The Holy See: 2000 Years of Tradition

Welcome back to the Nu History blog! My name is Analisa and although I’ve guested on the Nu History Podcast before, this is my first time writing for the blog. The subject is rather fitting as well! I’m continuing the countries of the world history series with the Holy See, or the Vatican. This is my favorite place in the world because of its rich history and tradition, fabulous architecture, and amazing museum complex! So, to learn more, keep on reading! 

St Peter’s Basilica, the center point of the Holy See, has existed in some form or another for the past 2000 years! It marks the spot where St. Peter, disciple of Jesus, was executed by crucifixion in the mid 60’s CE. Emperor Nero shifted the blame for the Great Fire of Rome to the Christian population and St. Peter, as the leader of the early Church, was a prime target. Archaeological evidence suggests that the site was a popular pilgrimage site fairly soon after St. Peter’s death. 

In 313 CE, Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. This was a huge event for the early Church. It legalized Christianity, pulling it out from the shadows and into the spotlight. (Note that Christianity was not made the state religion of the Roman Empire until 380 with the Edict of Thessalonica.) As the first Christian emperor, Constantine took it upon himself to build basilicas, churches, and holy sites throughout Rome, Constantinople, and the Holy Land. The Constantinian St. Peter’s Basilica stood for about a thousand years until it fell into disrepair. (More on this later!)

During the medieval period, Rome fell into disrepair. Plague, invasions, and poor Papal leadership all contributed to the city’s (and therefore the Vatican’s) fall. From 1309 to 1376, seven popes ruled from Avignon France under pressure from the French monarchy, starting with Phillip IV. This was extremely controversial, especially because it seemed to be taking power away from the Church. In fact, a rival faction of popes ruled from Rome. This was chaotic and led to different edicts being issued from two or more popes! It must have been quite confusing for the faithful!

When the Papacy finally made its way back to Rome, the popes knew they had to fix things. It was time to restore the grand and powerful image of the Church. It was during the Renaissance and Baroque periods that many of the buildings and works of art we associated with the Papacy were made. However, this growing power (and abuses of it) led to some major events! The first occurred in 1517 with the Protestant Reformation. When Martin Luther displayed his ninety five theses, it rocked the Church to its core and would have lasting effects that still resonate today. A mere ten years later in 1527, the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, sacked the city. The pope was held captive and the world realized that the Church was not as powerful as it seemed. To help regain some of it back, the Papacy launched the Counter Reformation. 

The pope served as the head of the Papal States for the next couple of centuries. But in 1850, Victor Emmanuel II became King of Italy. His main goal was to unify the multiple city states of Italy under a single government. On September 20, 1870, the king’s army forcibly occupied Rome. Pope Pius IX refused to reach an agreement with Victor Emmanuel II because he felt it was taking away too much of the Church’s power. So, Pius IX and his successors locked themselves within the walls of the Vatican for the next 59 years! 

In 1929, Benito Mussolini approached Pope Pius XI. He offered to create a Vatican city state within the city of Rome. Knowing that many Italians, and Catholics, wished to see a truce, the Pope signed the Lateran Treaty on February 11. This gave the Pope power over the Vatican land and a couple of churches within Rome. 

Today, Vatican City is the smallest country in the world. It is only about 0.49 square kilometers (0.19 square miles)! There are about 600 citizens, though the majority of them live abroad for ecclesiastical purposes. The museums, gardens, and St. Peter’s Basilica makes the city a popular pilgrimage and tourist destination. And how could it not be? With 2000 years of history and tradition, there’s a lot to see! 

On Medieval Parish Guilds in England

Today I bring you something I worked on a few years ago when I was doing my MA investigation: Medieval guilds and fraternities. I remember this was a very relaxed module – only 2 students! – but we had an amazing field trip to see some of the most spectacular gothic cathedrals of the south of England. As the topic for the module was the general development of the English church in the later middle ages, i found myself a little out of my depth..Yeah I know religious history and I are like bread and butter…But perhaps you missed the Later Middle Ages in England…So I decided to focus on something that was not so foreign territory. I had considered focusing my undergraduate dissertation in cults and sects in the later medieval period as well as societies and fraternities rising at this point in history. So, i decided to dust up some tomes, research and different bag of beans to put something on the subject together. This is very much condensed and edited from the general investigation, but I hope it sparks some interest. /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin-top:0cm; mso-para-margin-right:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:8.0pt; mso-para-margin-left:0cm; line-height:107%; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:11.0pt; font-family:”Calibri”,sans-serif; mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi; mso-fareast-language:EN-US;} Introduction to The Religious Fraternities I guess you all would like to know what we consider guilds or parish fraternities. Well, here is the first issue: there are many words that refer to the same type of association. Farnhill provides several names such as guilds, brotherhoods, fraternities, charities, companies and confraternities. All these words seem to be synonyms of the concept of parish fraternities. Whatever the name of these associations may be, it seems clear that they originated from the efforts of the lay community to get more involved in their religious life. Most of them were created to help the building of cathedrals and other churches in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, although the origin of these communities changed with time.  A good example of these Samaritans is the Brotherhood of St. Andrew at Wells. We also see the rise of these guilds in correlation to the period of the Black Death. They became means to obtain salvation, by founding a chantry where to perform prayers for the souls of the founders and benefactors. But as usual, there are other theories and it has been suggested that the origin of these fraternities goes far back to Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon times. Although these associations were predominantly formed by the laity, some included members of the clergy as well. In fact, the parishes tried to incentivise these organisations as they were beneficial for the church: the guilds provided with clerical funds, and they contributed to the pastoral work as well as to the acquisition of money for the altar fabrics. However, the guilds were not always welcomed by the clergy or the English society. At the beginning of the movement, it was considered by many that their practices were “pre-Christian” if not “un-Christian”. But eventually the clergy stopped their criticism and some joined in their local groups….If you can’t fight them…Right? I guess it was all for the benefit oftheir own pockets… There are other complications that muddle the investigation of these guilds; for instance, the dualism between religious and craft fraternities. Sometimes it is fairly difficult to identify them as separate beings. Barron suggests that at the core of every trade guild was ‘a religious brotherhood dedicated to the worship and promotion of a particular saint’. We have to consider that in many ways these associations were as much of a religious community as they were a social group. Brown actually questions in his work how much the actual legitimacy of the religious implication of craft guilds was. He does indeed consider that, although they would most likely profit from the spiritual intercession of their cult, perhaps there was more wealth and social status display involved in their activities than actual religious ritual. Another problem is that a lot of these societies seem to be rather ephemeral in nature. There is a definitive date of termination for these associations, as they were abolished in 1547 because of the Reformation and dissolution of the monasteries. But before that not much can be inferred from the sudden termination of their activities. They seemed really active and involved whilst they lasted. Role and Function of the Guilds The guilds primary function was to provide for the souls of the laity that were part of these groups. However, they performed many other activities from which laity benefited, and in which they contributed. Let’s have a look at the case of the fraternity at St.Laurence in Reading. The records show that he churchwardens of the parish acquired ₤6, 2s and 4d from the guild of Our Lady to repair he chancel. Furthermore, the biggest achievement a fraternity could hope for was to provide with a perpetual chaplain for the guild, or even the parish, but this was expensive and not all associations could afford it. Primordially guilds oversaw providing lights for their saints’ altar and for the high altar on Sundays, as well as performing funerals for their departed brethren and commemorations. The guild was also in charge of organising their annual meal, and patron feasts, where all their members would gather. This was almost a process on its own, perhaps less ritualistic, where commensality and solidarity, bringing people from different background and status, were key factors. These were also opportunities to carry other other charitable events, for example, the members Saint Lawrance’s guild in Lincoln invited paupers to their feast to share their food and drink. Rosser argues that these activities apart from being para-liturgical, were a way of reclaiming the moral authority that the parishioners had and that the canons had denied to the lay members of society. It seems likely that this type of activity was one of the biggest appeals for the lay people to belong to a guild. Once again, Rosser argues that the proportion of members attending the guild meal was higher in smaller, more localized guilds, although the attendance level was satisfactory in general for most of the brotherhoods. Finally, it is likely that some guilds would have asked for their members to go on pilgrimage, although this sort of activities seem to decline in popularity by the end of the fifteenth century. Other guilds carried out more liturgical activities. Such is the case of the Kalendars. The Kalendars were an interesting and uncommon fraternity; there are barely three recorded in England, located at Bristol, Exeter and Winchester, and they met to celebrate the Kalends, from where their name comes from, on top of the usual intercessory masses. Nevertheless, the guild at Bristol acquired an evangelic function when Bishop Carpenter decided to fund a public library in the fifteenth century, to try and eradicate the seeds of Lollardy spread around the area. So, in this sense the members of these guilds were meant to behave not only like good citizens, but in general like good Christians. They were role models even. Their sense of communitas drove the brotherhoods to help maintaining good relationships with the city rulers as well, in addition to organising collective activities and being arbitrators in certain issues affecting the town. In some cases, fraternities would become shadow governments like in the case of the guild of St. George in Norwich, whose members acted as a parallel town authority and dispensers of the town’s law. On a final note, it seems that many of these associations could have acted as sources of credit, as well as patronage and employment. It is more than likely that many of these fraternities would have provided money for the poor, as well as for their sick members, but this type of transaction is not properly recorded in their official accounts, which suggests perhaps it was a more informal action that was not strictly regulated. This is my brief introduction to the topic. However, if this is something that interests you, here are some bibliographical references so you can dig in and find out more about these religious societies: Ken Farnhill. Guilds and the Parish Community in Late Medieval East Anglia, c. 1470–1550. York: 2001. Richard Goddard. ‘Medieval business networks: St Mary’s guild and the borough court in later medieval Nottingham’, Urban History, Volume 40, Issue 1, (February 2013) , pp. 3-27 Caroline Barron. London in the Later Middle Ages: Government and People, 1200–1500. Oxford: 2004 Andrew D. Brown. Popular Piety in Late Medieval England: The Diocese of Salisbury, 1250-1550. Oxford: 1995. Gervase Rosser. The Art of Solidarity in the Middle Ages: Guilds in England 1250-1550. Oxford: 2015. Nicholas Orme. Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England. New Haven and London: 2006. – this one contains a fair bit of info about the guilds themselves like the Kalendars.

