Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

Poisonous Politics in the Middle Ages

Cases of poisoning fascinate and terrify us in equal measure. This has been very apparent in recent weeks, given the extent to which the attempted murder in Salisbury, England of Sergei and Yulia Skripal—a former Russian double agent and his daughter—has caused international political uproar and caught the media imagination. The poisoning is just the latest installment in a long series of politically-motivated poisonings which have been linked to the Russian state. In the 1950s, KGB defector Nikolai Khoklov was poisoned with thallium; former Ukrainian president Viktor Yuschchenko survived an attempt on his life in 2004; in 2006, FSB officer-turned-Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko was murdered using a dose of the radioactive substance polonium.

Police now believe that the Skripals were poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent which was smeared on the front door of their home, something which has added an extra frisson of unease to the horror. No one likes to think of something so lethal and yet so undetectable contaminating the one place—the home—where you should feel safe. Understandably, many of the inhabitants of Salisbury have been unnerved by the possibility that the places where they live and work might have been contaminated, and local businesses have struggled to cope as people avoid the town. That anxiety—about poison and the difficulty of detecting it—has a long history, particularly when it comes to the European Middle Ages.

A woman carrying flasks of poison. A 13th-century stained glass panel showing a scene from the legend of St Germain. [Met Museum]

Leaf through any book on medieval politics, and you’ll come across the names of dozens of people who are supposed to have met a grisly end because of the poisoner’s art. Henri of Flanders (d. 1216), the second Latin emperor of Constantinople, and Blanche II of Navarre (d. 1464) were both supposedly poisoned by members of their own families. This was also the case for Robert IV of Artois, count of Eu, and his wife Joanna of Durazzo, who paid a visit to Joanna’s sister Margherita, Queen of Naples, in 1387. Neither of them would leave the royal residence of Castel dell’Ovo alive, and people whispered that Margherita had wanted it that way.

Dmitriy Yurievich Shemyaka, twice Grand Prince of Moscow, however, irritated the Muscovites rather than his family members. In 1453, the city’s inhabitants bribed the prince’s cook to poison his roast chicken dinner. Other poisonings of high-ranking individuals remain unsolved: the Irish peer James Butler, earl of Ormond and a cousin of Anne Boleyn, died in London in 1546 as the apparent victim of poisoning along with seventeen other members of his household.

How many of these deaths, if any, were actual pre-meditated poisonings? At this remove, it’s almost possible to say. Medieval understandings of disease were imperfect, and they had a poor understanding of food hygiene. It’s not surprising that medieval people were quicker to suspect that an enemy had laced their food with hemlock, say, or wolf’s bane, or even the grandly named “Composition of Death” (a noxious mix of red copper, nitric acid, verdigris, arsenic, oak bark, rose water and black soot) than they were to imagine that a cook’s unwashed hands were to blame for a sudden illness or death. Moreover, there’s a fine line between medicine and poison—as attempts at creating medieval-themed gardens have shown, what can cure you in a small dose can kill you in a slightly larger one. An attempt to cure a minor case of food poisoning might have been enough to finish someone off.

The Byzantine Empress Zoë orders the poisoning of the eunuch John the Orphanotrophos. [Biblioteca Nacional de España, MS 234 h. perg. ]

Medieval people certainly thought that deliberate poisoning was a risk they faced, particularly when power and politics were involved. Such incidents might not have been as common as they thought, but they surely happened—after all, if you did poison someone, and carry it out discreetly, it could leave far fewer visible signs than a knife in the back. This concern with discretion means that a common trope in medieval-themed pop culture, the use of poison rings (rings whose bevel hides a compartment containing small quantities of poison to sneak into a rival’s food or drink) is almost certainly a medievalist fantasy. While archaeologists in Bulgaria claim to have found one during the excavation of a fourteenth-century fortress, and Cesare Borgia, son of Pope was reputed to have used one containing “cantarella”, a putrid and lethal mix of arsenic and ground-up insect, there’s little real evidence for the use of such rings. (And let’s face it, if your goal is to be undetected, these rings aren’t going to help.)

Surviving medieval artefacts that have firm links to poisoning have more to do with fear and attempts at prevention than they do with the delivery of poison. Limestone excavated from one particular cave on the island of Malta was thought to neutralise poison; it was powdered and fashioned into “contra veleno” drinking cups. “Unicorn” horn—in reality the tusk of the narwhal, a large Arctic sea mammal—was also thought to be efficacious against poison. It was ground into a powder that could be added to food or drink, or fashioned into protective amulets like the Danny Jewel. Shark’s teeth were believed to have the same effect, and were often used to decorate drinking goblets.

This object, made out of shark’s teeth and red coral, was reputed to change colour in the presence of poison. [Vienna, Treasury of the German Order.]

The best evidence about medieval attitudes towards poison, however, comes from written sources, which discuss where poisonous substances come from and how to deal with them. For example, the mandrake plant is best known to most people nowadays from the fantastical version of it which appears in the Harry Potter series of books. Its roots can look like a human body, and this led medieval people to believe that the body could come in male and female form. They believed that the plant sprang up anywhere that that fat, blood, and semen dripped from the body of a hanged man. Try to pull the mandrake from the soil, so the folklore goes, and will let out a piercing scream that will kill anyone in earshot. None of this is true, though given that the mandrake is a member of the deadly nightshade family of plants, eating it is likely to give you at the very least a nasty case of gastrointestinal distress. (It will also make you very sleepy, and so both the ancient Greeks and medieval Europeans employed it as a kind of makeshift anaesthetic. Don’t try this at home, though; even a little too much can send you into a coma.)

Blood was also thought to be a means of transmitting poisonous impurity—an example of a medieval theory that’s got a kernel of truth to it even if their understanding as a whole was flawed. Medieval Europeans believed that ox blood mixed into an omelette was invariably deadly, and that if a woman put some drops of her menstrual blood into her husband’s food, then the man would “die after one day or some days, or suffer what is far worse than death, namely suppurating elephantiasis.”

Sometimes a poison could be the means of its own cure. For instance, toads and frogs were a popular shorthand for pestilence in the Middle Ages, thanks to their use as metaphor in scripture. (The Book of Revelation describes devils as looking like frogs.) The twelfth-century writer Gerald of Wales even told a grisly story about tree-climbing, carnivorous toads with a taste for human flesh. Toads, however, could also be used to neutralise a poison. Medieval people believed that inside the head of elderly toads was a substance called a “toadstone”. A toadstone grew hot, changed colour, or sweated when it was near a poisonous substance, and so it could be set into a ring, like your own personal, life-changing mood ring. (How did you know if you had a real toadstone in your possession? Just hold it up in front of a live toad, which would leap towards it if genuine. Only a cynic, of course, would point out that toads are liable to hop in lots of different directions.)

The harvesting of a mandrake, from a 13th-century medical manuscript. Austrian National Library, Codex Vindobonensis 93, fol. 118r.

Medieval medical knowledge about poison may have limited applicability nowadays—eating citrus fruit has lots of health benefits, but we know now it won’t cure you if you’ve been poisoned—but are there other lessons we can learn from the Middle Ages about how to react in the face of such invisible threats? As international tensions ratchet upwards, with diplomats expelled and consulates closed, can we benefit from thinking about how accusations of poisoning were deployed in the distant past?

