The Very Basics About Medieval Penitentials

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.)

The Lord listening to confession | Add MS 42130 f.185v | The British Library

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!)

  1. Old English Introduction
  2. Excarpsus Cummeani
  3. Penitential of Finnian
  4. Scriftboc
  5. Canons of Theodore 
  6. Old English Penitential 
  7. Egbert’s Penitential
  8. 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.

Sources:

Frantzen, A. (n.d.). Introduction to The Anglo-Saxon Penitentials. Retrieved April 11, 2021, from http://www.anglo-saxon.net/penance/?p=index

Frantzen, Allen J. “The Tradition of Penitentials in Anglo-Saxon England.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 11, 1983, pp. 23–56. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44510760. Accessed 11 Apr. 2021.

Oakley, Thomas P. “The Penitentials as Sources for Mediaeval History.” Speculum, vol. 15, no. 2, 1940, pp. 210–223. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2849050.

Quinn, P. A. (1989). Better Than The Sons of Kings: Boys and Monks in the Early Middle Ages (Vol. 2, Studies in History and Culture). New York: Peter Lang Publishing,.

All About Fabliaux: A Genre of Medieval French Poetry

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:

  1. Guillaume le Normand
  2. Rutebeuf
  3. Jean de Condé
  4. Gautier le Leu
  5. Garin
  6. Guérin
  7. Jehan
  8. Hues Piaucele
  9. Jean Bodel
  10. Eustache d’Amiens
  11. 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.

Sources:

Anderson, Natalie. “The Romance of the Past? Nineteenth-Century Medievalism and the Tournament.” Medievalists.net, 27 Mar. 2019, www.medievalists.net/2018/03/romance-past-nineteenth-century-medievalism-tournament/

Benson, L. D. “The Fabliaux.” The Fabliaux (General Note), The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 26 Apr. 2001, sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/special/litsubs/fabliaux/. 

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Fabliau”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 Dec. 2011, https://www.britannica.com/art/fabliau. Accessed 13 March 2021.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Jongleur”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 18 Nov. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/art/jongleur. Accessed 13 March 2021.

Dubin, N. E., & Bloch, R. H. (2013). The Fabliaux: A new verse translation. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, A Division of W.W. Norton & Company.

Fabliaux, user.phil.hhu.de/~holteir/companion/Navigation/Text_Groups/Fabliaux/fabliaux.html. 

projects, Contributors to Wikimedia. “1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fabliau.” Wikisource, the Free Online Library, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 21 Oct. 2016, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclopædia_Britannica/Fabliau

Medieval Christian Divination Part 2: Bibliomancy and Mantic Alphabets

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:

  1. An introductory paragraph explaining how to use it, including a ritual to do before any fortune-telling can take place.
  2. 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!

Sources:

Chardonnens, László Sándor. “Mantic Alphabets in Medieval Western Manuscripts and Early Printed Books.” Modern Philology, vol. 110, no. 3, 2013, pp. 340–366. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/669251. Accessed 10 Jan. 2021.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 2004. 

“Medieval Sourcebook: Gregory of Tours (539-594): History of the Franks: Books I-X.” Internet History Sourcebooks, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/gregory-hist.asp#book5. 

Meyer, Marvin, et al. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Princeton University Press, 1999. 

Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 

Saint Augustine. “Letter 55 (A.D. 400).” Translated by J.G. Cunningham, CHURCH FATHERS: Letter 55 (St. Augustine), www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102055.htm

“THE CONFESSIONS OF SAINT AUGUSTINE.” The Confessions of Saint Augustine, by Saint Augustine, www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm#link2H_4_0008. 

Waldorf, Sarah. We Tried Medieval Divination-And It Worked. 5 Aug. 2016, blogs.getty.edu/iris/we-tried-medieval-divination-and-it-worked/. 

Medieval Monastic Clothing Part 2: The Habit’s Symbolism

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!)

Bas-de-page scene of two monks walking towards the right and looking surprised | Yates Thompson MS 13 f.174r | Source: The British Library

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!)

Sources:

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.)

Harvey, Barbara. Monastic Dress in the Middle Ages: Precept and Practice, Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society, 1988. http://www.canterbury-archaeology.org.uk/publications/4590809431

Jones, Terry, and Alan Ereira. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives. BBC Books, 2005. 

Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009. (This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

Early Medieval English Charms: Paganism, Christianity, and Medical Science

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.