Christmas Desserts

As we come up to Christmas Day, let’s have a look at the history of several popular Christmas desserts.

Mince Pies

Dating from the Middle Ages this English dessert, like the name suggests, originally contained meat based mince. While meat disappeared from the pie in the 19th century (barring suet), the combination of ingredients in it today dates back from its origins which were inspired by Middle Eastern food that English soldiers experienced during the Crusades. It is not known exactly when they became associated with Christmas, but prior to the restoration of Charles II, their shape was oval and was thought to represent the manager; they also sometimes included a baby Jesus on top. During Oliver Cromwell’s rule mince pies were considered Catholic idolatry and were frowned upon. During the 19th century recipes for both meat based mincemeat and fruit based mincemeat existed but by the end of the century the sweet version, that is made today, dominated.

Yule Log

This popular cake is named and designed after the European Christmas tradition of the Yule Log – a log chosen specially to be burnt on a hearth on Christmas Eve through to Twelfth Night. This tradition happened throughout Europe. The cake itself dates back to at least 1615 with a recipe of the cake featured in The English Huswife. In the 19th century, Parisian bakers popularised the cake, known as bûche de Noël in French, creating the more elaborate designs like you see today. Today the cake itself is more well-known than the origins it is based on.

Christmas Pudding

As we know it today, Christmas Pudding did not appear until the 19th century although it had its origins in the 14th century as pottage – a broth using many of the ingredients that are still in it now, alongside meat. It was served as a starter rather than a dessert. Its association with Christmas did not come until the 18th century. The Victorians were originators of the Stir Up Sunday tradition – the making the pudding on the fifth Sunday before Christmas where each family member took a turn to stir the mixture from east to west. This was meant to represent the journey of the Magi and bring the family good luck for the year. Like Twelfth Night Cake, it was also customary to hide small items within the mixture to symbolise what the future would hold for the person who found that item. A coin could signify future wealth, while a thimble would signify spinsterhood.

Christmas Cake

Like the Christmas Pudding, the Christmas Cake originated from pottage but also from the traditional Twelfth Night Cake. During the 19th century Christmas cake mostly supplanted the Twelfth Night cake and began to use elements such as marzipan for decoration. The expanding British Empire and migration to the colonies – hence the popularity of Christmas Cake outside of Britain – and within Britain itself, also meant that many people began to boil their Christmas Cake with alcohol to preserve the cake during travel. Like mince pies and Christmas Pudding, the spices of a Christmas Cake are meant to represent the Magi.

Stollen

This German fruit bread has its own festival in Dresden and like those above has developed over its history. Originally it was much less sweet due to restrictions by the Catholic Church during Advent on the use of butter. Eventually Pope Innocent VIII 1491 allowed the Prince Elector of Saxony, his family and household to use butter for Stollen while bakers were allowed to as well as long as they paid a fine that was used to fund churches. This stopped several decades later when Saxony became Protestant. The festival around Stollen dates back to when the rulers of Saxony were presented with a Stollen by the bakers of Dresden. This stopped with the fall of the monarchy in 1918 but was resumed in 1994. The shape of the Stollen is meant to represent the swaddled baby Jesus.

Petra: The Lost City


For the latest instalment on our lost cities theme I will be writing about the history of Petra. Petra is a historical city located in modern day Jordan, which is renowned for its archaeological heritage and now popular for tourists. It was designated as a UNESCO world heritage cite in 1985.
It was originally known as Ramqu. The area was thought to have been inhabited appropriately in the year as early as 9000BC. Petra was likely established in the 4th or 5th century BCE and is largely attributed to a nomadic Arab tribe, the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans settled the area as a prime trading route, particularly the spice trade, to buy and sell goods between the Mediterranean continent and Asia. This is where caravans of people would cross. 

Trade was relatively successful for the Nabataean inhabitants, until over time nautical trading routes proved more popular. Petra gained some attention from outsiders, notably the Greeks and Romans. One of the first written accounts of Petra was documented by  Greek historians. King Antigonus I a Macedonian ruler planned an invasion in 312 BC. 

