While certain aspects of medieval medicine are surprisingly scientifically accurate, one of the main medical theories of the European middle ages most certainly is not. This medical theory is called humorism or humoral theory. Humoral theory is the theory that the human body is made up of and controlled by the four bodily fluids known as the humors. The four humors were believed to control a person’s health, the way their body looked, and even their personality/temperament. The four humors are:
Humorism originated in Ancient Greece. Classical figures such as Hippocrates and Galen wrote down their own humoral theories and their texts were the foundation for medieval humorism. Galen’s theory not only consisted of the four humors making up the human body but that each of the humors had a corresponding element that made up the humor:
Each of the four humors was also associated with a certain degree of wetness and heat:
Blood was hot and wet.
Phlegm was cold and wet.
Black bile was cold and dry.
Yellow bile was hot and dry.
Fire is hot and dry so yellow bile is hot and dry, water is cold and wet so phlegm is cold and wet, etc. Because dryness was considered the absence of moisture and coldness was considered the absence of heat, dryness and coldness were considered to be negative qualities because they lacked the positive traits heat and moisture. Medieval people even went as far as to consider these negative qualities as harmful or even outright evil. Black bile, whose traits are cold and dry, was considered to be deadly if humans had too much of it.
The four humors were not only important in medieval European medicine. The 9th century Middle Persian text, Wizīdagīhā ī Zādspram, documented a medieval Iranian medical theory about the four humors. In the Wizīdagīhā ī Zādspram the humors have the same wet and dry properties found in ancient Greek and medieval European texts. However, there are two main differences in this text. One difference is that yellow bile is called red bile and each humor has properties associated with taste and color:
Blood is red and sweet.
Phlegm is white and salty.
Black bile is black and sour.
Red bile is red and bitter.
In medieval Europe, the four humors also corresponded to a body organ:
Blood was associated with the head or liver (depending on the source).
Phlegm was associated with the brain and lungs.
Black bile was associated with the gall bladder.
Yellow bile was associated with the spleen.
Medieval humoral theory believed that all four humors were combined to make semen. I understand where the logic for this came from. Because humors made up the human body, it’s no wonder people thought the source of new humans came from all the other humors!
Green, Monica Helen. The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. PENN, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
Mount, Toni. Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science. Amberley, 2016.
Pollington, Stephen. Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2008.
Pouchelle, Marie-Christine. The Body and Surgery in the Middle Ages. Rutgers University Press, 1990.
Previously I wrote an article explaining what penitentials were. Today I want to go deeper and share some real life penances from translated penitentials. It would be impossible to write down every single penance, so for this series of articles I will be sharing ones I find particularly interesting and why. Today’s penances are from the canons attributed to Saint Patrick.
It is important to note that the canons attributed to Saint Patrick are technically not penitentials. They are canons. (Hence the name!) Canons are laws the Church made to govern clergy and lay folk. However, the canons attributed to Saint Patrick contain sections written in a penitential format. (The penitential format being a sentence to a paragraph describing a sin and a person’s penance for committing that sin.)
For my translation I am using the Medieval Handbook of Penances: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentialesby John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer.
While the canons are attributed to Saint Patrick, the earliest surviving manuscripts of both texts date several centuries after the saint’s death. Because of this, it is questionable whether or not Saint Patrick had anything to do with their authorship, whether he influenced them through his personal writings or what people think he might have thought. The manuscripts date to the ninth century and are thought to contain material from what is believed to be a seventh century Irish synod.
Canons of a Synod of Patrick, Auxilius, and Iserninus
This section is about the cleric dress code. Whether you were a sexton, priest, or any type of cleric in between, it was vital that you were always clothed in public. The canon specifically says clerics cannot be seen without their tunics on and they must “cover the shame and nakedness of his body” (pg. 77). The canon also states that clerics must have Roman style tonsures. (There were different styles of tonsures. I will be writing an article about that in the future.) Furthermore, any wife of a cleric must be veiled at all times. (This was written before clerical celibacy became a rule rather than a suggestion.) If any clerics and their wives disobeyed this, the canon orders them to be “despised by laymen and separated from the Church” (pg. 77).
Based on the fact this rule exists, it seems that it was a regular problem that clerics and their wives went out in public not dressed appropriately. Or it happened at least once and new rules had to be made. If it was neither of those things, it might have just been as fear for the creators of this canon and they wanted to cover all of their bases before something did happen!
