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Monday, December 27, 2021

St Helena and Jerusalem

 Today, before starting a series on misconceptions about women in the Middle Ages, I want to honor my namesake, St. Helena, who located the site of Christ's grave. Below is a brief summary of her life and the story of the church erected on that site: the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Helena was a historical figure, the mother of the Emperor Constantine I "the Great." According to most accounts she was born in roughly 248 AD in comparatively humble cicumstances, either in northwestern Anatolia or (less probably) in what is now the South of France.  She married the Roman officer Constaninius Chlorus, allegedly a man of equally humble background. However, Constaninius was an ambitious man and made a successful career. In 305 on the brink of becoming Caesar he ensured his elevation by repudiating Helena to marry Theodora, the daughter of Emperor Maximian.

On his father's death in 306, Helena's son Constantine was acclaimed "Caesar" by the Western legions, and he spent the next 18 years fighting rival emperors Maxentius and Licinius. In 324, he finally became sole emperor in East as well as West. Before his death in 337, he undertook major reforms of both the Roman Army and the imperial administration. He introduced a sound currency that was to last roughly a 1,000 years as the "gold standard" of coinage used around the Mediterranean. Last but not least, he  established a new imperial capital on the Bosporus in what became known as Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Yet long before his final victory over Licinius, Emperor Constantine raised his mother to the rank of Empress and had coins minted with her likeness on them. Furthermore, in 313 he (jointly with Licinius) issued the Edict of Milan that granted religious tolerance to Christianity. At about this time, Helena converted to Christianity and began to actively support the Christian church.

Helena used her status as Empress to finance the construction of a number of churches, notably in Rome and Trier, and is credited by Church chroniclers with great acts of charity for the poor and destitute. In 326, when she was already approaching 80 years of age, she  undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  

We know that at about this time, people living in the Holy Land began to revere a relic which they believed was the cross on which Christ had been crucified.  According to the Church historian Rufinius writing in 403, this object was discovered after Empress Helena ordered excavations in the environs of the Temple to Venus, known to have been erected on the site of Christ's crucifixion by Roman emperors intent on eradicating the worship of Christ. Early accounts say that she and the Bishop Marcarius undertook the excavations, discovering under the porch of the Roman temple ancient quarries or tombs. According to Rufinius (writing less than a century after the alleged events), they found three crosses in one of these. Taking pieces of each, they brought these to a sick woman, who on contact with the third recovered miraculously. Thereafter, that cross was revered as the cross on which Christ had been crucified. It as divided into several pieces, and these were distributed to various churches, only one being retained in Jerusalem.

Empress Helena also located the site of the Nativity and was responsible for the construction of a great church on this site as well. (See: Church of the Nativity)   Roughly one decade later, Empress Helena died and shortly afterwards was canonized as St. Helena.

In later accounts of the finding of the True Cross, Bishop Marcarius was deleted in favor of a traitorous Jew and the sick woman became a dead man brought back to life, but these legends are less important than the fact that a great church financed by and on the order of Emperor Constantine was constructed to mark the cite of the Crucifixion and Resurrection his mother had identified. This became known as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Modern archaeologists believe that, given the fact that the site of the Crucifixion and Resurrection had never been lost from sight due to early eye-witness accounts and the later construction of the Roman temple, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is built on, or very near, the site of the historical crucifixion and grave of Christ.

The first church on this site was a monumental Greek basilica 150 meters by 75 meters, covering almost exactly the same area as the Roman temple to Venus. This church encircled Calvary, or the site of the crucifixion, while a rotunda beside it covered the site of Christ's grave, reached by stairs leading underground.  

This church was burned to the ground in 614 when the Persians sacked Jerusalem. After the expulsion of the Persians in 628 under Emperor Herakleios, a more modest church was built on its foundations. This second church gradually fell into disrepair during the years of Muslim rule starting in 638, and in 969 Moslem troops set the church on fire causing the dome to collapse. Although repaired by 984, this church was completely leveled by the Caliph el-Hakim in 1009. A new attempt to construct a church on the site of the crucifixion was not undertaken until 1048, but given the status of the Christian community under Muslim rule and their limited resources this was not a significant monument.

