Medieval Misconception: All Women Were Chattel

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Early medieval women were far from passive damsels waiting for a knight to rescue them.

Of course, this time period is hardly an ideal time for women: childbirth so risky expectant mothers were urged to confess their sins before they went into labor, fathers choosing whom a girl would marry, age 13 considered marriageable, wife beating defined as a right.

But to say that girls were nothing but pawns valued only for their ability to produce sons grossly oversimplifies medieval women’s reality, and it gives a false impression of that women in this era were merely victims who contributed little to their society. Truth is, they tried to shape their situations.

19th century illustration of court ladies
From Braun and Schneider’s 19th century History of Costume (public domain image)

In the mid-eighth century, Saint Boniface depended on both nuns and monks to assist him in his mission to strengthen the church in Europe and spread Christianity. The women left the security of their abbey in Britain and took an uncomfortable, hazardous journey to areas east of the Rhine. Those who were appointed abbesses were not only pious. They were in a position of influence and needed to act independently.

On the secular side, aristocratic women did more than produce an heir, although husbands did try to set aside wives unable to bear children. The queen’s role was “to release the king from all domestic and palace cares, leaving him free to turn his mind to the state of his realm,” according to the ninth-century treatise The Government of the Palace. In an age when the personal and political were intertwined, the queen was the guardian of the treasury, and she controlled access to her husband. When houseguests were foreign dignitaries, royal hospitality was key to international relations.

Bertrada, Charlemagne’s mother, had been her husband’s full partner as they seized the kingdom of Francia in a bloodless coup. After he died, she became a diplomat whose most important mission was peace within her own country. Her sons, Charles and Carloman, each inherited half the kingdom, and Bertrada needed to keep the rivalry between the brothers, ages 20 and 17, from escalating to civil war.

Bertha Broadfoot, 1848, by Eugène Oudiné
Bertha Broadfoot, 1848, by Eugène Oudiné at Luxembourg Garden, Paris. (copyrighted photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons).

Bertrada is just one example. After Carloman died of an illness and Charles seized his dead brother’s lands, the widow Gerberga was not about to let her toddling sons lose their kingdom without a fight. Likely a teenager, Gerberga crossed the Alps with two little boys in tow and sought the aid of Desiderius, the Lombard king furious over Charles’s divorce from his daughter. Later, Charles’s third wife, Hildegard, might have been the one to convince him to make her sons his heirs, perhaps excluding the son by his first marriage.

These historic women are why the heroines of my novels try to solve their own problems, even when it’s painful. Alda in The Cross and the Dragon has a household to run and servants to keep in line. She bargains with the merchants and gives to charity. Leova in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar is a peasant, but at the beginning of the novel, she is a free woman with responsibilities, including children to raise and a house and farm to maintain with her husband. When she is betrayed and sold into slavery, she resents being seen as property and yearns to be a respectable woman again.

The existence of slavery meant that some women were chattel, but so were their male counterparts. But as you will see in this excerpt from The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, even slaves could use their wits to get their way.

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Looking down, Leova stepped forward, her limbs stiff. Her thoughts were consumed with worry that Deorlaf would rush forward to defend her, just as Derwine would. She glanced over her shoulder.

Sunwynn stood rigid. Deorlaf’s body was tense like a cat ready to pounce into a fight. His hand strayed to his belt where his eating knife used to be. Deorlaf, don’t!

“Peace, Deorlaf,” Ragenard called over Leova’s shoulder. “I mean your mother no harm.”

She felt Ragenard’s hands on her sides and started. The touch against her ribs was gentle. Turning toward Ragenard, she met his gaze. She saw no malice in his amber eyes. A smile flickered on his lips. Then, he straightened and dropped his hands.

“You have cared for her well, my lord,” said Ragenard, his chiseled features impassive. “She is comely and has the temper I seek. So many other serving women are crushed and almost useless or lazy and willful. But this colt is worth more than the best maidservant.” He patted the sleek animal’s shoulder. “He is in his prime, obedient to the rein, yet has enough spirit to charge into the hunt.”

Leova seized the opportunity. “You’re right, Ragenard,” she said, hoping to keep the tremor from her voice. “A horse is worth more than me. Take the children as well.”

“Be still, woman,” Pinabel snarled. “Or I’ll rip out your tongue.”

