Medieval Chronicle

My grad school colleague Ellen Arnold has an interesting post up about medieval chronicles, and imagines the events of this year rendered as a chronicle entry. Of course, designating the president-elect as a “tyrant” rather ruins the effect, as very few medieval chroniclers would have courted the displeasure of the local ruler with such a gratuitous insult. Other than that, it sounds about right:

MMXVI. In the eighth and final year of Obama, the kings of Thailand and Cuba died. An assembly met in Paris to protect Creation, and the Pope declared a Jubilee year. Many entertainers were lost, including the Prince. In the Americas, infants were born with small heads, the drought continued, fires burned, and buffalo herds gathered to support the Dakota. Earthquakes in Italy. The world was warmer than ever before in human memory, and there was civil war in Syria. Fleeing the rise of a new Islamic State, people flooded into Europe, and Britain fled Europe. There was a total eclipse of the sun, a supermoon was seen, and octopodes walked on land. Baby bears were triumphant in sports and born at the Columbus zoo. A tyrant was chosen to lead America, and Pokemon were sighted throughout the world.

Read the whole thing.

Medieval Book Curses

I recall a notice at Dartmouth’s Baker Library on the way out of the stacks, a reproduction of a sign from the University of Salamanca threatening people with excommunication if they steal or damage the books in any way. This is what came up on an image search; it looks familiar to me:

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And now, courtesy my colleague Curt Lindquist, an Atlas Obscura article on the bad things that monks would promise to those who messed with their book production:

In the Middle Ages, creating a book could take years. A scribe would bend over his copy table, illuminated only by natural light—candles were too big a risk to the books—and spend hours each day forming letters, by hand, careful never to make an error. To be a copyist, wrote one scribe, was painful: “It extinguishes the light from the eyes, it bends the back, it crushes the viscera and the ribs, it brings forth pain to the kidneys, and weariness to the whole body.”

Given the extreme effort that went into creating books, scribes and book owners had a real incentive to protect their work. They used the only power they had: words. At the beginning or the end of books, scribes and book owners would write dramatic curses threatening thieves with pain and suffering if they were to steal or damage these treasures.

They did not hesitate to use the worst punishments they knew—excommunication from the church and horrible, painful death. Steal a book, and you might be cleft by a demon sword, forced to sacrifice your hands, have your eyes gouged out, or end in the “fires of hell and brimstone.”

“These curses were the only things that protected the books,” says Marc Drogin, author of Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. “Luckily, it was in a time where people believed in them. If you ripped out a page, you were going to die in agony. You didn’t want to take the chance.”

More at the link.

On a similar (if slightly less apocalyptic) level, a friend of mine once printed up a number of bookplates reading “The wicked borroweth, and returneth not again” (Psalm 37.21) for placement in the prayer books of the church that he was priest of.

Robert the Monk

One of my favorite pieces of medieval rhetoric is Pope Urban II’s speech at the Council of Clermont in 1095, when he called the First Crusade. The version I have my students read is by Robert the Monk, which was written some twenty years afterwards, but is very much from the mental world of the Crusades. I reprint it from the ever-useful Internet Medieval Sourcebook, with interlineated comments.

“Oh, race of Franks, race from across the mountains, race beloved and chosen by God – as is clear from many of your works – set apart from all other nations by the situation of your country as well as by your Catholic faith and the honor which you render to the holy Church: to you our discourse is addressed, and for you our exhortations are intended. We wish you to know what a grievous cause has led us to your country, for it is the imminent peril threatening you and all the faithful which has brought us hither.

First rule of giving a speech: flatter your audience!

“From the confines of Jerusalem and from the city of Constantinople a grievous report has gone forth and has repeatedly been brought to our ears; namely, that a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race wholly alienated from God, ‘a generation that set not their heart aright and whose spirit was not steadfast with God’ [Ps. 78.8], violently invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by pillage and fire.

Second rule: denigrate the opponent. They were Turks, not Persians, but the latter word adds a nice classical touch. Note the Pope’s use of scripture to buttress his insults.

They have led away a part of the captives into their own country, and a part have they have killed by cruel tortures. They have either destroyed the churches of God or appropriated them for the rites of their own religion. They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font. When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostrate upon the ground. Others they bind to a post and pierce with arrows. Others they compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow. What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent. The kingdom of the Greeks is now dismembered by them and has been deprived of territory so vast in extent that it could be traversed in two months’ time.

