley ended up being murdered in Westminster Abbey (I recall being told it was during high mass) by thugs working for a royal duke, who wanted control of the captive to promote his diplomatic schemes. I said I would make a good medieval murder mystery or maybe a movie...

...little dreaming that there is a stage play from the 1840s online here. I haven't had a chance to read it yet so I can't tell you whether it is any good. But I bet John of Gaunt is the bad guy.

Next: the lost Broadway musical about Hawley-Smoot.

Update: The play Count de Denia, or the Spaniard's Ransom, is pretty dreadful pseudo-Shakespeare. John of Gaunt is the bad guy; otherwise great liberties are taken with history.

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Monday, February 01, 2010

The Chronicle of the Good Duke and "modern times"

For some fans medieval history and some medieval reenactors in particular,the 14th century is "The One True Century." It certainly is flashy, but there are times I find it difficult to think of this period as a medieval one. Here's just one point: they had guns, and throughout the period that Froissart, (who was wildly popular as the historian of chivalry) wrote about, 1330-1400, they used them more and more routinely.

What follows is a rough translation of a passage in The Chronicle the Good Duke, written in the 15th century about events of the previous one. The ostensible hero of this book, Duke Louis of Bourbon, is taking part in an expedition to retake Normandy from the King of Navarre, Charles the Bad:

The Duke of Bourbon, the Constable and the Admiral went with their people to Gavre', the finest castle in Normandy, and they set up their siege, and opposed to them was Ferrandon, who had left Evreux, inside the castle; it happened one day that he went to check out powder for the cannons and artillery in one tower and when he was checking a candle fell on the power, which burned Ferrandon's whole face, of which he died and two others with him.
Image: a manuscript picture of a gun from 1400.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Revised thoughts on two of Charny's questions

Those of you who were interested in this post and the conversation with Will McLean in the comments and on his blog may want to know that I've revised my position. Thanks to Will for pushing me to revise and rethink. A serious, engaged critic is extraordinarily valuable.

As I once said of a very helpful senior scholar who looked over some of my unfinished material, "Even when he's wrong he's right."

Here's the current key passage on men-at-arms being dead, captured, or desconfit.
I interpret these questions to mean that the idea of being defeated, desconfit, was so unwelcome that even the dead would reject it. We can easily imagine that being called "defeated" stung, but it seems that there is more to it. Desconfit does not mean defeated in some neutral sense. One relevant but general sense means "destroyed, broken, ruined, reduced to nothingness." There is also is an old and more specific military sense in which desconfit means "routed," a concept of both moral and practical significance for horsemen. Given the existence of the different meanings for this loaded adjective, we can see that there would be room for disagreement about who could be called desconfit and how bad that label might be. Was it a state worse than death? Could running away open a man at arms to an accusation of the deepest dishonor? Desconfit certainly could conjure up a picture of a man at arms running from danger with the enthusiastic help of his horse, for which running away was the most natural response; and the picture is a disgraceful one, at least for the man.
See also Will's personal answer to another Charny question.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Two Charny questions answered?

A provisional text hot off the screen:
There was an entire lore surrounding the terminology of warfare, which was meant among other things to clarify what was honorable or at least expected behavior. One of the questions I would most like answered, were that possible, it is W37:
Since I have heard it said that one is able to leave and retreat from a battle from the defeated side, if he has acted in seven ways without being killed or taken, without being reproached. How can this be and what are the seven ways?

It would certainly be very illuminating to have Charny's list of seven mitigating circumstances, and whose comments on them, given that he was twice captured and must have twice surrendered himself, even though he did not consider this something that could be done lightly (W79). Unless Charny is disingenuously presenting a list of his own as something he heard from others, the list of seven implies serious discussion, perhaps long debate that unfortunately never found the pen to write it down. There was also debate about defeat, and when it took place, as seen in the curious questions W28 and W29:
There is a battle between two captains in which one party is defeated and many of the party are dead, concerning whom some say that some of those who are dead are not dead but defeated; and many other say of those who are dead that they are dead and defeated. How can this be?

There is a battle as above in which there are many captured, concerning whom some say that although they are captured, they do not regard them as defeated; and there are many others who consider them to be captured and defeated. How can this be?
I interpret these questions to mean that the idea of being defeated, desconfit, was so unwelcome that even the dead would reject it. We can easily imagine that being called "defeated" stung, but it seems that there is more to it. Desconfit in some Old and Middle French texts is more specific than "defeated." It means "put to rout." The answer to these two questions may be that the dead and captured members of the defeated, that is "routed," side are in the judgment of some precisely those who were not routed. They are dead or captured because they did not run away. If this is correct, we are being presented once again with the picture of a man at arms running from danger with the enthusiastic help of his horse, for which running away was the most natural response; and the picture is meant to be a disgraceful one, at least for the man.

Will McLean critiques my position; my reply to him is in the comments on his blog.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A barrier fight in time of war, as told by the Chronicle of the Good Duke

This incident took place about 1363, and the writer's chief informant was the John de Chastelmorand mentioned as the standardbearer below. He told this story in the 1420s.
Two days before the English came before Troyes, a gentleman named John de Nedonchel, captain of Plancy, spoke to the Duke of Bourbon, saying "If you, my redoubtable lord, wish to grant me fifty men at arms, gentlemen, I will make for you a fine adventure, for the English ought to pass by this path along the river."

The Duke of Bourbon immediately had those of his household whom he loved the most mount up to go there, including John de Chastelmorand, who carried his standard, and many others of his household, and they went to Plancy where they remained for two days before the English came, and the people of the Duke of Bourbon made before the gate the most beautiful barrier that anyone had seen for a long time, and they called it La Barrière amoreuse, and it was convenient for the English to pass by.

So it happens that the English came to pass by Plancy, and all the companions were armed outside their barrier, and the English seeing them put foot to the ground to come and fight; seeing this, those of the garrison of Plancy, because there were so many English opposed to them, withdrew inside their barrier where they were well stocked with shot; and immediately the English advanced, thinking to gain the barrier, and those of Plancy and of the Duke of Bourbon vigorously defended against them by their shot and their lances, and there were performed the most beautiful arms lasting nearly two hours; for when those inside saw their advantage they came out all at once, and charged in among the English, and their charges succeeding to their honor, they withdrew inside, and these charges which those of the barrier made kill seven English men at arms and the shot injured a large crowd of them. And in enduring this danger there died at this barrier [three men of the Duke of Bourbon; and one was seriously injured.]
Image: an SCA barrier fight, with no "shot" (French, trait) involved.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Wit and wisdom of the Hundred Years War

I am working on my translation of the Chronicle of the Good Duke and am at the part where the author's informant is remembering the Breton campaigns of the 1360s. Some memorable lines seem to have stuck in his mind.

If we are to believe the Chronicle, Bertrand du Guesclin, Constable of France and a Breton himself, used this local proverb to convince Duke Louis of Bourbon ("the good duke") to attack the castle of Jugon early in their joint campaign:
He who has Brittany without Jugon
Has a cloak without a hood.

The Chronicle also describes the siege of Brest, also in Brittany, where both sides were in trouble. The French outside could not find anything for their horses to eat because of continuous heavy rain; the pro-English garrison were worse off -- they were eating their horses.

The garrison commander, the famous Englishman Robert Knolles, made this observation during negotiations with his French counterparts :
You have made me eat my horses here in this castle of Brest, as I made you eat yours at the siege of Rennes; so go the changes of fortune and war.
And he didn't surrender.