The site’s population grew to approximately 10,000-30,000 inhabitants. The Nabataeans were prevailed in attempts to takeover their land. They knew the terrain very well and how best to defend it from outsiders, that was until the Romans invaded in 106CE. Petra, henceforth was incorporated into the Roman Empire as a province.Trade was still customary in those parts, particularly the spice trade. However, over time this particular route steadily declined in popularity. What’s more in 363AD Petra suffered a terrible earthquake which significantly damaged the area. This halted further developments to the area in terms of commerce and population increase. Another earthquake would follow in 551.AD

During the Byzantine era  Petra contained a number of Christian churches In the 7th century AD Petra was seized by neighbouring Muslims in Arabia. This was a significant time for the spread of Islam and its influence as Arabia was was unified by the prophet Muhammed in 622AD. During the Byzantine era  Petra contained a number of Christian churches as the old city was the capital of the Byzantine province, Palaestina III and as a result was a part of the Byzantine empire sandwiching the Mediterranean to the Levant. These churches were excavated at the site and attributed to the Byzantines. Later in the 12th century the was evidence to suggest the area was an outpost of the Crusades, military campaigns from Christian Europe to the Islamic territories in response to their rapid spread. From then there are no accounts from the West about the Petra. However, that is not to say the area was unknown territory completely. Outside of the western world there are accounts during the end of 13th century that Petra was often visited by Egyptian sultans who were interested in the sandstone formations. Nevertheless, there are little to no accounts after this, that is not to say non eurocentric accounts. Nomadic tribes continued to live in the area.  

Moving forward to the 19th century, The ‘discovery’ of Petra was attributed to a Swiss traveller by the name of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. He was the first European to describe the sandstone structures. The remnants of tombs and structures at Petra were visualised by David Roberts, a Scotsman who painted them in 1839. Unfortunately over time the site of Petra was highly vulnerable, its structures were weak and this attracted the attention of thieves hoping to amass its treasures. Petra was surveyed and excavated properly in 1922 by archaeologists along with help from a Physician, expert in local folklore and a scholar. 

A number of scrolls written in Greek were found in the remains of a church, dated in the Byzantine era. These items were found 25 years ago in 1993. This discovery confirms Petra was not an isolated domain despite its land locked location. It shows other ethnic groups were interested in the area and remained for a time.

In the early twentieth century Petra was a focal point in the Arab-Ottoman conflict. In October 1917 during the First World War to intercept the Ottoman forces resources from the British advancement in Gaza, regarding the Sinai and Palestine campaign between the British and the Ottomans. The Arabs led a revolt from Petra against the Ottomans along with British support they managed to halt the Ottomans. Local Bedouin women also took part in the revolt.

Nowadays Petra is waiting to be discovered by tourists and is considered to be one of the New Seven Wonders of the world up with the likes of Machu Picchu in Peru and The Taj Mahal in India. 

A Brief History of Winchester Cathedral

Last week, after three amazing years, I finally graduated from the University of Winchester with a 2:1 in English Literature and History. Graduation was an unforgettable experience, spent catching up with friends, trying not to trip, and posing for about a thousand awkward photographs that will, presumably, stare down at me from my grandfather’s display cabinet until the end of time.

[PHOTOS of me graduating]

It was also, as I’m sure every Winchester grad can confirm, spent looking around in absolute awe at the beautiful cathedral we’re so lucky to graduate in. What a building! And what a history! As I stood nervously, waiting for my name to be called and wobbling in my heels (in hindsight, a poor choice on the uneven stone floor), I couldn’t help but think of all the sights the cathedral must have seen over the years and of all the other people to have passed through those impressive wooden doors.

I knew various tidbits about the cathedral’s history- such as the gloriously higgledy-piggledy stained glass in the West Window, which had been swept up and restored by the people of Winchester after Cromwell’s men destroyed it during the Civil War- but I suddenly felt inspired to learn more. More than that though, I wanted to jot down some highlights here, hopefully to inspire others to visit (and to fall in love with) Winchester Cathedral.

But first:

(Because what post about Winchester Cathedral would be complete without this gem from the ‘60s?)


Anglo Saxon Origins

Now, Winchester Cathedral has its roots in the seventh century, when the pagan monarchs of England first converted to Christianity. In 635, Cynegils, king of the West Saxons, was baptised and, just over a decade later, his son Cenwalh built the first Christian church in Winchester, which was by then the heart of Anglo Saxon Wessex.

This was a small, cross-shaped church which became known as Old Minster. In these blurry photos I took back in 2014 on my freshers’ tour of the cathedral, you can just about make out where it stood, slightly to the north of the present building and outlined in red brick.

[PHOTOS of Old Minster outlines]

Soon, Old Minster became a cathedral, housing the cathedra of a bishop responsible for a huge diocese that stretched all the way from the English Channel right up to the River Thames. In turn, it became the most important church in Anglo Saxon England, and was the burial place for many of the earliest kings of Wessex, including King Alfred the Great. The legendary King Cnut is also buried at Winchester, alongside his wife Queen Emma.


A Place of Pilgrimage

By the tenth century, Old Minster had become the priory church of a community of monks, living under the care of St Benedict. The church was made even bigger and grander by Bishop Aethelwold, who had the bones of St Swithun moved from their burial place in the forecourt, and housed in a new shrine inside. The fame of St Swithun and his miracles spread far and wide and all around his tomb, the walls were hung with the crutches of people he was said to have healed.

By the year 1000, Old Minster was a multipurpose building- having become a mighty cathedral in its own right, a thriving priory church, and a renowned place of pilgrimage.


E-norman-ous Change

Significant changes were to lie ahead for Winchester however, as England’s Saxon leaders were abruptly toppled following the events of 1066 and the invasion of William the Conqueror. He was anointed king on Christmas Day at a ceremony in Westminster Abbey, and quickly moved to take control of the Church.

Winchester’s last Saxon bishop was replaced with his own royal chaplain, Walkelin, and the French bishop soon set about building a huge new church in the Norman Romanesque style. After 450 years, Old Minster was demolished. Its stones were used for the new cathedral, consecrated in 1093 with a grand ceremony attended by almost all of England’s bishops and abbots.


Medieval Majesty

The Norman cathedral soon flourished. In 1100, William the Conqueror’s son, William Rufus (the Red), was buried here following his suspicious death whilst out hunting in the New Forest. He was buried under the tower of his father’s great cathedral, which collapsed seven years later- according to local folklore, as a result of his wickedness.

Around this time, sumptuous works of art were being commissioned. A glorious new font was installed, celebrating the life of St Nicholas and later, in the twelfth century, a magnificent illuminated Bible was made for the monks to use in their daily worship. The Winchester Bible can still, to this day, be seen in the Cathedral Library.

[PHOTOS of the Winchester Bible]

In the centuries that followed, wealth and powerful bishops would put their stamp on the Norman cathedral. It was re-modelled again and again, with soaring gothic arches added in the fourteenth century and made more ornate in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They also commissioned their own chantry chapels, where priests would say daily masses over their tombs to speed their souls into Heaven.


