Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

Category: History of Religion (Page 1 of 2)

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.

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 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.

New Religious Histories: Rethinking the Study of Medieval Religion – A Round Table Discussion

This post was originally hosted on Storify, before that service shut down.

This panel took place at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, July 4 2017. The panellists were John Arnold, Sabrina Corbellini, Kirsty Day, Emilia Jamroziak, and Amanda Power.


Papal Bull? “The Young Pope” and Teaching the Middle Ages

The HBO miniseries The Young Pope is a dreamy and often surreal look at the papacy of the fictional Pius XIII: previously Lenny Belardo, the youngest pope in generations is a New Yorker who references Daft Punk and Banksy but is also an arch-conservative who intends to use his papacy to push a reactionary and ostentatiously traditional agenda. (This traditionalism makes for one of the highlights of the series’ many visual treats, the excellent hats and elaborate clothing, much of which harks back to the Middle Ages.) His immediate predecessor is never named, but it seems clear that Lenny is reacting against the determinedly ascetic and media-friendly approach of the current pope. I’d bet good money that no one is Tweeting from @Pontifex in this particular reality.

I began to watch the show thinking that it would be a much more conventional endeavour: The West Wing and its brand of political intrigues transposed to the Vatican. The Young Pope is a much more bizarre and occasionally perplexing piece of television, right from the opening dream sequence when Lenny (played with aplomb by an impressive Jude Law) crawls out into St Peter’s Square from beneath an enormous pile of sleeping infants.

And that’s even before a lone kangaroo takes up residence in the gardens of the Vatican palace.

Pope Lenny often accessorises his full papal regalia with a pair of sunglasses.

The show’s ten episodes are by turn surreal, challenging, dazzling and occasionally frustrating. I also think they make excellent fodder for historians who are searching for ways to get students to think about the history of the papacy and Christianity during the European Middle Ages. After all, the medieval papacy can be a difficult institution for students to grapple with—particularly, as is the case of most of my students, when at least a substantial number of them aren’t from a Catholic background and they are raised in a society which at least aspires to the separation of church and state.

I’m not suggesting that much of The Young Pope would make useful viewing in the average college survey course. The idiosyncratic papacy of Pius XIII is very different to that of his historical predecessors. Moreover, for all that Lenny’s meticulously embroidered outfits are obviously chosen to conjure the splendours of papal monarchy, his evocation of the Middle Ages is no more accurate than many of the other attempts to co-opt the medieval past for contemporary political ends. This is a very modern papacy, even if Lenny spends a lot of time dodging photographers and refusing to allow the licensing of commemorative plates (€5 for plastic, €45 for the ceramic ones made by genuine craftsmen).

And this is all before the complex, layered visual symbolism of the show comes into play. I’m actually not sure how much of the show is going to be immediately comprehensible to people who weren’t raised Catholic. (And really, what are we supposed to make of the Vatican’s resident kangaroo amidst all this?)

Lenny is carried into the Sistine Chapel; shades of the famous 13th century fresco of Innocent III at Subiaco?

Yet I think the show is excellent at conveying the world view of a religious fundamentalist whose goals and methods are not those which make immediate sense to a modern, secular mindset. This pope is overtly homophobic, wanting to rid the church of all gay priests even while acknowledging that this might well see the dismissal of fully two-thirds of an already stretched clergy. He opposes reproductive rights and divorce. He has no desire to build bridges. He is overtly and unapologetically authoritarian. “I don’t care about loving my neighbour as myself. I will never love my neighbour as myself,” Lenny proclaims in one episode. For him, his elevation to the papacy is in itself proof of his righteousness and moral superiority.

In other ways, though, his thinking doesn’t fit into the usual modern tropes about religious extremism and how it tends to corrupt and make hypocrites of people. Despite a brief fake-out towards the end of the series, it doesn’t seem that Lenny’s ever been seriously tempted to break his vows of his celibacy. He disdains ecumenicism and wants all Catholics to become “fanatics for God”, but there is little evidence in the show of his endorsing the kinds of “culture wars” which have become so prominent since the middle of the last century. “I put no stock in consensus,” he says; “I have nothing to say to those who have even the slightest doubt about God,” he rails on another occasion. He wants faithful Catholics to turn inwards, not outwards. Lenny would rather a much smaller church made up of True Believers than a more expansive one that makes compromises.

Watching The Young Pope is an exercise in entering into what is for many people—even for many practising Catholics—a very different mindset. Students who are new to the medieval period in particular can struggle with encountering its priests and popes in ways that aren’t anachronistic. They tend to swing between the ideological poles of approving of a Christian Middle Ages as an ideal (if imaginary) time of cultural purity and chivalry that was enabled by the church, or excoriating the church as corrupt and hypocritical the first time they encounter its hierarchy engaged in anything like Realpolitik. A more nuanced and less moralizing reading of the sources is sometimes difficult for students to reach, though it’s one that’s enabled by the show.