Image: Brest, showing surviving fortifications, historic vessels, and modern infrastructure

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

University lectures, yesterday, today, and tomorrow

University lectures began in the 12th century, when the first European universities evolved in certain centers of learning. "Lectures" involved professors (called "masters") reading and commenting on key books which were often in that pre-printing era unavailable to students.

Lectures in their original form have long been obsolete, and over the years there have been no shortage of people saying that live lectures should be replaced by something else -- TV lectures as were tried at my alma mater, Michigan State University 40-some years ago, online lectures, computerized interactive this and that, all in the name of greater efficiency and lower costs and the general trendiness of being on the cutting edge.

This has always rung false for me. Of course even the best lectures have their limitations, and being a "best lecturer" takes work and talent, but I've always believed that lecturing adds something to the learning experience that you might not get otherwise.

Today, over at the medieval group blog In the Middle Jeffrey Cohen expressed what I feel about this issue by describing his goals and the successful first day of one of his classes this term:

As I explained to my 90 undergraduates in "Myths of Britain" yesterday, being truly present is a commitment both teacher and students must make in order for a class to thrive. We've become accustomed to the solitude of checking email on an iPhone rather than being aware of the world moving around us, so to have 75 minutes as a community is a gift that ought not to be squandered. I spoke about my syllabus's Code of Courtesy at ITM recently. Its objective, I explained to my students as I introduced it, is to give us the moments of intense togetherness that we can't have if people are walking in and out of the room, texting, chatting with a neighbor. All I ask them to give to me and to each other is the commitment I give to them.

So far so good. I was nervous about my first class because I hadn't been in front of a room of students since last April. Keeping 90 restless adolescents interested is also a considerable challenge. But I walked out of the room happy, if exhausted: they have already proven themselves eager conversationalists. Something about my emphasizing their obligation to disagree with or at least question me skeptically seems to have resonated well.
I found it inspiring!

Image: medieval students hearing a "lecture." None of them are texting or surfing, but some seem to be sleeping or just talking.

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Medieval soldiers' experience

I am now listening to a podcast: The Soldier’s Experience of Battle in the Middle Ages by Clifford Rogers, Professor of History, United States Military Academy at West Point. I have heard Rogers speak in person several times and he is always good; this seems to be up to his usual standard. Thanks to him, to Andrew Lowry for alerting me, and to the New York Military Affairs Symposium, which has posted a number of military history podcasts.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A medieval murder mystery begging to be written

It has been my experience that many medieval murder mysteries are set in the 14th century, often with the plague in the background. This makes them hardly medieval by my standards, but let that go. What you actually may be interested in is a free plot, which I found lurking on my hard disk. I think it's from a source collection on war in the later Middle Ages, but it is unlabeled. The story as we have it here is not a murder mystery, it's just a murder committed at the orders of important men in one of the great churches of England in a time of political turmoil, the year 1377 when Edward III died and his young grandson, Richard II, succeeded to the throne but not to actual power.

Robert Hawley and John Shakell, two esquires, had captured the count of Denia, a Spanish grandee, at the battle of Nájera [1367]. The count was allowed to go home on leaving his eldest son Alphonso as a hostage. In 1377 the money was said to be ready, and the English government therefore tried to get possession of the hostage. Hawley and Shakell refused to give him up, whereupon they were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Some months later they escaped and took sanctuary at Westminster. The Constable of the Tower followed them in force. Shakell was recaptured; but Hawley resisted and was killed in the choir of the Abbey, during the celebration of High Mass. Shakell remained in the Tower until 1379, when he came to terms with the government, and agreed to give up his hostage in return for his own release.

There are actually lots of documents on this case, because it went on and on.

Maybe it should be a movie -- can't you see the two hardbitten squires fighting for the "Treasure of the Count of Denia?"

Image: The Choir of Westminster Abbey in 1848. In the 14th century it would have had no pews.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Carnivalesque #57

A fine collection of recent posts from Ancient and Medieval blogs, collected at Zenobia: Empress of the East. Read!

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Friday, December 04, 2009

Squires or esquires?

Here is an experiment in polling your potential audience, expert and amateur.

I am currently writing a book on 14th century military affairs. I talk a lot about "squires" or "esquires." I am not sure which word to use.

The early 14th century was a period when "squire/esquire" went from meaning "a military servant, usually lightly armed" to meaning "a lesser gentleman warrior" of the kind who had substantial equipment and might have been a knight bachelor in an earlier era. At least this seems to have happened in the Anglo-French world. Although there seem to have been a few squires/esquires hanging around in the mid-14th century who were not considered gentlemen, my sources show that they mostly were gentleman, quite distinct from other military servants like sergeants or valets, even when the latter had some armor and were considered effective fighters.

I am very interested in hearing from you about which word seems more suitable to you, and why. I would appreciate it if you answered in my comment section here, rather than on Facebook.

I would appreciate expert opinion, but if you consider yourself an ordinary reader don't hold back.

goofy gamer squires.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Now that I'm back from a family trip to Oklahoma, I've managed to push chapter 2 of Men at Arms up past the 4000 word mark. Wish me luck for tomorrow...

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Slogging forward

Despite the international plot to keep me away from Men at Arms, I am up to 3000 words on Chapter 2. Of course, family business now takes me away from the book, but it's the kind of thing that can't be helped.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

1000 words today!

That's 1000 words on the book I promised to write during this sabbatical! I feel that I'm finally getting my teeth into it.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Another Charny question?

In my research and translation of Charny questions, I have been working mainly from the Michael Taylor (Chapel Hill) edition. Recently I've been looking more closely at the Belgian edition by Rossbach. Not only does the Rossbach edition have an answer to one of the questions, it has a question unknown to Taylor! If it were in the Taylor edition it would be war question 80A, and if Rossbach had included it in his edition as a confirmed part of the text, it would be question 121A. The fact that Rossbach did not include this question in his main text makes me think he doubted that it was genuine Charny. And after all only appears in one manuscript.

Here is my translation of the question:

Charny asks:

Men at arms fight in the field against their enemies and it happens that one of the men at arms of those who have the upper hand takes another man at arms and he who is taken surrenders to the one who is taken him and gives faith as his prisoner. But very soon the party of the prisoner has the better of it and defeats the others and takes the field, and the prisoner, who sees his party get the upper hand attacks his enemies and takes two or three of them and makes them swear to be prisoners and gives them a day [on which to pay ransom]. Those come on their day and demand of the captain of the one to whom they had sworn by the law of arms saying that they should not be held to be prisoners to him who on that day had [been?] a prisoner, notwithstanding that he is able dispute that because of the rescue he ought to be free; and the first one taken says that they are his prisoners, for he was rescued. And many good arguments are given on one side or the other. How will it be judged by the law of arms?
Note that this is the only Charny question where a captain or other authority figure is identified as presiding over a case by the law of arms.

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Monday, November 02, 2009

Christ as tourneyer

I have just finished reading this new book, Holy Warriors: The religious ideology of chivalry, by Richard Kaeuper, and I'll have much more to say about it later. Right now I just want to point out an interesting quotation that shows how one medieval warrior, writing a spiritual autobiography, visualized what he saw as the ideal knight's resemblance to Jesus.