Sources:

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

Garner, Lori Ann. “Anglo-Saxon Charms in Performance.” Oral Tradition 19 (2004): 20 – 42. https://mospace.umsystem.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10355/64982/OralTradition19-1-Garner.pdf;jsessionid=165F067E65F7EF873466D5A678DB2802?sequence=1

Anglo-Saxon Paganism by Philipp J. Rackl https://www.academia.edu/10540548/Anglo_Saxon_Paganism

Tornaghi, Paola. “ANGLO-SAXON CHARMS AND THE LANGUAGE OF MAGIC.” Aevum, vol. 84, no. 2, 2010, pp. 439–464. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20862333. Accessed 28 Nov. 2020.

Anglo-Saxon Medicine https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/10/anglo-saxon-medicine.html

Medieval Ghosts Part 2: The Revenant/Draugr

Even though we’re well past Halloween (as of my time writing this) I still want to discuss medieval ghosts. In my last article, I wrote about ecclesiastical ghost stories. These stories, often written by clergy, had a Christian motivation for why the dead returned. However, if there were Church-approved spirits, that implies the existence of nonapproved spirits. And there certainly were!

The Three Living and Three Dead | Yates Thompson MS 13 f.123r | The British Library

Revenants/Draugar

Thanks to popular belief, secular people had their own ideas of what the undead did and looked like. The undead were often found in Icelandic sagas. In these sagas, the ghosts were known as revenants or draugar. In this post, I will be using the terms “revenant” and “draugr” interchangeably. (As a side note, the word “draugr” is singular while the word “draugar” is plural.)

Despite the Church’s best efforts to Christianize revenant stories, many of them survived with their original pagan elements. That being said, they were written down by Christian scribes so it’s difficult to figure out just how much was changed. However, it can be quite obvious when the scribe decided to go all out when changing details. (One example is the epic poem Beowulf and its constant references to God. This includes the revenant, Grendel, being referred to as a descendent of the biblical figure Cain.) Icelandic sagas are one literary genre where the pagan elements are particularly strong.

Unlike ecclesiastical ghosts, revenants were not trying to get help to escape Purgatory. They were back on earth to cause chaos. Revenants were very similar to the modern idea of the zombie to the point that in some stories, draugar looked like rotting corpses. Instead of being immaterial, they had physical bodies. And not only did they have physical bodies, but revenants were also stronger and bigger than they were when alive. In some sagas, they were described as big as a cow! Due to their largeness, draugar were often too heavy to carry. If you were attempting to carry one to a church, the revenant would become heavier and heavier the closer you got. As long as they had flesh, revenants could rise from the dead.

Like the modern-day zombie, sometimes draugar were quite stupid. However, it was not uncommon for them to be eloquent and spout off prophecies to whoever was interacting with them. When they weren’t telling the living when they were going to die, draugar did the killing themselves. Revenants would kill livestock and terrorize then kill humans. Depending on the story they had different motives for terrorizing the living.

One such motive was reacting to grave robbers. Revenants “lived” (for lack of a better term) in barrows/howes where they had been buried. Because early medieval Scandinavian burials included treasure being buried alongside a body, it could be appealing to people to steal the treasure. After all, the person is dead so they aren’t using it! Revenants did not like that line of logic. So if you were unwise enough to try to steal a dead person’s treasure, the draugr could attack you either physically or with magic. Which, to be honest, I think is valid. But not all people visiting the howes wanted to steal from the dead. If you were related to the draugr you could go to the howe and politely ask for your relative’s stuff as a birthright. If you were lucky, they may even agree to give it to you.

Not all revenants stayed (sort of) peacefully in their howes. Some stories feature draugr wandering their old homes, terrorizing and sometimes even killing their living family members and servants. Other stories feature draugr wandering the farther countryside, also terrorizing and killing humans and livestock. When this happened, one solution was to simply move the howe to somewhere more isolated. Sometimes this worked. Other times it did not. If moving the howe didn’t work, one could get rid of a draugr by destroying their corpse. This could be either burning them or cutting off their head. In one story (the Icelandic saga Grettissaga) to defeat a revenant, the main character cuts off its head and placed it between its legs.

The sagas were written down when Iceland was completely Christian, so occasionally a few Christian characters and elements would slip in. In the Grettissaga, characters ask a priest to exorcise the local revenant. Unfortunately for them, this draugr was particularly smart. It hid until the priest got sick of looking for it and went away. In other sagas, it seems that chasing off revenants was an expected duty for priests.

Draugar did not live on in only the Icelandic sagas. Sometimes ghosts in ecclesiastical stories had traits similar to their pagan counterparts. This included attacking locals and looking like a rotting corpse. In one story written by a monk of Byland Abbey, the ghost of a priest gouged his ex-girlfriend’s eyes out! Obviously, he couldn’t go around doing that. Instead of having a good old fashioned exorcism, the local monastery decided to solve the ghost priest problem the pagan way: they dug up his corpse and chucked it into a lake. This apparently worked.

Not all clergy were gung-ho about solving revenant problems in the Scandinavian way. In the previous story, the author made his displeasure about the desecration of a corpse known in the text. In another story, a revenant caused trouble in Buckinghamshire. After trying to sleep with his still-living wife, pestering his still-living brothers, and then bothering some livestock, the locals decided the revenant had to go. Their quest for knowledge ended up going all the way to the bishop of Lincoln. The bishop’s advisors flat out told him that a common way to get rid of a pesky revenant was to cremate it. This was not an acceptable answer. In the end, the locals were told to open the revenant’s grave, put a scroll of absolution on the body’s chest, and rebury the body. (The bishop supplied the scroll by the way.) The Christian way worked and the revenant stayed dead.

Finally, another way to get rid of a revenant was simply to exorcise it.

Sources:

Hildebrandt, Maik. “Medieval Ghosts: the Stories of the Monk of Byland.” Ghosts – or the (Nearly) Invisible: Spectral Phenomena in Literature and the Media, edited by Maria Fleischhack and Elmar Schenkel, Peter Lang AG, Frankfurt Am Main, 2016, pp. 13–24. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5. Accessed 31 Oct. 2020.

Byland Abbey ghost stories: a guide to medieval ghosts https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2020/10/byland-abbey-ghost-stories.html

Medieval Ghosts https://www.medieval.eu/medieval-ghosts/

Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages by Nancy Mandeville Caciola https://www.amazon.com/Afterlives-Return-Dead-Middle-Ages/dp/1501702610

Remnants of Revenants: The Role of the Dreaded Draugr in Medieval Iceland http://caitlinscrossroad.com/wp-content/uploads/Remnants_Revenants.pdf

Medieval Ghosts Part 1: The Religious Ghost

Happy (late) Halloween! Originally I was going to post this on Halloween, but I was unable to finish it in time. Today I want to talk about ghosts. Originally I was going to talk about ghosts in the secular mindset as well as ghosts in religious stories. However, I have to do more research on the folkloric type, so I am just going to focus on the religious today.

Ecclesiastical Ghosts

Because the Middle Ages was a period of about a thousand years (from the 5th century to the late 15th century) how people thought about ghosts changed over time. Someone from the 5th century may have a different idea of what a ghost was from someone in the 11th century and so on. In the early years of the Christian church, ghosts as a concept were not exactly welcomed. The idea that people could return from the dead was much too pagan for the Church’s liking. However, as time went on and Christianity became the norm, this changed. Ghosts could be used as a teaching tool for the living. Especially when you take into consideration the fact that by the late twelfth century Purgatory was an accepted part of the Christian afterlife.

Purgatory was an important part of ecclesiastical ghost stories. Due to it being an in-between place (you went there if you weren’t good enough for Heaven but not evil enough for Hell) it answered the question of how exactly ghosts returned to the living. After all, if you’re a ghost you are dead, but you’re still alive enough to interact with the living. Like Purgatory, ghosts are in a state of in-betweenness. It’s much easier to escape a state of transition than a state of permanence. A soul wouldn’t want to leave Heaven and it’s too late if you’re in Hell. There are a lot of different medieval writings on Purgatory. Depending on the source, souls either stayed there until the Last Judgement or they stayed until they had been purged of their sins. Either way, Purgatory is not a place one stays permanently.

Ecclesiastical ghost stories often had spirits returning from Purgatory to warn their loved ones about their sinful ways. Warnings about the afterlife would have a lot more impact on someone if it came from the dead rather than the living. A ghost has personal experience about what happens to your soul after death. The very much alive Father So-And-So does not. I’ll also note that some ghosts came from Hell to deliver their warnings. However, unlike the Purgatory ghosts, they were unable to ask for help. Once you’re in Hell it’s too late. You’re there forever.

So what kind of help did Purgatory ghosts ask for? Like modern-day ghosts, it was often unfinished business. Sometimes unfinished business meant returning something they stole while alive, apologizing to someone they had wronged, or even just begging people to pray for their souls so they could get out of Purgatory faster. It depended on the ghost and what they did.

However, if a ghost wanted help, they couldn’t just come up and ask for it. The living had to speak to them first by invoking God. Due to this restriction, sometimes ghosts would get creative to make people talk to them first. In one story, a ghost goes around staring at doors and into windows until a priest finally asks what they want. (The ghost wanted to say confession by the way.) In another story, a ghost literally throws a man over a hedge to get him to talk! (In the ghost’s defense, they do catch the guy before he hits the ground.)

Ghosts appeared in a bunch of different ways. Sometimes they appeared as their living selves, sometimes they looked like they had just before they died, and sometimes they took the form of animals, pieces of canvas, or a pile of hay. (Just to name a few examples!) A lot of ecclesiastical ghosts were described as apparitions. So they weren’t exactly immaterial, but not quite corporeal either. Again, it depended on the story.

Sources:

Hildebrandt, Maik. “Medieval Ghosts: the Stories of the Monk of Byland.” Ghosts – or the (Nearly) Invisible: Spectral Phenomena in Literature and the Media, edited by Maria Fleischhack and Elmar Schenkel, Peter Lang AG, Frankfurt Am Main, 2016, pp. 13–24. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5. Accessed 31 Oct. 2020.

The Birth of Purgatory by Jacques Le Goff

Byland Abbey ghost stories: a guide to medieval ghosts

Medieval Ghosts

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n87/mode/2up

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Relics: The Escapades of Four Medieval Relics

This was originally posted on an old blog of mine in June 2019. I have moved it to The Mediaeval Monk as it fits here better.

 

What exactly is a relic? According to Wikipedia (as they have the clearest explanation) a relic “usually consists of the physical remains of a saint or the personal effects of the saint or venerated person preserved for purposes of veneration as a tangible memorial.”

 

Royal MS 18 D II f.148r pilgrims on road to canterbury from John Lydgate’s Prologue of the Siege of Thebes

Pilgrims on the Road to Canterbury from John Lydgate’s Prologue of the Siege of Thebes | Royal MS 18 D II f.148r | Source: The British Library

 

During the Middle Ages, having a relic of a saint was a pretty big deal. It would bring your abbey/monastery prestige, holiness, and of course, lots of money. Pilgrims would come so they could get favors from the saint and see some miracles. Offerings were left and the place they relic was at collected that money. So naturally, when you have a culture surrounding relics, shenanigans ensue. And some of these shenanigans are WILD.

*   *   *

One such shenanigan happened in Bonneval Abbey in France. Bonneval Abbey was home to Saint Florentius’ relics. Then in the 11th century, there was a big famine. Thanks to that famine, the monks had to start selling stuff for food. Gradually, they sold all of their stuff off. Well, almost all of it. The monks eventually had to sell Saint Florentius. But they didn’t sell all of Saint Florentius. They sold everything except his head. So the guy who bought it, Aelfsige, brought a headless corpse back to Peterborough Abbey.

Honestly, I would have loved to see how they decided how much of poor old Saint Florentius they were going to sell. How do you barter for the majority of a body? It wasn’t until I learned about this, did I realize how silly the concept of buying everything but the head is. People will want skulls of things, but what happens to the rest of the body?

*   *   *

Another funny thing concerning people buying parts of saints’ bodies happened to Saint Bartholomew. During a famine in Italy, the Bishop of Benevento kept Saint Bartholomew’s arm precisely to make money. The bishop traveled around Italy and France with the arm, getting gifts. The bishop eventually went to England because the country was pretty wealthy at the time and the queen, Queen Emma, had no problem giving money to the church. But then the bishop realized that he hadn’t gotten enough money on his travels.

So he asked Queen Emma if she wanted to buy Saint Bartholomew’s arm. Queen Emma was like, sure, but is it real? Then the bishop was like, yeah, of course, it’s real and swore an oath. Queen Emma bought the arm.

*   *   *

We can’t talk about relic shenanigans without mentioning the duplicates. Because of Viking raids, people were naturally a bit on edge concerning their monastery’s relics getting destroyed or stolen or something equally unfortunate. So people started lying about where the relics were and who had them and replacing what people thought were relics with random bodies. For example, a Danish king (or just a bunch of Vikings, the book wasn’t clear) stole Saint Albans and took him back to Odense. But a sacrist allegedly stole him back. That’s why three different places claim to have the body of Saint Albans.

Saint Albans’ relics aren’t special in this matter. Two different places claim to have Saint Benedict. There are more stories like these, but these are the two I read about in the book I have.

*   *   *

Our last story for today is that of Saint Faith. She died in the 3rd century but in the 5th century, a basilica was built for her at Agen. Then in the 9th century, her body was stolen and taken to Conques, which according to Google maps is about 111 miles away from Agen. And because Saint Faith was now at Conques, people started visiting the town. Also, apparently, if you asked the monks at Conques who lived there, they would mention Saint Faith, as if she were still alive. Also, when people who admired her or her relics traveled, people would set aside land to make a new home for her. The little places were as far away as London as there was a parish built there for her.

 

 

Source:

Brook, Rosalind, and Christopher Brook. Popular Religion in the Middle Ages: Western Europe 1000-1300. Barnes & Noble Books, 1996.

Medieval May Day Traditions

Back in the spring of 2018, I studied abroad at the University of Oxford. At first, I wasn’t aware of the festivities that would happen all across the city. Luckily one of my roommates told me about the May Morning celebrations the night before. At 6am, the Magdalen College Choir sings Hymnus Eucharisticus from the top of the Magdalen Tower. I was fortunate enough to witness that year’s event. Due to the Coronavirus, Oxford’s May Morning 2020 has been canceled, but I recommend watching one of the many YouTube videos of past celebrations. It’s a beautifully haunting experience that has been stuck in my mind ever since.

While Hymnus Eucharisticus was written during the 17th century, the tradition of singing from the top of Magdalen Tower goes back 500 years. Witnessing this made me wonder about other European May Day celebrations that occurred in the Middle Ages and are still happening today.

Unfortunately, I  haven’t been able to find a lot of solid sources for earlier medieval traditions, so I will be focusing on two traditions from the late Middle Ages. I will note that it’s possible (and very probable) that these traditions were happening earlier than the earliest known record of them.

The Maypole

Our first tradition is the maypole. It’s a tall wooden pole that is decorated with flowers, greenery, and ribbons. During the festivities, people will dance around it, twisting the ribbons into complex patterns around the pole. It should be noted that different places in Europe put them up at different times (for example in Scandinavia maypoles are a Midsummer tradition).

maypole-dancers-at-the-bavarian-celebration-of-spring-festival-in-leavenworth-49f77e

Maypole dancers at the Bavarian Celebration of Spring festival in Leavenworth, Washington | Source: PICRYL.com

No one is quite sure when the maypole became a tradition in Britain. The earliest concrete written references to the maypole date back to the 14th century. Interestingly enough, these references occur in English and Welsh poetry. One poem is by Gryffydd ap Adda ap Dafydd and the other is by Geoffrey Chaucer. In Dafydd’s work, the maypole is a birch tree while in Chaucer’s work it is a permanent maypole erected in London.

There are mentions of possible maypoles in medieval legal documents, but due to misreadings and Middle English’s lack of standardized spelling, it can’t be said for sure if the authors were referring to maypoles. (They may have been referring to a pool of water, for example.)

Morris Dancers

Morris dancing is a folk dance that includes one person playing an instrument while the rest of the group performs in costume. The dancers I saw in Oxford wore white, silly hats, and had bells tied to their shins. As the music is played, the dancers use the bells and big sticks to add to the melody.

Morris.dancing.at.wells.arp

Morris dancing in the grounds of Wells Cathedral, Wells, England. (Exeter Morris Men) |Photo by Adrian Pingstone | Source: Wikipedia

The tradition is not without controversy. Border Morris dancers (usually found near the English-Welsh border) wear blackface. This seems to be slowly changing as festivals are starting to ban blackface. However, not all dancers do this. (I will add that the morris dancers I saw were not wearing blackface.)

The earliest known reference to morris dancers dates back to the year 1448 in an inventory for Sir John Fastolf’s castle. He owned a tapestry with morris dancers on it. If the dancers were on an item like this, then the tradition must be older than 1448.