Pointy Shoes

From Atlas Obscura (hat tip: Deb Salata):

IN 1463, LONDON OUTLAWED THE shoes of its fanciest men. These dapper lords had grown ridiculous in their dapperness, and had taken to ambling streets shod in long, carrot-shaped shoes that tapered to impish tips, some as long as five inches beyond the toe. These shoes were called “crakows” or “poulaines” (a term also used to refer to the tips alone), and the court of King Edward IV eventually found them offensive enough to pass a sumptuary law prohibiting shoe tips that extended over two inches beyond the toe.

Perhaps one of the silliest and most fascinating trends in medieval fashion, these shoes probably first emerged around 1340 in Krakow, Poland—both names refer to this origin—according to Rebecca Shawcross, the author of Shoes: An Illustrated History. Shawcross also serves as the shoe resources officer at Northampton Museum and Art Gallery in England, which claims to have the world’s largest collection of shoes (at 12,000 pairs, but alas, just one intact pair of poulaines).

Europe had flirted with long-toed footwear since the 1200s, but never to this length, or with this saturation. The lords and, to a lesser extent, ladies of 15th-century Europe wore these shoes almost exclusively for over a century. Every person who could afford shoes wore poulaines, though the longer tips were generally reserved for nobility who could afford to wander around in footwear seemingly designed for pratfalls.

For the glitterati of medieval Europe, poulaines were less a fad than a symbol. “If you were a man of status and you had enough wealth, you wanted to show that off,” Shawcross says. “And to do that, you had to take the toe to the extreme.” Shoes with absurdly long toes were expensive and would clearly impair the wearer from efficiently partaking in any kind of physical labor. So they were also an indicator of leisure and luxury, free of extraneous effort or the tyranny of practicality.

More at the link. Happy New Year!

Barking Abbey

Interesting article by Eleanor Parker on History Today:

The Cultured Women of Essex

We should take more notice of the work of those once despised and disregarded.

‘It is asked of all who hear this work that they do not revile it because a woman translated it. That is no reason to despise it, nor to disregard the good in it.’ Many female writers have probably said, or wanted to say, something very like these words. They were written in the 12th century, around 1170, by a woman who composed one of the earliest texts from England known to be by a female author. She was a nun of Barking Abbey in Essex and, though we do not know her name, her words – and her work – demand attention.

The work she asks us not to disregard is a narrative of the life of Edward the Confessor, written in Anglo-Norman French (‘the false French of England’, the nun modestly calls it). Its author was an educated woman, able to turn a Latin source into engagingly chatty French verse and Barking Abbey must have been a congenial environment for her. Founded in the seventh century, Barking was one of the foremost nunneries in the country, a wealthy abbey which was home to many well-connected aristocratic and royal women. Its abbesses were frequently appointed from the sisters and daughters of kings and, around the time our nun wrote her Vie d’Edouard le Confesseur, Thomas Becket’s sister Mary – herself a woman of literary interests – was made abbess of Barking in compensation for her brother’s murder.

Across its long history of more than 850 years, Barking Abbey was a centre for women’s learning. It has been described as ‘perhaps the longest-lived … institutional centre of literary culture for women in British history’ and it had a strong literary and scholarly tradition that spanned the Middle Ages. In the early medieval period, authors such as Aldhelm and Goscelin of St Bertin wrote learned Latin works for the nuns of Barking; later, several nuns composed their own poetry and prose – even their own plays. In the 12th century, when women were increasingly becoming patrons, readers and, in some cases, authors of literary texts, Barking produced more than one talented writer. The first female author in England whose name we know, Clemence of Barking, was a nun there; she wrote an accomplished Life of St Catherine of Alexandria, a saint associated with female learning.