Reformation Transformation

The dissolution of the monasteries, following the Act of Supremacy and Break with Rome in 1534, lead to many changes and upheavals for the cathedral. After nearly 600 years, Winchester’s great Benedictine monastery, St Swithun’s Priory, had come to an end. The shrine of its patron saint was ransacked under the cover over darkness and its cloister demolished.

Catholicism was briefly revived in the 1550s by Mary Tudor, who married King Philip II of Spain at a ceremony held in the cathedral, but it was not to last long. Since the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), the cathedral has been Church of England.


From Pride and Prejudice to the Present Day

By the early sixteenth century, much of the Cathedral as it appears today was complete. New secular names became forever linked to it, in addition to those of many kings and bishops. In the seventeenth century, the angler Izaak Walton was buried in Winchester Cathedral, as was the great novelist Jane Austen, back in 1817.

All was nearly lost in the early 1900s however, as concerns began to grow that the east end of the building would collapse following centuries of subsidence. Miraculously though, the deep-sea diver turned hero, William Walker, worked for six solid years (in terrible conditions, underwater and in complete darkness) and was able to stabilise and, ultimately, save the cathedral!

[PHOTOS of William Walker and the cathedral with scaffolding]

In 2017, after twelve centuries, the beautiful cathedral remains the seat of the Bishop of Winchester and centre of the Diocese of Winchester. It continues to echo with the sounds of sacred music, daily prayer and, on occasion, the voice of Alan Titchmarsh (Chancellor for the University of Winchester) congratulating graduates.

[PHOTO of Alan Titchmarsh]

It truly is an incredible place to visit, and I would fully encourage everyone to do so.


The Livonian Crusade – The Beginning of The End of Paganism in Europe

The Northern Crusades, otherwise known as the Baltic Crusades, were religious wars that took place in the 12th and 13th centuries in order to subjugate and forcibly baptize the indigenous peoples of various parts of Northern Europe such as Finland and North and Eastern Germany, but most significantly the areas of modern day Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The official starting point for the Northern Crusades as a whole was Pope Celestine III’s call in 1195, but the Christian kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden, Poland, and the Holy Roman Empire had already begun to subjugate their pagan neighbours before then.

The part of these Northern Crusades that seems to have been the main focus of the action, and continued in some form or another for almost 100 years was the Livonian Crusade which took place across what is now the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. This crusade takes it’s name from the Livonians, who were the indigenous inhabitants of modern Northern Latvia and Southwestern Estonia, usually referred to as Livonia. Other than the Livonians, during this period the other groups in the region that were a target of this crusade were the Latgalians, Selonians, Estonians, Curonians, and Semigallians.

These peoples inhabiting the Eastern shores of the Baltic were, by the time of the first crusading in the late 12th century, surrounded by several increasingly powerful Christian states. The Orthodox Slavic principalities to the East, and the Catholic Kingdom of Poland and the HRE to the West. During a period of over 150 years leading up to the arrival of German crusaders in the region, Estonia was attacked multiple times by the Slavic states, as well as Denmark and Sweden. This makes it seem that invasions of these lands were inevitable to continue even without the call for a crusade by the Pope and being led by Bishops and holy orders. Suggestions have been made that it is the perspective of the chronicler Henry of Livonia, who wrote the main source for much of these events, that all the military action in the area was due to the crusade, when that isn’t necessarily the case and much of it may have used the Papal decree of crusade as an excuse for expansion.

Teutonic_Order_1260
Map showing conquests in the region (top right) by 1260

Christianity had already come to these areas before the crusades through the settlement of some Swedes and Danes in Latvia in the 11th century. Later there were German traders in the area who were now using the old Viking trade routes to Byzantium. Saint Meinhard of Segeberg then arrived in 1184 with the mission of converting the pagan Livonians. Although Meinhard became bishop in part of Livonia in 1186, Pope Celestine III proclaimed a crusade against the Baltic pagans in 1195.Shortly after this Meinhard died after attempting to forcibly convert local Livonians, and eventually an official crusading expedition was led by Meinhard’s successor; Bishop Berthold of Hanover, which arrived in Livonia in 1198. Shortly after arriving however, Berthold and his forces were killed by Livonians in battle. Pope Innocent III then reiterated Pope Celestine III’s call for a crusade in response in order to avenge this defeat. This time a larger force was assembled and, led by Bishop Albrecht von Buxthoeven in 1200, arrived in Livonia and set up the Bishopric of Riga in 1201, which is now the modern capital of Latvia. From here Albrecht set up the knightly order of ‘The Livonian Brothers of the Sword’ in order to aid in conversion, but perhaps more importantly to protect German trade in the area and secure German control. By 1206 the Livonian chief, who had already been baptized in 1189, was finally defeated in a decisive battle, and the Livonians were declared to be converted. The Livonian chief, Caupo, was to become an ally of the crusaders until his death in battle in 1217.

After the successful conversion of the Livonians their land was essentially taken over by the crusaders and the Bishopric of Riga. Several lucrative trading posts were taken over, and construction began of some important castles in the area; Koknese Castle and Cēsis Castle. Military alliances were also made with some nearby Latgalian principalities.  The remaining Latgalians were apparently easily subdued and absorbed into the Bishopric of Riga, one of which was attacked despite already being Orthodox, the excuse being that they were in alliance with Lithuanian pagans.

12_Kokneses-pils-no-pret-kr-29sep07
Remains of Koknese Castle in Latvia

In 1208 the crusaders deemed themselves ready to venture North and begin campaigns against the Estonians. Estonia at the time was comprised of serveral counties that were led by elders that loosely cooperated with each other. The crusaders began sending raids into Southern Estonian counties with the help of newly converted Livonian and Latgalian allies. The Estonian tribes however appeared to put up a fierce resistance and occasionally were found to have struck back with counterattacks at crusader held areas in Livonia. This part of the crusade was to prove more difficult than those before, and would take much longer. At various points between 1208 and 1227 armies of different sides would wreak havoc across Livonia, Latgalia and Estonia. The Livonians and Latgalians would be on the side of the crusaders or Estonians at various points, as well as the Russians of the Republic of Novgorod getting involved with either side at times. The Estonians used hill forts effectively to defend and serve as centers of each county, and these were to be besieged, captured, and re-captured multiple times.

After some time of war, both the Estonians and crusaders were becoming war weary, and so a three year truce was established from 1213 to 1215. This proved to be more advantageous to the crusaders however, as they were able to consolidate their political position effectively, whereas the Estonians were unable to bring their system of loose alliances into a centralised state. In 1217 there was finally a decisive battle and a turning point in the campaign against the Estonians. Although the Livonian leader, Caupo, died at this battle, Estonian leader and central figure of resistance, Lembitu, was also killed. Although later in 1223 there was an Estonian uprising against Christian held strongholds throughout Estonia, in some places with the help of Russian mercenaries, these places were retaken by the German crusaders in 1224. Later that year the Livonian Brothers of the Sword established their new headquarters at Viljandi in Southern Estonia.