For instance, Lenny is frequently hailed as a saint by those around him, with every sign of sincerity. Although this pope openly speaks of using humiliation as a tool to cow others, is casually self-absorbed and frequently cruel (in the very first episode, he makes an elderly nun cry), he may be capable of healing the sick and making the infertile conceive. This clashes with modern ideas of sanctity as comforting and loving. Yet the idea of a saint who punishes people severely for what seem nowadays like minor transgressions wouldn’t have been an odd one in the Middle Ages. (For instance, at least two women were reputed to have gone mad and died for daring to walk through a cemetery dedicated to the English saint Cuthbert.)

“God overwhelms,” Lenny says. “God frightens.”

Of course, the scene in which the pope dons his full regalia to the strains of LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” might just make for excellent classroom viewing regardless. Not only do we get to see the various layers which make up a pope’s formal clothing and which are almost unchanged since the Middle Ages—cassock, lace-embellished cotton tunic, cincture, surplice, papal mantle, red shoes, triregnum and all—but we also get to see how clothing can be used to make a statement about power and authority. Just as a tonsure was an unmistakable sign that the medieval monk had set aside the cares and follies of the secular world, so these clothes turn the orphan Lenny Bellardo into the attention-arresting Pius XIII, bishop of Rome, servant of the servants of God, Christ’s representative on Earth.

And if nothing else, just like much the rest of The Young Pope, the scene makes for viewing that’s trippy, voyeuristic, and brilliantly weird: a trip inside the papal mind.

Building A Wall Against Gog and Magog

A wall cast a long shadow across the recent U.S. presidential election: the 1,954 mile-long wall which Donald Trump has promised will soon stretch the length of the U.S.-Mexico border. Whether a foundation will ever actually be dug for this wall, or what that wall should look like, are matters of hot debate right now. Archaeologists and historians have pointed out that there is little historical precedence for the efficacy of these kinds of border walls. Still, its proponents are adamant that a wall is necessary to preserve the integrity of the United States: that fearsome and alien things lurk just on the other side of the border, that a wall can be a firm dividing line between “us” and “them”.

This understanding of a wall—one built as much out of rhetoric and identity as it is out of bricks and mortar—has a long history. Medieval Europeans’ sense of themselves was defined in part by what they were not. They believed that they were normal, while the far reaches of Africa and Asia were inhabited by all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures barely recognisable as people. The blemmyes had no heads but rather faces that were embedded in their chest; the homodubii were a kind of centaur with the body of a donkey; the panotti had ears so large that they could wrap them around their bodies like blankets, protection against the cold of their homeland in the far north. The most ferocious of these quasi-humans were the peoples of Gog and Magog, cannibalistic invaders who were kept at bay only by the walls which had been built around them.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 24364, fol. 60v, leaves containing recension of Thomas de Kent, Roman de toute chevalerie; Gallica digitized image. ca. 1308-1312.

The cannibalistic inhabitants of Gog and Magog. From a recension of Thomas of Kent’s Roman de toute chevalerie, ca. 1308-12. Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 24364, f. 60v.

Gog and Magog loomed large in the medieval imagination. They appear in the Hebrew Bible (Yechezkel/Ezekiel 38-39), in the Christian New Testament (Revelation 20:7-8) and the Qur’an (Surah Al-Kahf, 83-101). While the exact details of who they were and what actions they were prophesied to carry out varied, all faith traditions agreed that the inhabitants of Gog and Magog were a wild and fearsome people who were held at bay for now, but who would one day help to bring about the end of the world. Though relatively obscure figures in religious scripture, they took on a life of their own in popular legends and stories, particularly in the series of interconnected and apocryphal tales known as the Alexander Romances.

According to many medieval tales—based in part on the stories of the first-century CE Jewish historian Josephus—Alexander the Great had come across wild and unclean peoples as he and his forces pushed eastwards across Asia. To keep these peoples from destroying humanity, Alexander drove them between two huge mountains, then prayed that God would push the mountains together and so imprison them. His wish was granted. This story was repeated and embellished on in later influential medieval texts, such as the seventh-century Syriac Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius and the Alexander Romance cycle, where the peoples imprisoned by Alexander became identified with Gog and Magog. In some of the stories, Alexander orders his army to build a set of gates across passes in the Caucasus mountains to keep back these apocalyptic forces. These gates—variously described as of iron or bronze—were coated with a fast-sticking kind of oil.


Alexander the Great’s army build a wall around the people of Gog and Magog. 15th c., France. BNF MS fr. 9342, f. 131v

As the Middle Ages progressed, western Europeans began to look beyond their home regions, to become aware of the scale of the globe in a way they had not in generations. They produced mappa mundi, maps of the world, of increasing complexity and sophistication. Gog and Magog appeared on many of these maps, though the location of their homeland and their affiliation shifted according to contemporary concerns and fears.

