For fun I look at medieval manuscripts. However, as I do not have in-person access to these manuscripts, I look at the digitized versions provided by libraries, museums, universities, and other cultural institutions. At the end of this blog post, I’ve provided a list of links to digitized collections.
Medieval illuminations and marginalia are beautiful, fascinating, and sometimes just down right funny. They give modern day readers the ability to travel back in time and interact with the scribes, illuminators, and past readers who are people just like them. (Not to mention the animals that interacted with the manuscripts as well!) People who made notes indicating important parts of the text, drew silly looking monsters doing sillier things, rubbed out drawings they considered lewd, wrote their names on the pages, and so much more.
Despite the fact medieval manuscripts are hundreds of years old, a significant number of them are not in the public domain. Many medieval manuscripts are copyrighted or under some sort of restriction that prevents commercial and non-commercial use. However, there are some institutions that allow their manuscripts to be used freely or with attribution.
That is why all the medieval illuminations I feature on my Instagram have the manuscript number, institution name, and any other information the owner requires in my captions. I include this information on open access images as well so people can find the sources if they want to do further research or simply look at them on their own.
Because of the many restrictions (which are often confusing to read), there are a lot of manuscripts I’m unable to share. However, people can still access them for free if they only intend to look at them.
Please be aware individual institutions have different policies regarding how their images can be used. Always check the source’s rules about distribution before using them!
This list will be added to as I find more digitized medieval manuscript collections.
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris France
The BnF’s website is kind of difficult to navigate. That being said, I’m sure it would be easier if I could read French.
NOTE: This article is a rewrite. You can find the original here.
If you image search “medieval monk” many photos of men in brown robes, rope belts, and wooden cross necklaces will appear. How accurate is that? If the monk was a Franciscan, it is accurate enough. If he was part of another order, then not so much.
A medieval monk’s basic wardrobe included a habit, shoes, and underwear. Depending on the century, area of Europe he lived in, and his religious order, other items of clothing are added or subtracted from this list. For example, Cistercian monks did not wear underwear. If a monk lived in a colder climate, such as Scandinavia or the British Isles, he owned summer and winter clothes.
Due to the span of time and the land area the European Middle Ages refers to, it is very difficult to list every single item of clothing any given medieval monk may have worn. The basic list of a habit, shoes, and drawers is expanded upon down below.
A medieval monk’s clothing consisted of outerwear and underclothes. Outerwear is clothing the general public and a monk’s peers saw. Outerwear symbolized a medieval monk’s vocation to God and the Church.
By wearing such distinct clothes, everyone around him knew he was a monk. Knowing if a person was a monk was helpful if a secular person wanted a blessing or needed a religious figure of some kind in an emergency. If a medieval monk caused trouble, his outerwear announced to the world his hypocrisy. There is a reason medieval literature often stereotypes monks as lecherous gluttons!
The cowl or habit was an ankle-length garment. It was worn while a monk worked and for general everyday wear. In the early Middle Ages, cowls had open sides that tied shut if the monk so wished. The sleeves on the cowl varied in length:
Cowls had a hood attached as well. When reading primary sources, it is important to keep in mind the meaning of the word “cowl” shifted over the centuries. At one point it referred to the entire garment. Later on, cowl was synonymous with a separate hood.
This garment was also about ankle length and had a hood. Unlike the cowl, a frock only had long sleeves. Frocks were only worn on special occasions. Like the cowl, a frock is also called a habit. A monk would never wear a cowl and a frock together.
The scapular was a rectangular piece of cloth. There was a hole in the middle for the monk’s head. Once a monk put his head into the scapular, the fabric would go down to his ankles both in the back and front.
A monk’s hood went through the neck hole so it wasn’t underneath the scapular. It was similar to an apron. When a monk wore a belt over it, the scapular was used as a handy pouch to hold tools and other daily items a medieval monk might need during the day.
The Rule of Saint Benedict allowed belts. Franciscans wore rope belts called cinctures.
A medieval monk wore a riding cloak when traveling long distances. Depending on the fabric, the riding cloak could be black, brown, or grey. In theory, a monk only wore somber colors. In practice, medieval monks owned riding cloaks with colorful striped linings. This was frowned upon.
Medieval monks owned different kinds of shoes for different seasons and time of day. If a monk lived in a colder climate, they owned a pair of lined shoes for the winter and unlined shoes for the summer. Medieval monks owned slippers to wear at night.