Before the Estonian uprising, the North of Estonia was under attack from the Kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden while the South was being taken by the German crusaders. The Swedes made one failed attempt in 1220, but the Danish fleet under King Valdemar II landed in the present day capital of Tallinn and from there subjugated the whole North of Estonia. The Danes would also attempt invasions on the Estonian island of Saaremaa to the West of the mainland. Saaremaa would see off King Valdemar in 1206 and 1222 despite him attempting to establish and hold fortifications upon arrival. The Livonian Brothers of the Sword would also attack the islanders in 1216 by invading over the frozen sea, but were unsuccessful and provoked counterattacks from them. The islanders of Saaremaa would also prevent the Swedes in 1220 from keeping hold of territory in Western mainland Estonia When Swedish strongholds were completely wiped out. Eventually in the winter of 1227 the frozen sea was crossed again by crusaders, this time a 20,000 strong army which forced the surrender of multiple strongholds until the islanders of Saaremaa finally accepted Christianity. The inhabitants of Saaremaa would thrice fight back again, once in 1236, and again in 1261 when they once more renounced Christianity and killed all Germans on the Island. They were defeated once more by a joint force of the Livonian Order, forces of the Bishopric of Ösel-Wiek, and Danish Estonia. The Livonian Order then esablished a castle on the Island. The Island proved to continue to be a problem however until 1343 when the islanders arose for the last time, again killing all Germans and destroying the castle. This was recovered for the last time and remained under the Livonian Order until 1559.

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The remaining chapel part of the Livonian Order castle on Saaremaa

As a whole the crusades, even in the general Livonian area did not end until 1290. The Curonian and Semigallian people from the Western side of the Gulf of Riga started to cause trouble, and in 1236 the Livonian Brothers of the Sword suffered a great defeat to the Semigallians. This defeat was so bad that their remnants reorganised themselves under the Teutonic Order and therefore became known as the Livonian Order. In 1242 the Livonian Order would start to conquer the Curonians but would take a long time to fully defeat them, and were even facing defeat in 1260, but they gradually subjugated them in 1267. Crusaders from Riga started the conquest of Semigallia as early as 1219, but after several unsuccessful campaigns the conquest was almost given up on in 1251. Through to the 1270s the crusaders continued to be at odds with Semigallia, and the Semigallians attacked Riga directly multiple times such as in 1280 and 1287. The last campaigns against the Semigallians took place in 1289 and 1290 when their last territories were finally taken and up to 100,000 of them migrated to Lithuania in order to continue the fight against the Germans.

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The main Semigallian hillfort of Tērvete.

The Christianization of  the Eastern Baltic coasts was finally mostly complete by this time at the end of the 13th century, but it would be well into the latter part of the 14th century before the true last Pagans of Europe of Lithuania would be converted. This would prove to be one of the most complicated and lengthiest processes of Christianization in European history.

 

The Creation of the Anglo-Norman Church

Carrying on with my talks on church reform, we will have a quick look at the case of the Anglo-Norman church following the conquest of 1066. Pre-conquest England had a relatively coherent religious agenda and structure, founded on the Regularis Concordia and an active cult of saints. The Anglo-Saxon monasteries were prosperous thanks to the ritual donations of their patrons and the wealth obtained from their different economic exploitations. One cannot help but wonder if there was a real need to transform a well-established religious system. Leaving aside William’s personal interests and political agenda, it could be argued that the English Church was rather static and conservative.

Let’s take a look at the stance the Conqueror took regarding Papal control over the English Church. It was William I’s intention to keep the English Church development under the guidelines provided by Rome, but at the same time he took measures to avoid papal intrusion in the affairs of the state. The effort of the pontiffs to get English high-ranking clergymen to travel to Rome and do homage to the Pope only made the situation degrade. This is reflected in the events that took place in autumn of 1079 with the announcement of the forthcoming Lenten synod when William refused to allow any of his clergy to go to the synod. On top of that it was decreed that any legate sent by the Pope would only be admitted as a diplomatic envoy and not as someone with an interest towards the affairs of the English Church. It was only thanks to Anselm, during the reign of William Rufus, that the barrier between the papacy and England was partially broken, but to the eyes of Rome, England was like the prodigal son.

Perhaps some of the most noticeable changes in this re-structure involved the liturgical discourse, which required a changed in religious architecture and processional space. The most significant elements that configured the new buildings were the twin tower façade without a porch or narthex, the lantern tower, the three-bay presbytery, the apse-echelon plan of five chapels and the three-story elevation with full tribune. Moreover, metropolitan offices such as Canterbury added the use of a crypt to host the relics of their patron saints. Furthermore, there was a redistribution of the different altars and their function regarding the processional route that the lay community would take within the church. These customs were adopted by many churches, but not all. A clear example is Winchester, which carried on the traditions imposed by the Regularis Concordia, incorporating odd elements within its architecture. The most relevant is the west end that most likely represents the continuation of the Anglo-Saxon customs of crown-wearing rituals.

Nevertheless, the most significant changes that the English Church underwent in the post-Conquest era are those related with monastic foundations. The Norman settlers invested a great deal of their fortunes in these religious houses. There were several reasons that encouraged the lay population to invest in such foundations such as the protection for the benefactors’ soul, the display of power and wealth, and in many cases profitable land revenues. New monastic houses were introduced in England between 1066 and 1086, although admittedly most of them were of Norman origin. This process carried out during the reign of William II who commissioned some of the important ‘alien’ houses of the island: Binham (1093), Norwich cathedral priory (1096) and Wymondham (1107). Due to the arrival of these institutions two new types of foundations were created; daughter houses, which were directly dependent of their mother house in the continent, and monastic cells that acted as centres of administration for these English properties. Of course, the old  foundations were still used – or re-purposed in some cases. This is the case of the cell of Bec at Clare, Suffolk, that Gilbert of Tanbridge re-founded around 1090. The foundation of new nunneries after the conquest is somehow obscure – it seems that some monastic orders did not want to be associated with the female communities…Nonetheless, new women houses were founded, although the reasons and circumstances about their establishment might differ from those of the monasteries. For instance, Elstow was established by Countess Judith (1076-86), as she became the widow of Earl Waltheof, who was executed due to treachery, therefore buying herself a way to survive in the new regime. In addition, it seems that men of lower social and political status with not enough money to found a monastery, set up nunneries instead, especially in the northern areas of the country. Some old nunneries continued under Norman patronage.  The appointment of abbesses like Cecily who run the house from 1107, and was the daughter of Robert fitz Hamon and sister-in-law of the Earl of Gloucester, is an example of this continuity.

However, it is clear that despite all these changes there was a degree of continuity of the Anglo-Saxon traditions incorporated within the Norman rule. This is most clearly shown by the revitalising of old religious houses, like Gloucester Abbey. Such a place was important for the Normans; its location provided easy access to the problematic Welsh marches. Besides, it was a nodal point for communication, a profitable town and a good site for hunting. Maintaining and advancing its Anglo-Saxons roots was, therefore, crucial and so many investments were done in the abbey and other local churches, especially during the reign of William Rufus. Another example of continuity is the cult of saints. Despite it has been actively argued that the Normans erased all the native saints from their calendar and replaced their relics for others of their taste, recent studies demonstrate that the previous statement is wrong. Even Lanfranc shows a personal devotion to an Anglo-Saxon saint, St.Dustan, whose relics were moved with the majority of the other holy remains to his newly reformed Christ Church cathedral. Most importantly the fact that despite all the efforts to try to distinguish the secular from the regular clergy, the Normans adopted and carried on the old tradition of monastic cathedrals, unique of Anglo-Saxon England is significant.

