Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

Twisted Sisters

Sex sells, particularly when it comes with a side order of subversion. It’s no surprise, then, to find that recently released The Nun (2018) has attracted a little more press attention than is the norm for a schlocky horror film. The movie bids fair to tick off a lot of boxes in the “nunsploitation” sub-genre of horror: beautiful young nuns, a remote and gloomily Gothic convent, blood spitting, demonic possession. You know, the usual.

Syfy took a look at the history of evil nuns on film from the silent movie period onwards, and touched on the involvement of female religious with some real life atrocities like those committed over the course of many decades at the home for unmarried mothers run by the Bon Secours Sisters in Tuam, Ireland. The New York Times broke down the techniques the director used to scare the audience in one particular scene. Even NPR got in on the fun, exploring how the evil nun is “one of the scariest and blood-chilling [sic] of horror tropes that has tormented moviegoers, television viewers and even readers of literary fiction for centuries.”

But what most of these takes omitted (or even in the case of NPR, bungled just a bit) is the long history of how the trope of the evil or immoral nun has been used as a cudgel with which to beat religious women. People feared, lampooned, and slandered nuns long before the thirteenth century—and long after—in part because of a engrained misogyny which continues to shape how we view the past. Other historians noted the same thing.

Nuns, of course, are people, and people are flawed and capable of doing terrible things. Some nuns undoubtedly inflicted real life horrors on others, like the seventeenth-century abbess Benedetta Carlini, who emotionally and sexually abused women who were in her charge in a monastery in the Italian city of Pescia while claiming that she was possessed by a male demon called Splenditello.  But the cases of many other “evil nuns” are far less clear-cut—or rather, the fact that they dovetail so neatly with many misogynistic medieval tropes should make us suspicious.

Misogyny was a remarkably uniform aspect of various medieval societies: in many times and places, women’s supposed insatiable lust, venality, fickleness, and passivity were held up as justification for women’s inferior social and legal positions relative to men. While the respect accorded to nuns because of their virginity, their vows, and their self-dedication to a life of prayer helped to shield them from some of this venom, it couldn’t entirely insulate them.


The scene on the left shows a nun gathering a harvest from a phallus tree; on the right, a nun embraces a bearded monk. From a 15th-century manuscript of the Roman de la Rose. Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Fr. 25526, fol. 106v.


Charges of sexual immorality were perhaps the most common ones laid against “wicked” nuns in the Middle Ages, and the ones which have most often captured modern attention. (Let’s just say that many “nun-sploitation” movies don’t receive an adult film classification simply because they contain scenes of violence.) During the annual visitation—or formal inspection—of monasteries, church officials were often keen to root out instances of sexual misconduct. Many earlier historians, like Eileen Power in the 1920s, took the records of these visitations at face value and used them to build narratives of medieval nunneries as hotbeds of decadence and vice. In community after community, nuns embezzled, mismanaged property, pawned chalics, and got into plait-pulling brawls in the middle of church. One Margaret Wavere, prioress of Catesby in the mid-fifteenth century, was even caught in flagrante delicto with the local parish priest by another nun.

These examples can easily be multiplied. In the late thirteenth century, the bishop of Zamora interrogated the sisters of the Spanish convent of Las Dueñas and charged them with fornicating with friars at the convent gates, giving their prioress the evil eye, threatening to beat the bishop himself with sticks, and other kinds of general mayhem. At around the same time, Pope Gregory X deposed Henri, bishop of Liège, for taking not just one but many nuns as his “public concubine[s].” In Renaissance Venice, one nun called Laura Querini fell in love with a man twenty years her junior and worked with another nun for more than a month to break a hole in the outer wall of a storeroom in her convent so that their lovers could get in. At her trial, Laura attested that “the two men came in a boat, and put a plank across. We unblocked the hole, and they entered through it, and they stayed with us for two or three hours, while they had intercourse with us”.


A friar plays while a nun gets down. BL Stowe MS 17, fol. 38r.