Only after the re-establishment of Christian rule in Jerusalem with the First Crusade was it possible to again construct a church worthy of the most sacred site in Christendom.  This was undertaken by the kings of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, and was consecrated on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem on July 15, 1149.  This new church covered both Calvary and the Holy Grave. It is essentially this church which we can still see today in Jerusalem. Although it has inevitably undergone periods of decay and reconstruction, it retains the fundamental design and many remnants of the original crusader cathedral. 

The Holy Sepulcher was a central monument throughout the crusader period and is therefore integral to descriptions of life in this era.

 For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.





Monday, December 20, 2021

Myths of the Middle Ages: Filthy Pigs

 I conclude with my series debunking common misconceptions about the Middle Ages with a look at the notion that people in the Middle Ages rarely bathed, knew nothing about hygiene and generally lived like filthy pigs. 

A favorite Hollywood convention is to portray people in the Middle Ages as filthy. Mice run across dinner tables while dogs fight over bones at their feet. Noblemen wipe their mouths on their sleeves (or hair!), and toss the bones from their plates over their shoulders. The poor are consistently depicted in filthy (and usually ragged) clothing and mud encrusted boots. Yet the evidence we have from the Middle Ages belies this image. 

First, we should remember that although the "Middle Ages" started with the "fall" of Rome that refers to the political and military might of Rome not Roman civilization. The  customs and habits of people across what had been the Roman Empire from Yorkshire to Palestine were not suddenly extinguished or forgotten simply because the political and military structures that had made it possible to rule an Empire from Rome were gone. Rome fell, Roman thought, customs and knowledge remained in the hearts and minds of people all across the former Empire. That culture included bathing....
Image courtesy of

Across the Middle East and Muslim controlled territory in Cyprus, Sicily and Spain as well as in the Eastern Roman Empire bathing and bath-houses remained a feature of daily life just as it had been in Roman times. In the West, the situation was less clear cut because this is where the “barbarians” had the greatest impact. Nevertheless, we know from the rule of St. Caesarius, writing in the very start of the 6th century, that nuns and monks were expected to bathe regularly for hygienic purposes. Other texts recommend washing face and hands daily, as well as washing and brushing hair frequently, and keeping teeth "picked, cleansed, and brushed [sic!]" (Pernoud, Regine. Women in the Days of the Cathedrals. Ignatius Press, 1989, p. 84.)

Furthermore, bathing and washing are referred to in romances and depicted in manuscript illustrations throughout the Middle Ages. Washing hands before meals was part of the ritual at every manor and castle as well as in monasteries and convents. Washing clothes was so important that washer women ― always identified as older, respectable women very different from prostitutes ― accompanied armies. Women washing and hanging out clothes to dry are also a motif in medieval manuscript illustrations.

By the 13th century, possibly as a result of renewed contact with the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire and with the Muslim world during the crusades, bathing became very popular and prominent. Not only did public bath houses become numerous, but wealthier citizens invested in elaborate baths which by the 15th century including hot-and-cold running water fed from roof-top tanks. Even before that, the Franks in the Holy Land built aqueducts, bath-houses and sophisticated sewage systems. 

Obviously, “popular” and “frequent” bathing in the medieval context was fundamentally different than in the 21st century. It took much more effort to heat water over fire and coals, and (except for the very wealthy) it meant pumping or hauling water from a well and lugging it to a tub or going to a bathhouse. The later cost money. Not necessarily a lot of money, but it was not entirely free, and it was certainly less convenient that stepping into a shower at home today. So, yes, hygiene would not have been at the same standards as today, but that is still a far cry from kings wiping their sleeves on their velvet robes or having mice running across their banquet tables.