The warrior was Duke Henry of Lancaster, also known as Henry of Grosmont, one of Edward III's best generals in the Hundred Years War. Here is what Kaeuper says on page 41:

Duke Henry sometimes wonderfully reveals his chain of thought, if indirectly. In discussing how the tears shed by the Blessed Virgin will wash the wounds of his own wretched body he comes to nasal wounds, a topic which puts the realist in him in mind of the blows that struck Christ's nose during his scourging. He comments, in all piety, that Christ's nose must have looked like that of a habitual tourneyer, and that his mouth must have been discolored and beaten out of shape. Here he writes with the voice of experience. Warming to his topic, he says that indeed Christ did fight in a tournament -- and won it, securing life for humanity. As a strenuous knight, his conception of imitating Christ readily turns to this martial version of the savior and his role.
Image: the cover of the book, which can be seen better at Google Books.

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Sunday, November 01, 2009

Word frequency in Charny's Questions on War

Courtesy of Wordle (http://www.wordle.net/) I made a word cloud showing what words Charny used in his war questions. Click on the image to see the Wordle at proper size.

I am not surprised that "Charny" and "arms" are big; but I am rather taken aback by the size of "prisoner" and the near invisibility of "knight."

Wordle: Charny's Questions on War

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Monday, October 26, 2009

An answer to a Charny Question

Some of you readers know quite a bit about Charny and his questions but let me explain to the rest why this little discovery is a thrill for me.

Geoffroi de Charny was a prominent French knight in the 1350s who wrote a book of chivalry and a series of questions on the law of arms. The questions were meant to be presented to the French chivalric Order of the Star, who were supposed to answer these puzzles of military law, concerning plunder, ransoms, what was honorable behavior on the battlefield, etc.. We don't know if this was ever done, and we have no answers to any of the questions. Except...

There is a Belgian edition of Charny's questions, and in it there is a footnote which gives an answer to one of those questions, which the editor, Rossbach, found in the Madrid manuscript of the questions, tucked away in the margin. Who put it there and when is another of those great unanswered historical questions. Here are my translations of the question and the Madrid marginal answer.
Charny says: and if the men at arms mentioned above [who went out from the city they were garrisoning to attack the enemy without their captain's permission] gain much and lose nothing, and those [men at arms] in the city who remained to guard it demand a share, and those who rode out say no. Many good arguments are made on either side. How will it be judged by the law of arms?

Answer: those in the city who remained behind don't get anything at all if the agreement before was not that all should be en butin [in the booty for shares], but this is good law and reason.
So if there wasn't a specific agreement about sharing the booty, too bad Charlie!

Image: a marginal note by Isaac Newton in a printed book, now owned by Colorado State University.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Most Holy War: the Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom, by Mark Gregory Pegg

My review of this book is at The Michigan War Studies Review, specifically here.

Here's an excerpt:
A sense of the attractions of this book, as opposed to the several others available on the subject, may be gained from its last paragraph:

God's homicidal pleasure lasted another eighteen years. Mountaintop castles were assaulted. Castrum after castrum was razed to the ground. Young viscounts died of heartache. Counts were humiliated. Toulouse was besieged. Corpses fouled rivers. Great long meandering armies traipsed every summer from the Rhône to the Garonne. Vultures and ravens grew plump. Legates cried out for vengeance. Men died hearing Veni Creator Spiritus. Wives and little girls worked catapults. Great cats assaulted battlements. Skulls were crushed. Murder was a path to redemption. Vines and fields were devastated. A pregnant girl was mocked. Good men became heretics. A young count surrendered to a boy king. Inquisitors scoured the countryside. Heretics dangled from walnut trees. Very few who began the war lasted to the end. The world was changed forever (191)
This is not only a good sample of Pegg's hard-hitting, vivid, and economical style, but a reasonable summary of the book...

This might give the impression that A Most Holy War is an opinionated, emotional tirade, but such is not the case. Certainly there are opinions here, strongly presented, on all manner of events, movements, and developments. But Pegg, concerned to reveal the minds, emotions, and motives of his subjects, skillfully and gracefully uses quotations to give the voices of historical figures--clerics, counts, chroniclers, and troubadours--precedence over his own.

Readers unacquainted with Pegg's scholarship may be surprised by his presentation of the heresy Innocent III was trying to extirpate. In a previous book[1] and several articles and reviews, he has attacked a consensus going right back to the Middle Ages--that the heretics of the South of France, usually called "Cathars" or, earlier, "Albigensians," constituted a dualist counter-church. Its doctrines were descended from those of the Manichaeans, Bogomils, and Paulicians of Christian antiquity, and its growth owed much to missionaries from the Eastern Mediterranean beginning in the eleventh century. Pegg, on the other hand, believes this interpretation depends more on presuppositions of medieval heresy hunters (long since adopted by modern scholars) than on contemporary evidence. Theologians of the Middle Ages tended to see all disbelief as a single subversive plot against the truth. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, ecclesiastical authorities became increasingly obsessed with any deviation from "orthodox" teachings and rituals, both of which were being more strictly defined and enforced. In actual fact, Pegg argues, there were no Cathars or Albigensians till activist monks, bishops, and popes detected and named them....

Whether or not that position ultimately survives criticism, Pegg at least clearly explains his view of the nature of southern French deviance, emphasizing that the heretical leaders were commonly designated "good man" or "good woman," a form of address appropriate to just about any respectable person at the time. Similarly, he contends that the ritual greetings of heretical "believers" to their supposed leaders were mannerly gestures with no particular religious content. In the South, the exchange of courtesies, essential to the peace of a fragmented society, had its own flavor and terminology, and unsympathetic outsiders put a harsh interpretation on them. The efforts of these outsiders to control and reform southern French behavior according to their own standards, according to Pegg, had a strong effect on the culture of the church hierarchy and the theory and practice of crusade. Indeed, "the Albigensian Crusade is one of the great pivotal moments in world history .... The crusade ushered genocide into the West, changing forever what it meant to be Christian, what it meant to be like Christ" (xiv). This is Pegg's sincere justification for considering his book's subject to be a world-historical "pivotal moment."

Remarkably, this book's less than 200 pages of main text includes far more than a critique of heresiology and descriptions of the religious views of various major actors. It also outlines the politics and military activities of a more than twenty-year period through brief but vivid vignettes that well convey the flavor of original source material[.]

If the book has a flaw, it is its failure to draw sufficient connections between the Albigensian Crusade and the general phenomenon of crusading. Readers conversant with the career of Innocent III and his desire to mobilize all of Christendom against its various enemies might well wonder why a crusade in the South of France was so crucial a prelude to later genocide. It would not have taken more than a few paragraphs to make a stronger and clearer connection between the preaching of Gregory VII and Urban II against emperors and Turks, and Innocent's determination to rally Christendom to fight the whole disobedient world, whether Markward of Anweiler or Raimon of Toulouse or the Livs in the Gulf of Riga. The case for the uniqueness of the Albigensian Crusade is not made as strongly as it might have been.

Nonetheless, Pegg has succeeded in writing a stirring and memorable treatment of an event easily overlooked because it does not fit neatly into conventional narrative histories based on national boundaries and categories.

[1] The Corruption of Angels: The Great Inquisition of 1245-1246 (Princeton: Princeton U Pr, 2001)

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

King Hrothgar's hall?

Is there anything to this story from the Copenhagen Post?

Could a large mud building unearthed in Lejre have been a cult place or beer hall of the ancient Viking kings?

The hall, 48 metres long and seven metres across, overlooks the site of a Viking palace unearthed in 1986 in what is an historic area of Denmark.