A medieval monk wore clothes under his outerwear for modesty and practical reasons. While The Rule of Saint Benedict forbade monks from wearing underclothes in their monastery, the text made it clear that monks had to wear underwear while out in public. This was to avoid any embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions that might come about thanks to a gust of wind or a freak accident. There was a lot of discourse over wearing underwear.
Medieval monks wore other types of underclothes as well. What he wore under his habit depended on the year he lived, the climate of the area he lived in, and what order he was a part of.
In the Middle Ages, underwear was also referred to as drawers and braies. Typically they were made out of linen. A medieval monk’s underwear had different cuts depending on the monastery. As long as the medieval monk was not a Cistercian, he wore underwear. If he was, he did not. Cistercians were mocked for this fashion choice.
Socks were also called hose and stockings. They were made out of linen.
For Anglo-Saxon monks, tunics were white, floor-length garments with tight sleeves. Later on, monks at Westminster wore black tunics. Over time tunics became tighter and shorter until regulations were made preventing that.
How Did Medieval Monks Tell Which Habit Belonged to Which Monk?
Because medieval monks wore similar clothes, steps were taken to avoid confusion over which habit belonged to who. Unless a monk was particularly tall, short, fat, or thin the habits looked very similar.
To avoid confusion, the monks marked their clothes with their names. For most clothes they wrote their names in ink somewhere on it. For underwear, a monk embroidered his name on them. They did this because underwear was washed much more often than the woolen habit.
What a medieval monk wore depended on a variety of factors. The monk’s clothing had a practical purpose and a symbolic meaning. It is similar to modern day clothing. In the 21st century we wear clothes to cover our bodies and keep us warm, but we also wear clothes to announce our status to the world.
Forging, Jeffrey, and Jeffrey Singman. “Monastic Life.” Daily Life in Medieval Europe, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 139–170. (This book can be found here on Google Books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)
If you are a fiction writer, you probably spend a good amount of time researching names for your characters. This is especially true if you write historical fiction. It is important to find historically accurate names. I write fiction that takes place in early medieval England, so I am always searching for early medieval names.
It can be difficult to find early medieval names that are historically accurate. I have started to compile a list of male names from primary sources. By using primary sources, I can be sure that these names were actually used by early medieval men. If you are looking for early medieval female names, I’ve already posted a list here.
There are thousands of early medieval male names out there so this list is not exhaustive. I plan to add to it over time. Hopefully, this list will help you find the perfect name for your character!
Note: To ensure that the names are as historically accurate as possible, I intend to document them as they were originally spelled to the best of my ability. Some names may include letters that are no longer in the English language such as “æ.”
I am currently in the process of writing a novel about a young boy growing up in an early 10th century English monastery. As a result, I’m constantly looking for early medieval names. To help other writers, I am compiling a list of names I’ve found so far. For this post in particular I am listing female names/names associated with women. I will make a separate post for male names later. (I am separating the two because there are not as many female names in primary sources.)
Hopefully this will help you find the perfect name for your character!
Note: This list will be added to as time goes by, as it is most certainly NOT an exhaustive list! Also I intend to spell the names as they were written down originally to the best of my ability, so I will use letters that are no longer used in modern English such as “æ.”
Imagine this: you are an 11th-century monk in Canterbury. You wake up only to discover you are not feeling very well. However, you don’t feel so awful that you think you need to go to the monastery’s infirmary but you are definitely too sick to function normally today. So what are you to do?
Luckily, we don’t have to wonder what your next steps should be! The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, written by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc (hence the name) tells you in detail what to do next.
The first thing a monk needed to do was announce his predicament in chapter. (Chapter was the monastery’s daily meeting.) After all, he couldn’t just not do his daily tasks without explaining why he was skipping them! So the monk would lay prostrate on the ground until the abbot/prior/whatever superior was running chapter that day gave him permission to stand up. Once he got to his feet, the monk would explain he was not feeling well and was unable to complete his duties for the day.
Lanfranc’s original Latin uses the word “fateatur” to describe the monk’s announcement. Here “fateatur” is translated as “confess.” (It can also mean admit, disclose, acknowlege, and praise.) I find it interesting that a monk was to confess he was sick instead of simply telling the superiors he was not feeling well. By using the word “confess” it almost implies that the monk did something wrong by not feeling well.
After he made his confession/announcement the superior was supposed to tell him he hoped God would make him well as fast as He thought was appropriate and the monk was to do whatever he needed to do to feel better as soon as possible. This included staying away from his normal duties as he felt was appropriate. The monk would do this until he got better or if his illness became worse. If it became worse he would go to the infirmary. In my next post I will go into detail about that, so keep an eye out for it!