But there’s an obvious problem with building a picture of medieval nuns using visitation records or other legal accounts. Even if none of the officials involved was anything other than an objective and impartial investigator, each was bound to spend his time looking into cases of suspected sin instead of reporting on those living blameless lives. Just as skewed perceptions of crime rates lead people to believe that the world outside their door is much more dangerous than it actually is, the “wicked” nuns continue to mislead people into thinking that the majority of medieval women religious were engaged in lives of immoral hypocrisy. Yet recent research has helped scholars to develop a more nuanced view of the lives of medieval nuns, and new analysis of visitation records from France and England has shown that perhaps 3-4% of all monastic women were ever accused of sexual misconduct and that the overwhelming majority kept their vows.

This may be one of those times when the truth is actually less strange than the fiction—or at least, is the source of fewer good jump scares.

Call for Papers: Finding The Women in the Et Cetera

Call for Papers: International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, 2019 

“Finding The Women in the Et Cetera: Doing Women’s History with Medieval Documents and Modern Archives”

Over the last forty years, historians have established unambiguously that women were active participants in medieval society, that they were capable of wielding political power and social influence, and that they forged religious and economic ways of life that were innovative, creative, and adaptable. This work has been built to a large degree on a careful (re)reading of the medieval sources, and a greater—if still imperfect—use of sources from outside of northwestern Europe. Scholars have drawn on charters and cartularies in order to reevaluate our understanding of women’s power and agency in the Middle Ages. However, such work is inevitably shaped by source survival, by the institutions which preserve those sources, and by the ways in which archival material is categorised, classified, and made available to researchers—or not.

This panel will create a space for historians to reflect on what it means to do women’s history with tools and in spaces that were designed to privilege men and their voices, and to make visible the accreted layers of assumptions surrounding archival materials and the ways medieval women are present within them. We would like to further contribute to the ongoing scholarly conversation about archival theory by considering how the construction and use of archives is a gendered affair, and how that specifically affects the practice of medieval women’s history.

Topics of consideration include but are not limited to:

  • How women’s historians navigate archives
  • The influence which finding aids and inventories exert on the practice of medieval women’s histories
  • Challenges/opportunities of using such inventories/archives to do the history of Jewish women, Muslim women, “lesbian-like” women and others
  • Technological innovations and new horizons

The panel aims to explore how doing the history of medieval women is to a great extent the engagement with the history of the profession as a whole, and to demonstrate that the presence of medieval women in the archives is not a static thing, either in physical reality or in conceptualization.

Please submit abstracts of approximately 300 words by August 31, 2018, to the session organiser, Yvonne Seale (seale@geneseo.edu).

The Met, Medieval Catholicism, and the Popular Imagination

The steps leading up to the front entrance of the Metropolitan Museum in New York are always busy, but are probably rarely so photographed as they are on the evening of the annual fund-raising gala in support of its Costume Institute. That was doubly true last month, when the Met Gala attracted extra column inches thanks to its theme, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Was it intriguing and inspirational, or trivialising and offensive?

The frisson of controversy ensured that social media lit up as the first red carpet photos appeared online—that and the elaborate celebrity outfits. Madonna appeared in a Gothic take on Sicilian widow’s weeds, Jared Leto channelled a louche version of Jesus Christ, Superstar which honestly wasn’t so far from his everyday dress sense, while Chadwick Boseman was attired as a particularly suave pope. Others came as angels, or Byzantine icons, or Sistine Chapel ceilings.

The looks attracted amusement, admiration, and criticism. Olivia Munn’s clumsy description of her gold mail dress (“…inspired by the Crusades. I love this dress”) was thought distasteful by some, while Piers Morgan claimed to be offended by the entire event. (Well, Piers would, wouldn’t he.) More interesting conversations, however, centred on the (art) historical references in the attendees’ attire, like Rihanna’s boldly irreverent spin on papal attire, or Zendaya’s silvery dress and severe pageboy hairstyle which echoed nineteenth-century takes on Joan of Arc.