The Ebstorf mappa mundi (a detail of which appears in the header image of this post), shows a walled-off area labelled Gog and Magog where the monstrous inhabitants are in the act of devouring a disfigured victim. On the border of the same map, closer to Europe, there is also text which describes the “city and island of Taraconta which is inhabited by Turks of the race of Gog and Magog, a barbarous and wild people who eat the flesh of young people and aborted foetuses.”  Other maps identified Gog and Magog with the Lost Tribes of Israel, showing iudei inclusi (“enclosed Jews”) or “Red Jews” on maps of Asia and creating artwork depicting Gog and Magog that drew on overtly anti-Semitic imagery. Hostility towards Islam and Judaism clearly drove these identifications on the part of medieval Christians.

The people of Gog and Magog attacking a city. From a French/Anglo-Norman verse apocalypse, ca. 1220-1270. Toulouse, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 815, f. 49v.

A depiction of the people of Gog and Magog attacking a city, with distinct anti-Semitic undertones. From a French/Anglo-Norman verse apocalypse, ca. 1220-70. Toulouse, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 815, f. 49v.

When the Mongol empire was at its height in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, many Europeans came to the conclusion that they—appearing suddenly out of the east and sweeping all before them in the creation of an empire of unprecedented size—were the peoples of Gog and Magog, or sometimes descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel who had abandoned Judaism. What else could they be but harbingers of the apocalypse? Not only were they conquerors but their way of life was alien from that of the vast majority of Europeans.

In an age of Google Maps and accurate cartography, it’s tempting to consign the land of Gog and Magog to the past, as simply yet another funny and ignorant quirk of the medieval European worldview. Yet to do so is to ignore that even at the highest political levels, many nowadays still believe that was was written in the book of Ezekiel will literally come to pass, even if they don’t imagine a lost, walled-off city somewhere in Eurasia. For instance, in 1971, Ronald Reagan—then governor of California—explicitly stated that the “communistic and atheistic” USSR was the fulfilment of the prophecy in Ezekiel. It’s been claimed that in a 2003 phone call to Jacques Chirac, George W. Bush cited end-time prophecies about Gog and Magog in an (ultimately futile) attempt to persuade the French to participate in the invasion of Iraq.

The inhabitants of Gog and Magog, shown in Turkish dress, attack a European city in this scene from the Lübeck Bible. British Library

The inhabitants of Gog and Magog, shown in Turkish dress, attack a European city in this scene from the sixteenth-century Lübeck Bible. British Library

It is also to overlook the ways in which modern people are still capable of making sharp divisions between “us” and “them” based on little if any evidence. Political rhetoric turns desperate refugees into an overwhelming horde; it conjures up a criminal threat poised just the other side of the border. Whether in medieval Europe or the modern West, people tend to define themselves by what they are not—but as was the case with Gog and Magog, these fears do not truly originate behind distant mountains in lands with unfamiliar names. Their origins lie far closer to home.

Bounded in a Nut Shell: Touching Faith in the Late Middle Ages

Reading the work of mystics or theologians gives us insight into what medieval Christians thought about their faith; walking through the ruins of a monastery or a still-standing cathedral lets us experience some of the physical environments in which they lived, worked, and prayed. But what about some of the more ephemeral aspects of the history of religion? What did faith sound like, feel like, smell like in the Middle Ages?

We can reconstruct some of those experiences by examining the objects which people used to help guide their meditation and prayer. From Late Antiquity onwards, Christians used knotted ropes or strings of beads to help keep count when saying repetitive prayers. Rosary beads, still widely used by modern Catholics, developed out of that tradition. Medieval rosaries often had attachments not found today, such as vials of holy water, relics, pomanders (scent containers), and prayer nuts.

Carved boxwood prayer-nut. Netherlandish, ca. 1500. [British Museum WB.236]

Carved boxwood prayer-nut. Netherlandish, ca. 1500. [British Museum WB.236]

Most of these prayers nuts (sometimes called prayer beads or prayer apples) were made in northern Europe during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries—about 65 examples survive from the Low Countries alone. Prayer nuts are bigger than, say, an acorn or walnut, but not by much: the size of a tennis ball or smaller. This makes the intricacy of their manufacture all the more extraordinary.

They were frequently carved out of boxwood, in part because its fine grain made it well-suited to this kind of micro-carving, but also because in the Middle Ages boxwood was believed to be the kind of wood from which the cross on which Jesus was crucified was made. The prayer nuts were then attached to a belt or string of rosary or paternoster beads—the example shown in the image at the top of this post had its own copper carrying case and accompanying red velvet pouch so that it could be worn at the waist. Objects like this would have been a light but constant weight at the waist of a medieval Christian as they went about their day.