Well, we could pay attention to how accusations of poisoning could be hurled by those with economic motives against people who were socially disadvantaged—for example, the case of Margarida de Portu, who was living in the southern French town of Manosque in 1397 when she was accused by her brother-in-law Raymon of having poisoned her recently-deceased husband using a dish of lentils and garlic. It’s likely that the litigious Raymon wanted to disinherit Margarida, an immigrant to the town who had no nearby family to support her. More crucially, perhaps, we can think about how accusations of poisoning were frequently levelled against members of minority communities in the Middle Ages. When the Black Death struck Europe in the 1340s and 1350s, fear of this devastating illness combined with pre-existing anti-Semitism led to many Christians accusing Jews of deliberately spreading the infection by poisoning the water supply. Earlier in the fourteenth century, lepers in what is now southwestern France were accused of spreading that disease by poisoning wells, a nonsensical accusation which gained rapid currency because of the rumours that the lepers were in league with French Jews and foreign Muslim rulers.

A bad fate for a bad king? As early as the 13th century, tales circulated that King John of England had been poisoned to death by a monk (seen here offering him a poisoned chalice). British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII, f. 5v

In other words, part of the reason why poison is such a useful political weapon is because it can kill effectively—and because even the suspicion of its use can spread fear and mistrust among your political opponents. Russia exploited that long history, dating all the way back to the Middle Ages and beyond, when it chose to deploy an invisible, deadly poison on a quiet suburban street in England.

The Lioness in Winter: Thinking About A Medieval Woman on Film

This month, many people trekked across a snowy campus to take in the first instalment of this semester’s Alan Lutkus International Film Series: the iconic The Lion in Winter (1968). Afterwards, I asked some of my students who were there what they’d made of it. One of them thought for a moment, and then said, “I was surprised it was funny. You never think of them as being funny.”

Pretty much every history teacher is aware of how helpful film can be in the classroom: how it can confront students with the humanity of others across great distances of space and time, how it can convey with immediacy the different ways in which people in the past spoke and lived and thought. We’ve likely all had conversations like the one I had with my students. But as I mulled over the movie on my way home, I thought that we forget sometimes that historical film can help us to think through our own emotional relationship to the research topics that we’re steeped in: in my case, the history of women in the High Middle Ages.

The Château de Chinon, setting for the action of The Lion in Winter, as it appears today following an extensive programme of restoration. [Link]

Let’s be clear: The Lion in Winter isn’t particularly interested in rigorous historical accuracy. Playwright James Goldman wanted to tell a story of a power struggle in a royal family, complete with melodramatic rivalries and biting dialogue, not to conjure up a photo-realistic recreation of the Middle Ages or to delve into historians’ competing takes on the Angevin Empire. Decades of dynastic disputes between Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their children, are compressed into a single, imagined, heated meeting at Christmas in the castle of Chinon. In other words, it’s a bit of a soap opera. Goldman clearly did just enough research to help him set the scene, but Goldman presents many things as fact which are almost certainly post-medieval fictions—like Eleanor’s recounting of how she rode bare-breasted, dressed as an Amazon, while taking part in the Second Crusade. That’s even setting to one side the question of the anachronisms, Christmas trees and poison oak references being equally unlikely to crop up in twelfth-century northwestern Europe.

But what the movie does have is a powerhouse central performance in Katharine Hepburn’s Oscar-winning turn as Eleanor of Aquitaine. (The Lion in Winter was remade in 2003 with Glenn Close as Eleanor, and has also inspired other works like the TV show Empire, with Taraji P. Henson as the Eleanor-equivalent, but Hepburn’s version is the definitive one for me.) Hepburn portrays her—this queen of England, duchess of Aquitaine, and erstwhile queen of France—as engaging, demanding, and mercurial in turn. In doing so, she creates yet another aspect of the myth of Eleanor which has grown up in the centuries after her death.

The famously independent-minded Hepburn once told journalist Barbara Walters that “I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man.” Yet her Eleanor clearly enjoys being a woman. She doesn’t seem to think that her exercise of power is exceptional, and no one around her seems to think that either. (The way she wields it may of course be another matter as far as they’re concerned; James Goldman’s stage directions also make it clear that he does think of Eleanor as exceptional, somehow able to be both powerful and female.) This is, however inadvertently, very much of a piece with the work of historians of medieval women over the past thirty years or so, who have sought to recalculate the equation that in the Middle Ages, “any woman who exercised any sort of power or influence was considered in some way ‘extraordinary.'” There’s no attempt on Eleanor’s part to “overcome” her gender, for all that she is acutely aware of the ways that being a woman has constrained some of her options in life.

(Speaking to her sons by Henry about her first marriage to Louis VII of France, Eleanor says wryly, “If I had managed sons for him instead of all those little girls, I’d still be stuck with being queen of France, and we should not have known each other. Such, my angels, is the role of sex in history.”)

This is something worth lingering over, because from the Middle Ages onwards, Eleanor has been associated with a particularly female form of excess by various writers: according to medieval chroniclers, she had an affair with Saladin, she murdered her love rivals and paraded bare-breasted in public, and on, and on. All of this is, to the best of our knowledge, entirely slanderous. (At the time of Eleanor’s putative affair with Saladin, the future sultan of Egypt and Syria was just twelve years old.) Even in much otherwise excellent modern scholarship, which discounts these stories, Eleanor is defined by her relationship with men.

And it’s true that almost all of Eleanor’s interactions in The Lion in Winter are with men, and that some of those interactions are framed in ways which make for uncomfortable viewing for an early twenty-first century audience. (Her son Richard’s preference for sexual relationships with men is not very subtly linked to his close emotional relationship with her. Her estranged husband, who has kept her under a form of house arrest for years, refers to her as “the great bitch in the keep.”) But part of what still delights me about the movie, so long after first seeing it and now having had the benefit of reading thousands of pages of scholarship about medieval society, is that I can see that Eleanor is no more and no less defined by her relationship with her family than is Henry. (Powerful men in the Middle Ages, too, were shaped by their biological and emotional ties and had gendered behavioural scripts to follow.)

It delights me, and gives me pause, because of how much I want this version of Eleanor to be true: to be a real glimpse of an intelligent, politically astute, lively woman who left such a mark on the history of western Europe. Historians often run the risk of falling in love with their subjects—or, perhaps, with what those subjects could symbolise, with the inspirational story of long-ago women overcoming the odds of a patriarchal society.

One of my favourite things in the Louvre: this rock crystal vase, the only known surviving possession of Eleanor’s. [Louvre Museum]

For instance, I’ve undertaken quite a bit of research on a contemporary of Eleanor’s: Agnès, countess of Braine, a noblewoman who married a brother of Louis VII. What I’ve pieced together about her life suggests she might not have been so dissimilar to Eleanor. Agnès made two politically advantageous marriages, she was a mediator and negotiator, she was a great patron. More than once I’ve told colleagues how fond I am of Agnès—but of course I’m not, not really. I’m fond of the patchwork composite I’ve pieced together from references in letters and the charters that Agnès issued. I appreciate the kinds of things that her career tells me about broader historical themes that interest me. But while I know some things that Agnès did, and can guess at kind of person she might have been, I can never know her.

It’s a frustrating kind of impasse: the historian’s eternal curiosity about the deep past pitted against our inability to know much, if anything, about the people who capture our interest.

In The Lion in Winter’s last scene, Henry hands Eleanor onto her royal barge so that she can be ferried, in great splendour, back to her prison. “You know, I hope we never die!” he calls out to her across the increasing distance as she waves at him. “You think there’s any chance of it?” And there’s the exhilarating thing that keeps us going—in the hands of historians, screenwriters, and novelists, they never will.

Alan Lutkus International Film Series: “The Global Middle Ages on Film”

Now in its fifteenth year, SUNY Geneseo’s Alan Lutkus International Film Series is a venue that promotes current, classic, and independent works of global cinema. The theme of the Spring 2018 iteration of the series is “The Global Middle Ages.” All screenings are free to the public, and there is a forum for open discussion after each presentation. I will be presenting the third installment in the series, Luc Besson’s 1999 take on the life of Jeanne d’Arc. Please join us!