In my little corner of the Twitterverse, many medieval historians were delighted to see the Middle Ages, high fashion, and pop culture juxtaposed in such a prominent way, and yet equally wondered why it was that so many attendees had interpreted the gala’s theme to mean something both medieval and western European? There were exceptions, of course. Some wore starker outfits that seemed to take their references from the clerics and religious sisters of the Counter-Reformation period and beyond—but this was a shift in chronological focus, not in geography. Where were the tributes to the exuberant colours of Latin American Catholicism, or to the vibrant church in Africa, or to the heavy influence that the faith has had on the art and culture of the Philippines? Hundreds of millions of modern Catholics and their faith traditions were largely ignored.

And given the focus on medieval Catholicism, why was there so little room for subversion or critique? After all, there’s a tradition, almost two centuries old, of adopting medieval clothing styles to further feminist critiques. Certainly Lynda Carter made a statement with a golden Star of David barette and a crown that proclaimed “Never forget” in Hebrew, as did Lena Waithe in her suit and cape in the colours of a racially-inclusive pride flag, but they were in the distinct minority. Frankly, I was surprised no one even tried for a cheeky spin on a Catholic schoolgirl outfit.

When I trotted up the steps of the Met Museum a few days ago, it was to a whole lot less fanfare than had greeted the Met Gala guests and without a $30,000 ticket clutched in my hand. (No, admission to a high-profile event thrown by Vogue editor Anna Wintour doesn’t come cheap.) I was curious to see how the exhibition proper had interpreted the theme—had the celebrity attendees’ choices presaged it, or had the curators made some very different choices?

The short answer is that the exhibit runs along very similar lines to the gala. To an extent, I’m sure, this is a function of the space within which the exhibition is housed (the permanent medieval galleries of the Met proper, and the museum’s branch at the Cloisters which is dedicated to the art and architecture of the Middle Ages), of a large number of the objects on display being direct loans from the Vatican’s historic collection of vestments, and of the fact that the couture designers most likely to draw on a Catholic aesthetic in their work are from white, western backgrounds.

An ensemble by Viktor & Rolf, from their Autumn/Winter 1999–2000 haute couture collection, currently on display in the Cloisters. I dubbed it Sparkly Vulcan Space Nun.

And clearly a lot of thought was given to the layout of the exhibit and the objects to be displayed. Hieratic statues of the Virgin and Child were placed either side of an austerely cut gown; an Alexander McQueen confection of gauze and faux armour was placed, recumbent, opposite the tomb effigy of a high medieval knight. The sleek, sweeping curves of three hats by Philip Treacy invited comparison with the late medieval reliquary busts of three virgin martyrs and their elaborately coiffed hair.

But while I thought that many of the individual garments were stunning (oh, to have the resources and the occasion needed to sport a black Alexander McQueen dress with full-length train over a pair of leather motorbike trousers), and some of the arrangements of objects thought-provoking, as a whole the exhibition left me asking the same questions as had the Met Gala: why was such a limited story being told?

The artistic impact of global Catholicism was absent, and there was little sign here that any artist has ever been moved to reject Catholicism or defy the Church. There was apparently no room in this exhibition for, say, a screen showing the video for Lady Gaga’s 2010 hit “Alejandro” (in which Gaga, dressed as a nun in a red latex habit, swallows a pair of rosary beads; maybe not one to watch with your nana) or a mannequin displaying one of the see-through outfits she’s been known to pair with a nun’s cornet while onstage (you probably don’t want to click on that link while at work).

This is not an exhibition particularly interested in ideas of conflict or resistance.

A nuntastic row of mannequins.

The exhibition is interested in the relationship between fashion, faith, and power, but it seemed to me mostly in some very particular ways: the ways in which dress can be used to assert allegiance, hierarchical status, and gender roles.