Prayer nut, ca. 1500-35. [Musée du Louvre OA5609]

Prayer nut, ca. 1500-35. [Musée du Louvre OA5609]

Why make something as time-consuming as this, when a much smaller and simpler set of beads would also allow for focused devotion? Historians think they were one of the ways medieval Christians would undertake what they called a “spiritual” or imagined pilgrimage. Not everyone could afford, or was physically able, to travel to Jerusalem, Rome, or Santiago de Compostela—but by undertaking certain spiritual exercises, by concentrating on imagining events from scripture as vividly as possible, the believer could travel in time and space even though their body remained at home.

The design of prayer nuts seems to facilitate these kinds of devotional practices. Some prayer nuts had more than one “level”, with inside panels that could be unfolded (like the examples above from the British Museum and the Louvre) which could be prompts for different prayers, or different topics of contemplation, as the user worked from the text on the outside to the innermost depiction of the Crucifixion. By focusing intently on the miniature object cupped in your palm, on its intricate details and depth of scene, you effectively shut out the outside world as you contemplate eternity—to twist Shakespeare’s words a little, infinite space could be bound in a nut shell.

Silver exterior of a prayer nut. Netherlandish, ca. 1500. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, BK-2010-16

Silver exterior of a prayer nut. Netherlandish, ca. 1500. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, BK-2010-16

Of course, these would not have been cheap items, to make or to purchase, and we cannot divorce the religious function of these items from their social ones. They were as much a social status symbol as a physical representation of a person’s faith. They could perform a dual role as prayer nuts and as pomanders, with small holes on the exterior of the nut allowing pleasant fragrances to escape as the object’s owner prayed or went about their day.

Scholars also think that the relative lack of wear on some of the more intricate, later examples implies that they weren’t necessarily made to be regularly used, but to be kept in a Wunderkammer—a collection of rare objects and curiosities—as a marker of the owner’s wealth and sophistication.

Detail of prayer nut, ca. 1510, showing crowd at the foot of Jesus' cross. [Metropolitan Museum of Art, 17.190.475

Detail of prayer nut, ca. 1510, showing crowd at the foot of Jesus’ cross. [Metropolitan Museum of Art, 17.190.475

New digital technologies can give us new insights into the devotional artefacts and architecture of the Middle Ages, into the methods used to create those objects and into how they were used. By measuring the amount of dirt embedded in a manuscript leaf, researchers can work out which pages were the most popular in a given text overall. By using acoustic measuring technology, researchers can recreate the medieval soundscapes of Byzantine and better understand why ancient authors said, “It sounds like there are angels in the buildings.”

They can also help us better understand the techniques which were used to carve these prayer beads. A team of researchers from the Netherlands and France undertook an X-ray tomography study of an early sixteenth-century prayer bead now kept at the Rijksmuseum. This study revealed that the prayer nut was composed of four main parts: the outer shell with its abstract motifs, the inner relief showing the Crucifixion, the crosses and tiny pikes wielded by some of the figures in the scene, and the arc which tops the scene. The kind of drilling and carving needed to produce these parts, and on such a scale, would have required drills, chisels, knives, and some kind of magnifying lens. Fibrous material found between the inner and outer shells may once have been soaked with perfumes or aromatic vinegars, so that the prayer nut might also have functioned as a pomander. Similarly, a team based at Canada’s Western University carried out a microCT scan of a prayer nut which gives the viewer a close-up view of an intricate carving of the Last Judgement.

An intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has even created 3D printed versions of a prayer nut—made of sugar, scented with frankincense and flavoured with wine. These new versions may be innovative in composition but they encourage us to use our senses when we interact with these objects—just as medieval Europeans once did.

The Veil in the Middle Ages

The recent decision by several communities in France to ban the burkini has received a lot of attention around the world—and rightly so. It is a piece of legislation that is as poorly thought-through as it is self-defeating. As I stated in an interview with Sarah Bond, to mandate what a woman should not wear is no more feminist than to tell her what she should wear. Proponents of the ban claim that it will encourage laïcité, but limiting a devoutly religious woman’s ability to enter public space and move through mainstream secular society hardly seems like a logical way of encouraging social integration and cohesion.

Of course, France is not alone among European countries in passing or drafting legislation aimed at Islamic dress in its various forms. Legislators are often keen to stress that these laws are aimed at the emancipation of women, or are applied equally to forbid anyone, regardless of gender or religion, from covering their face in public. Yet the Catholic nun’s veil isn’t targeted in the same way, or an Orthodox Jewish woman’s head covering, and in fact most of the German states which have banned religious symbols and dress make explicit exemption in that legislation for Christian or Jewish cultural traditions. The Western debate over the burkini—or the hijab, niqab or burqa—is often less a conversation about women’s rights than it is using women’s clothing to make statements about identity and group morality.