 

Thursday, February 8 at 7 p.m. in Newton 204. The Lion in Winter (U.K., dir. Anthony Harvey, 1968)

It’s Christmas 1183, and King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) is planning to announce his successor to the throne. The jockeying for the crown, though, is complex. Henry has three sons and wants his boy Prince John (Nigel Terry) to take over. Henry’s wife, Queen Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn), has other ideas. She believes their son Prince Richard (Anthony Hopkins) should be king. As the family and various schemers gather for the holiday, each tries to make the indecisive king choose their option. Presented by Graham Drake, Professor of English and Interim Director of Medieval Studies.

 

Thursday, March 1 at 7 p.m. in Newton 204. Throne of Blood (Japan, dir. Akira Kurosawa, Japan)

Returning to their lord’s castle, samurai warriors Washizu (Toshirô Mifune) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) are waylaid by a spirit who predicts their futures. When the first part of the spirit’s prophecy comes true, Washizu’s scheming wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), presses him to speed up the rest of the spirit’s prophecy by murdering his lord and usurping his place. Director Akira Kurosawa’s resetting of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in feudal Japan is one of his most acclaimed films. Presented by Jun Okada, Associate Professor, English and Film Studies.

 

Thursday, April 5 at 7 p.m. in Newton 204. The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (France/United States, dir. Luc Besson, 1999)

Mystic, maiden, martyr – whatever you choose to call her, it is difficult to dispute that Joan of Arc led a remarkably accomplished life for a peasant girl who never went to school … and never saw her 20th birthday. It all began in 1429, when a teenage girl from a remote village in France stood before the world and announced she would defeat the world’s greatest army and liberate her country. Presented by Yvonne Seale, Assistant Professor of History.

Publication Roundup V

Header image: Detail of the Hours of Mary of Burgundy, ca. 1477. Austrian National Library, Cod. 1857.

Articles

George Washington: Descendant of Odin“, in The Public Domain Review.

…on a bizarre and fanciful piece of genealogical scholarship and what it tells us about identity in late 19th-century America.

“Well-Behaved Women? Agnès of Baudement and Agnès of Braine as Mediators and Patrons of the Premonstratensian Order”, in The Haskins Society Journal, Vol. 28 (2016), 101-117.

Focusing on the careers of Agnès the elder and Agnès the younger illustrates two key points. First, that women were central to the functioning of aristocratic families and affinity groups in the Middle Ages. The Agnèses—as was the case for many medieval aristocratic women—were able to leverage both their natal and their marital connections across large distances for social and political ends. Second, examining the ways in which the two Agnèses worked to secure the prosperity of their families shows how strategies required to do so could shift over the course of a few generations.

“The Multi-Cultural Middle Ages: An Annotated Bibliography for Teachers”, in The Once and Future Classroom, Vol. 13:2 (Fall 2017).

A collection of primary and secondary sources, both print and digital, gathered with an eye towards use in the K-12 classroom.

Book Reviews

Review of Lindy Grant, Blanche of Castile, Queen of France: power, religion and culture in the thirteenth century. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2016, in French History. [10.1093/fh/crx010]

Bits and Bobs

I was interviewed by Marlen Komar at Bustle for “What Not To Wear: The Strange & Scary History of Women’s Dress Codes” and for “7 Absurd Medieval Fashion Rules That You Won’t Believe Women Actually Had To Follow.” Click on through if you want to learn why women in fifteenth-century Italy were told they needed to dress modestly because of their “barbarous and irrepressible bestiality”!

Women on the March from Medieval to Modern

I was one of the thousands of people who gathered in Seneca Falls this past Saturday to participate in the Women’s March. This was just one of a whole series of popular protests which took place across the United States, but the gathering at Seneca Falls had a particular poignancy—because in this small, western New York town in 1848, the first convention aiming “to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman” was held.

Almost 15,000 people gathered around the site of that first meeting before the march got underway, listening to an inspirational roll call of famous feminist activists—first wavers like Sojourner Truth and Lucretia Mott, second wavers like Gloria Steinem, and on. As a medievalist, this got me thinking about other times, other places. How far back could that roll call of women stretch?

The Women’s March, Seneca Falls NY, January 20 2018.

The answer is pretty far, but pretty tenuously. What sources we have for popular protest in the European Middle Ages are sparse. We know that people went on strike as far back as the thirteenth century. For example, crop failure and warfare pushed many Irish peasants to the brink of starvation in the 1290s, and the noblemen who made up the Irish parliament heard that “servants, ploughmen, carters, threshers, and [others] refuse to serve about the services for which they were accustomed to serve, on account of the fertility of the present year.”

Yet spontaneous popular protest was much less common in the medieval period than it is now, and the actions of these nameless people are known to us only through the records left behind by the rich and powerful, who cared about the desperation of peasants mostly inasmuch as it affected them, and who paid even less attention to the worries and concerns of women. Protesting women as distinct figures are a minority in the pre-Industrial West, and a rarity in the medieval world—after all, well-behaved women weren’t supposed to make their voices heard in public. There are few figures in the Middle Ages like the crowds of women who marched on Versailles in the early days of the French Revolution.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that medieval European women weren’t involved in protests. Many of them might be hidden in the crowd, so to speak: one of the many nameless gens, populares, communeté who are referenced in narrative accounts. Sometimes the sources provide glimpses of groups of women working together to combat unfair conditions. For instance, the people of the important trading city of Bruges revolted against an unpopular occupying French garrison in 1302, an event that’s become known as the Matins of Bruges. Eyewitnesses wrote that the city’s women fought ferociously against the French, “slicing [them] to pieces like little tunny fish (tuna)” and climbing up onto the rooftops in order to hurl the stinking contents of their chamber pots onto the soldiers below. Women marched with men and children during the peace movement of Parma in 1331 as they called for the overthrow of a despised ruler, chanting “Peace, peace” and “Down with the taxes and gabelles (salt taxes)!”

Most of the better documented cases of protesting women, though, come from late medieval Britain. Thirty women’s names appear on the pardon rolls for those involved in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. In 1427, a woman from the Stokkes—the market in London where meat and fish were sold—led an all-women’s march on Parliament to deliver a petition to its members, rebuking Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, for his ill-treatment of his wife and his open adultery. He was, they claimed, bringing the whole country into disrepute. In the English towns of Norwich and Yarmouth, women led riots in 1528 and 1532 over the high price of food; their leaders were publicly whipped in the marketplace.

The Matins of Bruges, as shown on in a carving on the contemporary Courtrai Chest. [Source]

Yet one of the key ways that women could have political influence during the medieval period wasn’t to form a group: it was to act individually, to intercede with the powerful on behalf of others in need. This form of action was mostly open to women of high social rank, particularly queens. They drew heavily on biblical imagery to frame their intercessory actions, wanting to be seen as a new Esther, pleading with her husband, the Persian king Ahasuerus, to spare the Jewish people, or as echoing the Virgin Mary, who as a heavenly queen was believed to persuade God to help the faithful on Earth.