Read the whole thing, and a followup blog post about it. A choice excerpt:

I’m a UK academic writing primarily for UK audiences (not that I’m not glad to have other readers too!), but online those distinctions are blurred; other academics will pass judgement, from half a world away, on conversations they only half understand, and some of them are very resistant to the idea that in different contexts it might be necessary to speak in different languages, to ask and answer different questions. Even the basic idea that words have different connotations in different varieties of English seems to surprise them. In their particular cultural context, medieval history intersects with questions of identity and exclusion in very different ways, and they won’t listen to anyone who tries to tell them things don’t operate like that everywhere in the world. We all have to do what seems right to us in our own context, and I’m sure they are trying to do that; I only wish they were prepared to consider that the rest of us are trying to do the same, just not in the same way. Some feel entitled to demand that every discussion which touches on ‘their’ subject should address their own immediate social and political concerns – not those of (for instance) the people of Barking, of whose existence they are so loftily unconscious. Some of these people also display a deeply exclusionary view of academic status and the privileges it confers on them, and an attitude little better than contempt for the public at large; if you don’t have a doctorate, you’re not worthy of their time or attention. I’ve been observing this tendency for several years, but it’s particularly noticeable at the moment. Since these academics don’t follow British and Irish politics, they really can’t see why this is such an especially bad time to be making pronouncements on how to use words like ‘English’ and ‘British’, without any understanding of the contemporary sensitivities surrounding those terms, and they seem completely unaware of the wider social context in which UK medievalists have to consider the issue of public engagement. I think some of them truly would prefer it if they could stop the public taking any interest in medieval history at all, because that interest is, to them, always inherently problematic; but while they can decide for themselves if that’s the case in their own countries, it’s absolutely out of the question here. 

The Convivencia

An alternate view of The Myth of Andalusian Paradise that I blogged about earlier:

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is a self-proclaimed corrective to a “wide-spread belief that it was a wonderful place of tolerance and convivencia of three cultures under the benevolent supervision of enlightened Muslim rulers” (2). The book’s author, Darío Fernández-Morera is an associate professor at Northwestern, a critic of Cervantes and other early modern Spanish literati who positions himself as a “Machiavellian” (nope, not kidding, 3) interpreter of the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the book is even more politicizing than the work it discusses and tilts, appropriately for a volume written by a Cervantes scholar, at giants that turn out to be nothing more than badly misperceived windmills.

The Myth consists of over 350 pages of what a colleague poetically calls “convivencia sneering,” a resentful drive to first misconstrue nearly 80 years of scholarship on medieval Spain as a mere celebration of the convivencia, or living-togetether-ness of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and then tear down the newly constructed straw man. “Convivencia sneering” is often found in two guises, both of which are manifest in The Myth: first, the misrepresentation of scholarship on the Jews, Christians, and Muslims of medieval Spain as a uniformly idealizing and one-dimensional endeavor divorced from research into the real “realidad histórica”; and second, treating works written for a popular audience, most notably María Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World, as the scholarship in the field while ignoring works written for a scholarly audience and refusing to treat writing for those two audiences as different beasts.

The author claims that contemporary scholarship on medieval Iberia perpetrates the myth of a paradise in with Jews, Christians, and Muslims all more or less got along, and that this view has been deceitfully conveyed to a gullible reading public. His book will set the record straight. In other words, his argument is that a caricature of convivencia has been perpetrated on an unsuspecting audience by scholars who are, in turn, too afraid of the Islamic world and too enamored of it to tell the truth about how horrendous Islam was and is. He supports this claim through a series of misrepresentations of the primary sources and ofthe state of the field facilitated by a desperately poor handle on the relevant secondary bibliography and a blinding need to prove the evil of Islam and the darkness of the Middle Ages.

Read the whole thing

Agincourt Museum

From History Extra (hat tip: Richard Utz):

True-to-scale battle numbers and 15th-century life: look inside the revamped Agincourt museum

As a renewed Agincourt museum is set to open near the site of the pivotal Hundred Years’ War battle between English and French armies, History Extra spoke to Professor Anne Curry about the historical facts that drive the new attraction.

It’s one of English history’s most celebrated victories, a battle in which Henry V’s invading force toppled a numerically superior French army near Agincourt. With the help of Shakespeare and company, this triumph of the Hundred Years’ War has come to represent an ultimate battle against the odds.

The scale of the military upset is just one of the myths that will be redressed for visitors to the revamped ‘Azincourt 1415’ which opens on 17 September at the Centre Historique Médiéval in Azincourt in north-east France.

Professor Anne Curry of the University of Southampton, whose work focuses on the records for the English and French armies in 1415 at the battle, explains how when the museum first opened in 2001 it held to an “old-fashioned interpretation” that Henry V’s forces were outnumbered by as many as five to one. Professor Curry has worked with the Centre on the new exhibition.