Female saints wearing double veils. From the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, late 10th c. BL Ms ADD 49598, f.2

Female saints wearing double veils. From the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, late 10th c. BL Ms ADD 49598, f.2

There is a tendency in these debates to treat the veil as something distinctly other, as a symbol of something inherently non-European. Yet for most inhabitants of the medieval West, that view would have been a strange one indeed. No respectable woman past adolescence would have thought of leaving her home with her head bare, and the veil or headdress was the fundamental symbol of the married woman.

Medieval Christian views were shaped by scripture, such as the letter of Paul of Tarsus which stated that women should cover their hair while praying, and linked this mandate to women’s inferior status comparative to that of men. Over time, this admonition was applied more broadly. For a woman to have walked the streets of a medieval town with her hair uncovered would have invited suspicion as to her sexual morality—that was the behaviour of a prostitute. (In fact, if an “honest” woman from the French town of Arles saw a prostitute wearing a veil, she had the legal right to rip it off.)

Detail of "Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius, ca. 1460. Getty Museum Ms. 42, f. 2v

Detail of “Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius, ca. 1460. Getty Museum Ms. 42, f. 2v

Most women would have used a fairly simple piece of cloth to cover their heads, but the more elaborate and fashionable headdresses form part of the visual language that we use to popularly identify the Middle Ages. The tall headdresses—either conical with a veil attached to the top or shaped into two horns—that were in vogue in the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries signal “fairytale princess” to most people nowadays. These headdresses were preceded by other styles such as the head-, chin-, and neck-covering wimple (10th to mid-14th centuries), the barbette and the filet (12th to 14th centuries), and succeeded by others like the low hoods and caps (15th and 16th centuries) familiar from portraits of Tudor women.

Medieval headdresses changed with fashion but also with life stage. A new mother wore a white veil when she was churched (underwent a purificatory ritual after childbirth); a widow wore a severe linen barbe which covered her hair, neck, ears and the upper chest. This meant that a woman’s head covering was a symbol of her morality, but also indicated her role within the community.

Detail of a silk embroidery, "The Presentation in the Temple", 14th c. Getty Museum, 60.148.2

Detail of a silk embroidery, “The Presentation in the Temple”, 14th c. Getty Museum, 60.148.2

The veil was inextricably linked to the virtuous married woman in particular. We can see this by looking at the so-called Wellcome Apocalypse, a fifteenth-century miscellany originating in Germany. It contains a number of different texts in German and Latin on scientific, moral, and theological topics, and also a number of medical diagrams.

One of these diagrams, the “Disease Woman”, shows a kind of living cadaver—a pregnant woman who gazes out at the viewer, her arms and legs spread wide. She isn’t wearing clothing, and her chest and abdomen have been cut open, revealing her internal anatomy—as nude as a person can be. And yet she is still depicted wearing a headdress which covers her hair, neck, and ears. Her visual honour is therefore preserved, and viewers are assured that she is still a respectable woman.

Detail of the "Disease Woman". Wellcome Apocalypse, Germany, 15th c. Wellcome Library MS 49, f. 38r

Detail of the “Disease Woman”. Wellcome Apocalypse, Germany, 15th c. Wellcome Library MS 49, f. 38r

While such head coverings signalled differences in class, age, and social standing, they were not necessarily clear-cut markers of ethnicity or religion. The twelfth-century scholar Shlomo Ibn Parhon described Jewish women in Spain as adopting the practices of their Muslim neighbours, covering “their faces with a cloth. And when they wrap it around their faces they leave a hole opposite one eye at the edge of the cloth, with which to see, for it is forbidden to look at women.”

Shlomo’s near contemporary, the travel writer Muhammad ibn Ahmad Ibn Jubayr, visited Sicily in the 1180s. He wrote that Christian women in the capital city of Palermo followed Islamic fashions even at Christmastime: they went out “clad in gold-colored silk gowns, wrapped in elegant mantles, covered with colored veils, with gilded brodequins on their feet; they flaunt[ed] themselves in church in perfectly Muslim toilettes.” These sources don’t seem to reflect any deep anxiety about the implications, political or otherwise, about such cross-cultural borrowings. For people across medieval Europe—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—a woman’s head covering was simply a homogeneous, universal type of clothing.

Detail from an illustration in the Maciejowski or Crusader Bible, ca. 1250. The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, Ms M. 638 f.17r.

Detail from an illustration in the Maciejowski or Crusader Bible, ca. 1250. The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, Ms M. 638 f.17r.

Yet the vast majority of women in Europe no longer wear veils or headdresses. Fashions and tastes changed. As anyone who’s ever seen a film adaptation of a Jane Austen novel or an episode of the show Mad Men knows, bonnets and hats remained a part of daily life for most people in the West until the 1960s, but these head coverings were increasingly less a direct assertion of a person’s morality or social status. Headscarves lingered in some places, particularly in rural areas or in Catholic countries where women wore mantillas or other kinds of veils to attend Mass until the late 1960s; I can certainly remember my maternal grandmother knotting a headscarf under her chin before she headed out to the shops in the Ireland of the late 1980s.