An awareness of these tropes was why in 1275, a group of the townspeople of St Albans would approach the coach of Eleanor of Castile, consort of Edward I of England, pleading for her help in resolving their dispute over tithe obligations to the abbot of the local monastery. They sent a delegation (headed, interestingly enough, by a spokeswoman) and presented Eleanor with a letter stating that “all [their] hope” remained in her as it did in “that Lady (Mary) who is full of mercy and pity.” (en ky tote nostre esperaunce remeynt a touz iours cum a cele dame ky pleyne est de misericorde e de pite.) Marian imagery was clearly to the fore here. To this example of queenly action can be added many others. In 1264, for example, Violante of Aragon, wife of Alfonso X of Castile, pleaded for tax concessions to be granted to towns in the Extremadura region while she was attending the Cortes (main legislative assembly). The pregnant Philippa of Hainaut, in a very famous case, successfully persuaded her husband Edward III of England to spare the lives of the Burghers of Calais in 1347; she claimed that executing the men would harm her unborn child. (Sadly, her son would die while still an infant).

Esther intercedes with Ahasuerus on behalf of the Jewish people. The Hague, KB, 78 D 38 II, fol. 15v.

Some queens even understood the power of street protest. Isabelle of Hainaut, queen of France, may have died shortly before her twentieth birthday, but she had already learned how to be a canny political operator. Married to Philippe II of France when still a child, she became aware that he was trying to repudiate her, something which would seriously damage both her reputation and the political standing of her family. So in 1184, at just fourteen years of age, Isabelle appeared in public dressed as a penitent with her hair loose and uncovered, and walked barefoot from church to church in prayer while dispensing alms to the poor—a PR master stroke which won popular opinion over to her side and sent crowds to chant outside the royal residence in support of her. Philippe was shamed into treating his young queen better.

All of these royal women—Eleanor, Violante, Philippa, Isabelle, and many more—would have been very sensitive to sentiments like those expressed by the thirteenth-century English theologian, Thomas of Chobham. In a penitential text, Thomas wrote that “no priest is able to soften the heart of a man the way his wife can […] and if he is hard and unmerciful, and an oppressor of the poor, she should invite him to be merciful.” Women, in other words, were believed to have particular powers of moral persuasion in the Middle Ages. When they could act—in public, in person—they could get results.

This woodcut by English artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) is from William Morris’ A Dream of John Ball. It illustrates the saying “When Adam delved and Eve span/Who was then the gentleman?”, an egalitarian slogan associated with the English Peasants’ Revolt.

There’s no singular inspirational lesson to be learned from this look at women and protest in medieval Europe—no clear tradition to be imitated, and some actions to be actively avoided. (I’d far rather make a placard or some phone calls than slice my opponents “to pieces like little tunny fish”!) Few women have the social status and authority of a queen, and even a queen-consort’s power was hampered to a certain extent by how much she could persuade men to agree with her. Unlike Thomas of Chobham, I don’t even believe that women are better suited than men at encouraging moral uplift in others—except perhaps inasmuch as experiencing oppression can make some women more aware of how societal forces affect them and others.

No singular lesson to be learned, except perhaps this: that when women organise, and agitate, and raise their voices, then as now, they can get things done.

Saint Joseph and Medieval Fatherhood

The broad outline of the Christmas story is probably familiar to most people, regardless of religious background: Joseph and his heavily pregnant wife, Mary, travelled from their home in Nazareth to the town of Bethlehem. There, unable to find a proper place to stay, they sought shelter with the livestock and Mary gave birth to a son whom she named Jesus.

Throughout the Middle Ages, artists, writers, and scholars frequently returned to the Nativity and its subsequent events—the adoration of the shepherds, the arrival of the Magi from the East—for inspiration and contemplation. Yet the ways in which they explored this story, and the subsequent life of this little family, changed over the course of the Middle Ages. This is particularly true in the case of Joseph, who in the early medieval period was almost ignored in the Latin West, if not treated as an object of ridicule, but who by the mid-sixteenth century was one of the region’s most popular and respected saints. The change in how Joseph was depicted—turning from an elderly quasi-cuckold into a younger, dignified head of household—reflects a shift in how medieval people thought about family life.

Relief of the Holy Family. Possibly n. France, ca. 1160–80. [The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Joseph didn’t figure large in the religious imagination of early medieval Christians. When he appeared in artworks, he was mostly a minor figure, and often quite isolated spatially from Mary and the infant Jesus: huddled in a corner of the stable and appearing almost unaware of what was going on. He was a human accessory to the triumvirate of Mary, Jesus, and God the Father; mentioned in the Nativity story, but not really of significance beyond that. After all, he faded out of the Gospels while Jesus is still a boy—perhaps having died—and with no specific place associated with Joseph’s burial, there was nothing to spur pilgrimage and the creation of a saintly cult. Moreover, apocryphal texts like the second-century Gospel of James and the possibly fifth-century Pseudo-Matthew depicted Joseph as an elderly widower who was already a father when he married Mary (thereby “solving” the problem of Jesus’ siblings), and was something of an incompetent.

But as contemporary theology and spiritual practice throughout the High and Late Middle Ages put more emphasis on Christ’s suffering humanity, so too did medieval Christians come to be more interested in Joseph in his role as step-father. In his Commentary on Matthew, the Benedictine monk Rupert of Deutz (ca. 1075-1129) wrote that Joseph, “who, although he was not Christ’s father by flesh, but in faith […] was the greatest of the patriarchs of the Old Covenant and yet in a sense a saint of the New Covenant, because Joseph alone is so close to Jesus, as the husband of Mary and therefore the father of Jesus.” Joseph could function as a bridge between the Old Testament and the New, between the human and the sacred.

Illuminated letter from a late 15th-century Book of Hours, usage of Paris. BM Moulins, MS 79, f.32

This could raise some troubling questions. Several highly influential theologians of the High Middle Ages—like the Italian-born bishop of Paris Peter Lombard (ca. 1096-1160) and the Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)—agreed with the early Church Father, Augustine of Hippo that there were three elements intrinsic to a legitimate Christian marriage—fides, sacramentum, and proles. This led to worries that Mary and Joseph’s marriage was invalid—faith (fides) was surely present, as was sacramentum (a marriage invested with grace), but what about the lack of offspring (proles)? If, as many believed, Mary and Joseph remained virgins for the entirety of their marriage, was their union legitimate? And just as worryingly, how could a man with no biological heirs, and implicitly no virility, be a proper pater familias (male head of the household)?

The Dominican friar and bishop Albertus Magnus (ca. 1200-1280) countered this by arguing that Joseph had named Jesus—a father’s prerogative—and had cared for him, allowing him to be be considered a true father, and thus his marriage to Mary a whole one. Joseph’s participation in Jesus’ circumcision and in the Presentation in the Temple also functioned as public acknowledgement of paternity. This put a brand new emphasis on fatherhood as something you practised, not just something you were.

These changing ideas about Joseph, family, and marriage filtered through to the general public in a variety of ways. The Spanish Dominican friar Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419) wrote a sermon in which he advanced a hypothetical scenario about Jesus’ childhood, inspired by the adult Christ’s saying in the canonical gospels that he “came not to be served but to serve“. One morning, Mary wanted to go get water from the well, Joseph offered to go instead of her to ease her workload, and each one’s desire to relieve a burden from the other left them in a kind of well-intentioned stand-off (sic pie contenderent Virgo et Joseph). Jesus then takes the task on himself, in order to inspire other children to obey and serve their parents.

St Francis of Assisi and his namesake order famously promoted interest in the Nativity, with Francis purportedly creating the first live Nativity scene in 1223. The Franciscans were also interested in Joseph in his own right, particularly the fact that he had worked as a carpenter. They used Joseph and his profession as a focus for meditation on the humble circumstances of the Holy Family, and thus of Christ’s childhood.

Joseph warms the swaddling clothes by the fire while Mary prays and angels crowd around. Circle of Antoine Le Moiturier. Burgundy, ca. 1450. The Met Museum, 16.32.158.