At the time this canon was written, clerics acting as a surety for pagans were a common enough practice. The text specifically says it “is not strange” (pg. 77), nor was it strange if the pagan failed to pay up. If this happened, the cleric was responsible for the debt. It did not matter if the amount was really, really big or really, really small. Either way he had to pay it out of his own pocket. Also if the cleric fought the pagan he was “justly reckoned to be outside the Church” (pg. 77).
The fact that this was a valid and common concern gives us an interesting insight into Christian and pagan relations during the seventh century. Christians and pagans must have been on amicable enough terms to get into such legal contracts with each other.
This part of the canon prohibits monks and virgins from different places from socializing. They were not allowed to stay in the same inn, travel in the same carriage, or even talk to each other.
While the canon does not specify what the monk and virgin’s penances will be if they break this rule, I do understand why it is in place. If you want to prevent any sort of unchaste behavior, the easiest way to do so is not allow two parties to be in the vicinity of each other. However, the practicality of some of it is questionable, especially in regards to not staying in the same inn. If a monk arrives at an inn and a virgin is already there, it might be extremely impractical to try to find another inn with no virgins, especially if the village was small. However, if they were only staying in separate rooms, this rule would be easier to follow.
If a Christian killed someone, had sex outside of marriage, or saw a diviner, they had to do penance for a year. (I will note that the one-year penance is for each individual sin, not if you do all three sins together.) Once their year of penance is up, the Christian had to be absolved by a priest in front of witnesses.
The fact that the sins of murder, unwed sex, and getting your fortune told are all classified under the same severity gives us a good view into what the authors of this canon considered serious spiritual crimes. Personally, I would not classify future telling and fornication on the same level as murder, but clearly these authors did!
If a Christian thought someone was a vampire or a witch, the person with these beliefs “is to be anathematized” (pg. 78). Furthermore, if the same person who believed someone was a vampire/witch went around telling people about it, they were no longer allowed in the Church until they stopped slandering their neighbor and did penance.
While the text does not specify what their penance would be, it is certainly interesting to see how official reactions to witchcraft accusations changed from the early Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period!
If a Christian woman “takes a man in honorable marriage” and then leaves him for “an adulterer” (pg. 78), she was to be excommunicated.
The language in the translation is particularly interesting. I want to make note of the phrase “honorable marriage.” I’m not entirely sure if this refers to their marriage being legitimate or if it means the relationship itself was healthy. It’s also interesting that the third party is referred to as the one committing adultery, not the woman leaving her husband.
Here we have another reference to an honorable marriage. This focused on what should happen if a parent arranged an “honorable marriage” for their daughter but because she loved someone else the parents canceled the original agreement and kept the bride price anyway. Both the parent and the daughter were to be “shut out of the Church” (pg. 79) as punishment.
Personally, I believe this makes quite a bit of sense. If you call off a marriage and money is involved (whether it be a bride price or a dowry), returning said money is the proper thing to do. Otherwise, your actions could be considered theft.
If two clerics get into such a bad disagreement that one of them hired a hit man to kill the other, then “it is fitting that he be called a murderer” (pg. 80). The cleric was also “to be held an alien to all righteous men” (pg. 80).
Based on this, it seems clerics hiring assassins on each other was another common enough occurrence! I do not know enough about early medieval Ireland to say if this is true, but if it was written in an official canon, then at the very least church officials were afraid of this kind of thing happening.
Canons of the Alleged Second Synod of Saint Patrick
If a cleric fell “after attaining to clerical rank” he would “arise without rank” (pg. 82). If people knew what he did, cleric was to “lose his ministry” (pg. 82). However, if no one knew (besides God of course!) the cleric kept his ministry.
It seems that this section is implying as long as no one knows you did something wrong, you don’t have to be punished for it. The language in this section is a bit strange as well. The translation uses the word “fall/fallen” to refer to the sin the cleric committed. A few footnotes in the book implies that “fallen” refers to sexual sins, however this part of the text is unclear over whether it refers to a sexual sin or sinning in general.
After two people have fallen, they were to think about whether or not they still loved and/or desired each other. If both people died, then this was not a concern because two corpses can’t hurt each other. If they were both alive then “they shall be separated” (pg. 82).
There’s certainly a bit of sass in this part of the text! Basically it means unless both people in a romantic/sexual partnership are dead, they must be kept apart because the temptation will be too much. Personally, I enjoy it when historical authors throw in a bit of sass in their serious works. It reminds me that humanity has not really changed over the millennium.
If your brother died, you (the surviving brother) were not allowed to sleep with his wife. It did not matter that he died. After he and his wife slept together, they were made “two in one flesh” (pg. 85), thus she was now considered your sister.
Apparently a lot of synods forbade people from marrying their dead brothers’ wives. While personally I would not consider it incest, I do understand why people found sleeping with your now widowed sister-in-law kind of icky. There’s definitely a lot of emotional baggage that comes with doing it. I personally think having sex with your sibling’s ex (even if they are dead) is kind of a selfish thing to do. However, I do recognize that levirate marriages are an actual practice in many different cultures, so I will clarify that there is a difference between marrying your dead brother’s widow and only having sex with her without any sort of love and commitment. This is especially true if you live in a time/place where sleeping with a woman will ruin her reputation forever.
When a father planned a marriage for his daughter, he needed to ask what she wanted before he arranged anything. Even if “the head of the woman is the man” and the daughter had to do what she’s told anyway, “God left man in the hand of his own counsel” (pg. 85).
Basically, even if a father can make his daughter obey him, it’s still good to check what his daughter wants. It’s her life and she should have a say in her husband. She might know something about her future suitor that her father does not or she might not even like him in the first place!
When getting married for the first time, your first betrothal and wedding vows “are to be observed in the same way” (pg. 85). These first vows were “not made void” (pg. 85) if you ended up marrying a second time. The only exception is if your first marriage broke up because of adultery.
In an earlier section, the Canons of the Alleged Second Synod of Saint Patrick stressed that oaths and vows are to be taken extremely seriously. It is not surprising that this applies to wedding vows as well. If your spouse has committed adultery, they clearly do not take their vow seriously so it is understandable that would be the one exception to making such a vow invalid.
McNeill, John Thomas, and Helena M. Gamer. Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Penitentiales and Selections from Related Documents. Columbia University Press, 1990.
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.”
The Rule of Saint Benedict mostly forbade monks from eating meat. The keyword here is “mostly.” Medieval monks were only allowed to eat meat if they were extremely ill. Of course, that didn’t stop them from creating loopholes in the later Middle Ages! However, in The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, the author (Lanfranc, hence the name!) was pretty clear regarding what a monk needs to do after he consumed meat:
His penance began as soon as he started eating. There is no time to waste when it comes to a human’s soul, after all! The monk wore his hood over his head and leaned on a staff if he needed to leave his bed. Because the monk was still ill when doing this, it is possible these actions solved other problems. A hood kept the monk’s head warm and a staff helped him walk. As mentioned in my last post, a monk could only stay in the infirmary if he was bedridden, so a staff was vital for safe movement due to his weakened state. Lanfranc does say that if a monk can get out of bed, he isn’t sick enough to be in the infirmary. Perhaps the monk used the staff if he needed to get out of bed to relieve himself or something of that sort. (Lanfranc does not specify his reasoning.)
When the monk felt well enough to return to his duties he underwent a long penitential ritual before he rejoined the community:
Step 1: The monk was shaved.
Step 2: He entered the choir an hour before chapter.
Step 3: During mass, the monk was not allowed to make an offering.
Step 4: When it was time to discipline wrongdoers in chapter, the monk stood up first.
Step 5: He lay prostrate on the ground in front of the community and asked for forgiveness.
Step 6: The abbot told him to stand.
Step 7: The monk stood and recited, “My Lord, I have been long in the infirmary borne down by sickness; I have offended in matters of food and drink and much else, and I have acted against our established discipline, and for this I beg of you absolution.” (The original Latin is “Domine, infirmitate mea grauatus in domo infirmorum diu fui; in cibo et potu et aliis multis offendi, et contra ordinem nostrum feci, et inde peto absolutionem uestram.”)
Step 8: The abbot absolved him of his sins by saying, “May the almighty Lord absolve you from these and all other faults.” (The original Latin is:“Omnipotens Dominus absoluat uos ab his, et ab omnibus aliis uestris delictis.”)
Step 9: The other monks said “Amen.” (The Latin word for “Amen” is the same.)
Step 10: The monk went to the abbot’s feet before going back to the place he lay down earlier.
Step 11: He thanked the abbot and the community for tending to him while he was sick.
Step 12: He made three genuflections.
Step 13: The abbot told the monk to eat mixtum that day and until he was completely recovered. (Mixtum was the extra meal oblates, sick monks and elderly monks ate so they wouldn’t go hungry during the day.)
And that is the ritual! Clearly, Lanfranc took meat-eating extremely seriously.
If a monk did not eat meat, Lanfranc instructs the abbot to decide when the sick monk could return to the community and whether or not he received special treatment in the future.
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. 119-120. Medieval Classics.
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.
If you are Catholic (or were raised Catholic) you are almost certainly familiar with the concept of confession. And if you aren’t, I want to give a little context before I get into the main topic of this article. Confession (AKA penance/reconciliation) is one of the modern seven sacraments. (Depending on the time and place in medieval Europe penance might not be considered a sacrament just yet.) It is exactly what it sounds like: you are confessing what you’ve done wrong (i.e. your sins) to a priest and receiving penance so God will forgive you. This results in your soul being cleansed. In the Catholic faith, it’s extremely important that you confess before you die so you can eventually get into Heaven. Of course, people do not just confess on their deathbeds. Ideally, they go to confession throughout their lives. (Especially if they want to receive the Eucharist which is another sacrament.)
In medieval Europe confession was a major part of life. So much so, that religious figures actually wrote manuals on how it should be performed. These manuals are called penitentials. It was around the end of the fifth century the idea of previously designated penances started to become a thing. However, it was only at the beginning of the sixth century do the earliest penitentials start to appear in Ireland and Wales. From the seventh century onward penitentials start showing up in the British Iles and continental Europe. The attitudes towards penitentials changed over time. In the early ninth century, people were not super crazy about the idea of them. But this attitude shifted. Soon enough priests were actually required to use penitentials until around 1100 CE.
The texts themselves vary, but generally speaking a penitential would have two parts. The first part is called the ordo confessionis/the introduction. This part explained the different aspects of the ritual. It included “how to administer confession, interrogate penitents, determine their spiritual disposition and sincerity in repenting, and weigh the seriousness of their sins” (Frantzen). It might also instruct the priest to question the penitent about their faith and their beliefs. The second part was a list of sins and the penances for each sin. These were called tariffs.
Depending on the manual, the penitent’s social status, age, gender, job, health, etc. a penance could be harsher or more lenient. For example, if a member of the clergy murdered a person, how long they had to fast for depended on their position in the church hierarchy. A bishop had to fast for twelve years, a priest or monk had to fast for ten years, and a deacon had to fast for seven years. And no matter the clergyman’s status, they were defrocked. Another example is sodomy. (Sodomy here meaning any kind of sex act that cannot possibly result in the creation of a child.) If you were younger and confessed to committing to it your punishment would be significantly less long compared to an adult’s penance. The reasoning behind this was that if you were an adult you were supposed to know better. And if you were an adult over forty (and married!) you were really supposed to know better! That being said, it’s interesting to look at penances for sodomy and how much they varied. Different acts were given different penances in different penitentials.
There are a lot of penitentials out there. Here is a list of some of the existing ones. (Please note that this is not an exhaustive list by any means!)
Old English Introduction
Penitential of Finnian
Canons of Theodore
Old English Penitential
Old English Handbook
Overall, penitentials are an excellent way to observe medieval attitudes towards aspects of social life and how they changed over time as well as in different parts of Europe.
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.
In my last post on medieval Christian divination, I talked about oracle texts and the Sortes Sanctorum. While talking about the Sortes Sanctorum I mentioned that using the text to cast lots wasn’t the only type of bibliomancy one could do. There were a few ways one could practice bibliomancy. With the first technique, one would open a book (usually a bible or a psalter though by the later fifteenth century you could use any book), and the first passage that caught your eye would predict the future. The second way was to pretty much do the same thing, but you would use a mantic alphabet for your prediction. We will go into detail regarding mantic alphabets shortly.
Bibliomancy was a widespread practice during late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. It was used not only by laypeople but by clergy and church leaders as well! There was a lot of controversy regarding bibliomancy amongst church leaders. Condemnations about the practice can be found in canons, synods, capitularies, and penitentials. For example, in Charlemagne’s 789AD capitulary the practice is condemned. That being said, all these controversies did not stop people from practicing it, especially not clergy and saints!
Saint Francis of Assisi used bibliomancy before making any sort of major decision. In his memoirs, Guibert of Nogent documents a case where a monk used the first technique to see what kind of abbot Guibert would be when he first arrived at his new monastery. (The passage the monk saw was “Your eye is the lantern of your body,” in case you are curious.) Gregory of Tours also documents a few cases of bibliomancy in book five, chapter fourteen of History of the Franks. In that part of the text, Gregory uses bibliomancy after the son of a king begs for spiritual help. Later on, the same prince uses bibliomancy himself to see his future. However, he only does it after three days of prayer and fasting. Bibliomancy was a significant factor in Saint Augustine of Hippo’s conversion to Christianity. During a personal crisis, Saint Augustine heard a voice telling him to pick up the bible and read it. The first passage he saw basically said that you can only be happy if you follow Christ and to stop drinking so much and sleeping around. Funnily enough, in chapter twenty of his fifty-fifth letter, Saint Augustine would write how much he hated bibliomancy and that he thought no one should do it, but using the gospels to see the future was better than consulting demons. In my opinion, the passage has the same energy as a parent who disapproves of their teen drinking but would prefer them to do it in the house so they can at least supervise what’s going on.
Mantic alphabets were another way to tell the future. They are commonly found in European manuscripts, especially German ones. Though they are also found in English, Welsh, French, and Italian manuscripts too. However, alphabetical divination is found in Jewish, Arabic, and Greek cultures. It’s extremely likely that mantic alphabets were influenced by these cultures. Further evidence for this is that the late twelfth century was the same time nonwestern knowledge really started becoming prominent in Europe.
The most common format for mantic alphabets is as follows:
An introductory paragraph explaining how to use it, including a ritual to do before any fortune-telling can take place.
A list of the alphabet where each letter corresponds with a vague prediction.
Now, the rituals that needed to be done were simply just saying specific prayers/singing psalms. Different mantic alphabets have different instructions, so sometimes it included going to church, kneeling before the altar, or just praying in general. Doing this was vital for several reasons. First, they were a way to make sure God was listening to your question. Second, they gave the practitioner plausible deniability that what they were doing was Christian divination, approved by God, and in no way associated with demons. After all, a demon would not make someone go to church!
I will note that there are mantic alphabets out there that do not have introductory paragraphs. Instead, they just have the letter key. However, there are more mantic alphabets out there with introductions than ones without.
There are also a bunch of different letter keys out there. Some are simple, others are extremely complicated, others are written as riddles, some just relate to passages of the bible, some are acrostic, while others are not. Here is an example of one letter key:
A signifies life or power.
B signifies power among the people.
C signifies the death of a man.
D signifies disorder or death.
E signifies exultation or joy.
F signifies renowned blood.
Translator: László Sándor Chardonnens
One reason there was so much variation is probably due to the fact the practice was not an isolated phenomenon. They can be found in multiple different manuscripts. Textual evidence for mantic alphabets spans four centuries too. The earliest known one dates from the late twelfth century and it began to die out by the sixteenth century due to religious censorship and changing attitudes towards divination. In some manuscripts, later readers have written how divination is nonsense in the margins or have crossed out the mantic alphabets all together!
Chardonnens, László Sándor. “Mantic Alphabets in Medieval Western Manuscripts and Early Printed Books.” Modern Philology, vol. 110, no. 3, 2013, pp. 340–366. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/669251. Accessed 10 Jan. 2021.
Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
This is the second part of my series on medieval monastic clothing. You can find the first part here.
Now, monks didn’t wear a habit to look fancy. Far from it in fact! A monk’s habit was to show others his place in the world. It was meant to display that he had given up material things and dedicated his life to God. The habit itself was a symbol of the angelic, while the cowl (the hood) was a symbol of perfection. It was meant to protect a monk from evil whenever he went outside the monastery as well as when he slept. (Well, if he remembered to put it on before he fell asleep!)
The Rule of Saint Benedict specifically says that the habit’s cloth should be bought locally and as cheaply as possible. This way a monk showed just how poor he was. However, there were debates over what was considered the cheapest option. Should the chamberlain buy the cheapest material that will wear out faster, meaning that he would have to spend more money in the long run? Or should he splurge a little on nicer fabric, causing clothes to last longer and thus spending less money? It’s certainly a difficult decision to make when you are trying to follow The Rule to the letter!
The symbolism of a monk’s habit wasn’t reserved just for the type of cloth. The color also had a deeper meaning. Black symbolized repentance as well as humility while white symbolized glory. (It should be noted that different orders wore different colors. Cistercians wore undyed wool, so they were nicknamed the White Monks or the Grey Monks. Benedictines were known as the Black Monks for their dyed black habits.)
Finally, because monks all wore the same thing, it showed that in theory thy were a community of brothers who loved and respected each other. (I say “in theory” because in reality, there could be a lot of petty drama in monasteries. Check out my Misbehaving Medieval Monk series if you’re interested in reading about some juicy monastic gossip!)
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 Book. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)
In early medieval England, the line between paganism, Christianity, and magic was much blurrier than one might think. This is especially evident in Anglo-Saxon charms. This particular genre of Old English literature can be found in both prose and poetic forms. Depending on the text, the charm may be comprised of both. While there are a lot of charms from the early medieval period, when one scholar, Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie, selected twelve specific charms for his book The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, these ones became well known. As a result, they are commonly given as examples in academic writing. However, there are many more out there. Two good sources for Anglo-Saxon charms are Bald’s Leechbook and the Lacnunga. Both works are early medical texts. (I will note that I haven’t read through the entirety of these yet, so I’m not sure how many remedies are actual charms, compared to other herbal cures.)
In the big twelve, about half of them are medical charms. I say about half because it’s not exactly clear what “Against A Dwarf” is supposed to be for, though the guess is that it’s supposed to be a cure of some kind. Another medicinal charm is called “For The Water-Elf Disease.” This one is clearly a cure for an illness. The first paragraph lists some symptoms (fingernails turning black, eyes getting watery, and the patient looking down), then it lists herbs the healer should use, and finally, it has the spell the healer needs to say as they prepare the remedy. While the verbal component is obviously magical, it does have some science to it. There were no reliable clocks in early medieval England, so reciting a charm is a great way to make sure the herbs have enough time to brew. (Some charms opted to have a person recite a prayer instead of a spell. I will go more into Christian elements later on in this post.) Finally, some medical charms had no scientific elements at all. For example, the charm designed to help a woman have a healthy pregnancy relies on religious and magical beliefs.
The other half is designed to make rural living easier. For example, there is the charm called “For a Swarm of Bees.” Like the charm for water-elf disease, this one has magical and scientific elements. Apparently, if your bees start to swarm one way to fix that is to throw dirt or gravel at them. That is the scientific part of the charm. Then there are two magical parts. The first part is the extremely specific instruction to step on the dirt with your right foot. The second part is the two spells you need to recite. The other rural living charms are for fixing barren land and what to do if your cattle are lost or stolen.
Interestingly enough, the cattle theft charm and the barren land charm have both pagan and Christian references. (As well as the medicinal “Nine Herbs Charm!”) Here are some examples:
“For Unfruitful Land”
Sing the Benedicte, arms stretched out, and the Magnificat and the Pater Noster three times, and commend it to Christ and to holy Mary and to the Holy Rood in praise and worship and grace for them who own that land and to all those who are subject to them.
Yrce, Yrce, Yrce, mother of the earth, grant us that the All-Wielder, the Eternal Lord, of the growing and sprouting fields, propagating and growing strong, of lofty creation, shining blossoms, and of the broad barley-crops, and of the white wheaten-crops, and of all the other fruits of the earth.
(Of course, it’s possible that The Eternal Lord could be the Christain God, but the surrounding context makes me think that is unlikely.)
“The Nine Herbs Charm”
These nine herbs can avail against nine poisons. The worm comes creeping, tearing into the man— then Woden took up nine glorious boughs, striking then the serpent—it flew into nine pieces. There the apple and the venom were destroyed, so that it never wished to bring down your house.
Thyme and fennel, a mighty powerful pair, the wise Lord shaped these herbs, holy in heaven, those he hung up— set up and sent down into the seven worlds for the wretched and the blessed, as cure for all.
“For the Theft of Cattle”
Nothing was stolen or concealed, after I owned it, any more than Herod could do to Our Lord. I thought Saint Eadelena and I thought Christ was hung upon the Rood—so I intend to find these cattle—they were not taken away, to be known and not harmed, and to be loved and not led away. Garmund, the thane of God, find those cattle and bear those cattle and keep those cattle and hold those cattle and bear those cattle home.
(It’s not clear who exactly Garmund is, but he may be a mythological figure.)
Due to the lack of written records, we don’t know a lot, if anything, about early medieval English gods. That being said, it’s fascinating that people called upon both Christian and pagan gods for help when they desperately needed it. (I suppose it’s a “Well, I really need help so I don’t want to anger anyone by slighting them!” kind of thing.) This implies that in the early days of Christianity, people worshipped the old gods along with the new ones. Or if they didn’t outright worship them, they were still a part of their lives.
If you’re interested in learning more about later medieval charms, I wrote an academic paper touching upon it a few years ago. You can find it here.
Foys, Martin, et al., eds. Old English Poetry in Facsimile (Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2019): https://uw.digitalmappa.org/58