Over time, the veil and other similar headdresses began to be seen in the West as a sign of greater than normal religiosity, rather than as a cultural norm. For example, during the French Revolution, veiled nuns were regarded not as virtuous, but as a symbol of a hated and outdated regime, and were the victims of both verbal and physical attacks. Few Christian denominations in the West, with the exception of small groups such as the Amish and some Mennonites, require that their female members cover their heads regularly.

Detail of the calendar image for June from the Playfair Hours. France, ca. 1480s. V&A Museum, MSL/1918/475.

Detail of the calendar image for June from the Playfair Hours. France, ca. 1480s. V&A Museum, MSL/1918/475.

Our clothing makes a statement about who we are, and about the social influences which inform the choices we make about our clothing. This is especially true when it comes to women’s clothing (as the current US presidential election has made repeatedly clear). Gendered clothing legislation also makes a statement: it turns women’s bodies into proxies for far broader debates about politics, the role of religion in public life, and group identity. Forgetting the European history of the veil makes it far easier for those debates to become divisive, rather than a means for diverse communities to figure out how to peacefully co-exist.

A Beginner’s Reading List: Medieval Nuns

For most people, medieval nuns are shadowy figures, confined against their will in cloisters by overbearing families. But in recent decades, historians have undertaken a lot of archival research which shows that life for Catholic nuns in medieval Europe was a lot more complex, and a lot more involved with the secular world, than we once thought. The books in this list are a beginners guide for those who’d like to know more about the lives of these women (who are sometimes termed “female religious”—when used as a noun, “religious” refers to someone who is bound by monastic vows).

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. Dipping into these books shows how diverse and dynamic the lives of religious women could be in the Middle Ages.

Getting Started

sistersinarmsJo Ann McNamara. Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia (1998).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

This thick volume (more than 700 pages) covers the history of Catholic nuns around the world from the earliest days of the church right through to the twentieth century. For the breadth of its coverage and for accessibility of language, it’s still unmatched for the general reader looking for an introduction to the history of female religious. That said, Sisters in Arms is now showing its age a little in terms of its analysis and conclusions. Don’t treat it as definitive, but use it as a jumping-off point in terms of over-all chronology and an introduction to some of the key figures in the history of female monasticism.

51h9uGy7nEL._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_Alastair Minnis and Rosalynn Voaden, eds. Medieval Holy Women in the Christian Tradition c.1100-c.1500 (2010).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

I said I would try to include books that weren’t overly expensive; sadly, this excellent (and hefty) collection of essays is published by Brepols which means that it’s almost certain to be unaffordable if you’re not a university library. However, Medieval Holy Women’s various entries provide an unmatched survey of the roles and interests of holy women (nuns and otherwise) across western Europe in the High and Late Middle Ages. Both the essays and their accompanying bibliographies will orient the reader towards the best in recent work on individual women and regional trends.

SetWidth440-Hall-Women-ChurchDianne Hall, Women and the church in medieval Ireland, c.1140–1540 (2003).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

This book is a rare bird indeed: a comprehensive regional study of medieval women’s monasticism that’s affordable, reliable, and accessible to the general reader. Dianne Hall pulled together the scant documentary sources about female religious in medieval Ireland and complemented them with archaeological and art historical evidence to produce the first full-length study of the topic. Hall is particularly strong in demonstrating the links that existed between nuns and their surrounding lay communities, and if you’d like to start with a study that’s more focused than wide-ranging, I’d recommend this one.

Digging Deeper

strocchia_coverSharon Strocchia. Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence (2009).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

This is the first proper monograph to explore the lives of women in Florentine convents during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Strocchia makes impressive use of the city’s abundant archives to show that in the period between the Black Death and the late fifteenth century, communities of religious women went from being relatively unimportant to being deeply embedded in the social, political, and economic life of the city. Through their involvement with the luxury textile industry in particular, the women made their mark on Florence’s economy and helped shape the city’s civic development.

80140100699560LAnne E. Lester, Creating Cistercian Nuns: The Women’s Religious Movement and Its Reform in Thirteenth-Century Champagne (2011).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

Lester takes as her case study female religious in the Champagne region during the thirteenth century. Her focus on what historians call “documents of practice” (in other words, texts that tell us about what actually happened, as opposed to say a law code which tells us what should happen) allows her to challenge the standard narrative of the history of Cistercian nuns. If you want to explore the fluidity of women’s affiliation with religious orders in the Middle Ages, and how church legislation could shape their way of life, this is a book well worth checking out.

13488Nancy Bradley Warren, Spiritual Economies: Female Monasticism in Later Medieval England (2005).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

Think that medieval nuns could entirely dismiss economic concerns? Nancy Bradley Warren encourages you to think again in this study of the house of Dominican women in Dartford. She draws on court records, financial accounts, and devotional treatises, among other sources, to bring to life a vibrant and wealthy community which was as much a part of the material economy as it was the spiritual one.