Therefore, in order to understand the nature of the Anglo-Norman church and the developments of the English church for years, and even centuries to come, it is crucial we recognise the importance of the previous Anglo-Saxon traditions, as well as the political context in which the Normans had to liaise the control over liturgy and practice.

Girona: Travel guide, Medieval past & Sightseeing

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This post will talk about the small city of Girona in the Autonomous Community of Catalonia in Spain within the medieval period, paying particular attention to my recent visit to the city, the Cathedral and the history of Girona’s Jewish population. Girona is roughly 62 miles (22Km) north of its more famous neighbouring city, Barcelona. Before I go into more detail about my visit and medieval Jewish Girona, I will provide some important information regarding Girona’s formation and background history. Girona itself has a complex history in that it was claimed a number of times.

In Ancient times the city was named Gerunda. When the Romans claimed Hispania they adopted this name and they built a citadel in the city. After the Romans left Hispania, the Visigoths ruled Girona that was until the Moors from North Africa arrived in 715 to conquer the city. The Moors is a name that is attached to people of Muslim origin, commonly used when describing the medieval period. However, the name does not denote a particular ethnicity it largely encompasses people who were from the Arab world (this includes the Berbers from North Africa). In 785 however, Charlemagne conquered Girona from the Moors. Some years later in 793 the Moors reclaimed Girona. The Moors maintained their control over Girona and much of the Iberian Peninsula at this time. However in the year, 1015, the Moors were eventually driven out of Girona permanently. This however did not prevent the Moors from sacking Girona in years to come. The Moors sacked Girona in; 827, 842, 845, 935 and in 982. Girona was amalgamated into the County of Barcelona in 878. The County of Barcelona was originally under the rule of the Carolingian dynasty. The County of Barcelona in a sense formed the basis of what was to become Catalonia. Through marriage alliances other Catalan territories were acquired. The County Of Barcelona itself became amalgamated to the Crown of Aragon when Ramon IV of Barcelona married Petronilla of Aragon in the twelfth century. When their son Alfonso I became ruler of Aragon, he was styled as Alfonso I of Aragon. From this point monarchs from Aragon dropped the title of Count and Countess as this was to be included in the title, Aragon. In the eleventh century Girona was designated as a city.

Girona is a pleasant city to visit and it is relatively easy to get to from Barcelona as a day trip. I recommend using the AVE (High speed train) Barcelona Sants to Figueres route and get off at Girona. It is the most expensive option but it saves time, which means you have more time to explore Girona! This journey is approximately 45 minutes. Another alternative for budget wary travellers is to use the Rodalies (Catalonia train service) that provides access to Girona. The journey time takes longer, however it is less expensive than the AVE route. Travelling by bus is doable and can sometimes be cheaper than both AVE and the Rodalies. However, the distance between Barcelona and Girona by road is approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes. After arriving at Girona, whether it be via train or by bus the destination is the same because the trains and the buses terminate at the same place. The City centre is a 20 to 25 minute walk. I recommend walking along the river when you reach Carrer Nou. That way you can get beautiful views of the river and it leads you directly to the tourist office for further information about Girona and the surrounding area.

I only spent a day in Girona, however a day is doable providing you have idea of what you would like to see and have access to a map to avoid getting lost and time wasting! I wanted to visit Girona because I like to tick off as many Cathedrals as I can on my travels, seeing as Girona had a Cathedral this made me really happy! It may sound bizarre but I heard about Girona Cathedral because of Game of Thrones. Whether or not you are a fan of the show it has certainly made me aware of the beautiful filming locations and the real history behind it, Girona Cathedral was indeed one of them. Girona Cathedral was used to film the exterior of the Sept of Baelor in King’s Landing.

The Cathedral, full name, the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Girona is a beautiful structure that dates back to the eleventh century and was completed in the eighteenth century. The style of the Cathedral contains many different architectural types. Firstly, when the Cathedral was consecrated in the eleventh century of how we see it today the style was built in the Romanesque fashion. Now only the bell tower and the cloisters remain as part of the Romanesque style. However in the thirteenth century the style was built in the Gothic fashion. Girona Cathedral has the longest Gothic nave in the world measuring at 22.98 metres. The last style the Cathedral has is a Baroque façade at the entrance which was completed in 1607. The interior is certainly worth a look inside, my favourite part was seeing the altarpiece. This altarpiece is from the fourteenth century and is silver gilded with gold. Included in the price of one ticket is an audio guide (English is available) and a visit to the Basilica of Sant Feliu. If you have the time it is worth seeing the Basilica. The Basilica is behind the Cathedral and similarly it contains three different styles; Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque.

The prices for the Cathedral are as follows-

Adults- 7€

Concessions (students and pensioners)- 5€

Children under the age of 7- Free.

*Please note- all pricing is correct at the date and time of submission. Please refer to the relevant websites in the future if this changes.

 

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My personal favourite place in Girona was the old Jewish quarter. The Jewish quarter, otherwise known as “The Call” in Girona had its heyday in the thirteenth century as the Christians and Jews appeared to get along nicely. For instance, the Girona Synagogue was even situated next to the Cathedral. In addition, Girona had one of the largest Jewish settlements in Catalonia. Naturally the streets were narrow and winding, complete with cobbled streets. It almost felt like being in a giant maze. You could certainly use your imagination when walking down the tiny alleyways that this once bustling quarter was full of people selling and buying goods. However, this peaceful coexistence soon ceased. Later in the thirteenth century the Jewish population became scapegoats and were frequently targeted by racist abuse. Eventually the Jewish population were consigned to just the call and had no freedom to travel elsewhere in the city. In this sense, the quarter turned into a ghetto. Violence soon sprang upon the Jewish residents and in 1391 a local mob vandalised and attacked the Jewish quarter and people. Many Jewish people were injured and there was approximately 40 casualties. In spite of all these atrocities happening to the Jews, they were still under royal protection and as such were meant to be protected. The survivors of this massacre were sent to Galligants Tower, north of the Cathedral. This was regarded to be for the protection, nevertheless it did not stop non Jewish residents from ransacking their homes and looting their possessions. Many of the Jews converted to Christianity or left. In 1492 when the Kingdom of Spain was unified under King Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, the remaining Jews (all Sephardic Jews) were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula.

