Tag Archives: Medieval

How did the Carolingians Recruit their Armies in the Early Middle Ages

I have started a new series of articles about Medieval warfare off in the Medieval (Middle Ages) History and Literature section of the site. It’s a subject which has always fascinated me, and which I think is often misunderstood – we tend to either think of glorious knightly cavalry charges or heroic yeoman archers and maybe that’s it. What I hope to do is get behind some of the myths that circle about war in the Middle Ages.

The first article is The Recruitment of Armies in France and the Carolingian Empire, 650-1100. I think it’s interesting that in terms of military organization this era in the so called Dark Ages was in many ways more advanced and effective than during the later Middle Ages. Hope you enjoy the article!

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Medieval Magic and Marvels: Matthew Paris and the Music of the Heavens

Robert Grosseteste
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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.

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Medieval Magic and Marvels: Cloud Ships

A fisherman's anchor
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Of course there is another sea above the one we know of – didn’t you realise! One credulous medieval writer certainly seemed to think so.

I came across this extract from Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia in C. G. Coulton’s Social Life in Britain from the Conquest to the Reformation, which is a great repository of all things medieval – from the mundane to the most fantastical of medieval marvels.

Gervase of Tilbury was an Imperial official in the 12th and 13th centuries, and wrote a number of works including the Otia Imperialia, which is a miscellany of various wonders – many of them seemingly very fanciful. I love this one about villagers coming across an anchor in a churchyard one foggy day and then a sailor comes down from the misty heavens to free the anchor. As if this isn’t evidence enough of ships sailing above us in the clouds, Gervase then backs this up with another story of a man sailing far overseas losing a knife overboard, and it then landing on his wife’s kitchen table far below.

Coulton notes that “A heavy stone tomb of the kind here described, dating from the late 14th or early 15th century, may still be seen in front of the porch of St Nicholas at Lynn. Iron door- bands in the rough form of an anchor are very common on early church doors :e.g. Sempringham.”

Here’s the full extract from Gervase of Tilbury:

There are some who say that the earth, as a centre in the midst of a circumference, is equally distant from all these extremities, and is surrounded and shut in by sea, even as it is written of the third Day of Creation, “God gathered together the waters that were under the heaven into one place, and dry land appeared.” In our own times there befel a marvellous, but well-known event to prove how the upper sea lieth above us. On a certain holyday in Great Britain, after High Mass, the folk were thronging forth from the parish church, on a morning so misty that it made a sort of twilight amid the gross and watery vapours. Here, on a stone tomb within the precincts of the churchyard, they found an anchor fixed, with its cable stretched tight and hanging down from the air. The people stood in amazement; and, while they were disputing among themselves of this matter, at length, they saw the rope move as though men had been labouring to weigh the anchor. When therefore, for all this straining at the rope, the anchor yet clung to the tomb, they heard through the foggy air as though it had been the cries of sailors labouring with all their might to raise an anchor from the deep. Soon, when they found their labour to be in vain, they sent down one of their fellows, who, as skilfully as any shipman of our own, appeared hanging to the rope and descending with alternate interchange of hands. When, however, he had torn the anchor from the tomb, he was caught by those that stood around, in whose arms he gave up the ghost, stifled by the breath of our gross air as a shipwrecked mariner is stifled in the sea. Moreover his fellows above, judging him to be wrecked, after an hour’s delay, cut the cable, left their anchor, and sailed away. In memory of which event the iron bands of the doors of that church were forged, by a cunning counsel, from that anchor; which bands are still there for all men to see. Here again is a still more marvellous testimony. In the county of Gloucester is a town named Bristol, wealthy and full of prosperous citizens; from this port men sail for Ireland. It befel upon a time that a native of Bristol sailed to Ireland, leaving his wife and children at home. Then, after a long sea-voyage, as he sailed on a far-off ocean, he chanced to sit banqueting with the mariners about the hour of tierce; and, after eating, as he washed his knife over the ship’s side, it slipped suddenly from his hands. At that same hour, at Bristol, the knife fell in through the roof-window of that same citizen (which men in the English tongue call dormer) and stuck in the table that was set before his wife. The woman, marvelling at so strange a thing, was dumbfounded; and, laying aside this well-known knife, she learned long afterwards, on her husband’s return, that his misfortune had befallen on the very day whereon she had found it. Who, then, will now doubt, after the publication of this testimony, that a sea lieth over this earth of ours, whether in the air or above the air?

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Digital Atlas of Medieval and Roman Civilisations

Thank you to Steven Till for blogging about this. The Digital Atlas of Medieval and Roman Civilisations is an interactive map created by Harvard to create a Google style historical map. I must say this is an exciting project, and although they have released it as a beta, I did feel slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more. I would have expected all the major Medieval kingdoms to be mapped out, but that’s not the case. Hopefully more will be added soon though.

Here’s a screenshot to wet your appetite (click on it to expand!):



“Midway along the journey of our life” – Great Medieval Verses

From Canto I of Dante’s Inferno:

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

These are the opening lines to Dante’s great poem, and probably the most famous poem of the Middle Ages. What better way to start off a new series of posts about great poetic verses from Medieval poetry.

There is so much going on in these three lines, a lot of symbolism and allegory already, but also a suggestion of the clear descriptive style that Dante uses to such great effect in his poetry. Let us take the verse line by line:

Midway along the journey of our life

With the word “our” Dante makes this poem not only about him but about us as well, an allegory that we should be taking note of as well. In the Middle Ages mortal life was seen as a journey or pilgrimage, with the ultimate goal being Heaven, thus the journey that the poet travels is through the three possibilities for a person after death: Hell, Purgatory or Heaven. The poet is notionally midway through his life in the setting of the poem as he was born in 1265 and the poem takes place in 1300.