In Their Voices

riccoboni_coverBartolomea Riccoboni. Life and Death in a Venetian Convent: The Chronicle and Necrology of Corpus Domini, 1395-1436 (2000).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

This account of convent life was written by a Venetian nun who lived around the turn of the fifteenth century. Sister Bartolomea Riccoboni’s chronicle of the community’s foundation, coupled with short biographies about some of the other nuns, provide a wonderful insight into both daily life in a convent and how a group of female religious could become involved with ecclesiastical and secular politics. Daniel Bornstein’s translation is particularly clear.

51QsqWjs9HL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Hildegard of Bingen, Selected Writings: Hildegard of Bingen (2009).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

Hildegard of Bingen is one of the most engaging characters of the Middle Ages: a Benedictine nun, she was a prolific and original writer with a broad array of interests and a personality that comes through loud and clear in her writing. Although she’s never officially been canonised, in 2012 she was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church. This edition provides selections from her writings—letters, theological works, and medical treatises—accompanied by useful explanatory material about her life and times.

9780859915892_14_1_2 Birgitta of Sweden, Saint Bride and her Book: Birgitta of Sweden’s Revelations (2000).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

Birgitta (or Bridget) of Sweden was a fourteenth-century mother, mystic, and founder of the Bridgettine Order of nuns and monks. This book gives a translation of Birgitta’s medieval vita, or biography, together with excerpts from her great theological work, the Revelations. An accompanying essay shows how Birgitta was politically active, involved in attempts to end the Hundred Years’ War and the Schism, and how she influenced female mystics in the later Middle Ages.

That’s nine great books to start with, but there are lots more out there. If there are other books about the history of medieval nuns that you’d particularly recommend to a beginning reader, feel free to leave a comment below!

Saint Anne: The Mother of the Mother of God in Medieval France

[Header Image: BL Harley 2846, f. 40v]

From the early thirteenth century onwards, the pilgrims who flocked to Notre-Dame de Chartres in north-central France were keen to venerate one of the cathedral’s most famous relics: the head of Saint Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary.

Sculpture of Anne holding the infant Mary; north porch of Chartres Cathedral. []Source

Sculpture of Anne holding the infant Mary; north porch of Chartres Cathedral. []Source

The relic arrived in France in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade. Louis, count of Blois and a grandson of Louis VII, was alleged to have discovered the head in Constantinople and sent it back to his homeland shortly before his death in the Battle of Adrianople in 1205. His widow, Catherine, countess of Clermont, presented the skull and an associated cloak to the cathedral at Chartres on Louis’ behalf. According to the cathedral’s necrology, which contains an account of the donation, “the mother’s head was received with great joy in the daughter’s church.”

Mother and Daughter at Chartres

Chartres had been a focus of Marian pilgrimage since the Carolingian period, when the Emperor Charlemagne was supposed to have presented the church with the Sancta Camisia, a tunic or veil believed to have once belonged to Mary. This relic drew the faithful for generations. In the late twelfth century, the poet Guillaume the Breton wrote of the cathedral:

Countless the signs and favours of grace by which the Blessed Virgin
Shows that the Mother of Christ has a special love for this one church,
Granting a minor place, as it were, to all other churches,
Deeming it right to be frequently called the Lady of Chartres.
This is also the place where everyone worships the tunic
Worn on the day of the birth of the Lamb, by the Virgin as garment.

The cathedral therefore seemed an appropriate resting place for the relics of Mary’s mother, and in honour of Anne, the cathedral was decorated with sculpture and stained glass showing her holding the infant Mary.

The Origins of Saint Anne

In the later Middle Ages, Saint Anne was regarded as the matriarch of an extended Holy Kindred and her feast day was celebrated with great solemnity on July 26. Stories about Anne and her children were told, retold, and popularised in works like Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea and Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum historiale. This was all despite the fact that neither Anne nor any of her family (with the exception of Mary and Jesus) appear in the canonical Gospels, nor is there any historical evidence for her existence.

Anne teaches Mary how to read. Detail from Hours of Charles VIII. Biblioteca Nacional de España, Vitr. 24-1, f. 108v.

Anne teaches Mary how to read. Detail from Hours of Charles VIII. Biblioteca Nacional de España, Vitr. 24-1, f. 108v.

In fact, Anne first appears in texts like the mid-second-century Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal gospel that described Mary’s birth and childhood. The life story crafted for Anne by the Protoevangelium‘s author echoes that of the Old Testament figure Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel. Both women were devout and childless; the faith of both was rewarded with the birth of remarkable children.