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Points of interest-

Museu d’Historia dels Jueus de Girona

Museu d’Historia de Girona

Sant Pere de Galligants, now houses the Archaeology Museum of Catalonia

Arya film scene in Game of Thrones where she passes through the old Jewish quarter and leaves her blood from her fingers on a wall in this quarter

 

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Carolingian Church Reform? A Re-evaluation of the Renovatio of the 8th and 9th Centuries

Today we are going to talk about something intrinsically linked with my second favourite Renaissance (Yes, you hear me correctly…) – The Carolingian Renaissance and the impact this had in the constitution of the Church. Again in the revisionist fashion of my posts-of-late, I will be re-evaluating this process, and explore it in a way I think we should really be considering the subject. And here it goes…

During the eighth and ninth centuries the Carolingians attempted to remodel and reorganise the Frankish church considerably. This process has been usually defined as a church reform which, at least, seems an erroneous way to understand what happened in ecclesiastical terms. The word reformare for the Carolingians ‘was used only sparingly, usually to refer to the punishment of serfs, and hardly ever to the reform of churches, which was usually defined as correctio, a very general term lacking the theological overtones of reformatio’ – this is J.Barrow speaking and not me. There was a church, but certainly it lacked unity or proper organisation. In fact, it has been disputed by scholars like Claussen that there was no such thing as a Frankish church until Chrodegang became bishop and unified the churchmen. There is no denying that, during the previous centuries the church was modelled on a traditional Roman style that was ill-defined and did not suit the complexity and necessities of the Carolingian empire. So the winds of change were doomed blow at some point…

So Chrodegang will be our man to take upon this task. His concerns about pastoral care and the responsibility of abbots, influenced by the ideas of Gregory the Great and the Rule of Benedictine, were compiled in his Regula Canonicorum. This document would have an important ulterior impact, particularly once Charlemagne was on the throne. Based on the Regula and thank to the influence of the Dionysio-Hadriana, the Admonitio Generalis was created in 789, in Aachen. These capitularies set the re-establishment of the bishops’ functions and clergy behaviour, the importance of preaching, bishops’ responsibilities with churches, monasteries and houses of canons, and the importance of matter of education. Episcopal statutes were created, covering every aspect of the priests’ part in the parish, preaching and training to clergymen. Rules, Rules and More Rules were applied.

Louis the Pious would be the second player in this renovatio. He promoted a series of Synods from 816 to 819 for the introduction of the Benedictine Rule in an attempt to make monastic life the same for everyone. This may be reflected by the plan of St.Gall – Horn and Born believed that the plan was designed to create a general layout of an ideal monastery that would be copied throughout the Carolingian empire creating unity amongst the communities. In any case, what is clear is that the role of monasteries was crucial for the Carolingian ‘reform’. Moreover, so were the parishes spread all over the empire. The church established a connection with every man and woman within the Christian faith, and the correct measures would ensure this desire of community. The main relationship that lay people had with the church was the liturgical process. But the way the clergymen and the rest of the population lived their Christian life was different. A common and clear liturgy was needed for everyone to live as proper Christians and not fall in the evil ways of paganism or heresy.  And this ties in with the other great aspect of this great restructure: improving the education of both the clergy and the laymen. First of all, the clergy needed to be trained and provided with the appropriate materials so they could preach the Christian messages effectively. They had to understand properly what they were meant to teach, in order to provide true knowledge and not create misunderstandings. An example can be found in the corrections that Benedict of Aniane produce in the Gregorian sacramental that came from Rome, in order to make it suitable for Carolingian learning. In this process of creating true clergymen, true Christians were also formed, which settled the base for the code of conduct of lay community.

The last but not least feature of the rebirth of the Carolingian church was the missionary activities and conversion of the new territories acquired by the Franks. Several regions of the eastern part of the empire were still allegedly pagan. There were missionary centres spread all around the territory in order to avoid attempts of insurrection against the true faith. Sermons were preached in order to explain the concepts of the Christian religion, although the evidences suggest that the preachers were more fond of attacking the false gods and pagan rituals of the folk. This was complemented by the ever so effective destruction of temples and pagan objects – actions that even Charles Martel and Charlemagne would have performed. However, in other parts of the realm, such as Bavaria, the sources suggest that the real problem was not paganism but a wrong understanding of Christian practice which required a reorganization and consolidation rather than conversion per se. So, perhaps it should be considered this was not so much a renovatio but rather a series of adjustments. Moreover, do you know what happened to all this after good old king Louis the Pious died? Well…Not Much…

The quarrels between his heirs created tensions within the church. Italy never fulfilled the ‘reform’ programme, and in the Germanic lands action was taken but the system collapsed due to the internal problems of the empire. The clergy did partially fail in the guidance of the society as they were not worried too much about their Christian souls once they were baptised. The cult of saints  was so professed that really verged the edge of idolatry that Charlemagne and his missionaries feared would never leave their society. Pagan and folk believes prevailed all over the empire, from those cited by Boniface in his list of superstitions and pagan practices, to the so-called tempestarii referred by Agobard of Lyons –  yes, this super cool weather wizards that called upon hail and thunderstorms to affect the crops. The problem with bishoprics and landowning was never solved. The curious case of Saxony explains the issue in great detail. Land and grants were given to the bishoprics, and so the privilege of immunity for the main five episcopal churches of Saxony. The system never worked properly due to the lack of patronage from the few Saxon noble families remaining, and the incredibly inefficient and slow conversion process. Not to mention the lack of And  local support due to the rather violent conversion, to which not most of the people were happy to succumb -nobility included . In conclusion, the Carolingians may have succeeded in their task for a couple of decades, but not longer than that. And even during that period, the renovatio was not achieved completely. The common people’s ‘wrong’ practice of Christianity, was rather similar to the paganism they were trying to eradicate (unsuccessfully). The monasteries ended collapsing, and their status would not be properly restored until the Cluniac or the Cistercian efforts centuries later. Which made me reached the same conclusion than Charlemagne so cautiously raised in his court regarding this poorly solved, and unsolved issues: “are we really Christians?”…And if so, did this so-called reform ever happen or it is just a misunderstanding of the Carolingian church from the modern historical point of view?

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Now my conspiracy theories do not come from the depths of my imagination…I did put a great amount of time into this subject, and there is a few books worth reading if you’re interested on the subject:

 

-Dutton, P.E., Carolingian Civilization: A Reader (Ontario, 2004) – I mean it is like the ultimate gospel of Carolingian documents – go buy it. No questions asked.

-Barrow, J., ‘Review Article: Chrodegang, his Rule and its Successors’, Early Medieval Europe 14 (2006), pp.201-12 – this is the article that I referred to earlier on my text. Even if it’s just for that discussion of the terminology, it is worth while.

-Carrol C., ‘The Bishoprics of Saxony in the First Century after Christianization’, Early Medieval Europe 8 (1999), pp.219-245 – just to give you an idea of the scope and differences between the lands the Franks ruled over.

-Claussen, M.A., The Reform of the Frankish Church: Chrodegang of Metz and the Regula Canonicorum in the Eighth Century (Cambridge, 2004) – very thorough investigation of Chrodengang and the contextual work also very impressive.

-Couser, J., ‘Inventing Paganism in Eighth-Century Bavaria’, Early Medieval Europe 18 (2010), pp. 26-42 – this will blow your mind, on how “Christian” central Europe was.

-McKitterick, R., The Frankish Church and the Carolingian Reforms, 789-895 (London, 1977) – even though written some time ago, this should be your starting point.

 

 

Medieval Graffiti: the boredom of choirboys?

From Winchester Cathedral to the Rosslyn Chapel, the walls of Britain’s religious houses echo with the voices of a long-dead past. But why is medieval graffiti so commonplace? And what does it mean for modern historians?