Perhaps this is why celebrities were so quick to equate “Catholic” with “medieval” in their clothing choices for the gala. After all, in popular culture the Middle Ages are associated with showy displays of power, with monolithic identity, with exclusion—and what’s better suited to modern celebrity than that?

Not So Happily-Ever-After: Royal Divorce in the Middle Ages

Much ink has been spilled on the marriage of Prince Harry of Wales and American actress Meghan Markle over the past few months, and a good gallon or three of that ink has been used to write about connections between the wedding and the Middle Ages: everything from the venue, the late medieval St George’s Chapel (“a place of prayer, pageantry and ritual since the 15th century“), to how fruit cake has been served at royal weddings for several centuries (“optimally suited to an era before refrigeration“), to Markle’s own distant royal ancestry (“American star can trace family connections to Edward III and Jane Seymour“), and the calligraphic instrument of consent issued by Queen Elizabeth permitting the union (“elaborately ornate, written on vellum“).

Ordinarily, I love a good newspaper piece about the connections between the Middle Ages and modern events, but I have to admit to more than a bit of fatigue about this royal wedding. As with the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011, this is an expensive, tax-payer-funded affair whose pageantry is used to help shore up popular support for a hierarchical, monarchical system. (In fact, as I write this post, I’m listening to a reporter on the BBC World Service asking a pro-republic Australian if he won’t reconsider his stance because “Isn’t this [the wedding] romance, isn’t this fun?”) Even Americans are throwing viewing parties, with one woman in Ohio justifying watching it while all dressed up with “Who doesn’t get excited about a little romance? And then all this special royalty stuff, it doesn’t happen every day. And I just think it’s kind of exciting.”

The implication is that a royal wedding, with all its medieval-lite trappings and street parties and fashion ogling, is a harmless bit of fantasy—a way that the public gets to share in a Disney-esque “happily ever after.” If you don’t agree, well, you’re a bit of a curmudgeon.

The 1137 wedding of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII of France, as shown in the late 14th century Chronique de St Denis, late 14th century. The marriage would later go horribly wrong. From the 14th-century Grandes Chroniques de France, now Musée Condé MS 867/324.

The thing is, of course, that we know that a royal wedding doesn’t automatically equate to a royal happily ever after. This was true for Harry’s own parents, and it was true for centuries before that. Marital discord and breakdown aren’t new phenomena, symptoms of a modern age. They happened in the Middle Ages, too, for royals and commoners alike. (Historians studying English court records have even identified an annual post-Christmas rush in annulment and separation cases dating back to at least the fourteenth century.)

For Christians living in western Europe during much of the Middle Ages, getting married was a relatively simple affair—a consenting exchange of vows between two people was all that was needed to legitimate a marriage in the eyes of the Church. Getting unhitched, however, was a much more complicated affair, since over time church teaching increasingly stressed the indissolubility of marriage. There was no Christian divorce as we understand it—no legal ending of a valid marriage—in the Middle Ages. However, in certain circumstances the Church could grant an annulment (divortium ad vinculo) in cases where a spouse was unable to consummate the marriage, where it was discovered that the spouses were too closely related to one another, or where one spouse had been unable or unwilling to consent to the marriage. Legal separation (divortium a mensa et thoro) could be granted on the grounds of adultery, heresy, or cruelty and allowed the couple to live apart, though neither could remarry during the other’s lifetime. Annulments and separations were rarely granted, though. The Church stood firmly by its interpretation of scripture: “Let not man therfore put a sunder, yt which God hath coupled together.”

The Lothair Crystal may have been commissioned by Lothair II as a frankly inadequate apology gift to his wife, the long-suffering Teutberga. [British Museum]

There were, however, some notorious cases of marital difficulties among the royalty of medieval Europe. The tenth-century ruler Lothair II of Lotharingia tried to get rid of his childless wife Teutberga (d. 875) after two years of marriage in order to marry a mistress who had already borne children by him. He made lurid and it seems entirely false accusations about poor Teutberga, accusing her in church court of witchcraft and incest with her own brother in an attempt to secure an annulment. Even threatened with torture, Teutberga refused to admit to any of the charges. She withstood being scalded with boiling water, at which point the Church called an end to proceedings and ordered Lothair to take back his wife and acknowledge her as his legitimate queen. (Teutberga went on to survive him.)