‘We are sure we have found a royal building of some sort,’ said Tom Christensen, curator of Roskilde Museum at the time. ‘The odd thing about the site is that it is littered with bits and pieces of exquisite golden jewellery, glass and bronze broaches, high quality artifacts, such as drinking glasses and ceramics, which all seem to have been deliberately smashed in some ritual.’

‘There is also a huge pile of cooking stones from primitive ovens. This was obviously a place frequented by the upper classes of the Iron Age. Maybe it was some sort of beer hall or a sacred site where cult or religious activities were carried out. The building’s post holes are over a metre deep, so it must have been an impressive construction,’ said Christensen.


Set in the period of the Germanic migrations in the fourth to seventh centuries, the poem [Beowulf] places the Scylding King Hrothgar’s Hall, Hereot, at Lejre, while Saxo Grammaticus, a 13th century chronicler who compiled a history of both legendary and historical Danish kings, also identified Lejre as an ancient royal seat.

Many modern Beowulf scholars identify Hereot with Lejre and, with the discovery of the hall, Danish archaeologists believed they had finally found the site. ‘The date of the cult place fits perfectly with the era of the Scyldings,’ Christensen said.

In 1986 archaeologists discovered a major upturned boat-shaped Viking longhouse, but only the foundations of the huge hall and outhouses remained as the original construction had been of wood. The 50-metre-long, 10-metre-high longhouse was twice the size of any similar hall discovered in Denmark, leading archaeologists to believe they had stumbled on a royal palace from the time of the sagas.

The dimensions of the hall were calculated from 200 posthole marks on the ground from the huge oak beams that supported the walls and roof. There were signs on the site of earlier constructions, dams, windmills and other buildings including a bronze foundry, workshops and outlining fencing, underlining the importance of the Lejre settlement.

A museum now occupies a plot of land near the site. The English web address for the Lejre Museum is www.english.lejre-centre.dk

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Chunkey --- another elite sport, from pre-conquest North America

Included in my scholarly interests is the history of chivalric sports, which has made me sensitive to the influence that other elite sports and festivals have had. So I was really interested to read about the sport of "chunkey" as practiced by the Cahokia culture of North America during what we call the Middle Ages. Here are some excerpts from the on-line version of Archaeology.

The chief standing at the summit of the black, packed-earth pyramid raises his arms. In the grand plaza below, a deafening shout erupts from 1,000 gathered souls. Then the crowd divides in two, and both groups run across the plaza, shrieking wildly. Hundreds of spears fly through the air toward a small rolling stone disk. Throngs of cheering spectators gather along the sidelines and root for the two teams as they play chunkey, a game that had a significant role in organizing social and political life at Cahokia, the great prehistoric city that arose around A.D. 1050 near present-day St. Louis, Missouri.


Many, possibly most, Midwestern, Southern, and Plains Indians were in one way or another entangled in a history that began at Cahokia. The evidence is often indirect, but it is compelling, and points toward a singular history-changing moment 1,000 years ago, when social life, political organization, religion, art, and culture were all utterly transformed in the middle of the Mississippi River Valley. At the epicenter of events was a radical new kind of social and political experiment: a planned capital city. Someone--or some governing body--designed one from scratch at Cahokia. The leaders superimposed a new plan directly over an old village and supervised the construction of great earthen pyramids, open plazas, and huge wooden buildings. Then they gained control over people living throughout the region, an unprecedented move in the history of ancient America north of Mexico.

A new culture developed at the city, perhaps inspired by Mesoamerican models. The people of Cahokia practiced human sacrifice, incorporated obelisk-like timber posts into their worship, told stories of superhuman men and women, used Mesoamerican-style flint daggers, and understood the cosmos in ways similar to Mesoamerican notions. They then spread this new way of life, which included intensified maize agriculture, across the Midwest and into the South and Plains with a religious fervor. Archaeologists refer to the culture as Mississippian, after the river that flows by many of its known sites.

One of the primary vehicles for the growth of this new civilization may have been Cahokian envoys who carried chunkey stones in one hand and war clubs in the other as they ventured into the hinterlands with the purpose of making peace or political alliances. These emissaries seem to have established and enforced a region-wide peace of sorts, a veritable Pax Cahokiana, an important element of which may have been the game of chunkey.

Timothy R. Pauketat is a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

I have been to the Cahokia site, and not only are there some surviving Cahokian "ziggurats" made of earth, but a great modern museum.

Image: Chunkey player.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Review of The Medieval Cook by Henisch

From TMR, a great source for timely reviews:

Henisch, Bridget. The Medieval Cook. Woodbridge, Suffolk:
Boydell Press, 2009. Pp. 245. $47.95. ISBN: 9781843834380.

Reviewed by Gina L. Greco
Portland State University

Studies of cookery in the Middle Ages, whether scholarly or popular,
have focused on the production and procurement of ingredients, the
preparation and presentation of dishes, and the organization and
conventions of meals. The Medieval Cook examines these same
topics from the perspective of the different women and men in the
kitchen--peasant housewives, street stall vendors, hired caterers and
master chefs. The result is an accessible overview of medieval
culinary practice that will entertain and inform the general public.

Chapter 1, "The Cook in Context," offers an impressionistic survey of
positive and negative attitudes towards cooks and their craft, culled
from a rich variety of sources including Latin exercise books, royal
account books, biblical commentary, Arthurian romance, plays, and
children's games, supported with careful secondary research. The next
two chapters, "The Cottage Cook" and "Fast Food and Fine Catering,"
present different types of amateur and professional cooks, the tasks
they performed, materials they used, and challenges they encountered.
Chapters 4 and 5 explore the diverse expectations and economic
realities cooks addressed, whether preparing meals for the immediate
household in "The Comforts of Home," or entertaining guests on a
lavish scale in "The Staging of a Feast." Throughout these chapters
Henisch continues to draw from an assortment of historical, literary,
and scholarly documents to illustrate her vignettes. The final
chapter, "On the Edge: the Cook in Art," canvasses visual
representations of cooks and their tools uncovered in the margins of
manuscripts, woodcuts, and sculpture. Notes are followed by a Select
Bibliography, Selection of Medieval Recipes, Suggestions for Further
Reading, and an Index.

Each chapter is divided into many short sections, one to seven pages
in length, the majority under four pages. These units, covering such
varied topics as "Hospitality," "Cook and Physician," "Methods and
Equipment," "Eggs," "Street Snacks," "Pie Makers," "Provisioning,"
"Crisis Control," "Economy and Discipline," and "Hell's Kitchen,"
offer the reader savory tidbits and easy entry into the world of the
medieval kitchen. Chapter titles, however, do not give adequate clues
to the content, and readers looking for a discussion of a particular
topic will regret that the table of contents does not outline these
section titles. While an adept user of the Index can navigate the
material, that task would have been greatly facilitated by a list. Of
course, these decisions are often based on a press's editorial
practice, and it is probably unfair to expect such detail in a volume
not intended as a reference work.

Henisch's focus on the cook as both historical person and fictional
character allows her to paint engaging, anecdote-rich sketches
appropriate for a book aimed at a general audience. However, this
organizational choice does occasion a certain amount of duplication
since in each different context--that of the home cook, the
professional cook, the family meal, the feast--many of the same topics
are by necessity revisited. In some cases, identical textual examples
and citations are fully repeated. For example, a reference to Gawain's
bleak mood when denied the pleasure of good food, including the direct
quote "ther he fonde noght hym byfore the fare that he lyked," is used
on p. 3 to illustrate the connection between food and mood, and then
the same the reference and quote reappear on p. 107 to make a similar
point. In a volume this short (200 pages of text, plus back matter),
the editor should have identified and eliminated such reiterations,
especially when the argument could have been supported by a fresh
quotation selected from a new source.