Lanfranc. “The Care of the Sick and Their Indulgences.” The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, translated by David Knowles, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, London, 1951, pp. 118–119. Medieval Classics.
From Daedalus to the Wright Brothers to NASA flying a tiny helicopter on Mars, the concept of flight has fascinated humanity for millennia. This was no different for an 11th-century monk named Eilmer (AKA Elmer/Oliver. Oliver is due to a misreading). Eilmer of Malmesbury was briefly mentioned in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta regum Anglorum. Sadly this text is really the only surviving account we have about Eilmer. That being said, his works about astrology (now lost) were referenced as late as the 16th century.
What does an astrologer monk have to do with flight? Well, when Eilmer was a young monk he decided that he was going to try to fly. His plan included making wings and jumping off of Malmesbury Abbey’s tower. And it worked! Eilmer flew! Well, sort of. He flew for about six hundred feet before the wind became violent, the air current changed and he crash-landed. Fortunately for Eilmer, he survived the crash. Unfortunately for Eilmer, he broke both legs. His injuries were severe enough that according to William of Malmesbury he “was lame ever after.” Apparently, for the rest of his life, Eilmer lamented his experiment would have worked had he not forgotten to add a tail. (Some modern writers say that Eilmer’s abbot forbade him from doing a second experiment, but this is not in the primary source. Dom Aelred Watkin added this tidbit to his account in the 1950s. While not factually accurate, it certainly is funny to think about.)
There are a lot of myths/legends about people trying (and failing) to fly. However, it is extremely likely Eilmer’s experiment did in fact happen. For one, William is considered to be an extremely accurate medieval historian. It helps that William came from the same monastery as Eilmer and Eilmer died less than one hundred years before William finished his chronicle. William probably heard the story from monks who knew Eilmer as an old man.
When exactly did Eilmer attempt to fly? Well, we don’t have an exact date but Dr. Lynn White’s research does give us a general estimate of when it happened. See, Eilmer isn’t just famous for his flying. In fact, William seems to have added that as more of an after thought. William focuses more on how Eilmer had seen Halley’s comet twice in his life. This is very imporant for dating his life story. The second time he saw the comet was in 1066. Eilmer recognizes it as the comet he saw in his childhood. Because Halley’s comet appears every 75-76 years or so, the first time Eilmer saw it had to have been in 989. Assuming Eilmer was about five or six at the time (five to six being old enough to remember things) he would have been in his early 80s in 1066. William says Eilmer was in his early youth when he tried to fly, so he was probably less than 25 years old at the time of his experiment. This puts the date sometime from the years 1000 to 1010.
We don’t know for certain what Eilmer’s flying machine looked like, but we do have some clues thanks to William’s description, cultural context, and modern-day aviation. We do know Eilmer used wings he attached to his hands and feet. William uses the Latin term “pennae” when describing them so the contraption could not have been a parachute or a balloon of some sort. They were probably rigid, maybe hinged, and possibly meant to flap like a bird’s. (I will note that humans do not have the right muscle structure to fly by flapping their arms.) They would have to be pretty big to carry him. James of Wanborough theorizes that they were around 100 square feet, probably made of ash or willow (the wood most likely to be available to Eilmer at the time), and covered in a light cloth or parchment. Because Eilmer did in fact fly for a good distance before he crashed, he had to have been a small man. However, that is all scientific speculation.
Even though we no longer have his astrological works or really any other evidence of Eilmer’s existence besides William’s account, I want to stress how remembered he was throughout the Middle Ages. William was not the only historian to write about him. Some other medieval historians include (but are not limited to!) Helinand, Alberic, Vincent of Beavais, and Ralph Higden. Unfortunately, they all seemed to use William’s account as their source so they don’t have any new information about Eilmer. (In fact, Ralph Higden even misread Eilmer’s name as Oliver! Thanks to this, Eilmer was referred to as Oliver by other historians.) And it wasn’t just medieval people who were fascinated by Eilmer! From William’s chronicle to the modern day Eilmer is a figure who has fascinated generations.
Finally, as a little treat, I would like to share this YouTube video I found about Eilmer. It’s a short silent animation. I think you will enjoy it! You can see it here.
White, Lynn. “Eilmer of Malmesbury, an Eleventh Century Aviator: A Case Study of Technological Innovation, Its Context and Tradition.” Technology and Culture, vol. 2, no. 2, 1961, pp. 97–111. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3101411. Accessed 24 Apr. 2021.