Anne’s rise in popularity over several centuries—she appeared first in theological writings, then increasingly in popular accounts; first in the Greek East and then in the Latin West—depended on a number of factors. Anne’s presence helped to resolve some of the theological questions that surrounded just how a human woman could give birth to God—if Mary was conceived without original sin, what must her parents have been like? As a pious woman and doting mother and grandmother, Anne helped to humanise some of the more mysterious aspects of the Incarnation.

As the number of stories about Anne expanded, so too did the size of her family. By the later Middle Ages, people believed that Anne had married three times and had a daughter called Mary by each marriage. The three Marys then had children of their own: Jesus Christ and several of his disciples. This tangled family tree helped to resolve contradictory or confusing genealogical references in scripture. But likely much more immediately appealing to medieval people was that Anne—a mother and grandmother, a widow who remarried—provided lay women with a model of piety which was compatible with sexual activity within marriage. Unlike most people previously heralded as saints, Anne hadn’t abjured sex and parenthood in favour of saintly celibacy.

Of course, this didn’t mean that medieval theologians were keen on the idea of a saint enjoying sexual pleasure, however licit. They were firm in their belief that Anne married and had sex only to produce virtuous, legitimate children. Anxieties over Jesus’ grandmother being implicated in carnality gave rise to a legend popular in thirteenth-century France, one which extended Mary’s maternal line back further still. This story claimed that Anne’s own paternal grandmother inhaled the perfume of a flower that had been seeded by the Tree of Life—the tree believed to stand at the centre of the Garden of Eden—and immaculately conceived a child called Fanuel. Fanuel in turn immaculately conceived Anne when he wiped the juice of an apple with healing powers onto his thigh. The limb swelled and Anne emerged from it—a fittingly mythological origin story.

Relic of St Anne's finger held at Saint-Thomas-de-Corceriers. [Source]

Relic of St Anne’s finger held at Saint-Thomas-de-Corceriers. [Source]

Saint Anne in France

A noble family with royal connections brought Anne’s relics to Chartres in the early thirteenth century, and royal and aristocratic endorsement helped to further root the saint’s cult in French soil. However, over time Anne attracted the veneration of a much broader swath of the population, particularly seafarers, seamstresses, and the increasingly wealthy burgesses of the later Middle Ages.

Anne was also the patron saint of woodworkers—particularly those in Paris, who referred to the mixture of glue and sawdust used to plug holes in planks of wood by the vivid term, “St Anne’s brains.”

Anne was highly popular in Burgundy and in Provence, where the cathedral in the town of Apt was dedicated to her. Both at Apt and at Saint-Thomas-de-Courceriers, the faithful venerated relics linked to Anne. She became the patron saint of Brittany, where she is still regarded as the “grandmother of the Bretons.” A medieval Breton poem, Les Brez, makes clear the devotion that many felt to “mother Saint Anne.” If she helped him, the poet said:

If I come home again, mother Saint Anne, I will make you a present:
I will make you a present of a cord of wax that will go three times around your walls,
Three times around your church, three times around your cemetery,
And three times around your lands, should I arrive at home.
And I will give you a banner of velvet and white satin with a pole of polished ivory.
And I will give you seven bells of silver to sing gaily night and day above your head.

Of course, some people did have lingering doubts about venerating a lay woman who’d been married not just once, but three times. Even as late as the fifteenth century, the reforming abbess Colette of Corbie balked at praying to Saint Anne because of it. However, Colette then had a vision in which Anne appeared, defending her sanctity on the basis of the undeniable virtue of her descendants. Colette then made a special point of instituting altars and devotions to the saint in all of the convents in her order.

Anne sits with her arm around Mary, distracting the infant Jesus with a toy. British Library Egerton 1070, f. 97.

Anne sits with her arm around Mary, distracting the infant Jesus with a toy. British Library Egerton 1070, f. 97.

After the Middle Ages

In the aftermath of the Reformation, Anne’s cult faded in Protestant areas but remained vibrant in mostly-Catholic France—this despite its condemnation at the Council of Trent. This was helped by the fact that in about 1625, a Breton peasant called Yves Nicolazic claimed to have seen apparitions of Anne. Ever since, pilgrims—including Pope John Paul II—have flocked to the basilica dedicated to the saint in the town of Sainte-Anne-d’Auray in Brittany. Anne of Austria, mother of Louis XIV, also credited her namesake saint with helping her to finally give birth to an heir after 23 years of marriage. In 1660, the grateful queen made a pilgrimage to the cathedral of Saint Anne in Apt.

At about the same time, French colonists were bringing the veneration of Saint Anne west with them across the Atlantic, where it flourished particularly in Quebec. She became that province’s patron saint. The shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in eastern Quebec, home to a statue and relic brought from France, is still an important site of pilgrimage in modern North America. The ceiling of the basilica there is decorated with an elaborate mural showing Anne, Mary, and Jesus—if the saint arrived in France by herself, she travelled to Canada with her family.

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