To be honest I thought that the inscription of swords was just something that happened in fantasy books and role-playing games – but it seems not! Most inscriptions were invocations to God to help out the person bearing the sword.
But a certain sword that is currently part of a 1215 Magna Carta exhibit at the British Library has got all the experts stumped, as no-one knows what the following means:
I must say that I certainly don’t – the signs of the cross that top and tail the inscription are standard for medieval spells as well, so maybe its a magical inscription – and perhaps that’s why it is so hard to decipher?
I am working on a project at the moment to improve my understanding of the beliefs towards magic in the Middle Ages – specifically fourteenth century England, where I set much of my historical fantasy. I would like to know more about what people of this time thought about magic.
One of my first stops is to look at some of the references to magic in the literature of the time – so where better to start than the best known writer of the time, Geoffrey Chaucer.
I am going to look in more depth in this series of blog posts at each
example, but I am starting here with a quick summary of the instances I have found so far in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
How am I defining references to magic? I am not including stories set in antiquity where pagan gods intervene on behalf of the characters, such as the Knight’s Tale where Saturn causes the death of Arcite. Neither am I including purely supernatural interventions of the devil – such as the Pardoner’s Tale. If someone summons a demon that’s fine, but I don’t think there’s actual magic in the Pardoner’s Tale.
Here are the tales that I have found so far with major examples of magic in their narratives:
Canon Yeoman’s Tale
The Canon Yeoman actually assists his own master in the practice of alchemy and the whole of his tale focuses on that magical art in quite a lot of detail. I’m looking forward to digging into this one in more depth as it should reveal quite a bit about the practice of alchemy in fourteenth century England.
Wife of Bath’s Tale
A man is fooled into thinking he is about to meet 24 maidens, but they magically disappear to be replaced by an old hag – a witch effectively.
On the way to extort money from a widow, the Summoner encounters a yeoman who is apparently down on his luck. The two men swear brotherhood to each other and exchange the secrets of their respective trades, the Summoner recounting his various sins in a boastful manner. The yeoman reveals that he is actually a demon, to which the Summoner expresses minimal surprise—he enquires as to various aspects of hell and the forms that demons take.
This could be a bit like the Pardoner’s Tale, but I’m including as the medieval practice of necromancy involved the summoning of demons.
This tale includes a number of magical items such as a brass steed that can teleport, a mirror that can detect enemies and friends, a ring that allows the wearer to talk to birds and a sword that deals and heals deadly wounds. Also the tale includes a digression on astrology.
Aurelius needs to remove all the rocks on the coast of Brittany in order to win the hand of a lady. He does this by employing a magician.
I am planning to do a blog post for each of the examples above to look into the portrayal of magic in more depth.
Well you’re unlikely to be able to attend this course (if you are then you’re very lucky!), but if you want to read up on what the supernatural meant in the Middle Ages then I would recommend looking over the course notes for Eileen Joy’s The Medieval Supernatural.
In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know . . . . there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination — and the laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality — but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us.
~ from Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre
Got to the end of Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell today. It was a good read, although I found that his efforts to explain certain things about this iconic battle in English history did obscure the storytelling – he seemed to be trying a bit too hard to show how certain things happen – i.e. this is how such a small English army beat such a big French one. A good read, but I wonder if it could have been better – a bit more naturally told somehow?
Some interesting news came out a couple of days ago announcing that restorers working at Friborg Cathedral have discovered a 14th Century mural while restoring an altar in the side chapel of the Cathedral.
It seems odd that they after allowing the wall painting to be viewed by the public until 7th April, it will then be covered up again? Presumably whatever covered the mural is deemed to be of more significance or aesthetic beauty, but unfortunately the press release does not go into more depth about that.
Restorers working at Fribourg’s St Nicholas cathedral in western Switzerland have discovered a wall painting dating from 1300 to 1350 behind an altar.
Described by experts as being of exceptionally high quality, the images represent, among other figures, Abraham gathering the souls of the chosen people in his cloak.
The painting was discovered during the dismantling of the back of the nativity altar in a side chapel, cantonal officials said.
Other figures featured in the work are St Christopher carrying the child Jesus on his shoulders and a bishop – most likely St Nicholas – offering gold to three girls, a scene which matches the legend of the saint providing dowries for a poor family.