Originally published Sept. 25, 2014 on Every Woman Dreams…

Sources

Medieval Women Monastics: Wisdom’s Wellsprings, edited by Miriam Schmitt, Linda Kulzer

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Walters Scholz with Barbara Rogers

“Pavia and Rome: The Lombard Monarchy and the Papacy in the Eighth Century,” Jan T. Hallenbeck, published in 1982 by Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

“Women at the Court of Charlemagne: A Case of Monstrous Regiment?” Janet L. Nelson, The Frankish World 750-900

“Family Structures and Gendered Power in Early Medieval Kingdoms: The Case for Charlemagne’s Mother,” Janet L. Nelson. Women Rulers in Europe: Agency, Practice and Representation of Political Powers (XII-XVIII)

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Pierre Riche

Saint Lebwin: A Reluctant Dark Ages Missionary Who Found Courage

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While in his native England around 754, Saint Lebwin apparently resisted the call to be a missionary. His 10th century hagiography says God admonished him three times before he got on a boat and traveled to the Continent.

Lebwin’s life in England, including his birth date, is a mystery other than that he was educated in a monastery. His reluctance to leave his homeland is understandable. Travel was uncomfortable and hazardous, and when he got to his destination, he would be preaching to a stubborn audience of pagans. This line of work also was dangerous. Saint Boniface, a Saxon missionary from Britain, and his companions had recently been martyred by a mob of pagans in Frisia.

We don’t know what persuaded Lebwin to go. Maybe he believed that he would someday stand before God and be asked to account for all the souls he could’ve brought to Christ. If he neglected that duty, he would face consequences in the afterlife.

Lebwin’s ship sailed to Utrecht, close to Frisia, and he was greeted by Saint Gregory, who was serving as bishop. A disciple of Boniface since childhood, Gregory might still have been mourning his mentor when Lebwin related God’s command.

Saint Lebwin
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Gregory sent Lebwin and a companion to a settlement on the River IJssel, an area the Frisians and Continental Saxons disputed. Here, he enjoyed the hospitality of an aristocratic Saxon widow named Abachilda, and with her support, found fertile ground. At first, the faithful built a chapel on the river’s west bank. Then they built a church across the river in Deventer, which was perhaps a merchant town. It proved to be a good place of operation for Lebwin. He traveled into Saxon lands and gained many followers, including the nobleman Folcbert of Sudberg.

Converting an aristocrat helped keep a missionary safe, and if a leader converted, so might his followers. But pagans of all classes might fear divine retribution. They believed their survival in this world depended on pleasing their gods. So they would leave behind a few stalks of grain for the goddess responsible for the harvest and their ability to feed themselves through winter. Or they might sacrifice war captives as a thanksgiving to Wodan, the god who decided which side won wars. Baptismal vows required Christians to renounce Wodan and other deities. Not a big deal if that convert was a peasant or a slave, who by definition had little influence. But if the new Christian was someone who could order others to displease the old gods, the consequences were dire.

That might be why a mob burned Lebwin’s church in Deventer and caused his followers to scatter.

Coins
16th century coin (photo by Astropiet, CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons)

If the mob was trying to scare Lebwin away, they were sorely disappointed. Instead he was determined to speak at the annual assembly of Saxon leaders at Marklohe. The decentralized peoples had no king, but noblemen from the villages did choose someone to lead soldiers during wartime.

Folcbert tried to dissuade Lebwin, fearing the Englishman would be killed. In addition, the roughly three weeks to get to Marklohe had its own hazards such as bandits and otherworldly creatures. Lebwin would not be moved and was certain God would protect him. Frustrated by his friend’s refusal, Folcbert sent him away.

The assembly at first went as planned, with the pagans giving thanks to their gods, asking for protection of their lands, and gathering in a circle. Suddenly, Lebwin showed up at the meeting in his priestly garb, holding a cross in one hand and the gospel in the crook of his other arm. He prophesized that if the Saxons followed the Christian God’s command, they would be richly rewarded, and no king would rule over them. If they didn’t, he predicted, a king from a nearby land would conquer them, and they would lose everything, even their freedom.

It’s a convenient prophesy, written well over 100 years after Charlemagne had subjugated the Saxon peoples and the Church, with the monarch’s support, had made every attempt to obliterate the old religion. Like their pagan counterparts, Christians believed their deity had a hand in everything, including who won the battle, and this literary device was a way to reinforce that faith would be rewarded while disobedience was punished.

But might there be a grain of truth? Might Lebwin have feared that God would blame him for the lost souls if he didn’t summon the courage to speak to Saxon leaders? Hard to say for certain.

If Lebwin addressed the assembly, he did not get the response he wanted. The pagans thought he was a charlatan preaching nonsense and wanted to kill him. Somehow Lebwin escaped. A Saxon chided those assembled for their lack of manners—they had respected foreign envoys—and made the case for Lebwin to be left alone. Apparently, the Saxon leaders agreed, and they went back to their normal business.

Lebwin returned to Deventer and had his church rebuilt. He died of natural causes around 770 and was entombed within the church.