“There had been a tendency to use printed works of the 16th century rather than returning to the sources that for the period itself, such as financial records of the Crown on both sides of the channel, or royal orders,” says Curry. Such sources can show us that Henry V set out with 12,000 paid soldiers, yet when counting the losses documented through sick lists and also the garrison left to defend the French port of Harfleur, the actual number of men available to Henry V for battle is closer to 8,500. French forces would have numbered around 12,000.

More at the link

L’Anse aux Meadows

Flags of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, and the United Nations, at the L’Anse aux Meadows visitors’ centre. 

As promised, a post about L’Anse aux Meadows, an archaeological site of some importance, located at the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland and maintained as a National Heritage Site by Parks Canada. The site, discovered in the 1960s, offers indisputable proof that Scandinavians settled in the New World around the year 1000, almost five hundred years before Columbus landed in the Bahamas; for this reason it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also quite popular and provides a lot of the branding for local tourism (the Viking Trail, the Viking Lodge, the Great Viking Feast, etc.)

Several Icelandic sagas describe voyages made by the Norse from their settlements in Greenland to mainland North America in search of needed supplies, chiefly timber. The explorers visited places they named “Helluland,” “Markland,” and “Vinland” – and since the nineteenth century archaeologists have tried to identify them. It is reckoned that “Helluland” is Baffin Island, and “Markland” somewhere on the coast of Labrador. Vinland was more elusive: the sagas describe it as a place where wild grapes grew, which could be on the southern shore of of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, or south of that in New England. 

Vínland, with an acute accent over the “i”, means “wineland,” which would be a natural name for a place with wild grapes. The Norwegian husband-and-wife team of Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad, however, hypothesized that it was simply “Vinland,” without the accent, which would mean “pastureland,” with northern Newfoundland being a promising site. Visiting L’Anse aux Meadows in 1960, he was shown a series of low turf walls that the locals referred to as “the Indian mounds.” Excavations throughout the 1960s showed that these were the remains of buildings similar to those found in Iceland and Greenland and dating from around AD 1000. What really established the site as Norse, however, were such discoveries as a spindle whorl used for weaving, a stone with a depression in the middle (interpreted either as a lamp or a pivot stone for a door), a bronze fastening pin, and the remains of a forge that had produced iron slag, and the remains of iron rivets used for boat repair. No Natives at this time used such technology. 

Remains of the Viking buildings.

As it turns out, L’Anse aux Meadows is probably not Vinland, which really ought to have a long “i” and mean “Wineland,” as the sagas suggest. Birgitta Linderoth Wallace points out, in Westward Vikings, that the word “vin” as “pasture” had fallen out of use by 1000. She suggests that Vinland was likely somewhere in northern New Brunswick, and that L’Anse aux Meadows is Straumfjord (“Current Ford”) mentioned in Erik the Red’s Saga, a sort of base camp that served as a gateway to Vinland and a place to gather goods before shipping them back to Greenland. The inhabitants at the site did not practice agriculture, but they could spend the winter there if need be, in the substantial turf buildings they had constructed.

Model of the site.

Will we ever discover where in “Vinland” the Norse actually came ashore? Wallace claims that it’s unlikely. Any temporary camps the Norse may have set up in New Brunswick would have left little evidence behind, or at least such evidence would be indistinguishable from sites of Native provenance. Even items of Viking origin would not be proof of an actual encampment, but simply of trade (such items can travel a long way from their point of origin, through many intermediaries). 

Parks Canada reconstruction of Norse buildings at L’Anse aux Meadows.

L’Anse aux Meadows was not occupied for very long, perhaps less than ten years in total (at least, if you don’t subscribe to the most recent scholarship on the place). Our guide claimed that the Ingstads, and subsequent archaeologists, have actually found very little at the site, evidence that it was deliberately abandoned (if it were suddenly and hastily abandoned, the occupants would have left a lot more stuff, since they wouldn’t have had time to clean it up). He also claimed that the abandonment was as a result of the conversion of the Norse to Christianity, which also took place around the year 1000. With conversion, trade with Europe became much easier, obviating the need to sail to Vinland, although Wallace suggests, from evidence uncovered in Greenland, that the Vinland explorers were already Christian. Either way, it was likely just as easy to sail to Norway as it was to Newfoundland, where more interesting goods could be acquired, and where there was a bigger market for Greenland’s walrus ivory. And in any event, Wallace estimates that maintaining the site was too expensive in terms of manpower – it would have required some 5% of the adult male population of Greenland, which was simply too much.