As for manners, descriptions and depictions of court rituals from coronations and weddings to religious processions and funerals make clear just how sophisticated and elaborate medieval manners and protocol were. Meals particularly were governed by elaborate rituals, starting with washing hands before meals and drying them on the towels provided by the server, and followed by clear protocols for pouring wine, for carving meat, and for assisting one’s table partner.

Likewise, there were rules of hospitality that included greeting a guest “courteously” and providing him/her with a bath and even a change of clothes, as well as a bed for the night, food and drink. Careful care of a guest’s horse as well as the guest himself was also expected, along with niceties such as holding the off-stirrup when helping a guest mount or dismount. 

While manners evolved without going away, in the early Renaissance, increasing urbanization led to increasing water contamination, which in turn led doctors to associate communicable disease with water. Water was seen increasingly as “unhealthy” just at a time when the Reformation frowned at the notion of men and women sharing public baths. Bath-houses fell into disrepute and increasingly disappeared from the scene ― without being replaced for several hundred years by private baths.  Thus, while the castles of the late 15th century had hot and cold running water, the palaces of the 18th century had no baths at all. Likewise, while people in the Middle Ages viewed bathing as both hygienic and pleasurable, by the 18th century bathing had been replaced by satchels filled with fat and blood to attract and collect flees and perfume to cover body odors. Development is not linear and progress not inevitable. 

The personal habits and manners of the Middle Ages is reflected as accurately as possible in Dr Schrader's novels set in the 12th and 13th centuries. 
For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.




Monday, December 13, 2021

Myths of the Middle Ages IV: Clerical Ignorance

 I continue with my series debunking common misconceptions about the Middle Ages with a look at the notion that the medieval Church was bigoted and hostile to inquiry, study and scholarship.

Clerical ignorance and bigotry is another popular theme in films and novels set in the Middle Ages. The Kingdom of Heaven comes readily to mind, from the evil priest in the opening scenes denying a woman burial to the Knights Templar transformed into mindless brutes, but it is by no means the exception. I could site at least a dozen modern novels in which clerics play the role of mindless fanatics, usually opposed to tolerance, compromise, and pure common sense -- but I don't want to be accused of simply bad-mouthing the competition so I won't list the titles here.

Of course, it is impossible to deny that the Inquisition was an institution established in the 13th century or that individual priests, monks and friars may indeed have been uneducated and fanatical. Certainly the ignorance of many parish priests was a scandal that fueled Luther's anger and led to the Reformation.  But Luther was not the first monk to bemoan the ignorance of his fellows and there had been many previous attempts to increase the standards of education for the parish priest. 

Yet, despite the above, it is nevertheless historically inaccurate to suggest that the Catholic Church as an institution was governed by bigotry and superstition or that it was inherently opposed to study, scholarship, and scientific inquiry.

Let's start with the simple fact that the Church, notably monasteries and nunneries, were the most effective centers for the preservation of classical literature and thought in the period immediately following the "fall" of the Roman Empire. This was especially so in the Eastern Roman Empire where monasteries were not immediately threatened, but more important in the West where they were. It is important to understand that it was in these religious institutions that the teachings not only of Christ but of Aristotle and Plato were preserved, copied, read, studied and analyzed.

Monasteries continued to be centers of learning -- not rote learning as in the Koran schools familiar across the world today -- but as centers of inquiry and study, even after the political situation had stabilized. By the 11th century they were very much centers of intellectual inquiry and debate. Peter Abelard (unfortunately more famous for his affair with Heloise than for his philosophy) is just one example of a critical thinker as a theologian, philosopher and logician. Hildegard von Bingen is, of course, another example from the same century. She wrote treatises on medicine and natural history characterized by a high quality of scientific observation. Later scholars of note included Roger Bacon and Thomas Aquinas. 

Indeed, the very concept of universities - places dedicated to learning and debate protected by the notion of academic freedom -- evolved out of the Cathedral schools of the Middle Ages. Pope Gregory VII in a papal decree from 1079 regulated Cathedral schools and is credited with thereby providing the framework for independent universities. The first such university was established just nine years later in 1088 at Bologna, Italy. It was followed by the University of Paris in 1150 and the University of Oxford in 1167.
The learning taught in these universities was not confined to scripture.  On the contrary, study of ancient Greek and Roman texts was an essential component of medieval higher education. It is a fallacy -- but a frequently repeated and propagated one -- that knowledge of classical texts  were "re-discovered" in the Renaissance after such knowledge was "preserved" by the Muslims. This is nonsense. The University of Bologna at its inception was focused on teaching Roman law -- that is ancient Roman not canon law! The principal sources used for teaching medicine in medieval universities were Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna. Aristotle and Plato were hotly debated in studies of law, politics, logic, and philosophy. Universities also provided study of mathematics and the natural sciences, based largely on classical but also Byzantine and even Muslim scholars. The university culture at this time, furthermore, was based on debates, disputations, and the requirement to read extensively in order to pass examinations, which entailed defending ones ideas before a panel of established scholars. The concept of "peer review" and defense of a doctrinal dissertation today is based on this medieval tradition.

Just one small example, the knowledge that the earth was a sphere was widespread in intellectual circles in the Middle Ages.  In the 6th century, for example, Bishop Isidore of Seville included the fact that the earth was round in his encyclopedia. The Venerable Bede writing roughly a century later described the earth as an "orb" at the center of the universe. Hildegard von Bingen writing the 11th century described the earth as a sphere, no less than did Dante's Divine Comedy written in the 14th century. Galileo was condemned NOT in the Middle Ages, but in the so-called Renaissance; furthermore, he was condemned not for saying the earth was round, but rather that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the reverse. 

This brings us to the fact that fundamentalism, the belief that all knowledge is contained in scripture, is inherently more bigoted and anti-science than was the medieval church. It was the Reformation, with its emphasis on the Bible -- and the Bible alone -- that bred religious bigotry in the West. Likewise it is Islamic fundamentalism, not enlightened Islam, that poses a threat to peaceful co-existence between peoples holding different religious beliefs to this day.


For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.




Monday, December 6, 2021

Myths of the Middle Ages Part III: Serfs like Slaves

 I continue with my series debunking common misconceptions about the Middle Ages with a look at the notion that serfs were little better off than slaves.

The 20th century popular image of serfs was expressed in the Hollywood film “The Kingdom of Heaven” when the lead character (I hate to call him Balian d’Ibelin because he bore so little resemblance to the historical figure) says to the Hollywood Imad ad-Din that he “had been a slave ― or very like” meaning (inaccurately) that he had been a serf before coming to the Holy Land. 

The conflation of slavery and serfdom is not only inaccurate, it fundamentally inhibits our understanding of feudal society. As I noted in the opening essay on kings and subjects, feudal society was based on the concept of mutual contracts ― a fact that made medieval Europe very litigious by the way.  The fundamental difference between slaves and serfs was that the former (slaves) had no rights, while the latter (serfs) had very clear rights.

Let us start by looking at slavery. Slaves own nothing ― not even their own bodies. They can be mutilated, tortured, raped and killed by their masters without the latter committing a crime. Anything slaves produce, even their own children, do not belong to them. Their children belong to their master, who can choose to kill or sell them. As a result, slaves cannot and do not have families. They rarely even know who their parents, siblings, and children are. The products of their hands, from crops to works of art, also belong to their masters. The magnificent pottery of ancient Athens, for example, was the work of slaves who might have been from any part of the ancient world.  

From the Duke of Berry's Book of Hours

Serfs historically derived from Roman slaves. With the spread of Christianity in the 4th century AD, however, slavery became increasingly unacceptable because Christianity viewed each human as a soul loved by God. Within a few hundred years it was universally accepted in the Latin Church that no Christian could be held as a slave. But the economy of the period was still utterly dependent on the labor of those former slaves to plant and harvest the food needed by all. So the status of slaves was altered and became one of serfdom in which the former slave was still required to till the land and was not free to leave it, but was granted control over his person and with it the right to marry, have a family, and above all retain 50% or more of his produce depending on locality. Compared to slaves, serfs lived a very privileged life!

From the Duke of Berry's Book of Hours

Furthermore, at the time this status evolved, the concept of being “tied to the land” was not seen as a brutal violation of “human rights.” On the contrary, the contract between serf and lord gave the serf both physical and economic security. The lord was responsible for providing armed protection against outlaws and raiders, and the serf not be thrown off the land any more than he could walk away from it; he was guaranteed his share of the harvest not just one year at a time but for as long as he and his children and his grandchildren and their children etc. lived.

Renowned French historian Regine Pernoud points out in her book Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths (Ignatius, 1977, p.88):

It was this intimate connection between man and the soil on which he lived that constituted serfdom, for, in all other respects, the serf had all the rights of a free man: he could marry, establish a family, his land, as well as the goods he was able to acquire, would pass to his children at his death. The lord, let us note, had, although on a totally different scale, the same obligations as the serf, for he could neither sell nor give up his land nor desert it.

Furthermore, archaeology increasingly provides evidence of the very high standard of living serfs could attain. Clever peasants, like clever lords, made judicious marriages. Through good marriages and careful husbandry, peasants could accumulate more and more hereditary plots of land. It mattered little that they did not “own” the land in the modern, capitalist sense of the word; feudal lords didn’t own it either. The point was that some serfs accumulated the right to use the land and harvest its produce. Peasants that accumulated more land than they could themselves cultivate, hired laborers to work it for them. A wealthy serf could build a large house, purchase furnishings, and other luxuries, and live like a lord ― just as long as he didn’t try to leave his land.

From the Duke of Berry's Book of Hours

The standard of living among peasants increased as Europe became more prosperous and new technologies, from the horse collar and horseshoe to axles that swiveled and plows that could turn the soil, were introduced. These new technologies increased farm productivity dramatically. By using horses rather than oxen, for example, the amount of land one farmer could cultivate doubled. These technologies also enabled land that had previously been considered marginal to be brought under cultivation. With more land under cultivation, it was possible to introduce (in the eighth century) the three field system, which left one-third of the land fallow each year.  This enabled the soil to regenerate and so the sustainability of agriculture increased. As a result of these innovations, European serfs “began to eat far better than common people anywhere, ever. Indeed, medieval Europeans may have been the first human group whose genetic potential was not badly stunted by a poor diet, with the result they were, on average, bigger, healthier, and more energetic than ordinary people elsewhere.” (Rodney Stark. God’s Battalions. HarperCollins, 2009, p. 70.)

From the Duke of Berry's Book of Hours

As prosperity increased, so did the demand for goods, spawning an increase in industry and trade.  This, in turn, led to greater urbanization, and with improvements in transportation technology (think of the splendid naval architecture of the Vikings), trade started to spread farther and farther afield. The First Crusade (1097-1099) re-established regular contact with the Byzantine Empire and the Near East, and for the next three hundred years, Europeans dominated the sea lanes of the Mediterranean. Pilgrim traffic, crusades, and trade with the Levant produced a great economic boom that financed the great palaces and cathedrals, monasteries and guild halls, and many more humble dwellings as well.

Yet, urbanization also made serfdom increasingly burdensome. Serfs no longer feared losing their land but longed for the greater opportunities in crafts, industry, and trade that beckoned from the cities. Thus by the twelfth century, serfs were demanding their freedom and more and more mechanisms for emancipation evolved. By the end of the Middle Ages, there were, in fact, many more free peasants than serfs in Western Europe. 

The crusader states were an exception to the overall feudal model. Founded centuries after slavery had disappeared from Western Europe and settled by free men (since serfs could not leave the land to pilgrim to the Holy Land), there were no serfs at all in the crusader states. 
For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.