The honeymoon period for Ingeborg of Denmark (1174-1237), who arrived in France in 1193 to marry King Philip II, was even shorter. Philip was already a widower—his first wife, Isabelle of Hainaut, having died young in childbirth—and he wanted more children to secure the line of succession. Ingeborg and Philip’s wedding night must have been one of the worst in history, because the very next morning Philip tried to send his new bride back to Denmark. His actions have given rise to a lot of later speculation among historians: was Philip unable to perform sexually and so acting out of humiliation? Did Ingeborg have some hidden deformity he found repulsive? Was Ingeborg too feisty for him, or had Philip’s estimation of the political worth of the match changed abruptly? We don’t know. But we do know that Ingeborg refused to go without a fight, seeking refuge in a convent in Soissons and sending messengers to plead her case with the pope. Although the pope backed Ingeborg, Philip refused to change his mind and entered into a bigamous third marriage with the German princess Agnes of Merania. His disregard of papal authority, his very public harshness towards Ingeborg and his stubbornness in marrying Agnes turned much popular opinion against Philip and confused his contemporaries. They thought that the king must have been acting under the influence of an evil spell, as he kept Ingeborg imprisoned for the best part of twenty years.

The wedding of Philip II of France to Ingeborg of Denmark. From the Miroir historial, BnF.

To these examples of unhappy medieval royal unions could be added many others. For instance, Vojača of Bosnia (1417-ca. 1463) was repudiated for PR purposes by her husband Thomas once he gained the throne: she was thought to be too low-born to make a proper queen, and moreover she adhered to a heretical sect of Christianity. Jeanne of Valois (1464-1505) was of suitably royal birth, and was briefly queen of France in the 1490s. However her husband, Louis XII, had been forced to marry Jeanne against his will and so detested her. He forced her to undergo a trial in which he described in intimate detail the supposed physical deformities of Jeanne’s which made consummation of their marriage impossible—though Jeanne shot back fiercely that Louis was known to boast in the mornings of having “well earned a drink, for I mounted my wife three or four times during the night.”

A lack of sexual intercourse wasn’t what doomed other royal marriages. Juana of Portugal (1439-1475), queen of Castile, was banished from court by her husband, Enrique IV because the courtiers were abuzz with rumours that the royal couple’s sole child had actually been fathered by another man. Juana didn’t help her case by having two illegitimate sons with yet another lover, and Enrique successfully annulled the marriage in 1468.

And all that’s without invoking the shade of Henry VIII of England and his many wives.

Wife takes on husband in this 15th-century German fencing manual. [Source]

None of this is to deny the significance of a divorced American of mixed-race heritage marrying into the British royal family. Some argue that Meghan Markle becoming the Duchess of Sussex has the potential to change popular perceptions of what it means to be British in the twenty-first century (though others are less optimistic). For a black woman to marry a member of the world’s most visible modern monarchy is empowering for many other black women, whose beauty and femininity are rarely validated by racist cultural stereotypes and beauty standards. Though the new duchess will be expected to be as silent, smiling, and dutiful as the other female members of the British royal family, the very fact that she as a black woman will be presented as an embodiment of “feminine” virtues is something new.

I’m also not trying to imply an unhappy fate for Meghan and Harry. As far as I can tell about two complete strangers, they seem very happy together and on a personal level I wish them well. But if their marriage succeeds, it won’t be because they enjoyed the pomp and circumstance of a royal wedding. For better or worse, their “happily ever after” will be made of the same stuff as that of any other couple.

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.


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.

Page 1 of 12

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén