Paleoichthyology

It’s a real word, referring to the study of fish in the past, as detailed in a recent Atlantic article:

The Medieval Practices that Reshaped Europe’s Fish

In Europe, aquatic animals have been traded at least since the days of the Roman Empire. But it was during the early Middle Ages, with the arrival of widespread Christianity, that the animals became a popular source of protein. That’s partially due to the roughly 130 days a yearwhen the faithful were exhorted not to eat meat, because fish didn’t count in that category.

At the same time, expanding agrarian populations were cutting down forests to create fields and diverting rivers to fill defensive moats around castles and towns, Hoffmann writes in one paper. From the ninth century a.d. to the 11th, the number of grain mills built along rivers in England exploded from about 200 to 5,624. Species that came into fresh water to spawn, such as salmon and sturgeon, began declining. New regulations, such as King Philip’s, were put into place to manage fish populations. A Scottish statute from 1214 required all dams to include an opening for fish and barrier nets to be lifted every Saturday, for instance. Soon highly sophisticated aquaculture ponds stocked with carp also provided regular access to fish for the landed elite.

This decline in freshwater populations coincided with a sudden, commercial-scale boom in sea fishing, which began around a.d. 1000 and is known as the “fish event horizon.” In one study, archaeologists collected cod bones in London from 95 Roman, medieval, and postmedieval sites. The number of bones jumped circa the year 1000, and isotopic sampling showed that in the following centuries, fish came from farther and farther away, indicating long-distance trade. In the southern English town of Southampton, the remains of marine species (such as cod) began to outnumber freshwater species (such as eel) by 1030.

That “fish event horizon” could have been caused by a number of forces. It came at a time of population growth, urbanism, new ship technology, and increased trade, says the archaeologist James Barrett, from the University of Cambridge. But, he adds, “I’ve argued consistently that this must also be about human impacts on freshwater and migratory fishes. The degree of vulnerability of fishes depends on how bounded the ecosystem they occupy is.”

In other words, because their habitat was smaller, freshwater fish were more likely to respond to human pressures sooner. When the reliable stocks of freshwater fish began dwindling, hungry Europeans turned to the much larger oceans. And while those populations had larger ranges, humans still had an impact.

Prince Arthur

Arthur Tudor, that is, whose death (in 1502) left Katherine of Aragon a widow after five months of marriage. Would the English send her back to Spain with her dowry, and be deprived of an alliance with a country that had just discovered the New World? Would Katherine lose the opportunity to be queen some day? By no means! The English arranged for Katherine to marry Arthur’s younger brother Henry, who succeeded to the throne in 1509 as King Henry VIII.* But Katherine’s daughter Mary displeased Henry – Henry Tudor had won the crown in 1485 through right of conquest, and Henry VIII really wanted a son to carry on the dynasty. Katherine, however, produced a series of miscarriages and stillbirths, which Henry began to believe was punishment for violating Leviticus 18:16: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.” (Indeed, the English had to get special permission from the papacy for the marriage to happen, and they based their argument partly on Deuteronomy 25:5: “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her” – you can see how Biblicism had already become standard in formulating Christian policy.) Henry’s petition for a divorce from Katherine was denied, in part because the papacy had had to grant an exemption for the marriage in the first place, and in part because Rome was then occupied by Charles V, Katherine’s nephew, and was in no position to grant Henry any favors. 

Thus was founded the Church of England, with Henry as its head, and the power to grant his own divorce.**

To return to Prince Arthur, I noticed an article in Town and Country magazine just now (likely inspired by the success of a new television series, The Spanish Princess, about Katherine). Excerpt:

The Cause of Prince Arthur Tudor’s Death Remains a Medical Mystery

The Prince of Wales’s unexpected passing changed the course of European history, but we still don’t know exactly how he died.

Also known as the sweating sickness and simply the sweats, the so-called “English Sweat” which claimed Arthur, Price of Wales’s life has remained a medical mystery for centuries.

Reaching epidemic proportions on no less than five occasions during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, sweating sickness was highly lethal. Physician John Caius, whose book about the illness remains the most famous account from the time period, noted that death could occur within 3 hours of the onset of symptoms, and that those who survived the first 24 hours would usually make a full recovery (though surviving did not, evidently, prevent the patients from contracting the disease again.)

Sweating sickness was confined almost exclusively to England during its outbreaks, ravaging the wealthy more often than the poor. And yet, for all of its virulence, the sweats seemed to disappear almost as suddenly as they appeared in the first place, with no known outbreaks after 1578.

While the disease’s disappearance no doubt saved thousands of lives, it has also stymied modern medical investigators hoping to understand what claimed the life of Arthur and so many of his subjects.

Part of the trouble stems from sweating sickness’s symptoms—fever, chills, aches, delirium, and, of course, intense sweating—which are common to a number of diseases including influenza, scarlet fever, and typhus, yet never seem to fit exactly in strength, duration, or combination with any known medical issue. The most common modern theory suggests that the outbreaks may have been a form of hantavirus, similar to a hantavirus pulmonary syndrome that struck the American southwest in the 1990s. Exactly why the virus, if that was indeed the cause, would disappear so suddenly is not known, but some scholars suggest that it could be a result of the virus evolving in a way that made it less deadly or less easily spread to humans.

More at the link, including an image of the now-lost east window of St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster, which was commissioned for Arthur and Katherine’s engagement. You can see the couple in the lower right and left of the window; you can also see St. George on the left, another piece of evidence about his national importance in the late Middle Ages.

* Somehow this episode reminds me of a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “But I don’t want to think I’ve lost a son, so much as gained a daughter! For, since the tragic death of her father… I want his only daughter to look upon me as her own dad, in a very real, and legally binding sense.”

** You can always tease an Anglican about the sordid origins of his Church. However, he will respond with the claim that Anglicanism represents the via media between Catholicism and Protestantism, a tolerant Big Tent of a religion that eschewed fanaticism (although Queen Elizabeth, whose Settlement inaugurated the rhetoric of the via media, did condemn numerous Catholics for religious reasons).

Spain

In the first half of the twentieth century, if you were an American medievalist and wanted to pick a country to specialize in, you would probably pick England, or France. Those were judged to be the most important and influential medieval polities – particularly England, whose language, Common Law, and system of governance were the direct antecedents of America’s own. France, for its part, was the birthplace of Gothic architecture, troubadour poetry, the Crusades, chivalry, “feudalism,” and other such archetypically medieval motifs.

Spain did not enjoy such status. It was on the periphery of Europe, and its New World descendants were all Third World countries.

Obviously, we don’t hold such values anymore; in fact, the positions have reversed. It’s old-school and “conservative” (even “racist“) to specialize in medieval England. Spain is much cooler, reflecting the protected status now afforded to Hispanics in the United States, and the importance we currently place on Diversity.* For medieval Spain was famously Diverse, featuring Muslims, Christians, and Jews living side-by-side in what is known as the Convivencia. The kingdom stands a riposte to the idea that the Middle Ages were characterized by intolerance and fanaticism, and act as a multicultural model for our own day. That this happy situation was brought to an end by Christian fanaticism offers further confirmation of academic prejudice.

Although… was the Convivencia a myth? As with all historical phenomena, opinions differ, and the debate will continue for a long time to come. One dissenter is Dario Fernandez-Morera, whose book, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (2016) is reviewed by Lawrence Farley (hat tip: Rachel Brown):

The enthusiasm for the glories of tolerant Islam is suffused throughout modern scholarship, to the point of embarrassment. It is difficult not to conclude, after one looks at the actual historical facts that the scholars ignore and suppress, that their enthusiasm for Islam finds its roots in their distaste for Christianity. It is certainly not rooted in the historical evidence itself.

In this vision of Islamic Spain (renamed by the Muslim conquerors as “al-Andalus”), all three monotheistic faiths got along famously and all three enjoyed cultural flowering and prosperity under the watchful eye of a tolerant Islam.

In this version of history, the Christians of Spain were a benighted, primitive, and ignorant lot, who fortunately for them, ended up under Islam, which then offered them previously undreamt of opportunities to learn tolerance and culture. In this paradise Jews, Christians, and Muslims coexisted in a happy sunlit land, enjoying the benefits of convivencia—at least until the horrible Christians spoiled it all at the Spanish Reconquista, which recovered the land for Christendom and brought again the blight of intolerance and darkness to their land.

Read the whole thing. I like his Gone with the Wind references.

* Not that I’m embittered, mind, but I don’t like it when people who study Spain still complain that their specialty doesn’t get any respect.

Plague

Apparently eating raw marmot kidneys is not actually good for one’s health – in fact, it might be a vector for bubonic plague. From NPR (hat tip: Bill Campbell):

Bubonic Plague Strikes In Mongolia: Why Is It Still A Threat?

The medieval plague known as the Black Death is making headlines this month.

In Mongolia, a couple died of bubonic plague on May 1 after reportedly hunting marmots, large rodents that can harbor the bacterium that causes the disease, and eating the animal’s raw meat and kidneys – which some Mongolians believe is good for their health.

This is the same illness that killed an estimated 50 million people across three continents in the 1300s. Nowadays, the plague still crops up from time to time, although antibiotics will treat it if taken soon after exposure or the appearance of symptoms.

Left untreated, the plague causes fever, vomiting, bleeding and open, infected sores — and can kill a person within a few days.

The ethnic Kazakh couple died in Bayan-Ulgii, Mongolia’s westernmost province bordering Russia and China. It is not clear what treatment they received, if any.

Read the whole thing.

Medieval Cleanliness

Katherine Harvey offers an interesting exploration of medieval hygiene, disease, and parasites on Aeon:

In the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), two minor characters spot King Arthur. They know who he is because, as one of them points out: ‘He must be a king … he hasn’t got shit all over him like the rest of us.’ The scene encapsulates an enduring belief about the Middle Ages: medieval people were dirty. Some might have heard Elizabeth I’s famous (but probably apocryphal) declaration that she had a bath once a month whether she needed it or not. In a time when only the richest enjoyed running water in their homes, very few Europeans had the resources to abide by 21st-century standards of hygiene, even if they wanted to.

At the same time, the filthiness of medieval people should not be exaggerated. Much evidence shows that personal hygiene mattered to medieval people, that they made an effort to keep clean. Popular advice books recommended washing the hands, face and teeth on rising, plus further handwashing throughout the day. Other body parts were washed less frequently: daily washing of the genitals, for example, was believed to be a Jewish custom, and thus viewed with suspicion by the non-Jewish population. Nevertheless, many households owned freestanding wooden tubs for bathing, and late-medieval cities usually had public bathhouses. Medical compendia gave recipes for washing hair, whitening teeth and improving skin. Medieval clergymen complained about the vanity of people who spent too much time fussing over their appearance.

Nor were medieval efforts to keep clean limited to the body. Delicate outer garments might be brushed and perfumed, but undergarments and household linens were frequently laundered. Advice books suggested that underwear should be changed every day, and household accounts are scattered with payments to washerwomen. Large rivers often had special jetties for the use of washerwomen: London’s was known as ‘La Lavenderebrigge’. 


Read the whole thing.

Medieval Dragons

Cait Stevenson on Medievalists.net:

Seven Things You Didn’t Know About Medieval Dragons

1. Medieval people understood what a “dragon” was.

I say dragon, and you visualize a giant fire breathing, flying lizard with legs, maybe claws, maybe a voice. I know, and you know. Dragons are that iconic a cultural image. The same was true of the Middle Ages. As Paul Acker showed, Norse sagas spend basically no time describing the physical characteristics of their dragon foes—despite the physical form of the dragon being crucial to the hero’s contest against it and the audience’s ability to follow the battle.

2. Or rather, medieval people understood what dragons, plural, were. 

In the thirteenth-century Norse poem Fáfnismál, Sigurd digs himself a pit where he knows the greedy dwarf-turned-dragon Fáfnir will slither. Our hero stabs upwards into the dragon’s belly. This feat makes no sense to an audience expecting a monster who lumbers on legs or takes to the skies. Just like we “know” what a dragon is from general cultural awareness, medieval people knew.