The cathedral was constructed between 1283 and 1490 and the current restoration project started in 2003.
The mural will be open to public viewing until April 7, after which it will be covered up again by the altar painting.
I have been reading The Scourging Angel by Benedict Gummer, which is an account of the Black Death in Britain. The books is well worth a look if you are interested in this period of history during the Middle Ages. One thing I came across that I didn’t know is what happened to Jewish populations in Europe when the Black Death began to sweep across the Continent.
Medieval Europeans didn’t know why the plague was upon them. Many Churchmen put the blame on man’s sin – it was God’s divine punishment. But lay people however had more down to earth suspicions and decided that there were being maliciously attacked. Rumours spread that wells were being poisoned by enemies. And enemies in Medieval Europe usually meant the Jews, who were seen as outsiders and subject to myths such as the blood libel (the murder of children), the murder of Christ and well poisoning. The stresses of the Black Death turned people’s attentions to people who were seen as outsiders living amongst them and as the plague spread so did the attacks on Jews.
The Church did try to stop this – indeed Jews were protected by Papal order, but these orders were ignored (the Church was not all powerful in the Middle Ages).
In scenes chillingly similar to what would happen under the Nazis whole populations of Jews were slaughtered. For example in Strasbourg the burning of Jews lasted for six days. This was not just people attacking Jews opportunistically where they found them, but an organized slaughter of every Jew that the city authorities could get hold of.
I think this is a new title! It’s not always easy to tell after all – for instance there seems to be another title by Nigel Saul The Age of Chivalry, but this is only 144 pages, so I am guessing is something quite different? But then again there is also For Honour and Fame by the same author – see the related articles at the end of this post.
There is a wealth of information on Amazon.com about the book, including lots of glowing reviews. I have read Nigel’s book on Richard II and remember very much enjoying, so I am sure that this and anything else he might have published on Chivalry will be good too!
Nigel Saul takes a relatively benign view of medieval noblemen. He rejects the once-fashionable notion that war was all about money and land, and that chivalry was just tinsel. And, although he sees a steep decline in standards in the last medieval century, he thinks that chivalric values did have a real influence in civilizing the conduct of war. Whether one agrees with this or not, his is a view that commands respect. He is a historian with a rare gift for seeing the human lives behind the rather formulaic and impersonal sources of medieval history, and he has written widely about aristocratic culture…Saul can make the most unpromising material speak to us with a directness that can surprise even those who are already familiar with it. This is a rich book that does ample justice to its complex theme.
–Jonathan Sumption (Sunday Times 20110626)
The author of this sparkling book that “puts chivalry centre-stage” explains its substantial contribution to the development of Western civilization through links to the practice of treating prisoners of war with compassion, to the growth of individualism and even to the modern cult of celebrity.
–Christopher Silvester (Daily Express 20110711)
Splendid…Saul has drawn heavily on what he calls this “rich repertory of contemporary witness” to illuminate the relationship between chivalry and the political, military, social and artistic currents of the time. The result is a wide-ranging examination of how the ethos of chivalry defined and shaped knightly culture…As this book so ably demonstrates, [chivalry] influenced every aspect of knightly life: without it, the Middle Ages would have been not only duller and darker, but even more brutal.
–Juliet Barker (Mail on Sunday 20110722)
An entirely original project, and in [Saul’s] hands it proves illuminating…[A] brilliant book. The skill and scholarship with which he has done so fully justify his claim at its opening that chivalry was a major factor throughout the narrative history of medieval England from before the time of Richard I to the aftermath of that of Edward III. Chivalry has often been neglected by historians in that story; Nigel Saul’s vivid and exciting study should make sure that it can never again be left out of the account.
–Maurice Keen (Literary Review )
The era of chivalry was the idealized fantasy that grew out of the military superiority of the armed horseman, and which lasted roughly between the invention of the stirrup and the invention of gunpowder. Nigel Saul is just the right person to tell the story as experienced in England…One of the strengths of his new book is its attention to the visual and the material. The knights of England had property and wealth, and they flaunted them. Chivalry was not only a code of behavior but a style honed both on the battlefield and in impressive residences…Interest in chivalry was revived in the Victorian cult of things medieval, aesthetic as well as moral in scope. It inspired such initiatives as the Marquess of Queensberry’s rules and the codification of laws of war, which Saul links to the later formulation of the Geneva convention. Yet lampoons of chivalry are equally powerful, as epitomized by John Tenniel’s drawings of ungainly knights on horseback that illustrated Through the Looking Glass. That unyielding parody has given us the chivalry of Monty Python and Spamelot, and recently a new Camelot too. Nigel Saul’s clear-sighted history makes these survivals all the more apparent, and all the more puzzling.
