Bishops in Carolingian Francia disliked the slave trade, but not for the reasons you might think.
When Carolingian kings conquered a pagan land, it was an opportunity for Christian missionaries to spread the faith. That chance, along with many souls, was lost if war captives were shipped off to Muslim Spain, Egypt, or other parts of Africa or they became the property of Jews.
Bishop Agobard of Lyon was irked to find out that Emperor Louis the Pious required slaves owned by Jews to have their master’s permission before being baptized. In On the Insolence of Jews (as anti-Semitic as it sounds), Agobard rails against allowing Jews to own Christians at all because the Christians might pick up the Jews’ bad habits of observing the Sabbath on Saturday, working on Sunday, and eating the wrong food at the wrong times during Lent.
Bishops who assembled at Meaux in 845 objected to Christian and Jewish traders driving Slav war captives to be sold to Muslims. They thought it better to redeem the captives and baptize them than to allow them to fill the ranks of the infidels.
In the mid-eighth century, King Pepin forbade the sale of Christian and pagan slaves. Perhaps realizing sales couldn’t be stopped completely, Pepin’s son Charles (Charlemagne) tried to regulate the practice, requiring the presence of a count or bishop and prohibiting sales beyond the frontiers.
Before Pepin became king, a male slave might have been worth slightly over half the price of a horse, the most expensive livestock. In the later years of Charles’s reign, the enslaved man might be about the same price as a horse.
Not only does this show inflation and why the slave trade became more attractive; it shows what slaves were worth compared to other possessions, more than most livestock and most garments.
A slave owned by an aristocrat might physically be better off than a peasant. In a time when having enough food to last through winter was not guaranteed, a servant in a noble household was more likely to have food and clothing. Nor was the servant subject to conscription in the army.
But slaves were vulnerable to abuse. A maid could not refuse her lord’s unwanted advances. If the master needed funds for a horse and armor, he could sell slaves and break up families.
In other words, slave were commodities in the eyes of traders and their customers, and war captives were inventory. Churchmen, however flawed their motives by 21st century standards, did see war captives as humans with souls worth saving.
Originally published June 29, 2016, on Unusual Historicals.
Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara
Agobard of Lyon: On the Insolence of the Jewsto Louis the Pious (via Medieval Sourcebook)
Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce AD 300-900 by Michael McCormick
Delve into the justice system of early medieval Francia and you might find yourself grateful for what we have today, imperfect as it is.
And I’m not only talking about the punishments for the guilty: slit nostrils, the slow strangulation of hanging, chopping off a hand, the witch’s death of being sealing in a barrel and thrown into a river, or the traitor’s death of being tied to stallions and torn apart, to just give a few examples. Even with recognizable elements such as oaths, the trials themselves are problematic to a modern audience.
But those trials make sense in the medieval mind, which believed that the God who intervened on the battlefield would not let an innocent person be falsely convicted. The procedure depended on who was conducting the trial, which could be for a crime or a dispute between neighbors.
Duels between aggrieved parties, or champions fighting on their behalf, were an acceptable way to determine who was right. So was trial by ordeal, which predates Christianity among Germanic peoples.
Both parties, or their champions, swore oaths and then did something to hurt themselves. The methods varied. The men might stick their hands in a pot of boiling water to grab a rock or walk over red-hot or white-hot irons. However they were injured, the wounds would then be bound and whoever got an infection was in the wrong. Healing or the lack thereof was a sign from God. Another sign came from an ordeal where the parties held out their arms in the shape of a cross. Whoever stumbled or could no longer hold up their arms was guilty.
Trial by ordeal was widely accepted, even among Christian clerics, but some scholars, including Agobard and Theodulf, argued trial by ordeal was impious.
I used this history to write a murder trial, excerpted from my second novel, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar:
In the receiving room, the abbot sat on an ornate, high-backed chair resembling a throne, and the priest and three monks sat on stools to either side. A clerk stood to the far left with a wax tablet. A stone pedestal held a piece of wood, a relic of a saint, Deorlaf guessed. On the wall behind the abbot was a mural of the Final Judgment, where a giant figure of Christ had a book spread before Him and a long line of tiny, naked people awaited their fates. To Deorlaf’s relief, there was no boiling water or hot irons for an ordeal. Apparently, this abbot frowned on such tests of guilt.
Two burly tenants brought Usumund in chains. His face bruised and his lip swollen, he had the look of a cornered boar determined to gore its way out. After the abbot’s prayer, everyone took an oath, swearing on the relic, a piece of a fallen branch from a tree Saint Riquier liked to rest under.
Usumund’s story was even more inconsistent this time. Deorlaf was not surprised when Usumund again called him a God-cursed Saxon and devil worshipper, but a chill coursed up the back of his neck when Usumund brought up the thieving and killing.
“What say you, Deorlaf?” the abbot said in a tone that was more command than question.