Fáfnir is, for all intents and purposes, a giant snake. He spews clouds and rivers of venom like a giant snake. A frequent attribute of dragons in medieval bestiaries (descriptions of animals and their characteristics meant as moral lessons for people) recounts their ability to kill animals as large as elephants via constriction and suffocation… you know, like a giant snake. But nobody blinks when Chretien de Troyes’ great dragon in Yvain is “so full of evil that fire leapt from its mouth,” or when the Norse adaptation of Chretien’s Arthuriana lets its dragon dispense with the cooking and get right to the eating. Sometimes dragons are specified as flugdrekar – flying dragons – and sometimes simple drekar and ormar (“worms”) are described as taking to flight. What medieval people understood by “dragon” was a much wider range than the color-coding schemes of modern fantasy. Which brings us to the most excellent variety of medieval dragon:

3. Before they acquired the ability to fly, medieval dragons dropped out of trees onto people’s heads.

As Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, an important source for medieval encyclopedic and bestiary writing, has it:

The iaculus throws itself from the branches of trees; dragons are dangerous not only to the feet but also fly like a missile from a catapult.

Isidore of Seville in the early seventh century clarified that the iaculusindeed takes its name from the javelin, and the Norse Rómverja sagadraws out this point in excruciating detail:

struck under the cheek that man who was called Paulus and the serpent flew straight into his head and out of his cheek

Read the rest at the link.

Maken Engelond Gret Ayeyn

The great Paul Strohm in Lapham’s Quarterly (hat tip: Arts and Letters Daily) discusses late-fourteenth and early-fifteenth century English trade, in particular the perennial conflict between the ideas of free trade and protectionism. A sample:

Giano’s killing was one episode in the larger story of international trade and its accompanying rivalries in the later European Middle Ages. The so-called Dark Ages were never as dark as their name would imply; hucksters, peddlers, chapmen, and other minor players had always plied Europe’s roads and dealt their goods. But it was in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that high-volume international trading seriously resumed, with trade in wool one of its major drivers. In those centuries, the Port of London alone handled almost a thousand arriving and departing trading vessels a year, and numerous other English ports (including the newly active ports of Dover and Southampton) were claiming a role. Half this activity was devoted to wool, and it generated immense wealth for the realm, conferring fortunes on a small and monopolistic group of men. These successful profiteers were not the sheepherders and shearers of the provinces, nor the merchant sailors who braved the seas, but the entrepreneurial middlemen who collected revenues on exported wool. A close-knit group of at most several hundred men, they formed allegiances and confederations throughout the mercantile establishment that dominated the leading guilds and ran the city of London.

Read the whole thing, which concludes that the author of the protectionist Libel of English Policy (1438) may be considered a Brexiteer avant la lettre, “laying early foundations for varieties of economic nationalism now returning to contemporary vogue.”

Medieval Hand Grenades

From the Daily Mail, courtesy Tim Furnish, who comments that they’ve found the real “Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch“!

Now that’s a time bomb! 700-year-old hand grenade used in the Crusades is found off the coast of Israel

By Richard Gray

The crusades saw Christian soldiers wield a terrifying array of medieval weaponry, including powerful crossbows, wickedly spiked maces and swords large enough to cleave a man in two.

But in the bloody battles over the Holy Land, the crusaders faced, and perhaps also used, weapons that were far ahead of their time – hand grenades.

Now one of these early explosive devices has been pulled from the sea in northern Israel.

Although they rose to prominence as weapons during the 20th century, grenades have a long history.

They are first thought to have been used by the Byzantine Empire from around the seventh century AD. Clay vessels were filled with flammable liquid known as Greek fire and flung at the enemy.

They were often piled into catapults to increase the range and devastation they caused.

They were popular weapons in naval battles as the fire could easily spread on ships and cause devastation.

More at the link.

Arthurianism in Early Plantagenet England

My friend Chris Berard is interviewed for Boydell’s Medieval Herald about his new book:

What would you most like readers to take from your book? 