I’m fascinated by the history of medicine so I was excited to have the chance to read Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount. Needless to say, the book is about medieval medicine and the science behind it (as well as the not-so-scientific parts). The text starts off with a quick introduction explaining how forms of treatment can be found in animal behavior as well as evidence of prehistoric medicine. Each chapter after that covers a specific aspect of medical practices in the Middle Ages. Some such aspects include (but are not limited to!) miasmas, astrology, the Church, and malpractice. The book includes pictures as well, which I found quite nice. (This is a personal preference, but I liked how the photos were printed on the same type of paper as the rest of the book. I’m not a fan of the glossy paper other books use for their illustrations. I’m not a fan of the texture of the glossy paper.)
I appreciated how easy to read the prose was. In my personal opinion, too many academic texts are non-accessible for the average reader. When you have accessible prose, your work reaches a wider audience, thus allowing more people to learn things they would not have otherwise. Thanks to Mount’s writing style, it was much easier for me to remember what was explained. When I’m reading non-fiction that is exactly what I want.
Another thing I liked was that a good chunk of Mount’s sources came from the web. This makes it easier for readers to do further research without having to buy a bunch of $100 books if their local library does not own a copy. That being said, I was not a fan of how often Mount cites Wikipedia. While Wikipedia is a good source for getting the gist of something as well as finding primary sources in the references, it’s not a reliably accurate enough place to use in your book. Luckily, she usually only uses Wikipedia for basic explanations of things such as gemstones, but she is still using it. I would recommend doing further research into anything she has cited from Wikipedia.
Overall, Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount is a good jumping-off point for readers who want to know more about medieval medicine but aren’t quite sure where to start.
Content Note: Discussions of Sexual Assault, Violence, Racism, and Anti-Semitism
What do you think about when you hear the words “medieval literature”? Do you think of chivalric romances filled with brave knights rescuing fair maidens from fire-breathing dragons? Or do you think about Icelandic sagas, starring wild Vikings conquering far-off lands and murdering anyone who enrages them? Perhaps you think of stories of holy men and women performing saintly miracles? Or maybe, just maybe, you think about comedic poems filled with references to the obscene.
If you thought about the last option, you certainly would not be wrong! Medieval literature wasn’t just about knights, Vikings, or saints. One genre, in particular, was all about the common man. And the common man was always up to some sort of mischief.
As you can probably guess from the title, this genre is called the fabliau, or fabliaux if plural. Fabliaux are Old French poems that are made up of eight-syllable lines paired into couplets. The poems vary in length but it’s common for a fabliau to consist of about 200 to 400 lines. This genre of poetry was most popular during the late twelfth to early fourteenth centuries. In total, about 150 fabliaux exist in their entirety. However, that doesn’t mean only 150 fabliaux ever existed! Who knows how many other of these poems have been lost to time.
Fabliaux were mostly written by anonymous jongleurs, who were the French equivalent of the minstrel. However, the keyword there is “mostly.” A good portion of surviving fabliaux do have known creators. The social status of the authors varies. Some were amateur writers while others were professionals. Here is a list of some known authors who wrote fabliaux:
Guillaume le Normand
Jean de Condé
Gautier le Leu
Marie de France
These are most certainly not all the named authors out there, but this list should give you a sense of how many people were known to have written fabliaux. A good chunk of the people named wrote several fabliaux as well.
What exactly were fabliaux about? While they did have different topics, their overarching theme was to satirize medieval society. If other forms of medieval literature were designed to glorify knights and the Church, fabliaux did the exact opposite. I will note that some fabliaux feature knights, but these men are certainly not brave or noble. In fact, they are extremely far from it! The satirical nature of fabliaux was executed in extremely crude ways. No topic was off-limits. Fabliaux are filled with sex, crime, violence, adultery, and excrement. So much excrement. Like, it’s kind of insane how many fabliaux include excrement in some way or another. Upper-class characters were usually portrayed as antagonists to the lower class/marginalized heroes. Or if they aren’t outright villains, then they are often on the receiving end of pranks pulled by the lower status characters. Some stock characters include cuckolded husbands, adulterous wives, lecherous priests/monks (who when they aren’t sleeping with the wives are going after innocent virgins), lecherous knights, and excrement obsessed peasants.
Fabliaux were written specifically to entertain and to make people laugh. However, they also demonstrate just how awful society and people in that society could be. While the marginalized heroes rarely succeed in climbing the social ladder, they still succeed in preventing the privileged characters from taking advantage of them. As long as they are clever, witty, and quick thinking, the heroes may even get their revenge and teach the antagonists a lesson or two about attempting to screw over the vulnerable. That being said, a good amount of these “tricks” are simply flat-out violence or even rape.