Another drawback to the book's structure is that the rapid movement
between brief chapter sections leaves little room for analysis, and as
a result there is no overarching argument to the volume. To be fair,
the author's stated aim is more descriptive than analytic: "to
consider medieval cooks in the context of time and circumstance, to
show how they were presented in the art and commentary of the period,
how they functioned, and how they coped with the limitations and
expectations which faced them in different social settings" (ix).
While an extensive amount of textual evidence is presented to that
effect, the author seems to take those sources at face value, when a
more critical reading might reveal a deeper and more nuanced
understanding of the context. For example, following the description
of a young woman kneading dough "for her playser and disporte"
presented as a rare "glimpse of the lady of the house at work,"
Henisch simply concludes: "She was really enjoying herself" (111-112).
This quick judgment ignores the fact that the scene is gleaned from a
moral tale juxtaposing a good niece, rewarded for her
affectionateness, with a bad niece, punished for her vanity. Given the
context, which would value moral truth over realism, the attentive
reader would expect the good girl to embody societal notions of female
goodness. The pleasure the character finds in domestic tasks might
therefore reveal much about her society's expectations and values, but
whether that means real women found true delight in what can be back-
straining work remains open to debate. This anecdote is followed
immediately by a section entitled "The Balancing Act," in which
comments on the "grim picture of the domestic misery for a husband
cursed with a feckless wife" (113) again beg the question of what grim
reality the housewife may have faced.

The comprehensive endnotes (531 for 200 pages of text) suggest that
the volume is intended for an academic as well as popular audience.
Scholars, however, will find little new material in The Medieval
, which recycles a large number of textual and visual
references from the author's 1976 book, Fast and Feast: Food in
Medieval Society
. The passage from Sir Gawain and the Green
mentioned above, for example, had already appeared in
Fast (71). Of the nineteen illustrations included in The
Medieval Cook
, six are repeats from Fast and several others
were also discussed, although not reproduced, there. Not only is a
substantial amount of material found already in the author's earlier
work, but it was often presented that first time in a fuller context
that provides more satisfying insight. Unfortunately, the student or
scholar cannot easily turn to that more developed exploration since in
the numerous instances of reused exempla that I detected, not once did
the endnotes indicate that the passage had been cited previously.
While the lack of cross-referencing will not disturb the general
reader--in fact, such heavy notations would have been off-putting to
many--it does diminish the volume's utility to the academic community.
Henisch's own conclusion offers a fitting summary of The Medieval
's strengths and weaknesses: "With patience and close
attention, it is possible to form a vivid, if not entirely coherent,
impression of their craft, a patchwork pieced together from bright
scraps and stray sightings" (202). While specialists will regret the
lack of a coherent argument, the general audience will be seduced by
the lively medley of cooks and kitchens the book presents

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Don't underestimate those little guys

Phil Paine has added to his ongoing reading list. I found this review particularly interesting:

Antoine de la Sale,[Petit] Jehan de Saintré [c. 1455]

This fourteenth century French prose work is an odd item. It's a "roman" — prose fiction. But it's nothing like the fantastic fantasies that dominated the era. No quests, no dragons, no trips to the moon. Instead, it's a realistic narrative focusing on tournaments and deeds of arms. In the first few chapters, the central character arrives at court as a page, at the age of thirteen. A Great Lady immediately begins a campaign of seduction, twisting and tormenting the lad until he surrenders his innocence. This is coyly, but still pretty blatantly recounted by the author. But the romance is meant to be edifying as well as titillating... she is given to quoting Greek philosophers while making love, and recommends a long list of books for him to read between carving the King's roasts, learning to fight, and providing her with stud service. Few teenagers have to face this kind of stress, today.

By sixteen, he becomes a star of the jousting circuit, albeit embarrassingly short and skinny for the role. This is continuously rubbed in, as contender after contender is fooled into under-estimating him. There's not a lot of plot, and not much character development. There's endless detailed description of clothing, meals, gifts exchanged between nobles, and, most of all, the pageantry of the tournament. Jousts are described blow-by-blow:

A la ije course le seigneur de Loisselench [a visiting Polish knight] actainct Saintré a la buffe tellement que a bien peu ne l'endormist, et Saintré l'ataint au front de son heaume et perça son buef d'argent tellement que au passer que les cahevaulz firent le sien tourna ce devant darriere, et a ceste course Saintré un peu se reposa.
A la iije course le seigneur de Loisselench, tout ainsin que Saintré l'avoit actaint, il actaint Saintré et lui emporta sur la pointe de sa lance son chappellet de byevre tout ainsin garny comme it estoit, et Saintré l'actaint ou hault de son grant gardebras qu'il lui faulsa avec son double et rompist les tresses, et le gardebras a terre vola, et alors recommença le cry et le bruit des gens et des trompectes tellement que a peine les pouoit on faire cesser.

Eventually, "little Jehan" goes off to war, joining the Crusade in Prussia, where he fights vast armies of "saracens" — the geography and anthropology are somewhat vague.

The riff on Jehan's small size reminded me of this French account by the Monk of St. Denis of the famous joust at St. Inglevert:

While a truce endured and there was hope of peace between the French and the English, Englishmen of the highest nobility were able to cross France freely for the sake of curiosity. There were always debates between the two groups concerning prowess and success in arms, and they argued about which of the two should be given more honor. The English were accustomed to keep silent about domestic calamities and to extoll their victories unendingly; which extremely displeased the French, who attributed that habit to presumption.

As a result those prominent knights and spirited youths, Reginald de Roye, Jean called le Maingre, alias Boucicaut, and the lord of Saimpy, aflame with zeal and vigor, resolved to settle the matter through an unprecedented deed of arms, which is worthy of being recorded. So that they might restore the worthy renown of the French chivalry and gain everlasting glory for the kingdom, they bound themselves by oath that they should measure their strength against any foreign men at arms; and they begged the king with the strongest entreaties and obtained permission with great difficulty, since in the judgment of all prudent men, they were attempting a task beyond their strength, since Saimpy was puny and thin, Boucicaut of the same stature but with better built limbs, and Reginald, likewise of medium size and superior to the others only in nimbleness. Thus the prudent advised the comrades that they should come to their senses and give up the project. They refused to do so, responding over and over that "Nature doesn't deny constant spirits to the small of stature." After gaining the king's support they had the deed of arms proclaimed to all lords and ladies in neighboring countries and especially in England by heralds accompanied by trumpeters. Without doubt this gave offense to the ears of many critics and incited envious statements: "Now, without doubt, the French are showing their pridefulness."

Of course, the three Frenchmen cleaned up.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A new translation of the Menagier de Paris

An excerpt of the review on the e-mail list, TMR-L (The Medieval Review), a useful and timely resource you can subscribe to free.

Greco, Gina L. and Christine M. Rose, translators. The Good
Wife's Guide (Le Menagier de Paris): A Medieval Household Book
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009. Pp. 384. $69.95. ISBN: 978-0-

Reviewed by Kate Kelsey Staples
West Virginia University

According to the fourteenth-century Le Menagier de Paris, the key to being a good wife included these edifying directives: "be obedient...to your husband and to his commandments, whatever they be, whether they be made in earnest or in jest" (104); "choose rather to please your husband than yourself, because his happiness must come before yours" (104); "it is through good obeisance that a wise woman
obtains her husband's love and, in the end, receives from him what she desires" (119); "protect [your future husband] from holes in the roof and smoky fires, and do not quarrel with him, but be sweet, pleasant, and peaceful with him"(139); "steer clear of swaggering and idle young men who live beyond their means and who, possessing no land or lineage, become dancers" (94). While perhaps shocking to modern sensibilities, or comical in turn, this fascinating and relatively understudied text overflows with suggestions for a woman's obedience, attention to reputation, proper piety, and correct conduct. The anonymous author also advises his audience, presumably his young wife, on the practicalities household management: when to transplant cabbage (212), how to delegate tasks to servants (section 2.3), in what ways to tend to ropy, musty, and moldy wine (221), and how to care for horses (223-228). Completing the manual of instruction is a rich selection of cooking menus and a guide to buying spices and foodstuffs, continuing the practical nature of the guidebook.

As the first modern English translation of Le Menagier de Paris, this edition makes a gem of a text accessible beyond French literary courses. With their clear translation, Gina Greco, Associate Professor of French, and Christine Rose, Professor of English, both at Portland State University, open spaces for discussion of the composition of the late medieval household, the reading practices of the bourgeoisie, late medieval culture, culinary practices, and women's history, more generally.

One of the greatest attributes of this edition is that Greco and Rose present Le Menagier de Paris as we may expect it to have originally appeared. There are only three surviving fifteenth-century manuscripts and one early sixteenth-century manuscript; the original is lost (2). The modern scholarly Middle French edition (Brereton and Ferrier, 1981) omits three sections of the text that appear in the
manuscripts: the Griselda tale, the Melibee tale, and Jacques Bruyant's Le Chemin de povrete et richesse (here, too, appear the first modern English translations of the latter two texts). Karin Ueltschi's Middle French and Modern French facing-page translation (1994) includes the tales of Griselda and Melibee, but consigns Le
poem to an appendix. As the translators rightfully point out, presenting it without these texts or in an alternate order, even if they were not originally compiled by the author, does a disservice to understanding reading practices, the author's goals, and household composition in late medieval France (5)...

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Friday, October 02, 2009

Heart and soul

In the next little while I will be reviewing Mark Pegg's A Most Holy War (on the Albigensian Crusade) for the Michigan War Studies Review. I am just now looking at it. It is a rather slim volume, and I rather expected that it would be an up-to-date -- or not -- summary of what is known about this 13th century crusade in southern France. But now I don't think so. For one thing, I was surprised and impressed by the preface in which Pegg lays it all out on the page, why and how he does history, which is with a great deal of personal involvement. Vide:
Any meditation on the past that starts with the presumption that some things are universal in humans or human society -- never changing, ignorant, immobile, -- is to retreat from attempting a historical explanation about previous rhythms of existence.... Arguing for immutable values from biology is no different from arguing for immutable values from theology -- selfish genes, selfish doctrines, they both deny history. Assuming that why we do what we do, what we think what we think, is somehow or other beyond our control, and that we would be this way in mind and body whether we lived in Cleveland in 1952 or Toulouse 1218, forfeits the vitality and distinctiveness of the past to the dead hand of biological determinism, cognitive hotwiring, psychological innateness, liberal pleas for bygone victims, conservative pleas for God-given principles, and amaranthine mush about authenticity.
I have nothing much to say about this except: I know (and have loved) the word amaranthine from the Gormenghast books I read 40 years ago, ("By all that's amaranthine" said the doctor) and I've yet to find an opportunity to use it myself. Pegg obviously tries harder.

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Staffordshire hoard website

R.S. Nokes passes on the link for the clearinghouse website.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Boxes and boxes of gold

That's what one expert said about the biggest Anglo-Saxon treasure trove ever found -- a huge collection of items, many of them stripped off weapons. This has got to be the hidden wealth of a king or a very successful army at the end of a string of luck. The image above, from the BBC story, is engraved with a biblical verse in Latin: "Rise up O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face." Says the BBC: "It has two sources, the Book of Numbers or Psalm 67, taken from the Vulgate, the Bible used by the Saxons."

If you want to see more -- lots more -- go to this Flickr page and use the slide show.

Top story in the UK today, I hear.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Gregory of Tours and Obama

A fine little essay from Magistra et Mater. An excerpt:

Historians once largely believed what Gregory of Tours wrote in his ‘Ten Books of History’ (which is how the History of the Franks is now more accurately referred to). Gregory might be naive (all that reporting of miracles), but his artlessly gory portrayals of Merovingian life told us all we needed to know about the horrors of Merovingian society.

A more recent view of Gregory, along with many other medieval historians, is that his history reflects his own prejudices or that he is writing propaganda. Nevertheless, even though his text is not transparent, we can read through it to get useful material. We can see the outlines of particular actions by his enemies through his distorted stories about them. Alternatively, for social/cultural historians, even if his stories are not true at all, but purely propaganda, they reflect what a king or a queen or a bishop could feasibly do. Propaganda, after all, needs to be plausible.

I would have adhered to such views once, but recent events have made me less certain. If you look at many of the claims circulating in the US about Barack Obama, (such as the claim that he is not a citizen) they’re not remotely plausible, and yet they’re widely accepted. One answer is that this is simply because such stories have been pushed so hard by particular powerful interest groups. But there are implausible stories which have achieved wide circulation and belief without such long term propaganda efforts: Slacktivist has an interesting example of one.

And some claims go beyond the merely deeply implausible to a different level. Take the claim that Obama’s plan for health care involves ‘death panels’, for example. You could see this as an extreme distortion of some possible plans for living wills or not paying for heroic treatment of the terminally ill, but it’s probably better to see these statements as symbolic. Obama is an evil ruler and therefore of course he is planning death panels, because that’s what evil rulers do. And, in glorious circularity, he is planning death panels and so that is ‘proof’ that he must be an evil ruler.

I’ve just been reading Martin Heinzelmann,Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century (CUP, 2001) who argues convincingly and in great detail that Gregory is using symbolic figures in the Ten Books of History: the Good King, the Bad King, the Good Bishop etc. What he doesn’t really get into is looking at how that might affect historians who actually want to know something about the sixth century (as opposed to those wanting to understand how Gregory’s mind works). If Gregory’s stories are largely symbolic, can we take anything factual from them beyond a few names and events? Or are we faced not just with a distorted mirror on the Merovingian past, but a fantasy view of it?

I have wrestled with this question before, in regards specifically to Gregory of Tours, but I increasingly find my own contemporaries at least as mysterious as people of the 6th century. Can people really believe such things (you name it)? And if they don't believe it...but perhaps that's what M&M means.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Book review Sunday: Europe's Barbarians AD 200-600, by Edward York

Leonard Lipschutz over on MEDIEV-L contributes this:
Last month Edward James, author of The Franks (1988) published an outstanding new scholarly work, Europe’s Barbarians AD 200-600 (2009). The first chapters provide an up-to-date chronological survey, and analytical chapters expertly review current debates, on ethnicity, archaeology, reception by Rome, migration, assimilation, conversion and government. The bibliography is super.