As popular perceptions of Joseph began to change—to emphasise the fact that the Gospels described him as taking on the social role of father to Jesus, even if Christians believed he was not biologically so—so did the ways in which Joseph was shown in medieval artwork. For example, a piece of sculpture from late medieval Burgundy shows the infant Jesus in his crib tended by angels, Mary on her knees in prayer—and Joseph sitting at the hearth, holding the child’s clothes up before the flames to warm them. Medieval households were busy and labour-intensive place, and depictions of the Holy Family often reflect this—Mary busy with textile work, Joseph with his carpentry.

Other late medieval depictions of Joseph—in artwork or in plays—show him engaged in activities that are positively domestic: cooking baby food, bathing the infant Christ, changing the baby’s nappies, even cutting up his own stockings in order to make swaddling clothes for the newborn. In a sermon, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that this exalted Joseph over many kings or prophets, because he was able “to carry [Christ], to take him by the hand, to hug and kiss him, to feed him and keep him safe.”

There were ways in which Joseph and his circumstances could still be played for laughs with a medieval audience, with his household duties depicted as undignified or unmasculine. In the fifteenth-century northern French play Mystère de la Passion, the circumcising priest asks Joseph if he is indeed the child’s father (Beau preudons, estes vous son pere?), to which Joseph replies “Indeed, I married his mother” (Certes, j’ay epousé sa mere). It’s impossible to imagine this line being delivered with anything other than a knowing wink to the audience.

Still, esteem for the saint increased sharply overall. In the early Middle Ages, Joseph was a highly uncommon name. On a list of 53,000 Tuscan householders collected before 1530, only one “Giuseppe” appears; yet by the 1550s, Joseph had become the patron saint of a number of Italian cities, and across Europe variants of Joseph were used as baptismal names.

Joseph adjusts Mary’s pillow while she breastfeeds (albeit from a slightly anatomically implausible breast). [British Library, Royal 1 D X f. 1v.]

For late medieval Christians, Joseph came to represent a model of fatherhood as guardianship, and a paradigm of lay male virtue. A fifteenth-century German “cradle play” (Kindelwiegenspiele) featured Joseph and Mary singing a duet as Joseph rocked the infant Jesus in his cradle:

Mary: “Joseph, dear husband mine, help me rock the little one.”
Joseph: “Happily, my dear little wife, I’ll help you rock the little child.”
Mary: “Take the cradle in your hands and allow my child to be known and rock him nicely so that he doesn’t cry.”

In his tender care for the baby he would publicly acknowledge as his son, in the ways in which the actions attributed to him linked nurturing with masculinity and authority, Joseph helped to create an ideal of the family that could be at once holy and familiar, divine but resolutely human.

The Medieval Turkey? Or, Why Vikings Didn’t Celebrate Thanksgiving

What do Renaissance Faires and Thanksgiving have in common? Well, both are occasions when you’re likely to see people chowing down on turkey legs. That makes sense in the latter case—turkeys are widespread in North America, they’re delicious when served with gravy and a healthy dollop of starch, and Benjamin Franklin even proposed, tongue-in-cheek, making them the national bird of the U.S. They make a good centrepiece for an American secular harvest festival—but why do they show up in recreations of pre-modern Europe?

Part of that is likely down to convenience: a fried turkey leg is a highly portable meal for someone strolling around a fairground. It mostly comes down to bang-for-the-buck, though. Turkey legs are relatively cheap bits of meat, especially in comparison to more authentic offerings. Medieval nobility indulged in birds like pheasants, peacocks, even swans—pretty difficult to get hold of nowadays, expensive, and a lot less palatable to modern sensibilities.

Gnawing away at a turkey leg is also a fun way of engaging with a particular kind of neo-medieval fantasy, and fulfilling modern ideas of the Middle Ages as one long bout of carnivorism, mead quaffing, and tankard throwing.

Charles Laughton, in character as Henry VIII, chows down on some fowl in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Yet no matter how much American fast-food chains like Arby’s try to get “in on the medieval-themed action” by selling smoked turkey legs, during the Middle Ages nobody in Europe was dining on turkey. In fact, they didn’t even know it existed. The bird is indigenous to the Americas, and was first sold in England in perhaps the 1520s, brought across the Atlantic by a Yorkshire trader. So it’s possible that Henry VIII may have eaten turkey, but it was hardly the most popular meat consumed in Tudor England.

For the most part, putting turkeys on the menu for a quasi-medieval feast is a fairly harmless kind of anachronism: vaguely irritating to medieval historians, sure, but no more so than most of the menu offered at dinner theatre venue, Medieval Times (which uses tomato soup, buttered sweet corn and coffee to bring eleventh-century Spain “to life before your eyes.” Authenticity isn’t exactly high on the owners’ agenda.)

But there is another way in which turkeys have been associated with the medieval past, and it’s a little more insidious than fast food chains selling dubiously historical food.

Schleswig Cathedral, ca. 1894. [Source]

In the late 1930s, when Nazi Germany was at the height of its powers, father and son art historians Ernst and Dietrich Fey, together with painter Lothar Malskat, arrived in the northern German town of Schleswig. They’d been tasked with restoring the renowned medieval artwork which adorned the walls of the town’s Romanesque cathedral cloister. Dating to around 1300, this fine series of paintings depicted biblical scenes, but they had been badly damaged by damp over the centuries.

An attempt had been made to restore the paintings once before, by artist August Olbers in 1888. His efforts were of a piece with how many ninteenth-century experts approached conservation—if something was very badly damaged, then imagine what might have originally been there and create that in order to give the viewer a sense of what the Middle Ages had been like. By the 1930s, Olbers’ approach was out of fashion, but when the Feys and Malskat attempted to remove his work, they inadvertently also scraped away most of the original, priceless medieval paintings. Aware that he was legally on the hook for this, the elder Fey got Malskat to secretly produce a new set of murals to replace those that were destroyed. Malskat proved to be skilled at imitating the artistic styles of the later Middle Ages, even though he drew on family members and movie stars to provide the faces of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints.

When the “restored” wall paintings were unveiled, they immediately attracted the praise of the Nazi elite, who interpreted them as supporting their strain of racialised nationalism. Here were some fine Germanic works of art, which depicted figures conforming to “Aryan” stereotypes. In 1940, SS leader Heinrich Himmler even ordered that a book on the cathedral and its paintings be distributed to every school in Germany.

A detail of the 19th-century turkeys added to the existing medieval artwork on the walls of Schleswig Cathedral. [Source]

Now here’s the thing. While Malskat’s work might have been good enough on a technical level to fool those who weren’t experts in art history, you’d think that pretty much anyone who looked at these now very famous paintings would pick up on the fact that, trooping along the bottom of a depiction of the Massacre of the Innocents were no fewer than eight turkeys. Their presence in a medieval European painting could be most charitably described as “surprising”; “downright suspicious” might be a better term.

But such was the force of Nazi ideology that the turkeys were not seen as proof of artistic malfeasance, but rather that “Aryan” explorers had found the Americas long before Columbus and brought turkeys back to the Fatherland. (Far from the only time that Viking voyages to the Americas were used to justify white supremacist ideologies.) The elderly August Olbers emerged from retirement to explain that he had added the turkeys, not expecting that anyone would think them truly medieval. He’d just wanted to fill a small bit of empty wall space with a fox and turkey motif that would metaphorically echo the tale of the murderous King Herod shown above. Malskat, not exactly a skilled ornithologist, had thought they were truly medieval and expanded on Olbers’ out-of-place turkeys. Olbers’ explanation was greeted with cries of “Fake news!”, Nazis on the whole being less than keen on things like evidence.