Brilliant stuff. Lurid tales of inventive tortures and executions, with a good deal of blasphemous behavior for good measure. You can tell he’s addressing a male audience, because he passes over the rape of women but dwells on forced circumcision – the idea of sharp objects near a man’s groin are always going to make him pay attention.

“On whom, therefore, is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you, you upon whom, above all other nations, God has conferred remarkable glory in arms, great courage, bodily activity, and strength to humble the heads of those who resist you? Let the deeds of your ancestors encourage you and incite your minds to manly achievements – the greatness of King Charlemagne, and of his son Louis, and of your other monarchs, who have destroyed the kingdoms of the Turks and have extended the sway of Church over lands previously possessed by the pagan. Let the holy sepulcher of our Lord and Saviour, which is possessed by unclean nations, especially arouse you, and the holy places which are now treated, with ignominy and irreverently polluted with the filth of the unclean. Oh, most valiant soldiers and descendants of invincible ancestors, do not be degenerate, but recall the valor of your progenitors.

Be worthy of your ancestors! This is always an effective appeal, especially when one of those ancestors is the mighty Charlemagne. Calif Hakim ordered the Holy Sepulcher destroyed in 1009; clearly the memory of this animated the Crusades almost ninety years later.

“But if you are hindered by love of children, parents, or of wife, remember what the Lord says in the Gospel, ‘He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me’, ‘Every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life’ [Matt. 10.37; 19.29]. Let none of your possessions retain you, nor solicitude for your family affairs.

I’m not sure that this is quite what Jesus had in mind when he said these things, but hey, why not use them? WWJD?

For this land which you inhabit, shut in on all sides by the seas and surrounded by the mountain peaks, is too narrow for your large population; nor does it abound in wealth; and it furnishes scarcely food enough for its cultivators. Hence it is that you murder and devour one another, that you wage war, and that very many among you perish in intestine strife.’

This is tendentious, but revelatory. In some ways the Crusades were an admission of failure on the part of the Church – a big “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Knights weren’t always upstanding or chivalrous. Sometimes they could be like armed gangs, and they loved fighting each other when there weren’t any real wars to join. They didn’t want to kill each other in tournaments, but sometimes they did, and the Church hated this needless shedding of Christian blood. It repeatedly proscribed tourneying, to no avail. Finally, it turned around and blessed this class of people – only if they killed non-Christians, far from Europe. So here the pope is trying to denigrate France – you’re a great people, but your land is bad, and you need to get out of it. There’s not enough of it for all of you, which is why you fight each other! (Probably not true: they liked fighting each other anyway – it’s what they did.)

“Let hatred therefore depart from among you, let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissensions and controversies slumber. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher – wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves. That land which, as the Scripture says, ‘floweth with milk and honey’ [Num. 13.7, Num. 14.28, Lev. 20.24, etc.] was given by God into the power of the children of Israel. Jerusalem is the center of the earth; the land is fruitful above all others, like another paradise of delights. This spot the Redeemer of mankind has made illustrious by his advent, has beautified by his sojourn, has consecrated by his passion, has redeemed by his death, has glorified by his burial.

And if France features a good people in a bad land, then Palestine features bad people in a good land! What more natural a thing than to take the good people and give them the good land, as God originally did for the Hebrews? (There are plenty of biblical quotations to justify this.)

“This royal city, however, situated at the center of the earth, is now held captive by the enemies of Christ and is subjected, by those who do not know God, to the worship of the heathen. She seeks, therefore, and desires to be liberated and ceases not to implore you to come to her aid. From you especially she asks succor, because as we have already said, God has conferred upon you above all other nations great glory in arms. Accordingly, undertake this journey eagerly for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the reward of imperishable glory in the kingdom of heaven.”

More praise of his audience, and more denigration of the enemy. Note how here he personifies Jerusalem as a sort of damsel in distress, appealing to the natural protective instincts of his audience (even if this particular aspect of chivalry didn’t really become prominent until later in the Middle Ages). Note too how participating in a Crusade will put you straight on the road to heaven.

When Pope Urban had urbanely [nice!] said these and very similar things, he so centered in one purpose the desires of all who were present that all cried out, “It is the will of God! It is the will of God! [Deus vult! Deus vult!]” When the venerable Roman pontiff heard that, with eyes uplifted to heaven, he gave thanks to God and, commanding silence with his hand, said:

“Most beloved brethren, today is manifest in you what the Lord says in the Gospel, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ [Matt. 18.20]; for unless God had been present in your spirits, all of you would not have uttered the same cry; since, although the cry issued from numerous mouths, yet the origin of the cry as one. Therefore I say to you that God, who implanted is in your breasts, has drawn it forth from you. Let that then be your war cry in combats, because it is given to you by God. When an armed attack is made upon the enemy, this one cry be raised by all the soldiers of God: ‘It is the will of God! It is the will of God!’