I woke to find myself in a dark wood,

Oh dear, things can’t be good for Dante, he’s in  dark wood, which I imagine can’t be bad thing. The simple phrase “dark wood” is a great example of the simple descriptive style, it conjures up so many allusions to being lost, to being afraid, to being isolated and outcast and to being in a dangerous place, that Dante need to say very little more than this (although he does expand on the bitterness and savagery of the place in subsequent verses).

for I had wandered off from the straight path.

And now we know why Dante is in a “dark wood”. He has gone off the straight path to God for some reason. He has sinned perhaps or has let his attention drift from the proper goal of a Christian’s life – i.e. the pilgrimage or journey towards God mentioned in the first line of the poem.

It’s not the religious content that attracts me to this verse, but the sheer simplicity and depth of meaning which is conveyed by these three lines. They effectively set-up the whole premise for the Divine Comedy.

Here’s an alternative translation and the original Italian from the Princeton Dante Project:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

Expect to see a few more choice verses from Dante’s work coming up in future posts.

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Archaeologists say Hartlington Stones in Yorkshire Dales were Medieval furnaces

There’s an odd illogicality to this story – the medieval stones are only 114 years old??

Interesting though that such a large scale bakery would exist in a village – you would imagine most villagers would bake their own. I wonder what was going on?

The full story is at Culture 24

Here’s an excerpt:

Archaeologists believe a set of 114-year-old stones found in a sleepy Yorkshire Dales village may have been used as a furnace in a mass Medieval bakery.

The Hartlington Stones, which were discovered in 1896 on a village green near Burnsall, were thought to have been used as part of a corn drying kiln, an important agricultural device used in the Medieval and post-Medieval periods to ripen corn for harvesting or dry crops before they were ground into flour.

Investigators were forced to revisit the stones after experts from the National Park Authority found clear differences between their appearance and the formation of another kiln in nearby Kilnsey.

The team is currently toying with the idea that it might have been a communal bread oven says Dr David Johnson, the archaeologist leading the inquiry.

“The structure is also very near to the site of the Medieval manor house and lords of the manor controlled bread baking in the community as they saw it as a source of income for themselves, so the oven’s location fits.

Historians knew there was an oven within the ancient parish, but until now attempts to pinpoint its location have remained inconclusive.

What’s Not in the Pase Domesday Book Online

I blogged about the fantastic Pase Domesday project yesterday, which is an online reference tool to access data about people and places from the Domesday Book.

What I should have mentioned as well is what seems to not be available from Pase Domesday, which is all the detail of what customs and fees are owed by each manor and borough, and also what resources they had – for instance how many plough teams, how many acres of woodland etc. All of this fascinating content is available elsewhere though and can be downloaded from:

University of Hull

The Economic and Social Data Service

You should be able to access everything in MS Access from these downloads.

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Domesday Book Database Now Online

We seem to have a Norman theme today!

You can now search the Domesday Book online thanks to the PASE Domesday project run by King’s College, London and the University of Cambridge.

Here’s a sample output for the town where I grew up (click on the image to see it in detail):

Taunton in the Domesday Book

You can also look up people and get map views as well. Previously the data was available as a downloadable file, but the online version looks very user friendly as well, so I’m sure this resource will be very valuable to anyone interested in that period. Even as a historian who is interested in later events (14c) some of the detail about manors is very interesting to look at as there aren’t similarly comprehensive records available for the later Middle Ages.

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Interpretation of Hell in Hell has its Demons

Fallen angels in Hell
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I have been working through some ideas of how to portray hell in my novel Hell has its Demons. If you read the synopsis of the story you’ll have noticed that it ends with a journey by some of the main characters into hell itself. As the story is set in the middle ages there is some quite rich imaginative material for how hell was seen. The most obvious example being Dante’s Inferno, which is a complex and masterfully imagined place. Other medieval portrayals often depict it as a pit of fire where sinners are eaten or tortured by demons, including Satan himself. Dante’s portrayal is more subtle – with complex punishments depending on the exact nature of the sin. Also he put Satan frozen in ice, doomed to remain there as he breathes out frozen air himself so ensuring he will never be able to break free. Peter Lombard, writing before Dante,  said there were two opinions of Satan’s freedom. Either he was able to roam and tempt man on earth, or some others believed that he was bound in prison in hell until Antichrist should come, then he would be loosed to seduce men in the final days of apocalypse.

I have thought about approaching the portrayal from  a different point of view. As I see it Satan is really doing a job for God – after all God wants sinners to be punished doesn’t he, and Satan sort of makes sure this process gets done. So in my version I think Satan will probably have his freedom, but set under strict limits by God. For instance he can’t go into the world and seduce people unless God wills it – for instance to test a candidate for sainthood maybe.

Punishing sinners is a fairly tedious and onerous job for most demons as well. They can’t appear in their own form, but rather as shadowy air – according to Peter Lombard – and there must have been a lot more work for them as the number of sinners constantly increases. I am thinking that there would need to be a strict shift pattern for demons and a hierarchy of supervisors to make sure things got done. I wondered what hell would be like if a modern dictator got his hands on it – well probably quite bureaucratic and efficient and that I think will influence my portrayal of hell in this story.

There will be traditional elements – demons will appear monstrous, but I wanted to add more complexity. Some of the demons will have been recruited from amongst men – just as angels could be created from saints – and perhaps some of these men might be a little less willing to do their hellish duty than others?

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