At p. 50 he calls movements of Visigoths and Vandals, movements of “barbarian peoples,” showing reluctance to depart completely from old paradigms. But in the analytic portion, at p. 172, he caves in, stating: "My own conclusion would be that the break-up of the Western Roman Empire occurred because, in the different provinces, local populations began to give their allegiances to local warlords, rather than to the emperor, because those warlords were more effective as protectors and patrons. Not all these warlords were barbarians, but the majority were, because of the domination of barbarians within the Roman army." At the end of the book he states that he has not addressed directly the role of barbarians in the collapse of the western empire. Indeed, he does avoid saying anything about Heather’s Huns thesis. But James seems to anticipate further paradigm changes than he has conceded: "We tend to laugh or sneer at the simplicities or distortions of past views of the barbarians; sooner or later, this will be the fate of this book too."

Regarding ‘warlords’ it would be helpful to have a bold admission that the original forces of Alaric, Geiseric or Clovis, usually described as peoples or tribes, were in fact mercenary armies recruited on Roman soil and named for the ethnic origin of their leader. Regarding ‘the break-up,’ most likely it was not Huns, but a Roman struggle for power in 405 that set off a series of events leading directly to the break-up. When Stilicho finally hired Alaric, in that year, to support his intended attack on the east, the great eastern minister Anthemius responded in kind by hiring Radagaisus and Godegisil to raise armies in Pannonia and create a diversion in the west. Goffart made such a suggestion on p. 79 of Barbarian Tides (2006), and I think that interpretation will ultimately prevail.

Edward James' The Franks was a really good book which I would recommend to anyone with an interest.

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The Long Morning of Medieval Europe, ed. by Jennifer R. Davis and Michael McCormick

I didn't know about this book until a few minutes ago, but I take a positive review by Jonathan Jarrett on such a subject pretty seriously. Here's how it starts:

Yes, I know I was writing about something else but this is important. If you’re working on the early Middle Ages, especially the Continental early Middle Ages, you need to get hold of a copy ofJennifer Davis’s and Michael McCormick’s The Long Morning of Medieval Europe.1 I got it mainly because I was citing something in that my erstwhile supervisor had written from a pre-print and needed up-to-date page numbers (and also knew that that was good, and that the other stuff in it looked interesting). But only this last week have I got round to actually reading the rest. I’m a fool. While it acknowledgedly doesn’t cover the whole field, and the editors say that they don’t think this could be done by a single volume, they have nonetheless done their utmost to provide a genuine state-of-the-field discourse for each of the themes they do cover.2So, for example, the section on the economy has an intro by McCormick, then twelve absolutely crystal pages by Chris Wickham (who, as that link shows, has finally let himself be pictured on the Internet) explaining how he now sees the European economic system of the early Middle Ages having written his Framing the Early Middle Ages, then Joachim Henning explaining economy at the village level, and so on, and after reading all the essays you’d be set not just to answer an essay question but possibly to teach one. And it’s all sharp and up to date and written by some of the top experts in the field and it reads a lot like a quick way to get up to date on a lot of important thinking.

There's quite a bit more detail (and more to come?).

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Geoffroi de Charny, VIP

Those of us who have read and enjoyed Geoffroi de Charny's 1350s treatise The Book of Chivalry quite naturally think that he was a pretty important guy. But while writing the introduction for my book Men at Arms it really hit home to me how an extraordinary a figure he was.

In evaluating the past it is sometimes hard to avoid overrating people who wrote or were written about in surviving, high quality works. Plato's had lots of followers; but what would you think if you were in a position to meet him in 4th century BC Athens? Just another "I am not a sophist" rich boy crank? (Am I giving away too much here?)

So in thinking about Charny I have sometimes leaned towards thinking that he was a sometimes-tiresome pedant whom the other knights and courtiers used to tease by asking him hard questions about chivalry, and then not listening to his sometimes overlong answers. That could be Charny.

However, looking closely at the not-very-extensive evidence for his life, I have come to the conclusion that not too many people ever ignored G. de C.

First, everyone agrees that Charny started out as an "obscure" knight and not a rich one. His early campaigns, starting around the age of 30 (in other words, not a raw kid), saw him leading a small retinue made up only of squires. He himself was a bachelier who did not quite dare to call himself a chevalier and the title does not seem to have been offered him for some years. He may have had a certain amount of good will among the more important people due to old family connections, but as William Marshal had found out earlier, this does not reliably pay the bills.

Nonetheless, consider these facts. Starting about 1347-8, Charny was given high command on the northern front (the region of Calais), a role he played off and on until fall of 1352. At one point he was called Captain General of the wars of Picardy and the frontiers of Normandy, a pretty exalted title and a pretty exalted role. Correct me if I am wrong, but this is the kind of position you might put a prince in. If you, as king, had a good reliable prince.

Another fact: When in the course of his duties Charny was captured and carted off to England, the King of France (eventually) bought him back for 12,000 ecus, one heck of a lot of money when the French crown was strapped for cash and always on the lookout for ways to save money. My conclusion: King Jean II felt he desperately needed Charny back.

Finally, the clincher. In the mid-1350s, the King's cousin Charles the Bad of Navarre, a man who thought he had as good a claim to the French throne as Jean, was making a lot of trouble, relying on his royal descent, his strong position in strategic Normandy, and his natural talent for intrigue. He was hard to handle -- that family conflict thing, acted out by two guys with crowns on their heads. When this touchy situation had to be resolved, who did Jean send to talk to Bad Charles? Who got to hear all the dirty secrets of the dynasty retailed? Well, a whole delegation, but among them was the formerly obscure Geoffroi de Charny.

You see what I mean.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Out of the East: Spices and the medieval imagination, by Paul Freedman

This book was a real treat, and not just because much of it was about food and dining. It's one of the best-written medieval/early modern history books I have read in a long time, and one of the most original.

If you have ever eaten, tried cooking or just read about aristocratic food in the Middle Ages -- and aristocratic food is almost all we know about -- you already are aware that medieval feasts included a lot of highly spiced foods. The spices used in "savory" dishes then are hardly ever used today except perhaps in desserts; some, like grains of paradise and zedoary are hardly known. There has been some good scholarly work in recent years as to why medieval cooking and modern European differ so much; Terence Scully, for instance, has explained the connection between the ancient and medieval medical theories involving the four humours and medieval recipies and feast design. But Paul Freedman's book probably is accessible to more readers while actually covering a great deal of novel material.

One very interesting subject Freedman covers is how the appeal of some of the favorite exotic spices faded dramatically when European merchants gained direct, routine access to them. People still wanted cloves and nutmeg, but they no longer thought of them as powerful, almost spiritual substances. And when it became known that grains of paradise came from the mundane West Africa (precisely, "the Grain Coast") and not the earthly paradise, Europeans slowly lost interest in them.

There is much more in this book -- lots about early European exploration and the role of spices in motivating it -- and I highly recommend it to anyone who finds this review in the least interesting.