It was only after the war—particularly once Dietrich Fey and Lothar Malskat were convicted of forgery following another fraudulent “restoration” job, this time on the Marienkirche at Lübeck—that people came to realise that the turkey paintings were not actually evidence that Vikings had ever sat down to a Ren-Faire-style feast.

They were just proof that, medieval or not, there’s more than one way to be a turkey.

If you say so, Sarasota Medieval Fair. [Source]

The White Nuns? Cistercian Women and Whiteness in Marco Polo’s India

In part of his famous Travels, Marco Polo discusses an area he calls Maabar: the southeastern coast region of the Indian subcontinent, modern day Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Polo’s interest was attracted by several aspects of the cultures of this region which seemed strange to a thirteenth-century Italian: clothing styles, ritual suicide or sati, bathing and hygiene practices, and more.

One passage in particular reads:

“Let me tell you further that they have many idols in their monasteries, both male and female, and to these idols many maidens are offered in the following manner. Their mother and father offer them to certain idols, whichever they please. Once they have been offered, then whenever the monks of these idol monasteries require them to come to the monasteries to entertain the idol, they come as they are bidden; and sing and afford a lively entertainment. And there are great numbers of these maidens […]

Several times a week in every month they bring food to the idols to which they are dedicated; […s]ome of these maidens of whom I have spoken prepare tasty dishes of meat and other food and bring them to their idols in the monasteries. Then they lay the table before them, setting out the meal they have brought, and leave it for some time. Meanwhile they all sing and dance and afford the merriest sport in the world. And when they have disported themselves for as long a time as a great lord might spend in eating a meal, then they say that the spirit of the idols has eaten the substance of the food. Whereupon they take the food and eat together with great mirth and jollity. Finally they return – each to her own home. This they do until they take husbands.”
The Travels of Marco Polo, trans. Ronald Latham

Polo goes on to describe how these “maidens” dance nude and perform some eye-wateringly acrobatic high kicks in front of statues of their god and goddess, in order to placate the god’s anger and to encourage the divine couple to copulate. The way that Polo frames the religious beliefs and practices of these people is definitely in what scholars might call an Orientalising mode: although not outright dismissive, his tone is faintly patronising and paternalistic, with the faith of these people something to be looked at and judged from the outside but not engaged with on its own terms. For example, we don’t so much as learn the names of these deities (“idols”, as Polo terms them), or get any great insight into the motivations of the worshippers.

The 11th-century Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur, an example of the kind of sacred spaces Polo described. [Source]

But what particularly interests me about how Polo talks about the topic to a (mostly) Christian, European audience is some of the language he uses. In the original medieval French text, the women are described as nonain (The translator of the excerpt above, Latham, chose to translate this word into English as “maiden” but in French it more literally means “nun”), and the religious buildings in which they congregated were moister, or monasteries. Hindu worshippers in a Hindu temple become nuns in a Christian monastery. Polo reached for the terms that he knew, although they were only the vaguest of synonyms for the people and places whom he was describing. In doing so, he was was in a sense setting the stage for the later colonisation of India, long before a member of the British East India Company set foot there—presuming that the white, western, Christian experience was the default and interpreting the cultures he encountered through that prism.

Travel literature was widely popular in the later Middle Ages, and many manuscripts of Marco Polo’s book—often quite divergent—survive. One of them, which is now held at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, dates to the early fifteenth century and is lavishly and expensively illustrated. It was commissioned by Jean the Fearless, duke of Burgundy (1371-1419), for his bibliophile uncle Jean, duke of Berry (1340-1416).  The illustrator of this particular manuscript followed Polo’s lead by using Western iconography to make the religious practices of southeastern India more comprehensible to a European audience. In other words, he or she often veered from the text, altering clothing and settings to make them more familiar and get past the immediate culture shock—sort of like a modern-dress production of a Shakespeare play. The depiction of the “maidens of Maabar” is an interesting example of this bit of cultural translation.

Manuscript of Marco Polo’s Travels, ca. 1410-12; artwork attributed to the Maître de la Mazarine. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, Français 2810, f. 80r.

 

There are no acrobatic nudes here. The six dancing women, the woman approaching the altar with an offering, and the statue of the goddess standing upon it, are all dressed modestly—and not just modestly, but as nuns whose black veils and white habits identify them as members of the Cistercian Order. The Cistercians are a monastic order, founded during the early twelfth century in France, whose way of life puts an emphasis on prayer, manual labour, and rigorous simplicity. In other words, not the kind of people you’d expect to find dancing, let alone in front of a depiction of a non-Christian deity. The only obvious change from the norm to the clothing of the dancing nuns is the fact that their scapulars—the long piece of cloth which hangs from their shoulders—have been knotted up at their hips.

Unlike the other figures, the statue of the goddess holds a book and a large piece of foliage. She also differs from them in skin tone: they are pale-skinned white, but she is unambiguously black. Marco Polo mentions that the people of Maabar thought dark skin the epitome of beauty. The depiction of this goddess might be inspired by that, or it might be a reference to the Black Madonnas: paintings and statues of the Virgin Mary, most commonly produced during the High Middle Ages (12th-15th centuries), which showed her with very dark or black skin and features.

The Black Virgin of Montserrat, one of the Black Madonnas of Europe. [Source]

How might fifteenth-century readers have interpreted the image of these dancing nuns? Would they have been intrigued? Would it have simply helped make the strange seem familiar to them, or would they also have felt a frisson at the subversion of comparing Cistercian nuns to dancing polytheist worshippers? Would it have encouraged them to continue to feel ambivalent about the eastern civilizations which Polo described, no matter how sophisticated or powerful?

Did the illustrator hope that the reader would find it funny, these supposedly staid nuns dancing in circles? (After all, she or he had no compunction about depicting nudity elsewhere in the manuscript, so keeping these women clothed was a deliberate choice.) Or, bearing in mind that a patron could have a great deal of say over a manuscript that they commissioned, are we simply getting a glimpse of an in-joke between the ducal uncle and nephew? (The mother abbey of the entire Cistercian order, Cîteaux, was located in the territory of the younger Jean, and Cistercian houses were spread across both their duchies.) Some mix of any or all of these things?

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to say. But what we can say is that these dancing women and the statue of their goddess encourage us to think about how medieval Europeans could bring together text and image in an attempt to think about other peoples and places—how Marco Polo’s “nuns” could be White Nuns who weren’t white, familiar and strange, all at once.

George Washington: A Descendant of Odin?

“This article was originally published in The Public Domain Review under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. If you wish to reuse it please see: http://publicdomainreview.org/legal/”

George Washington: first President of the United States, father of his country, crosser of the Delaware, and descendant of Odin. This, at least, was the claim put forward by the late nineteenth-century genealogist Albert Welles. In the floridly titled, four-hundred-page tome The Pedigree and History of the Washington Family Derived from Odin, the Founder of Scandinavia. B.C. 70, Involving a Period of Eighteen Centuries, and Including Fifty-Five Generations, Down to General George Washington, First President of the United States (1879), Welles created a family tree for Washington of truly mythical proportions, and one which shows just how useful nineteenth-century Americans found the Middle Ages to be when it came to shaping their understandings of their country’s origins.

Welles stopped short of claiming that Washington was of semi-divine ancestry — likely because of his own devout Christianity. He therefore took his cue from the thirteenth-century Icelandic author and fellow Christian, Snorri Sturluson, who had proposed that Odin and the other Norse gods of his ancestors should be understood merely as venerated, mythologized versions of particularly successful war leaders. This meant that Odin was not the god of healing and death and the foremost of the Æsir, or Norse pantheon. He was instead a flesh-and-blood man who had lived almost two thousand years ago, ruling over a Turkic people in central Asia called the Aesir. Over time, Odin’s conquests took him further and further west until he finally settled in Scandinavia and declared himself king of all its peoples in the early first century BCE. Welles sniffed that previous historians had not come to this very obvious conclusion because they — unlike him — were “unable to separate the real from the mythological history”.