In a recent article for History Extra, Jessica Hope explores various meanings behind the countless examples of graffiti which cover the walls of Britain’s medieval churches. She writes with disappointment that past generations of historians too often overlooked the inscriptions and doodles, viewing them as little more than the ‘creations of bored choirboys’ and therefore unworthy of academic or scholarly surveyal. However, she goes on, paradoxically much of the graffiti actually dates back to ‘long before there actually were and choirboys to be found in the church.’ Indeed, in recent years, new large-scale surveys have revived interest in medieval graffiti and, unsatisfied with the crude suggestions of the past, many historians are now undertaking academic research to reveal the meaning of medieval graffiti once and for all.

An example of such research is the work of Matthew Champion, which draws on thousands of examples from surviving medieval churches across the width and breadth of Britain. He believes that while graffiti in the twenty-first century may be seen as ‘both destructive and anti-social, and certainly not something that should be either welcomed or encouraged in our parish churches,’ this appears to be a relatively modern attitude. Conversely, during the Middle Ages, graffiti appears to have been both accepted and acceptable, leaving many of our medieval churches ‘quite literally covered with inscriptions.’

Champion writes that the purpose of studying medieval graffiti is simply that it is so unlike any other form of historical research. He suggests that ‘If you walk into just about any one of the surviving medieval churches scattered across the British countryside, you will undoubtedly see a wealth of features surviving from the Middle Ages- stained glass windows, the sheen of alabaster monuments and the dull glow of memorial brasses set into the floor. However, almost without exception, all of these were created by or for the top five or ten percent of medieval society; the parish elite that could, quite simply, afford to have themselves memorialised.’ Where then, asks Champion, are the lower orders of medieval society? Where are the common people who for generations worshipped within the church walls? Where are the memorials to the simple commoners who paid for, and in many cases helped to construct, these monuments to their ‘betters’?

While yes, occasionally these individuals do turn up in legal agreements, wills and major court rolls. However, that is only to say that such documents represent the times when those individuals came into contact with the authority of either the civil administration or the church. Certainly, they do not represent their everyday interactions with the church as either a building or an institution. Champion therefore argues that the voice of the people has ‘been muted and distorted by the conventions of the records themselves.’ In contrast, the graffiti has the potential to have been created by anyone and everyone; ‘from the lord of the manor and the parish priest, all the way down the social scale to the very lowliest of the congregation.’ They are, quite literally ‘the lost voices’ of the medieval church.

What then, asks Hope, are the newly rediscovered voices telling us? Champion suggests that to begin with, one must establish the differences between much of modern graffiti which ‘blights our bus shelters, underpasses and public toilets.’ Putting to one side street artists such as Banksy, modern graffiti tends to be largely territorial or memorial in nature. A simple ‘I was here’ or ‘this is mine/ours,’ for instance. This is in no way meaningless or invalid, but according to Champion it’s very different to the graffiti found in Britain’s medieval churches.

Recent research would indicate that, while there are numerous inscriptions which might be little more than a choirboy’s doodle, the vast majority of examples appear to be devotional or religious in nature. Champion writes that they are, in their simplest form, ‘prayers made solid in stone.’ In some cases they are exactly that – a Latin prayer etched deeply into the stonework, or a prayer for the safe return of a ship or good harvest, as well as prayers for the soul of a dead loved one. Other examples though are less easy to decipher. ‘Ritual protection marks,’ often known as ‘Witch Marks’ are common, designed to ward off daemons and the ever-present ‘evil eye.’ These are often found clustered around medieval fonts. Also common are elaborate crosses, cut deep into the arches, perhaps to ask for God’s blessing or in memory of vows taken.

The walls of our medieval churches, argues Hope, are full of minute testaments to faith and beliefs that once were commonplace. ‘They tell the story of life, love, hope and fear within the medieval parish; a record that depicts sudden death and the perils of the soul that, every day, were faced by our ancestors.’ Most of all though, she goes on, ‘these scratched mementoes by the long dead tell us about the people.’ A single church might hold any number of secrets. The church of St Mary’s at Troston in Suffolk, for instance, bears an elaborate compass-drawn design on the tower arch which dates back to the building and consecration of the church. While, further up the stonework is simply the name ‘John Abthorp,’ a lord of the manor in the late fifteenth century.

On the south side of the church, below a beautiful coat of arms, a more sinister piece of graffiti can be seen. It takes the form of a medieval shoe, however etched alongside the shoe, and partly obscuring it, is the head of a daemon. Such imagery was common in medieval churches, yet Champion deems the number of examples of daemons in the graffiti of St Mary’s noteworthy. Higher up the arch is a second daemon inscription, this time shown in profile with its gaping mouth full of sharpened teeth and a lolling tongue. Across this daemon’s head is a pentangle, scored deeply into the stonework where it has been gone over numerous times. The pentangle, a symbol of protection, sits in the centre of the daemon’s head- ‘quite literally pinning it to the wall and trapping the evil within,’ says Champion.

Such symbolism clearly carried important meanings for the individuals who created the graffiti, and it is worth noting that many of the more elaborate designs would have taken several hours to complete. This suggests that they could not have been carried out without the knowledge and at least tacit-approval of the local church. While some designs are clearly devotional in nature, we may never truly understand the reason why the lord of the manor left his name inscribed on the tower arch. Hope wonders, was he simply recording his presence, or maybe marking his territory? Was it even John Abthorp who carved his name into the stonework, or was it perhaps created by another person with ‘a deeper, darker purpose?’

Other examples of medieval graffiti are much less enigmatic, and all too easy to understand. At Gamlingay in Cambridgeshire, for instance, a tiny Latin inscription in the north aisle reads simply, ‘Here lies Margaret in her tenth year.’ An equally tragic tale is evident at the church in Kingston, Cambridgeshire, where a small inscription is cut neatly into the stonework. It only lists three names; ‘Cateryn Maddyngley, Jane Maddyngley and Amee Maddyngley.’ ‘Exactly how old they were,’ Hope resigns herself, ‘we may never know,’ but as they do not appear in the parish records, it suggests that all three were children or infants, and all were related by blood. The date following the names offers a further indication as to their fate — ‘1515,’ the year the Bubonic plague returned to London, the south-east, and Cambridgeshire. This outbreak also appears to have been extremely virulent. Cambridge University is known to have suspended all studies, and the courts and places of gathering were disbanded in an effort to stop the spread of the disease. It was, however, to little avail.

Hope writes that ‘part of the problem was that this outbreak came only a short time after the last major outbreak of the Sweating Sickness in 1507.’ Moreover, as was typical of this period, the years immediately after a major epidemic usually saw an increased birth rate, as families and communities tried to recover the losses of the previous pestilence. This meant that, in the case of the 1515 epidemic, when the plague began to spread across England, the country had a far higher population of infants than it might ordinarily – and unfortunately, these children appear to have fallen victim to the disease in their hundreds and thousands.  Across the country, so many infants died that they were hastily buried in unmarked graves with little or no time to memorialise or remember them. Hope writes that ‘In London, the hasty funeral processions, made up of only a few souls, walked the deserted streets; and in a small village in rural Cambridgeshire, a stolid tenant farmer quickly etched the names of his three dead children into the walls of his parish church.’

‘The simple inscription may well be the only mark those three young individuals left on this planet,’ writes Hope. ‘Sometimes the writing on the walls can break your heart.’