A war-cry is always useful, especially one as self-righteous as this!

“And we neither command nor advise that the old or those incapable of bearing arms, undertake this journey. Nor ought women to set out at all without their husbands, or brother, or legal guardians. For such are more of a hindrance than aid, more of a burden than an advantage. Let the rich aid the needy and according to their wealth let them take with them experienced soldiers. The priests and other clerks, whether secular or regulars are not to go without the consent of their bishop; for this journey would profit them nothing if they went without permission. Also, it is not fitting that laymen should enter upon the pilgrimage without the blessing of their priests.

And here we have the equivalent of the middle section of a drug commercial, when they list all the disclaimers (e.g. “pregnant women should not take Propecia or even handle broken tablets for risk of birth defects”). He has riled up the audience, but he knows that enthusiasm is not enough – he wants to inspire a discrete set of competent participants, and to avoid a large, undisciplined mob (unfortunately this didn’t quite work: the first, “People’s” Crusade, was a disaster). But he ends on a high note, and with another brilliantly self-serving scriptural quotation:

“Whoever, therefore, shall determine upon this holy pilgrimage, and shall make his vow to God to that effect, and shall offer himself to him for sacrifice, as a living victim, holy and acceptable to God, shall wear the sign of the cross of the Lord on his forehead or on his breast. When, indeed, he shall return from his journey, having fulfilled his vow, let him place the cross on his back between his shoulders. Thus shall ye, indeed, by this twofold action, fulfill the precept of the Lord, as he commands in the Gospel, ‘he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me’” [Matt. 10.38].

Georgia Medievalists

Another successful meeting of the Georgia Medievalists’ Group took place today at the Atlanta International School. Our lineup included:

Adam Oberlin, Atlanta International School: “Mapping Middle High German”

Ryan Lynch, Columbus State: “Compilation, Transmission, and the Contours  of Textual Reuse in Classical Arabic Historiography”

Jonathan Good, Reinhardt University: “The Arms of St. Michael”

Micheal Crafton, University of West Georgia: “The Bayeux Tapestry: William’s Aeneid”

John Clements, ARMA: “Renaissance martial disciplines and close-combat teachings”

This last presentation was the longest and most enthusiastic. John Clements runs the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts, which is dedicated to recreating late medieval and Renaissance fighting techniques, by closely following the instructions as laid down in any number of early modern fighting manuals. Check out his article “Swordfighting: Not What You Think It Is” for more information.

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John Clements in action.

Some Links

• From TheProvince.com: Evidence that Greeks settled in China in the 200s BC and may have helped to construct the Terra Cotta Army.

• From Curbed.com: “Definitive proof that no one did costume parties like the Bauhaus”

• From the Telegraph: “The Norman Conquest was a disaster for England. We should celebrate Naseby, not Hastings”

Ghent Altarpiece

From the Guardian:

It has been called “the most influential painting ever” and “the world’s most coveted masterpiece”. It is also the most frequently stolen. And now, after a four-year restoration to clean away six centuries of dirt and varnish, the Ghent Altarpiece looks the way it did originally – electric, radiant, gorgeous and glorious.

The altarpiece, also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, was unveiled in St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, today. The work, in its entirety or just in part, has been stolen six times, and found itself at the centre of no fewer than 13 crimes and mysteries, several of which remain unsolved – until now, that is, thanks to the restoration.

The altarpiece was likely begun by Hubert van Eyck in 1426, but he died that year so there has always been a question over whether any of his hand survives in the work. It was completed by his younger brother, Jan, and rapidly became one of the most famous artworks in the world, a point of pilgrimage for educated tourists and artists, something it continues to be today.

More, including illustrations, at the link.

Professor Buzzkill

In honor of the feast of St. Francis, a podcast debunking several myths about him, by my friend Bill Campbell. The teaser:

St. Francis of Assisi is one of the most popular saints in the Christian religion. He’s known as a lover of animals, the first eco-warrior, and a peace-negotiator during the crusades. How much of this is true, and how much is myth? “Make me the instrument of your buzzkilling!”