–Miri Rubin (The Guardian )
Popular views of medieval chivalry—knights in shining armor, fair ladies, banners fluttering from battlements—were inherited from the nineteenth-century Romantics. This is the first book to explore chivalry’s place within a wider history of medieval England, from the Norman Conquest to the aftermath of Henry VII’s triumph at Bosworth in the Wars of the Roses.
Saul invites us to view the world of castles and cathedrals, tournaments and round tables, with fresh eyes. Chivalry in Medieval England charts the introduction of chivalry by the Normans, the rise of the knightly class as a social elite, the fusion of chivalry with kingship in the fourteenth century, and the influence of chivalry on literature, religion, and architecture. Richard the Lionheart and the Crusades, the Black Death and the Battle of Crecy, the Magna Carta and the cult of King Arthur—all emerge from the mists of time and legend in this vivid, authoritative account.
When a bishop dies the bells ring in heaven according to Matthew Paris. Presumably this was only becayse Robert, Bishop Lincoln was a fairly holy rather than venal example. Indeed this was actually Robert Grosseteste the famous scholastic philosopher and theologian, who criticized the greed of the papacy.
I think it’s interesting that only the friars and priests hear the bells though – the bumpkin foresters don’t! Also it’s interesting that the melodious music is like bells – I guess the link with a place of worship is important here, but is really that the best that heaven could come up with to welcome the bishop?
These are extracts from the Chronica Majora written by Matthew Paris for the year 1253.
Of the music heard in the heavens
During the night in which the said bishop departed to the Lord, Faulkes, bishop of London, heard in the air above, a wonderful and most agreeable kind of sound, the melody of which refreshed his ears and his heart, and fixed his attention for a time. Whilst listening to it (he was at the time staying near Buckdon), he said to some persons standing near him, “Do you, too, hear what I do?” Whereupon they asked him, ” What hear you, my lord ?” The bishop replied : “I hear a supernatural sound, like that of a great convent-bell, ringing a delightful tune in the air above.” They, however, acknowledged, although they listened attentively, that they heard nothing of it, whereupon the bishop said to them: ” By the faith I owe to St. Paul, I believe that our beloved father, brother, and master, the venerable bishop of Lincoln, is passing from this world to take his place in the kingdom of heaven, and this noise I heard is intended as a manifest warning to me thereof, for there is no convent near here in which there is a bell of such a sort and so loud. Let us inquire into the matter immediately.” They therefore did so, and found, as was proved by the statement of his whole household, that at that very time the bishop had departed from this world. This wonderful circumstance, or rather primitive miracle, was told as a fact, and borne evidence to, to the writer of this book, by Master John Cratchale, a confidential clerk to the bishop, one held in great veneration, and of high authority amongst his attendants and friends.
Of the noises of trumpets and bells heard in the sky.
On the same night, too, some brethren of the order of Minorites were hurrying towards Buckdon, where Robert, bishop of Lincoln, was staying (for he was a comforter and a father to the Preachers and Minorites), and in passing through the royal forest of Vauberge, being ignorant of its windings, lost their road, and whilst wandering about they heard in the air sounds as of the ringing of bells, amongst which they clearly distinguished one bell of a most sweet tune, unlike anything they had ever heard before. This circumstance greatly excited their wonder, for they knew that there was no church of note near. When morning’s dawn appeared, after wandering about to no purpose, they met some foresters, of whom, after obtaining directions to regain their right road, they inquired what meant the grand and solemn ringing of bells which they had heard in the direction of Buckdon to which the foresters replied, that they had not heard and did not then hear anything, though the sound still gently filled the air. The brethren, therefore, in still greater wonder went on, and reached Buckdon betimes, where they were informed that at the very time of the night when they had heard the aforesaid melodious sounds, Robert, bishop of Lincoln, breathed forth his happy spirit.