War between Charlemagne and the Saxons
War Between the Franks and the Saxons (13th century image public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Later, pagan Saxons destroyed the church again—we don’t know exactly when—and spent three days vainly looking for his body, if we are to believe the hagiography. Pagan Saxons, who burned their dead, might not have understood the significance of a saint’s relics. The fruitless search might have been a creative addition to show that pagans were ultimately on the losing side. They didn’t find the relics because God didn’t want them to.

In 772, Charlemagne and his Frankish forces invaded Saxony, and reminiscent of Saints Boniface and Willibrord, demolished their sacred pillar, the Irminsul. The enmity between the Franks and the Saxons went back for generations even then, but this was the first time the conflict had a religious tone. Two summers later, while Charlemagne was at war (literally) with his ex-father-in-law in Italy, the Saxons retaliated, wrecking churches.

In 775, the same year Charlemagne’s army was again fighting the Saxons, Saint Ludger was sent to Deventer to restore the church and find Lebwin’s relics. According to the hagiography, Lebwin appeared to Ludger in a dream, telling him where to find his body. Ludger did as instructed and found the remains. He moved one of the building’s outer walls to make sure the saint would always be present in the church he had lived for.

Originally published Oct. 19, 2016, on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Sources

Medieval Sourcebook: The Life of Lebwin

St. Lebwin” by Thomas Kennedy, The Catholic Encyclopedia

Charlemagne’s Early Campaigns (768-777): A Diplomatic and Military Analysis by Bernard Bachrach

Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Volume 11, edited by Alban Butler, Paul Burns

The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity by Richard A. Fletcher

Human Sacrifice: A Call for Divine Help in a Crisis

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One of the greatest emotional challenges in writing The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar is that my heroine belongs to a religion that sacrifices humans.

At least, I think the pagan Continental Saxons did such a thing. Today, we know very little of this religion. Its followers didn’t have a written language as we know it, and the Church, with Charlemagne’s assistance, did whatever it could to obliterate what it saw as devil worship. We have clues in poems, folk tales, other religions, and the writings of their enemies.

Take Charlemagne’s 782 capitulary to the Saxons. It makes human sacrifice punishable by death, along with cannibalism, burning the dead, refusing baptism, raping the lord’s daughter, and many other offenses. This is far from an objective account of what really did happen, so it’s difficult to determine what was hysteria and what was reality.

But there is other evidence that human sacrifice was part of the Saxons’ worship. The 778 entry in the Royal Frankish Annuals complains of atrocities, and another source laments indiscriminate killing.

War between Charlemagne and the Saxons
War Between the Franks and the Saxons (13th century image public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the 21st century, we find this act heinous. But early medieval pagans were not doing this because of sadism. They needed divine help to win a war or end a famine. Such crises called for a sacrifice more valuable than the typical meat of the best animal slaughtered for a community feast.

One reason was to thank the war god, Wodan, for the victory in battle by giving him the first war captives instead of subjecting them to slavery. Think of it as a macabre first fruits offering.

Another reason was atonement. A great disaster such as a drought or famine was a sign of divine anger, and the only acceptable appeasement was human blood. Instead of the enemy, the faithful turned on the family in power. Either the ruler’s children or the leader himself had to give up their lives for the good of the people.

So my heroine accepts the need for this ultimate sacrifice, believing the death of a few people could save an entire community.

Alphonse de Neuville’s 19th century interpretation of the Franks fighting the Saxons
Alphonse de Neuville’s 19th century interpretation of the Franks fighting the Saxons (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons).

Sources

Teutonic Mythology, Volume 1, Jacob Grimm

Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by

Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

The Story of the Story: How ‘A Thing Done’ Came to Be

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It’s my pleasure to welcome author Tinney Sue Heath to Outtakes as she relaunches her first novel, A Thing Done, a medieval tale of a jester ensnared in a feud among noble families in Florence. Here she discussed the inspiration for her story.—Kim

By Tinney Sue Heath

A Thing Done started life as footnotes—one in a translation of Dante’s Inferno, others in history books covering the 13th century in Florence. Tinney Sue Heath

The first thing that caught my eye was this: “The vendetta against Buondelmonte was the origin of the Guelf and Ghibelline factions in Florence.”

That division was no small matter. It colored politics—not just in Florence, but in all of Italy—for well over a century, and vestiges of it remained hundreds of years later.

So how did a vendetta against one man start all of this? And who was this Buondelmonte person?

Let’s set the scene: Florence at the beginning of the 13th century was seething with potential violence—hereditary enmities, power struggles, deep resentments between families. The city was a commune, with no king or duke or other titular head. Her ruling class consisted of members of the ancient noble families, an oligarchy made up of men of substance and influence who commanded a certain amount of private military might. Florence’s knights were men with superb combat training and skills, and they didn’t share their power easily.

 As I threaded my way through all these footnotes, I often felt I was working backwards from the end of the story, looking for its beginning. I read further.

I learned that the knight Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti (which Dante scholar Christopher Kleinhenz translates as “Good Guy of the Mountain of the Good Guys of the Mountains”) was betrothed to a woman of the Amidei family (his enemies), but he broke off the engagement to wed a woman of the Donati family (his allies). The Amidei and their friends were so incensed at this insult that they called for a vendetta.

Le nozze di Buondelmonte
Le nozze di Buondelmonte by Francesco Saverio Altamura (1822-97, public domain)

But if feelings were running that high, what was Buondelmonte doing getting himself betrothed to a woman of his enemies’ clan? And why did he change his mind?

More footnotes, more reading. As I suspected, it wasn’t that simple. Buondelmonte had been forced into that betrothal as a result of a fight that erupted at a banquet. A marriage was proposed to make peace between the two sides. It was not an alliance he chose, or wanted.

This was beginning to sound like a story I wanted to write. But what started that fight?

Past the footnotes now and deep into the contemporary and near-contemporary chronicles, I searched for the cause, and I finally found it: at that feast, a jester snatched a plate of food away from Buondelmonte and his dining companion.

Jester
15th century illustration of The Lancelot Romance (public domain)

Buondelmonte’s companion was outraged, and Oddo, a knight of the opposing faction, took the opportunity to mock him because of it.

The companion snarled at Oddo, “You lie in your throat!” (Yes, it really does translate that way: “Tu menti per la gola!”) But it was Buondelmonte, impetuous and hotheaded, who pulled a knife and stuck it into Oddo’s arm. And drawing blood was an insult too serious to overlook.

Of course, the rivalry and enmity were already in place long before the feast. This was a fight waiting to happen, and Oddo did everything in his power to make sure it did. But every story needs an inciting action, and I had finally found mine.

After all, how often does one get a chance to begin a historical novel with a food fight?

From the Codex Manesse, between 1305-1315 (public domain)

I enjoyed A Thing Done and highly recommend it (read my review). The novel is available on Amazon and other retailers.

A Thing Done cover

Hail Mary Over the Centuries

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It’s only 11 lines, but the Hail Mary, or Ave Maria, took almost a millennium to develop into the form we know today.

Hail Mary,

Full of Grace,

The Lord is with thee.

Blessed art thou among women,

and blessed is the fruit

of thy womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary,

Mother of God,

pray for us sinners now,

and at the hour of death.

Amen.

(From EWTN)

From Christianity’s earliest days, the Virgin Mary was an advocate for the faithful, an intercessor who would plead their case to God. Devotional images of her go back to the second century, and more Christians started to name their daughters Mary toward the end of the fourth century.

A novelist studying early medieval times can easily see her importance.  Charlemagne dedicated a newly built basilica at Aachen to her. On a smaller scale, a scribe wrote, “The book was given to God and His Mother by Dido [of Laon]. Anyone who harms it will incur God’s wrath and offend His Mother.”

No surprise, then, that Christians wanted a prayer just for her. When I first wrote The Cross and the Dragon, I assumed the Ave Maria has always had its current form. I just needed the Latin translation for my characters.

Hail, Mary
Hail, Mary by Luc-Olivier Merson, circa 1885, High Museum of Art (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Imagine my surprise when my editor informed me that Ave Maria was a lot shorter in the eighth century. “Hail, Mary, full of grace,” or words to that effect go back to the sixth century, so I could have my characters praying “Ave Maria, gratia plena.”

But it apparently took a few more centuries for the prayer to get longer. Two Anglo-Saxon manuscripts from around 1030 include “benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui” (“blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb”). In the 12th century, churchmen accept the greeting to Mary as a form of devotion, as familiar as the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.

And so the salutation persisted, accompanied by a gesture of homage such as genuflecting, kneeling, or bowing the head. Some saints said the Ave Maria 50 to 150 times a day.

Madonna and Child with Angels
Madonna and Child with Angels, 1425, Fra Angelico (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Christians had probably always greeted Mary with a request in mind such as healing a loved one’s illness, a safe return from battle, a bountiful harvest, or resisting temptation. The closing words of today’s prayer—“pray for us sinners now and at the hour of death”—originated in the 14th century and had variations throughout languages. It became part of the Roman Breviary in 1568.

What we end up with is a prayer that both venerates the Blessed Mother and asks her to use her special relationship with God on behalf of a faithful follower.

Originally published August 11, 2015, on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Sources

Hail Mary” by Herbert Thurston, The Catholic Encyclopedia

The Blessed Virgin Mary” by Anthony Maas, The Catholic Encyclopedia

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché

Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel

Rosary Beads: Steeped in Devotion and Legend

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The image of a Catholic kneeling in prayer, rosary in hand seems timeless. Having a Dark Ages character rub the beads while murmuring a prayer wouldn’t be an anachronism, would it?

Yes and no. Christians, and people of other faiths such as Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims, have used beads to keep track of the prayers they were repeating. In the fourth century, Egyptian Abbot Paul used 300 pebbles that he would drop. (Would picking up all those little stones count as penance, too?)

By the seventh century, at least some of the faithful used strings of beads. In early medieval times, one way for Christians to do penance and avoid time in Purgatory was to repeat the Pater Noster 20, 50, or more times. Most of the faithful were illiterate, so memorizing a chapter from the Bible—in Latin—was out of the question. But they could repeat a short prayer they heard all their lives in something that passed for Latin.

Rosaries
Photo by Ricce (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The material for the beads depended on the owner’s wealth, and they could be wood, bone, glass, coral, amber, or pearls. (Prayer beads made from rose petals are documented in the 20th century.) The faithful in the Dark Ages would not have called the beads a rosary. That would come later.

According to Catholic tradition, the Virgin Mary revealed the prayers of the Rosary to Saint Dominic in the 13th century while he was fighting the heresy of the Albigenses, who believed the flesh was so evil that suicide by starvation was a good thing. However, Merriam-Webster says the first known use of “rosary” in English was 1547.

We have several explanations for how the name of the Rosary came about.

I like a legend of a lay brother so devoted to Mary he would say 50 Ave Marias a day. One day while traveling through the forest, he stopped to pray. He drew the attention of robbers, but the thieves also saw a beautiful maiden who would take a rose from the monk’s mouth after each prayer and weave the flowers into a crown. When the monk finished, the maiden donned the crown and ascended to heaven.

Amazed, the robbers asked the monk who the maiden was. “What maiden?” was the reply. Then, they all realized she had been the Virgin Mary, and the robbers repented.

Woman holding rosary
1549 painting by Barthel Bruyn the Elder (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Another possibility: The rose, the queen of flowers, is a symbol of Mary, the queen of Heaven, and the prayers are a symbolic rose garden (rosarium in medieval Latin).

So, my earlier question boils down to word choice. Christian characters of any era can use prayer beads, but time period and geography dictate whether that string of beads is called a rosary.

Sources

Use of Beads at Prayers” by John Volz, The Catholic Encyclopedia

The Rosary” by Herbert Thurston and Andrew Shipman, The Catholic Encyclopedia

Albigenses” by Nicholas Weber, The Catholic Encyclopedia

St. Dominic” by John Bonaventure O’Connor, The Catholic Encyclopedia

Historical Rosary and Paternoster Beads” Paternoster-Row

Dark Ages Tragedy: The Baby in the River

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The day must have started out like any other in eighth century Bischofsheim. A peasant woman was about to draw water from the river. What she saw in the water horrified her: a drowned newborn in swaddling.

The woman screamed uncontrollably and attracted a crowd. Rudolf of Fulda, Saint Lioba’s hagiographer, says the villager was “burning with womanly rage.” When she was able to speak, she said one of those Saxon nuns from Britain had borne and murdered the child and then contaminated the water with the corpse. The nuns led by Lioba protested their innocence and held prayers and processions for God to exonerate them.

A vision like flames appeared around a crippled girl, who publicly confessed. She was a beggar and had received food and clothing from the sisters, but she had been absent for a while, claiming illness. Rudolf said the nuns wept with joy at the revelation, but perhaps it was relief that everyone knew they were indeed guiltless. I would like to think that at least some of the nuns were shocked that someone they had helped not only ended her baby’s life but, with the lack of baptism, also condemned the infant’s soul.

A Parisian Beggar Girl by John Singer Sargent (1880, public domain via WikiArt)

This was not the only time or place parents killed their infants during the Middle Ages, and that practice contributes to the perception that medieval parents were not emotionally attached to their newborns. The reaction of the woman in the village shows otherwise. She was as appalled as we would be.

Rudolf sees this incident as the Devil using the girl to try destroy Lioba and her abbey and the young mother’s confession as a miracle that furthered Lioba’s cause. She and the women who braved the Channel crossing and overland travel to today’s Tauberbischofsheim, Germany, had a lot at stake. Their abbey was part of Saint Boniface’s mission to spread and solidify Christianity on the Continent. If the very people the nuns were trying to help believed the women capable of such evil, the laity might turn away from the religion, and many souls would be lost.

The sisters’ greatest obstacle was that they were foreigners. Lioba was born in the Saxon kingdom of Wessex and grew up in the abbey of Wimbourne. She and the other nuns would have stood out, even if they didn’t wear habits. Their accents and manner of speaking would be different, and many were literate when the vast majority of the population could not read.

Whether or not the vision happened as Rudolf described, I have a sickening feeling the murder of the baby is true.

Young Beggar by Gustave Dore (public domain via WikiArt)

The unnamed “poor little crippled girl” was an outcast. A medieval audience would have thought her disability was a curse from God, perhaps a punishment for her parents’ sin, like conceiving a child on a Sunday. She was probably a teenager, old enough to marry by medieval standards, but her disability, poverty, and lack of family and connections made her undesirable as a wife.

Medieval folk also would have believed the nuns did all they could for the girl, who sat near the convent’s gate and begged for alms. Her food came daily from Lioba’s table. The nuns provided garments and other necessities as an act of charity.

Rudolf says only that the girl succumbed to the Devil’s suggestions and committed fornication, but I have a feeling there is more. We know nothing about the baby’s father. Perhaps, a man paid the girl and used her so that she could have some means to support herself in case the nuns no longer wished to provide for her. Or did someone get her drunk and take advantage? Maybe, a man told her she was pretty or was simply nice to her—a powerful thing to someone told she’s undesirable her whole life. Did she hope the man might marry her, especially if she was fertile?

When she realized she was with child, did the girl turn to the man who impregnated her? If he agreed to acknowledge the infant as his and support the child but not marry her, a medieval audience would think he was doing the right thing, and if he had a wife, she was supposed to put up with it. But what if he refused to take any responsibility? How was a girl with no home, relying on charity for food and clothes, going to support a baby?

How I wish this girl would have left the newborn on the church steps and allowed her child to be taken to a monastery for the Church to raise. But she must have been alone when she gave birth, without even a midwife on hand. If she suffered from extreme post-partum depression, she might have thought the baby was better off dead.

The Little Beggar by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1880, public domain via WikiArt)

Perhaps, she confessed to the murder because she did not want to see the people who had shown her the most compassion to be punished. Yet the girl’s end is as sad as her child’s. Rudolf wrote: “But the wretched woman did not deserve to escape scot-free and for the rest of her life she remained in the power of the devil.”

It’s uncertain what Rudolf means. Church legislators would forgive a mother who “kills her child by magical practice by drink or any art,” but they required penance such as a pilgrimage when travel was dangerous and unpleasant, fasting, alms-giving, not bathing, and prayer. The penance would last seven years if the death was to conceal adultery; three years if the reason was poverty. I suspect the girl committed suicide, an act beyond God’s grace in the medieval mind.

What the girl did to her baby was heinous—no other word can describe it. Still when I think about her, I see a frightened teenager young enough to be my daughter, without friends or family. Had one caring person been with her at that fateful moment, could the tragedy for both mother and child have been avoided?

Sources

Medieval Sourcebook: Rudolf of Fulda’s Life of Leoba

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Originally published July 20, 2016, on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Cats in the Days of King Arthur

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In 5th-century Britain, cats helped humans survive winter, but the way people regarded them depended on their religious beliefs.

Romans introduced housecats to Britain in the 1st century. The island already had native feline species: the lynx (now extinct) and the Scottish wildcat (now endangered). But these animals had no interest in humans—today a Scottish wildcat remained wild, even if it’s raised in captivity. The most significant difference between the housecat and the wildcat is temperament. Housecats live with us, although we’re big enough to be predators.

Unlike a lot of other animals, the early medieval housecat is similar to today’s domestic shorthair. By contrast, horses and sheep were smaller in the Dark Ages. Pigs had bristles and tusks. While some dog breeds such as greyhounds and mastiffs go back to the ancients, many were quite different from today. Some canines, like a hunting and herding dog called alaunt, have since become extinct.

Mosaic of cats and ducks
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Cats brought by the Romans descended from the Near Eastern wildcat, a species that hunted mice in granaries about 10,000 years ago. Today’s Near Eastern wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica, also called the African wildcat) looks like a large housecat with longer legs and a more upright posture when sitting or walking. In ancient times, the friendlier felines domesticated themselves by hanging out with the humans who fed them table scraps. Just like a cat who decided to live with me and my husband in the 1990s. After my husband fed her, she left a dead mouse on the doormat. A thank-you gift, apparently.

We named the cat Ellie, and she went on to become a pampered pet, still killing rodents on occasion. Had she lived in Arthurian Britain she would have had a job to do—just like every human and every other animal. The only pets, as we understand them, were toy-breed dogs for the wealthy who wanted to show off that they could have an animal that didn’t need to do anything. I suppose those dogs had a job, too—status symbol.

Housecats, along with ferrets and weasels, had the essential job of killing rodents that would otherwise eat the stored grain humans needed to get through winter. Perhaps, it is not too far a stretch for the Egyptians to see them as divine.

Egyptian wildcat
By Edward Howe Forbush (1858-1929) (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

When the Romans occupied Britain, housecats and other rodent killers played an important role in the international economy, too. Surplus grain from Britain was exported to the rest of the empire. A lot of people depended on cats’ hunting skills.

Cats had a spiritual role as well. With their reproductive abilities—a female cat can have two to three litters a year, with up to eight kittens—they were symbols of fertility, an important thing in an age when aristocrats needed heirs and people didn’t know how many children would live to adulthood.

Egyptian artifacts
By Carole Raddato from Frankfurt, Germany (CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Romans might have smuggled housecats from Egypt, where they were believed to be too sacred for export, and some Egyptian beliefs about the cat-headed Egyptian goddess Bastet might have seeped into Greco-Roman mythology. Bastet, goddess of fertility and motherhood and protector of the home, became associated with the Greek Artemis and by extension the Roman Diana.  A dream about a cat was a good omen and a sign of a good harvest.

Roman amulets to ward off evil have images of cats. Feline images appear on a sistrum, a bronze musical instrument a handle and a rounded open frame with bronze rods that rattled. Common in Egypt, the sistrum, associated with fertility, also was used throughout the Roman Empire and even as far as London.

The Celts, particularly the Irish and Scots, had their own belief about cats. It’s possible the Kellas cat, a black hybrid of the Scottish wildcat and housecat, had something to do with it. In the Highlands, the large black Cat Sidhe or Cat Sith could steal the soul of the dead before the gods claimed it, and the folk had several rituals to distract the creature until the body was laid to rest. At Samhain, they left a saucer of milk for the Cat Sidhe, who would bless the house. Those who neglected to leave the treat would be cursed.

Kellas cat
Photo of Kellas cat by Sagaciousphil (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Christian clergy saw them as companions—purring sphinxes. Greek monks who came to Europe brought cats with them to share their cells. One of the most delightful poems about a churchman’s relationship with his pet is the 9th century “Pangur Ban.” The Irish monk compares his hunt for knowledge to his white cat’s hunt for mice and the joy each of them feels.

In 5th century Britain, religious beliefs were fluid. Pagan and Christian beliefs coexisted, often in the same person. A Christian might wear an amulet with a cat right beside their cross. They might interpret a dream of a cat as a good omen right before they attend sunrise Mass.

Regardless of religious beliefs, people would have appreciated how the felines preserved the food supply. That furry creature who killed and ate mice in the granary was still essential.

Wildcats
Photo of wildcats by SuperJew (CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Sources

Greek and Roman Household Pets” by Francis D. Lazenby

“Cats were so nice, they conquered the world twice” by Nsikan Akpan, PBS News Hour

The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat” by Donald W. Engels, Classical Cats

A cat that can never be tamed” by Bec Crew, Scientific American

The Cat Sidhe by Deborah MacGillivray

“House Cat Origin Traced to Middle Eastern Wildcat Ancestor” by Brian Handwerk, National Geographic News

Originally published Nov. 20, 2017, in English Historical Fiction Authors.

Writing about Saints—the Holy and the Human

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Today, it is my pleasure to welcome my friend Tinney Sue Heath, author of Lady of the Seven Suns. This is a fabulous story about Francesco (St. Francis) and Giacoma, a Roman noblewoman who was one of his most devoted supporters (read my review on Goodreads). Here, Tinney discusses how she chose to portray Francesco as both a holy man and a real human being.—Kim

By Tinney Sue Heath

Tinney Sue Heath

I still can’t quite believe I wrote a book with Saint Francis of Assisi as a major character.

It’s downright frightening to write about saints, especially when it’s fiction, and historical fiction rather than religious fiction. Saint Francis, or “Brother Francesco” in my book, is beloved by so many people of all faiths and no faith, all across the world, and each one of them has a unique idea of what he must have been like, and what he taught and believed.

Some see the happy little friar covered with twittering birds and surrounded by Disney-like animals. Some see the radical revolutionary who challenged the wealth and complacency of the church by his example. And some see the man who suffered as he tried to imitate Christ, even to bearing the stigmata on his own body.

My main character, Giacoma, is a historical woman who seems an unlikely friend, follower, and supporter of the saint. She was a wealthy and powerful Roman noblewoman, and he was a barefoot friar who steadfastly refused to own anything. Yet the two of them formed a deep and lasting bond of friendship. Francesco even summoned “Brother Giacoma,” as he called her, to be present at his death. It was this apparent mismatch along with their profound mutual loyalty that intrigued me and inspired me to write the book.

By Pedro Subercaseaux Errázuris, OSB

One thing I learned is that saints tend to congregate. In Lady of the Seven Suns you will meet not only Saint Francis (Francesco), but also Saint Clare (Chiara), and there is a brief appearance by Saint Agnes (born Caterina, and Chiara’s younger sister). In addition to these religious luminaries, another character, Brother Egidio, was beatified.

Saints Francesco and Chiara, Saint Agnese, Blessed Egidio

Giacoma herself may have been beatified, or canonized. I’ve found claims for both possibilities, though some say no official ceremony ever took place. I cannot locate evidence for either one, but Franciscan communities celebrate her feast day on February 8.

So this writer found herself in exalted company, trying to write about these deeply religious people from a historical and secular point of view. But even saints have a human side and a worldly history, and sainthood is not conferred upon them until after they have lived out that history. So I took a deep breath and dug in, trying to understand the world they lived in and the loyalties, beliefs, and experiences that helped shaped them into the extraordinary people they were.

The reader’s first glimpse of Francesco in Lady shows him before his religious awakening, a confused young man trying to decide what to do with his life. This view of him is documented in the early biographies and hagiographies—a rich source of stories, like the one about the brothers presenting Giacoma with a lamb. While I appreciated the symbolism, being the secular novelist that I am I couldn’t resist imagining what it would be like to share your Roman palazzo with a sheep, so I played with that idea. Many other scenes and incidents in Lady originated in those early writings.

By José Benlliure y Gil

I came away from my writing experience with a new appreciation for what Francesco faced as he blazed his own trail and brought something genuinely original into his medieval world, and what Giacoma faced as she went against all the expectations for someone of her sex and her social caste. I don’t claim to be in any position to interpret the religious beliefs of these remarkable people, but I hope I have at least managed to show them as they might have appeared to their contemporaries.

To learn more about Tinney, visit her website, tinneyheath.com. There, you can sign up to receive her monthly newsletter and get your free copy of Cantilena for Seven Voices: Dante’s Women Speak. You can also follow her on Facebook.

All images, with the exception of the author photo and book cover, are public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Saint George in Dark Ages Britain

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Long before Richard the Lionhearted invoked him in the Crusades, before he became England’s patron, Saint George was a popular figure in medieval Christianity.

The basic story is that George was born to noble Christian parents in Cappadocia and moved with his mother to her native Palestine after his father died. He joined the Roman army and was named a tribune. Sometime in his career, he rescued a princess from a dragon in the city of Selena. However, Emperor Diocletian issued an anti-Christian edict. Refusing to renounce his faith, George resigned his commission and complained to the emperor. For his troubles, he was imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded around 303.

Regardless of whether the events are historically accurate, Saint George’s legend captured medieval Christians’ imagination. The saint’s tomb is in Lydda (later Diospolis then Lod in Israel), and after Constantine issued an edict of tolerance in 314, churches were dedicated to George in the region. Perhaps, pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land brought the saint’s legend back with them to Europe and the British Isles.

If you’re familiar with the hero’s epic of Beowulf, it’s easy to see why Saint George caught the interest of Christians from warlike Germanic cultures such as the Saxons and the Franks. Like Beowulf, Saint George is a tough guy who killed a monster. The greatest different is that George makes the ultimate sacrifice for God, while Beowulf dies in a fight for the sake of his people.

Vitale da Bologna’s Saint George’s Battle with the Dragon (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

On the Continent, the Franks knew about Saint George by the sixth century.  After King Clovis was baptized in 496, he founded a monastery at Baralle in George’s honor. Clovis’s wife, Clotilda, who wanted her husband to convert in the first place, also honored George by building an altar and the church at Chelles.

Whether Saint George’s story had crossed the Channel at that time is uncertain. However, around 670, Bishop Arculf, a pilgrim from Gaul, was blown off course on his return from the Holy Land and landed on the island monastery of Iona (also called Hy), near today’s Scotland. His host was the Irish abbot Adamnan. As Arculf talked about the Holy Land, Adamnan wrote down his guest’s account on wax tablets, then transcribed them to parchment and presented Arculf’s descriptions to the king of Northumbria in 698. The Venerable Bede also used that information in his own writing about holy places, and his martyrology included Saint George.

Might Arculf have also told the story of Saint George during his visit? It’s possible. Saint George’s acts were translated into Anglo-Saxon, and churches were dedicated to him before the Norman Conquest. Artwork of George slaying the dragon dates back as early as the seventh century. Perhaps the image of a hero literally driving a lance through a symbol of evil (or paganism) inspired medieval Christians.

Sources

Herbert Thurston, “St. George.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6, 1909.

Godefroid Kurth, “Clovis.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4, 1908.

William Grattan-Flood, “St. Adamnan.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1, 1907.

Thomas Walsh, “Arculf.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1, 1907.

Herbert Thurston, “The Venerable Bede.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2, 1907. 14 Jun. 2014

The Edinburgh Review: Or Critical Journal, Volume 177

About Saint George

EWTN

StGeorge.org

Originally published June 22, 2014, on English Historical Fiction Authors.