Welles was not the first to trace a lineage back to Odin. This image from the 12th-century Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum adventu shows Odin crowned as ancestral king of the Anglo-Saxons. The text describes the royal lineages of the kingdoms of Kent, Mercia, Deira, Bernicia and Wessex respectively, each claiming descent (and so also the right to rule) from the mythical figure turned king. [Source]

Yet Welles was keen to engage in some myth-making of his own, stressing the similarities between the Odin he conjured up and George Washington. Though separated by eighteen centuries — and though no one knows what even a human Odin might have looked like — Welles writes that both men were of “wild, massive, manly” stock. If Odin, the first king of a united Scandinavia, were “the Mars as well as the Mohammed” of the region, then surely the first president of the United States had to hold a similarly elevated position.

From Odin, Welles traced thirty-two generations of descent down to about the year 1000 which encompassed figures both historical and legendary. In doing so, he gave George Washington further links — which even allowing for their fictional status were sometimes highly tenuous or collateral — to people like the Viking king Ragnar Lodbrok, or the brothers Hengist and Horsa who purportedly led the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in the fifth century. Welles also claimed that Washington was related to the eleventh-century Icelandic explorers Thorfinn Karlsefni and his wife Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, who sailed across the Atlantic to Greenland and Vinland, the coastal region of eastern America which was briefly colonized by the Vikings. There, Thorfinn and Gudrid had a son, Snorri — the first known child of European parentage to be born in the Americas, long before Martín de Argüelles or Virginia Dare in the sixteenth century.

Ragnar, Hengist, Horsa, Thorfinn, Gudrid, Snorri: these are all tangential figures in Welles’ imagined Washington family tree. But by taking the time to include brief biographies of them, and by linking them to George Washington, Welles was in a sense extending Euro-American history back into the far past. Rather than a nation which could trace its origins back only a hundred years or so from the time of Welles’ writing, or a continent whose colonization could be traced back to the voyages of an Italian Catholic, Anglo-American Protestants were cast as heirs to a long northern European tradition of exploration, conquest, and colonization.

Puck cartoon from 1893 satirising the boastful claims made by the upper classes of America (left) and the nobility of Europe (right) as to from whom they were descended. Top right shows a “Viking” amongst the boasts of Europeans [Source]

Even America’s grand democratic experiment had a medieval Scandinavian ancestry, in Welles’ eyes. He conceded that the Washingtons of the fifteenth century may have taken opposite sides during the Wars of the Roses, but wrote that he attached “no credence to reports of the Cavalier sentiments of the Washington family”. In other words, it was impossible that any ancestor of George Washington could have harbored royalist as opposed to republican sympathies during the English Civil War of the seventeenth century, because no member of the extended Washington clan could ever display a love of “power without principle”. The Washingtons were, after all, almost entirely of Germanic descent — untainted by the continental European influences of Norman blood — and throughout the centuries, “Saxon opposition to the Norman rule in England took the form of liberalism”.

Albert Welles wrote in an America whose aesthetic and moral sensibilities were informed to a great extent by medievalism. The Gothic-revival churches which were springing up across America were thought to be representative of an authentic “Teutonic” style, modified by civilizing Protestant influence. Mass-market consumer products married nineteenth-century inventions with often wildly inauthentic “Gothic” flourishes. In 1876, Henry Brooks Adams — a grandson and great-grandson of American presidents — published the first academic history of medieval Europe to be produced in the United States. Architecture, home decor, textbooks, and lecture series: they all promoted the idea of the European Middle Ages as a time of white racial purity and valor.

George Washington himself seems not to have been unduly interested in the intricacies of his own lineage beyond his immediate family, writing in a letter that “this [his family tree] is a subject to which I confess I have paid very little attention”. It does not seem that he spent much time contemplating who his ancestors in the Middle Ages might have been. And yet he made copious use of a very medieval symbol: the Washington family coat of arms, which dates back to at least the fourteenth century. He emblazoned it on his personal seals, silverware, bookplates, the interior of his home at Mount Vernon — in 1790, Washington even had it added to the doors of his personal carriage.

The Washington coat of arms, as featured in Welles’ The Pedigree and History of the Washington Family Derived from Odin (1879) [Source].

Yet despite this evidence of pre-existing popular interest in such mythologizing, American-style medievalism, The Pedigree and History was overwhelmingly dismissed by Welles’ contemporaries, often in very forthright terms. In a letter to the editor published in a July 1889 issue of The Nation magazine, the genealogist W.H. Whitmore declared that “it is only fair to suppose that Mr. Welles was not in a sound state of mind” when he put pen to paper. The book was a “rank and stupid forgery”, “a mere rambling collection of useless notes.”

In fact, it took until the early twentieth century for Welles’ work to gain any traction at all — and then it was because it suited quite a different set of political needs. The short-lived Northern Review: A Cultural Magazine for the Northwest was published in Minneapolis during the First World War. Unsurprisingly, given the ethnic heritage of a large proportion of Minnesota’s population, the magazine took a distinctly pro-German stance about the conflict. In promotional material about the magazine, Germans and Scandinavians were called “Teutonic twin brothers” whose settlement in the Midwest had “made the desert to blossom”. A 1918 issue of the magazine reprinted a summary of The Pedigree and History under the title “Washington: A Scandinavian”. How could he be anything else, the anonymous epilogue to the summary concluded: George Washington’s ancestry was additional proof that his character was clearly that “of the ancient Vikings of the North”. He too believed in the values of independence, liberty, and patriotism and was possessed of a “powerful frame”. The thrust of the article was clear: the peoples of the United States, Germany, and Scandinavia shared a common ancestry and a set of values which should prevent them from going to war with one another.

Phrenology diagram indicating the strength inherent in the shape of George Washington’s head, featured in Fowler’s The Practical Phrenologist (1846). Note the accidental crown suggested by the labelling lines [Source].

A similar kind of article cropped up in an April 1925 issue of the Nordmanns-forbundet (Norsemen’s federation) magazine. The goal of this Oslo-published magazine was to encourage cultural and linguistic unity among the Norwegian diaspora, something which was felt to be increasingly necessary amid the heightened nativist environment of the United States in the post-war years. The article’s Norwegian-born American author, Simon Johnson, took Washington’s purported Scandinavian ancestry as fact. In doing so, Johnson was attempting to promote the idea of Scandinavians — and so Norwegian immigrants — as “true” Americans, something which wasn’t always accepted by other white Americans of nativist inclinations.

As for the originator of all of these claims, Albert Welles himself is a rather shadowy figure. He was born in Palmyra, New York in about 1818 to George Wells and Mary Babcock, both natives of Connecticut (the second E in his surname seems to have been a later affectation). In 1844, he married Catherine Beckwith; they swiftly had a daughter, Katharine (b. 1845) and moved to New York City. In his writings, Welles was keen to present himself as a man of letters and leisure, but census information shows that he had a far more prosaic occupation: insurance agent.

He was a man of some ambition: in 1860, he founded the American College of Heraldry and Genealogical Registry, housed in the New York Society Library. Speaking to the group’s members in 1879, Welles stated that “[t]his institution promises to become one of the most important and popular in the country. It is destined to become the great depository of Family Registers and Family History.” The ACH briefly published a genealogical magazine with the aim of nationwide circulation, The Chronotype: An American Memorial of Persons and Events (W.H. Whitmore’s verdict on this endeavor was “the mere ravings of a would-be genealogist, full of errors and contradictions.”) Life membership could be obtained for the sum of $50, and members’ family trees were to be entered into the “Domesday Book of New York”. Welles’ hopes for the institution were proved false — the ACH didn’t outlast his death in the early 1880s — but during its brief existence it boasted honorary members including such well-known figures as Senator Hamilton Fish, Secretary of State William Seward, and the romantic poet William Cullen Bryant.