Women in fabliaux are rarely treated well. The genre as a whole is extremely misogynistic. Women are punished for a variety of “offenses” which often just boils down to being a virgin and not wanting to have sex with a man, talking too much, trying to take control of things her husband feels like isn’t her business, among other things. Fabliaux show just how badly medieval society thought of women. However, you do get the occasional fabliau where the woman is the hero and manages to outsmart men in power who are trying to wrong her.
For a good chunk of time after the Middle Ages, fabliaux were pretty unknown. Of course, some scholars read them, but they weren’t really known until the nineteenth century. During this time, Europeans were rediscovering a lot of medieval literature to elevate their history (in historically inaccurate ways I will note). And as you can see from the rise of white supremacy, it unfortunately worked.
Due to the obscenity of the genre, there were quite a bit of mixed feelings about fabliaux. While other countries had big sprawling epics, France had poems about peasants and excrement. That’s not exactly what you want when you are trying to glorify your past. In the minds of French scholars, something had to be done. So instead of admitting that medieval French wrote obscene things and had very dirty minds, nineteenth-century academics went into full-on denial mode. Their denial mode was just flat-out racism and anti-Semitism.
Scholars tried to claim that it wasn’t the French who wrote all those dirty poems. Oh no, they came from somewhere else. That somewhere else being Indian, Persian, and Jewish cultures. The (false!) argument was that there were some similarities between some of the fabliau and folklore from those cultures. And while there were some similarities, only eleven fabliaux out of the one hundred and sixty-ish poems sort of kind of resembled an Eastern source. That’s 6.88%. That is a minuscule amount. Thanks to human nature, there will always be some overlap between different cultures’ stories. Think of all the different versions there are of Cinderella! (I will also note that one of the people spouting off this nonsense, Anatole de Courde de Montaiglon, did not actually know any Hebrew what so ever so all of his “arguments” about linguistics came from a place of extreme ignorance.)
Overall, the fabliau is a fascinating genre. It allows modern people to look into the past and observe how attitudes towards society, social status, and humor change (or don’t). It also makes you realize that humanity as a whole still finds poop jokes funny centuries later. Even if people are in extreme and dangerous denial about that fact.
If you’re anything like me, when doing historical research you want to be able to read primary sources. Primary sources allow you to access what the author is thinking without the information being muddled in a centuries-long game of telephone. Of course, an author of a text may not write exactly what they are thinking, but through primary sources, we get a glimpse of what life was like through the eyes of a person who was actually there. We must always take into account context and bias when analyzing a source. (For example, if Lord A is trying to sabotage Lord B’s reputation, Lord A won’t tell the king how Lord B rescued all those orphans from a bear. Instead, Lord A will mention that Lord B has a tendency to poach bears in the king’s forest.)
When I write articles for the Mediaeval Monk I try to find as many primary sources as I can. However, I’m no longer a college student so accessing academic sources can be extremely difficult without buying full books. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t available texts out there! Because I study the medieval period most texts are in the public domain. The key is knowing where to look.
One good place to start is Wikipedia. (When I was in school we were always told that the site was unreliable. Luckily for us living in 2020, the editors are much more vigilant!) It’s a good jumping-off point. At the bottom of whatever article you read, there is an entire section dedicated to the references used. This will give you all the sources used for the article and often times it will include links to the sources. I will note that sometimes the only sources are secondary ones, but occasionally you can get lucky.
Another great place to look is Google Books. Depending on the book, you may not have access to the entire text. But it’s still a good place for free ebooks.
I will also use archive.org/the Wayback Machine/the Internet Archive. (It’s the same website just with different names.) Here you can find free ebooks (and download them too!) as well as old websites that are no longer on the web. Some books aren’t available for free downloads but you can borrow them for a certain number of days. (I don’t know too much about this feature as I haven’t used it before.) I’ve found a lot of interesting primary sources here.
What if you want to start learning but you aren’t quite sure what you want to learn about? There are two websites that I know of that allow for a little bit of exploration! (There are definitely others out there, but these are the ones I know about and use.)
The first one is Internet History Sourcebooks provided by Fordham University. (And here is a link to the same website but on archive.org.) This website either has actual medieval texts or links to texts on it. The texts available are organized according to culture and topic. Overall, it’s a great place to explore.
The second website is Medieval Death Trip. This website is for the podcast of the same name. (It’s a fantastic podcast by the way. I recommend listening to it!) The creator, Patrick Lane, provides the sources he used for each episode. Often times these sources can be found on Google Books or archive.org, but Medieval Death Trip is a great place to find and access topics that interest you without having to spend hours on Google Books and archive.org trying to find a very specific text.