Not wishing to lie outright, Deorlaf searched for an answer, glancing at the cross that hung from his neck. The cross, it holds my freedom! The tight bands on his chest loosened. “As Usumund pointed out, I am a Saxon, but I was baptized when I had seen…” he counted on his fingers, “twelve winters. I never made sacrifices to the Devil before or after my baptism.”
“He is lying,” Usumund shouted.
“Quiet, Usumund,” the abbot barked, “you have said your piece. Deorlaf, why would Usumund say you are a killer and a sorcerer if it wasn’t true?”
“Usumund and I have never been friends,” Deorlaf said, his voice steady as he stuck to the literal truth. “He is still angry that I foiled his attempt to rape a woman. I knew of no other way except to say a few words in Saxon and tell him it was a spell to unman him. Yes, I lied to protect a woman, but I used no black magic.”
“Father Abbot,” Ives said, stepping forward, “if Deorlaf wished to damn Gosbert, why does he try to lessen our friend’s time in purgatory by giving alms? You have heard Usumund’s lies with your own ears. First, he swears Deorlaf killed Gosbert by magic. Then, he insists Deorlaf gave Gosbert nightshade. Now his story is that Deorlaf enchanted him to poison Gosbert. How can Usumund be telling the truth when he cannot tell the same story about two nights past?”
Ives never raised his voice, but a current of fury ran through it. A whimper drew Deorlaf’s attention. Julien seemed ready to faint or spew. Deorlaf had to explain the boy’s behavior. “Father Abbot, Usumund offered Julien the nightshade first. The thought that someone would do him ill fills him with dread.”
The abbot nodded. In turn, he asked Deorlaf, Ives, and Julien about the night Gosbert had died. All of their stories were consistent.
“I need time to deliberate with my fellows,” the abbot said.
Pierre Riché’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne
“Ordeals” by Johann Peter Kirsch, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 11, 1911.
Originally published Sept. 8, 2014, on SusanSpann.com.
Grendel and his mother, the first two monsters Beowulf faces in the poem bearing his name, are both frightening and fascinating—and their creator blends pagan beliefs with a deep understanding of Christianity.
We might never know who penned the oldest English epic poem between the middle of the seventh century and end of the 10th, but it is proof that its author had a great intellect and great imagination, even though most people who lived in the Dark Ages could not read or write. (And like many medieval writers, Beowulf’s creator included a healthy dose of gore.)
Called a “demon”, “fiend out of hell,” and “shadow stalker,” Grendel shares many of traits of a draugr, an undead creature from Scandinavian mythology. He resents the living, wreaks murderous havoc, cannot be placated, and cannot be slain by ordinary weapons.
Otherworldly beings were so real to an early medieval audience, the folk took precautions to appease or hinder them such as having a wake for the dead or burying a corpse with a Host—the presence of Christ—in their mouth.
However, Grendel is living enemy. Instead of a burial mound, he inhabits a fen.
Yet the poet bases his explanation for Grendel’s monstrosity on Christian beliefs by saying Grendel is a descendant of Cain. The poet might have read a letter from the Apostle John, who exhorts Christians to love one another and not be like Cain, not only because the character is murderous but because by that act, he became more like Satan than Adam.
So Grendel is not only the bane of Heorot Hall; he is an enemy of God. The poet calls him “God-cursed” and says he bears God’s wrath.
The only way to stop Grendel is to kill him. Beowulf delivers the fatal blow by tearing off the monster’s arm while they wrestle. Grendel flees home. In the morning, the men get a good look at the disembodied limb, which is like “barbed steel,” and they realize none of their weapons would have worked.
Like some draugrs, Grendel has a mother, and in grief, she is more dangerous than her son. She doesn’t have a name, which makes her even more fearsome.
In one sense, the reader can sympathize with her. Sure her only child was a monster (literally), but he was still her son. And she, like the humans, will avenge her dead loved one. She claims the king’s right-hand man the very night Heorot Hall celebrates Grendel’s demise.
The only way for Beowulf to stop her is to pursue her to her underwater lair and kill her with a weapon in her hoard, another element of pagan mythology. The sword is so heavy only Beowulf can wield it, and when he uses it to claim Grendel’s head a trophy, the monster’s blood is so toxic it melts the weapon to the hilt. Like a good Christian warrior, Beowulf credits God for the victory when he later recounts the fight.
With these monsters and other elements, Beowulf gives modern readers a glimpse how Christian and pagan beliefs coexisted in early medieval times.
Illustrations by J.R. Skelton (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Originally published on English Historical Fiction Authors April 5, 2016.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
One of the greatest emotional challenges in writing The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillaris 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.
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.
Teutonic Mythology, Volume 1, Jacob Grimm
Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by
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.
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.
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.
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?
I enjoyed A Thing Done and highly recommend it (read my review). The novel is available on Amazon and other retailers.
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.
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.
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.
“Hail Mary” by Herbert Thurston, The Catholic Encyclopedia
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,
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?