Reconstructed forge, L’Anse aux Meadows.

It is certainly worth a visit if you ever get there. The Visitors’ Centre is excellent, with thorough and informative exhibits, and a great gift shop. The reconstructed buildings, complete with re-enactors, are also a lot of fun. 

But part of me wonders whether it isn’t somewhat ethnocentric to make such a big deal about L’Anse aux Meadows. The place is significant, but far more significant is Port au Choix, an archaeological site which we visited as we drove up the northern peninsula. It features six thousand years of continuous occupation by successive Native peoples, including the Maritime Archaic people, the Dorset people, the Groswater people and the Beothuks, all of whom fished and hunted seals. This place deserves to be better known.

The trouble is that it would be politically very difficult to have re-enactors playing Indians. Even the diorama, you’ll notice, does not feature three-dimensional figures.

Treasure

From the BBC (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Detectorists find huge Chew Valley Norman coin hoard

 

A huge hoard of silver coins dating back to the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings could be declared as treasure.

The 2,528 silver coins were found in the Chew Valley, north-east Somerset, by a group of metal detectorists.

Lisa Grace and Adam Staples, who unearthed the bulk of the hoard, said: “We’ve been dreaming of this for 15 years but it’s finally come true.”

The British Museum said it was the second largest find of Norman coins ever in the UK.

Mr Staples, from Derby, added: “It was totally unbelievable – to find one would be an exceptional day metal detecting.

“To find two unrelated coins would be almost impossible. And when there were more beeps, from two to 10, from 50 to 100, to wow how many are there?

“From then on it was just crazy.”

More at the link. Sure wish I could make a find like this! 

Sutton Hoo

From the East Anglian Daily Times:

Sutton Hoo unveils new £4 million transformation

The National Trust has finally revealed its largest ever investment at the world famous Sutton Hoo royal burial ground – and the public will today be able to enjoy an improved visitor experience.

Thanks to the £4 million renovation of the historic site, visitors will be more intimately connected with the story of one of the most significant archaeological finds in British history.

Since the discovery of the ship burial in 1939, the story has unfolded with every dig made but unfortunately was overlooked at the time due to the impending conflict of the Second World War.

Now archaeologists and historians, alongside Mike Hopwood, visitor experience project manager, Ian Barnes the National Trust head of archaeology and Nick Collinson the general manager of Sutton Hoo, want the story of King Raedwald’s final resting place in East Anglia to finally be heard and given the attention it deserves.

Tens of thousands of people visit the site alongside the River Deben every year and the trust is hoping that the renovations will inspire even more interest in the fascinating tale of royal sophistication, privilege and status.

More at the link, including plenty of images.

Hermits and Anchorites

Mary Wellesley in the London Review of Books revisits a distinctive aspect of medieval piety:

The cell was the size of a large cupboard. There wasn’t enough room to lie down. I’d come late on a winter afternoon; the light was seeping away. What light there was came through the ‘squint’ – the small window that looked onto the sanctuary. It was a cruciform shape and through it I could see a single candle standing on the altar. I turned on the torch on my phone. In front of the squint was an oak shelf with a dark circle on its edge where the wood had been rubbed smooth. Above it was a notice that read: ‘Please put nothing on the ancient sill. This was the prayer-desk of the anchorites for several centuries.’ I knelt in front of it. If the floor had been at the same height in the medieval period, the desk would have been too high for an anchorite to rest their elbows on. Had the indentation been made by pairs of hands gripping the edge of the ledge? I wondered at those pairs of hands. This cell had been a coffin to its inhabitants – once inside, they were never to come out. They may have been buried beneath my feet, in this tiny anchorhold in the church of St Nicholas in the village of Compton in Surrey.