I want my readers to see that the legend of King Arthur, as written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, encapsulates the ‘medieval cultural synthesis’ of the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Celtic-Teutonic traditions. I describe Arthur in my book as a composite figure, a “best of” kings compilation. In Arthur one finds dimensions of King David, Alexander the Great, King Æthelstan, King Canute, Charlemagne, and the early Norman kings of England. Geoffrey’s Arthur can be understood as a patriotic resistance fighter and as a champion of established institutional authority. Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain was to the post-Conquest kings of England what Virgil’s Aeneid was to Caesar Augustus. In the History of the Kings of Britain, we find a divinely-ordained, manifest destiny of imperial attainment; recurrent patterns of history that provide an intoxicating blend of mystery and meaning to the past, present and future; instruction on good kingship and good vassalage; and hope for an idyllic future, which can be described as a more perfect version of an already idealized past. The breadth of sources and traditions that Geoffrey drew upon when constructing Arthur combined with his tailoring of the figure to appeal to the particular imperial ambitions of England’s monarchs was the key to Arthur’s enduring appeal. Arthur is a king for all seasons. I seek to situate the medieval Arthurian tradition within the broader context and patterns of Western Civilization, and my hope is that my work will contribute to the recognition of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain as an integral part of the western canon.

More at the link.

Henry V

My wife and I enjoyed seeing Henry V at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse in Atlanta this evening. I was amused to see so many women actors on stage playing male parts, as though the director was saying, well, in Elizabethan times men played women, so now we’re going to reverse it.

But I was less amused to see King Henry V bearing a shield that looked like this:

Wikipedia.

As king, of course, Henry should have borne a shield that looked like this:

Arms of Henry IV from 1406, arms of Henry V. Wikipedia.

Edward III, back in 1340, was the first English king to quarter the arms of France with the arms of England, by means of illustrating his claim to the throne of France. At the time France was represented by Azure, semé de lys Or – that is, a blue field strewn with an indeterminate number of fleur de lys – “France Ancient” in the lingo.

Arms of Edward III from 1340, arms of Richard II, arms of Henry IV to 1406. Wikipedia.

In 1376, King Charles V of France reduced the number of fleur de lys in the French royal arms to three (“France Modern”) and King Henry IV of England followed suit with own his coat of arms in 1406 or so. Henry V inherited this coat of arms, along with the throne, in 1413.

So where does the coat of arms France Ancient quartering England with a label of five points per pale Ermine and France come from? Apparently it was borne by Henry V’s father Henry IV, before he became king, for a brief period in 1399, when he was both Duke of Hereford and Duke of Lancaster. The label was reused by Henry V’s brother John, Duke of Bedford, who served as his regent for France, but the first and fourth quarters of his coat of arms were France Modern, not France Ancient.

Arms of John, Duke of Bedford (d. 1435). Wikipedia.

I realize that few people care about heraldry as I do – and that critiquing an entire production of a Shakespearean play based on a single anachronism is pedantic and philistine! But I still think that with a little extra effort, you can get such details right. The Shakespeare Tavern is proud to claim that it’s an Original Practice playhouse; I can assure you that Shakespeare’s audience would have noticed this.

Or was it intentional? This is always the question when faced with apparently problematic details. Richard II had exiled the future Henry IV in 1397, and upon the death of Henry’s father John of Gaunt in 1399, seized the Duchy of Lancaster. Henry’s return to England reclaim his rightful inheritance gathered so much support that it turned into a revolution, deposing Richard and installing Henry as king. By using the arms of his father “coming to reclaim his inheritance,” is the play suggesting that Henry V’s French expedition is somehow parallel to the Lancastrian Revolution – that Henry V is attempting to live up to the example of his father, who did the same thing in 1399?

Perhaps. Personally I don’t like having to make the “fanboy save,” as I heard it described once.

UPDATE: The Shakespeare Tavern responds:

Unfortunately, I think it wasn’t as much an artistic decision as a practical one. We didn’t have the correct shield already “in stock” as it were, and just used the shield that we already had available. As artistic director Jeff Watkins likes to say: “We don’t do history, we tell stories.”