Title page to an 1873 issue of The Chronotype. The motto reads “Esto perpetua” (Let it be perpetual) [Source]

As one might imagine, Albert Welles was also interested in his own family’s history. He published a History of the Welles Family in England and Normandy (1876), which was riddled with about as many errors as was The Pedigree and History, though he made no claim to quasi-divine heritage. Instead, Welles constructed a family tree — almost entirely inaccurately — that gave him connections to a grab-bag of medieval nobility, including Sir Lionel de Welles, a combatant in the War of the Roses and step-father of Lady Margaret Beaufort; the princely house of Orange; several bishops; and assorted signatories of Magna Carta. Welles could therefore take comfort in the fact that like his hero George Washington, like all proper Americans, he was descended from a medieval lineage full of manly valor and civic virtue.

Shortly after Albert Welles’ death in 1883, his books, papers, and correspondence were auctioned off, including “thousands of manuscript genealogies of American families, and quite a large number in book form, expensively gotten up, with portraits, coats of arms and crests” — perhaps even including the notes from which Welles had concocted George Washington’s family tree. (The Daily Picayune, 9 June 1883, 2.) A newspaper account of the auction noted that the true value of all of these goods could be estimated from a single example — a genealogy drawn up on behalf of one William Augustus Martin of New York, showing that he and all the other American Martins were descended from the seventh-century Pope Martin I. “Who would not be a Martin?” the reporter wrote wryly — just as surely, in the mind of Albert Welles, who could envision an America founded by anyone other than a descendant of Odin?

A Beginner’s Reading List: Medieval Europe

It’s difficult for an academic historian to critique popular history books on the Middle Ages without sounding snotty, or dry, or some unappetising combination of both. Popular history books are where the majority of general readers encounter the medieval past. The issue is that many of the popular history works about the Middle Ages best represented in local libraries and second-hand bookshops are not particularly good.

Judging from my casual conversations with people, they’re most likely to have read works such as William Manchester’s egregious A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance (1992), which was a New York Times bestseller and an unabashedly shoddy hatchet job on the medieval world, or Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978), which spins a yarn good enough to win a U.S. National Book Award and does a better job with the sources than does Manchester, but whose arguments were dated even when it was first published. (Let’s not even get started on the person who once told me, in all seriousness, that they’d learned a great deal about medieval Italy from reading The Da Vinci Code. I still get the night sweats thinking about it.)

It’s much easier, however, to push good books on people than to sneer at what they have already read in good faith. All the titles listed here are in English, and should be accessible to the interested general reader, or academic non-specialist. I’ve also tried to only include works which aren’t too expensive (as far as medieval history books go), or which should be available cheaply secondhand.

Getting Started

Miri Rubin. The Middle Ages: A Very Short Introduction (2014).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

This little paperback does exactly what it promises on the cover: provides a very short introduction to the Middle Ages. In just 120 pages, Miri Rubin covers the ways in which medieval Europeans thought society should work and what salvation would look like, how they treated minorities and what points of connection we can see between the Middle Ages and the modern world. This is a straightforward refutation of the idea that the Middle Ages were a benighted and backwards time.

 

Chris Wickham. Medieval Europe (2016).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

If you’re looking for a slightly more extensive introduction than Rubin’s Very Short Introduction, Chris Wickham’s Medieval Europe is probably the most up-to-date broad introduction available. Wickham covers the broad sweep of the thousand years between the end of the Roman Empire in the West to the Reformation, taking in some of the key social, economic, and political factors that shaped medieval Europe. Byzantium, the Islamic world, and Eastern Europe all feature—essential areas to consider, yet ones which are often omitted in standard surveys.

 

Marcus Bull. Thinking Medieval: An Introduction to the Study of the Middle Ages (2005).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

If you want to step back and consider why we think about the Middle Ages in the ways that we do, pick up Marcus Bull’s Thinking Medieval. It’s compact but wide-ranging, looking at the stereotypes and representations of the Middle Ages in film, television, and the press—from Ivanhoe to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Pulp Fiction—and exploring why they are so persistent. Though written with the college classroom in mind, I think it’s also accessible to the general reader with an interest in understanding why the remote past matters.

 

 

Digging Deeper

Paul Freedman. Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (2008).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

There’s a popular misconception that before Columbus’ sailed west across the Atlantic, medieval Europe was cut off from the rest of the world. Yet in Out of the East, Paul Freedman explores how trade—in particular the spice trade—had long linked Europe with parts of the world far distant from it. Traders were drawn east in search of pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, and other culinary and medicinal luxuries—and medieval Europeans enjoyed heavily spiced food that often resembled what we’d think of as quintessentially Asian or Middle Eastern food today.

 

Fredric L. Cheyette, Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours.

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

In the late twelfth century, a woman named Ermengard, viscountess of Narbonne ruled across a large swathe of what is now southern France. Fredric Cheyette sets out to rescue her from the historical shadows. This is a hefty book, but one which provides some fascinating insight into the political and social contexts of this period—what it meant for a woman to be the lord of an important port city in a region home to one of the Middle Ages’ most famous heresies.

 

Barbara Hanawalt. The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (1986).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

How did peasants in medieval England—the vast majority of the population—care for their children and their elderly? What games did they play? What did their homes look like? In The Ties that Bound, Barbara Hanawalt made pioneering use of late medieval coroners’ rolls to uncover details of the daily lives of peasants in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England—and to show people who were as distinct and complex as anyone nowadays.

 

 

The Medieval and the Modern

Celia Chazelle et al. Why the Middle Ages Matter: Medieval Light on Modern Injustice (2011).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

This thought-provoking collection of essays sets out to prove the assertion in its title. The various essays—on topics as diverse as healthcare, crime and punishment, and clerical sexual scandals—argue that while the Middle Ages may not provide neat solutions to modern social problems, then they do at least offer us new ways of approaching them. After all, “medieval” is not, and should not be used as, a simple synonym for “barbaric”, any more than “modern” is a synonym for “progress.”

 

María Rosa Menocal. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (2002).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

The “clash of civilisations” narrative—of an irreparable, binary conflict between the Christian West and the Muslim World—is used by many to explain contemporary political conflicts. Yet religious polarisation is hardly inevitable, and in The Ornament of the World, María Rosa Menocal explores the diverse and vibrant culture created by Muslims, Jews, and Christians in medieval Iberia. This multi-cultural society was one of the most advanced in medieval Europe. Menocal’s recreation of the glories of al-Andalus is perhaps at times an overly rosy one, but this is still a useful introduction to a period that’s still too-little known.

 

Patrick Geary. The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (2003).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

Nationalism is undergoing a resurgence in Western politics—Brexit and the election of Donald Trump being the two most prominent examples. Much of these ideologies are predicated on certain views of medieval history, but here Patrick Geary argues that ethno-nationalism has more to do with myth than with history—that its rallying cries date back to the nineteenth century, not to the Middle Ages. Geary packs a lot of argument into a relatively brief space, and even if you don’t agree with all of his conclusions, The Myth of Nations is sure to spark much further reflection.

 

That’s nine great books to start with, but there are lots more out there. If there are other books about medieval history that you’d particularly recommend to a beginning reader (or really wish that people would avoid), feel free to leave a comment below!

Page 1 of 12

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén

css.php