An anchorite or anchoress permanently encloses themselves in a cell to live a life of prayer and contemplation. The word comes from the Greek ἀναχωρεῖν (‘anachorein’) meaning ‘to retire or retreat’. Anchoritism emerged in the late 11th century in tandem with a monastic reform movement and a growth in spiritual enthusiasm that is sometimes referred to as the Medieval Reformation. In the Middle Ages in England, as elsewhere in Europe, the practice was not uncommon – there were around a hundred recluses across the country in the 12th century; over the 13th century, the figure increased to two hundred. Women significantly outnumbered men, by as much as three to one.

I came out of the church into the empty churchyard. Except for the sound of passing cars, I was alone. The anchorites who had lived in the cell probably rarely felt that. Anchorites withdrew from the world in one sense, but anchored to their church, they were at the centre of community life. Anchorholds were often situated in prominent places in medieval English towns – sometimes along the routes of liturgical processions. In London there were many cells along the old city walls. As Claire Dowding has noted, they formed a ‘ring of prayer’ encircling the capital.

Life as an anchoress began with a death. On entering their cell for the first time, the recludensus (novice recluse) would climb into a grave dug inside the cell. The enclosure ritual is a piece of macabre high drama. In places the liturgy is indistinguishable from a funeral service. When the moment for enclosure arrived, the anchoress-to-be would process with the celebrant, choir and others out of the church and into the graveyard, as the choir sang ‘In paradisum deducant te angeli’ – traditionally sung as a body is conveyed to a grave. The procession would arrive at the cell built onto the side of the church, usually – in England – on the north side, where the wind was most biting and no direct sunlight fell. Some ordines (liturgical directions) state that the recludensus should pause at the opening of the cell and the bishop should say, ‘Si vult intrare, intret’ (‘if he/she wishes to go in, allow him/her to go in’). An antiphon drawn from the Book of Tobias was sung, concluding with the words, ‘Be of good courage, thy desire from God is at hand.’ The anchoress would then climb into the grave, where she was sprinkled with earth – ashes to ashes, dust to dust – and the door of the cell was bolted.

More at the link.

Medieval Details

Currently reading Frederick Forsyth’s The Negotiator (1989). I was pleased to note that the late great Maurice Keen has a cameo role in it:

When Simon and Jenny came back he nodded benignly and told them: “You’re with Dr. Keen, I believe. Corner of the quadrangle, up the stairs to the top.”

When they reached the cluttered room at the top of the stairs their tutor in medieval history and introduced themselves, Jenny called him “Professor” and Simon called him “Sir.” Dr. Keen beamed at them over his glasses.

“Now,” he said merrily, “there are two things and only two that I do not allow. One is wasting your time and mine; the other is calling me ‘sir.’ ‘Dr. Keen’ will do nicely. Then we’ll graduate to ‘Maurice.’ By the way, Jenny, I’m not a professor either. Professors have chairs, and as you see I do not; at least not on in good repair.”

He gestured happily at the collection of semi-collapsed upholstery and bade his students be comfortable. Simon sank his frame into a legless Queen Anne chair that left him three inches off the floor, and together they began to consider Jan Hus and the Hussite revolution in medieval Bohemia. Simon grinned. He knew he was going to enjoy Oxford.

Alas, the author should have consulted with Keen about the contents of his book. On page 187 we read:

He had a light lunch in a small sandwich bar off the street, called Crutched Friars, where monks once hobbled with one leg bound behind them to cause pain for the greater glory of God, and he made up his mind what he would do.

Needless to say, the “Crutched Friars” didn’t use that type of crutch, at least not habitually. Their name derives from the Latin Fratres Cruciferi, meaning “cross-bearing brethren,” and refers to the staves that they carried with them, which were surmounted by crucifixes.

It’s somewhat like how Edmund Crouchback, younger brother of King Edward I, was not actually deformed, but simply a crusader, “crouchback” being a corruption of “cross-back,” referring to the crosses that crusaders would stitch onto their clothing.

One of my happiest moments in graduate school was when I was reading Keen’s Origins of the English Gentleman (2002), and I encountered a sentiment that sounded familiar. “I made that point myself once,” I said to my wife, who, with eminent good sense, replied, “you should check the footnote.” Sure enough, the reference was to “J. Good, ‘London Guild and Diocesan Heraldry during the Reformation,’ The Coat of Arms 179 (Autumn 1997): 96-102.” Man, I was over the moon!

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.