Update: Phil Feller directs us to an NPR interview with Freedman.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Medieval attitudes and their depiction in -- or absence from -- historical novels

Over at Magistra et Mater:

My post on historical novels (and the responses to it) have got me thinking a bit more about the difference between modern and medieval mentalities, or rather, the differences that historical novelists need to contemplate and possibly find ways to express. This is my first attempt to say what I think the most important differences to note are (please join in with your own suggestions in the comments). I also want to suggest some possible mental exercises/thought experiments to help both historians and novelists contemplate these differences

1) An acceptance of hierarchy, injustice and inequality.
This is often a difficult ‘modern’ concept to unthink: how could people accept the subordination and oppression of peasants, slaves, women, etc? I find memories of childhood (the more traditional the better) useful here (and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that children’s historical novels often stand up better than adult ones). You have to do what you are told, however unfair it might seem, because you are a child and ‘they’ are adults and that’s just how it is. And most children don’t spend most of their time raging against this, both because they don’t know that things could be different, and because there is no conceivable way to change the system. Instead, they spend any spare mental energy working out how to get along in this unfair system, or how to cheat it without getting caught, or dreaming about a better world, or waiting for something to change, or just enjoying whatever good bits there are. Transfer that to the medieval subordinated adult, and that seems to me a basic template for how you might react to a society that is biased against you. Most of the time, most of the oppressed don’t rebel: that’s a basic historical fact.

Lots more good stuff here!

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Thoughts of Wednesday won't go away

This is all people in Baghdad can think of. Has there been any discussion on your news outlets?

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Saturday, August 22, 2009


Michael Quinion is a freelance etymologist, whose entertaining and learned e-mail newsletter on word origins and word usage I've read for years. I hope he won't mind this extensive quotation from this week's issue:

Q. A Web site says: "Freelancers can trace their job title back to
Sir Walter Scott, who introduced the term in his 1819 novel,
Ivanhoe. His 'free-lance' characters were medieval mercenaries who
pledged their loyalty (and weapons) to lords and kings, for a fee."
As a freelance translator my curiosity is aroused. Is this
etymological story correct? Perhaps it could provide an entry point
for one of your excellent articles. [Steve Dyson, Lisbon]

A. We are so used to being told that "freelance" did derive from
medieval mercenaries in just this way that the story brings one up
short disbelievingly. But it's correct. The word is not recorded
before Sir Walter Scott introduced it in that book.

This is its first appearance:

I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and
he refused them - I will lead them to Hull, seize on
shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling
times, a man of action will always find employment.
[Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, 1819. "Free", of
course, means "unbound", not "without cost".]

It's one mark of the huge influence that Scott had in his lifetime.
He has quite gone out of fashion these days but in his time he was
a famous and widely read writer (Henry James later remarked that
Scott had made the nineteenth-century English novel possible). He
also invented the historical novel, of which Ivanhoe is a classic

He's credited with either popularising or inventing many words and
phrases, to the extent that he is marked as the first user of more
than 700 in the Oxford English Dictionary and he lies third behind
the Bible and Shakespeare in innovation in that work. He's recorded
as the first user of, to take a few terms at random, Calvinistic,
blood is thicker than water, clansmen, cold shoulder, deferential,
flat (meaning an apartment), Glaswegian, jeroboam, lady-love, lock,
stock and barrel, Norseman, otter hunt, roisterer, Scotswoman (in
place of the older Scotchwoman), sick-nurse, sporran, weather-stain
and wolf-hound. He also introduced his readers to many obscure old
terms, especially from the Scots language and from chivalry.

There was a slightly earlier term, "free companion", which appeared
in 1804 in a translation of the fourteenth-century chronicles of
the French historian Jean Froissart about the Hundred Years War.
Scott uses this, too, in the same book:

A knight who rode near him, the leader of a band of
free companions, or Condottieri, that is, of mercenaries
belonging to no particular nation, but attached for the
time to any prince by whom they were paid.
[Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, 1819.]
Start looking into chivalry, at least if you are an Anglophone, and you can hardly avoid the man.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Blogging, especially medieval blogging, is a dangerous occupation

Witness I Have Consumed and Excreted Your Blogger.

As another medievalist blogger, at least part of the time, I have to call this an impressive performance.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Scholarly authority

Jonathan Jarrett has a good post on how scholars of the Middle Ages (and other subjects, too) base themselves -- or don't -- on the authority of earlier scholars. Some excerpts:

One of the things I find oddest, and least enjoyable, about working on Spain is the peculiar persistence in parts of its historiography of regula magistri argumentation. Do you know what I mean by that? It’s proceeding with your argument, not from the sources, but by amassing a list of reputable authors who have also held the view you wish to put forward. As a result it’s kind of the flip side of the ad hominem argument, in which rather than impugning the character of your opponent and thereby his trustworthiness on matters of fact and/or opinion, you inflate the reputation of your supporters to show that you are rightly-guided.

Sometimes this is necessary because you have no other legs to stand on. Thus, I remember from years back a heated argument on soc.history.medieval about whether ‘the medievals’ (does anyone else twitch uncomfortably at this usage?) kept animals in their houses with them or whether the livestock was segregated. Nobody involved in the thread knew any evidence worth speaking of, so it degenerated into a series of claims and counter-claims about whether a passing and unreferenced note of the practice in a book by Barbara Hanawalt could be taken on trust based on her reputation as a historian. It wasn’t pretty to watch, but then, very little on s.h.m was.


So this is an old practice; indeed, proceeding from authority at all points and disguising novelty in it is positively medieval. But it’s miles and miles away from what I was taught, and what I’ve taught, which is to always go back to the primary sources, to the exclusion of much else. It’s not enough to tell me that Wallace-Hadrill said this, I tell the unlucky student, I need to know that you know the basis on which he said it and, not less importantly, whether you agree. Now, in another recent post, someone entirely different, Martin Rundqvist at Aardvarchaeology, draws a very similar distinction and reckons the method I’m talking about scientific. He says, among other things, this:

… in most cases the old authors, like Galen on medicine, did not actually have anything truly useful to say about how the world works. Before the scientific revolution of the 17th century, though, people had no good way to test that. They believed in the best authorities.

The radical proposition at the heart of empirical science is that there are no good authorities. It doesn’t matter what anyone said about the world a hundred or a thousand or five thousand years ago, except in the rare case when someone observed a nova in the 11th century. Observation rules.

Of course it’s not quite the same in history, because a text, even a primary one, is still an authority and not a genuine witness. Material evidence counterbalances that to an extent, which is great when one can bring them together, and of course this is the business of which Martin identifies as part. But, not being raised in the venerable Spanish tradition, I find myself positively encouraged to cut free of my teachers and say things by myself, and the regula magistri argument looks, well, yes, pre-Popperian. (I don’t think ‘pre-scientific’ really works as a term, at least not to anyone who knows the etymology, but I’ve done that rant elsewhere.)


I still get faintly dismayed when I come across a ‘prestigious specialist’ writing as if it were still the sixteenth century. In this respect, some of the disciples could pay a bit more attention to their masters.

Love that (valid for a change!) use of the phrase "positively medieval."

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009


I spent two weeks at the SCA's Pennsic War 38 near Pittsburgh. Due to scheduling conflicts I did not participate in the Passage of the Beautiful Pilgrim (see below), nor see the first Pennsic re-enactment of the Combat of Thirty against Thirty to actually include 60 participants.

Fortunately, Will McLean has provided links to photos and videos of each. Here is a video shot by Brad Hrboska and produced by Andrew Lowry:

The laughter on the soundtrack is probably a re-creation of the Breton peasants laughing at the sight of 100-Years-War men at arms killing each other instead of harassing or killing them.

As a witness of and participant in many SCA combats, I was impressed by how the modified rules produced a more prolonged re-creation, rather than the very quick ones that standard SCA rules usually do.

My participation this time was restricted to the mass battles:

Eccentric medieval historian relaxes between battles:

Don't cross this guy!

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