medieval history

Cheek Rending, Bodies, and Rape in Medieval Castile, c. 1050-1300

by guest contributor Rachel Q. Welsh

In medieval Castile, between about 1050 and 1300, local municipal lawcodes, or fueros, looked to the body for proof of rape. These fueros provided detailed and practical sets of laws and privileges to newly founded or conquered towns before the advent of centralized royal law, and they were intended to encourage settlement and establish civic order on the expanding Castilian frontier. Although the fueros set harsh penalties for rape, a valid claim hinged on the woman’s own actions of public self-mutilation. In order to prove rape, a woman had to appear publicly within three days of the assault and rend her cheeks, tearing at her face with her fingernails until it bled. If the woman did not appear carpiendo y rascando, “tearing and scratching,” she was not to be believed, according to texts like the Fuero de Alba de Tormes.

Woman mourner, sacramentary of Ivrea, c. 1000, Northwest Italy. Biblioteca Capitplare d’Ivrea, codex 86, f. 199 verso. Miniatures reproduced in Luigi Magnani, Le miniature del sacramentario d'Ivrea e di altri codici Warmondiani. Codices ex Ecclesiasticis Italiae Bybliothecis Delecti, Phototypice Expressi (Città del Vaticano: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1934), tav. XXXVII.

Woman mourner, sacramentary of Ivrea, c. 1000, Northwest Italy. Biblioteca Capitplare d’Ivrea, codex 86, f. 199 verso. Miniatures reproduced in Luigi Magnani, Le miniature del sacramentario d’Ivrea e di altri codici Warmondiani. Codices ex Ecclesiasticis Italiae Bybliothecis Delecti, Phototypice Expressi (Città del Vaticano: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1934), tav. XXXVII.

image-2The physical action of cheek rending is not unique to these Iberian lawcodes, as it was also part of a larger Mediterranean practice of ritual mourning, in which mourners raised loud laments and tore their hair, faces, and clothing.
These self-mutilating actions were especially associated with women, however, and women’s mourning bodies were understood within a framework that linked bodily expressions of emotion with unrestrained sexuality and self-mutilation. For example, John Chrysostom suggested in a homily that women tore their bodies and clothing not to demonstrate grief, but to show their bodies and attract lovers. Because Iberian women tore their cheeks both as part of ritual mourning and as proof of rape, however, what little scholarship mentions cheek rending as proof usually explains it away in terms of grief and emotion: Distraught women tore their faces in grief at the shame and dishonor of rape. While this could explain why an individual woman might rend her cheeks, it does not explain why the legal system would require torn and bleeding cheeks as proof.

In thinking about cheek rending as proof of rape, I propose that we think of it first as a real, physical action, not just as a ritual or cultural performance. The municipal fueros themselves are very practical legal codes, without overt ideological goals; they deal with everyday life on the Castilian frontier, and they regulate such mundane things as which days Jews and Christians could use the bathhouses or how bakers should be fined for heating their public bread ovens badly. The stipulations on rape and cheek rending should be read within this straightforward framework. The verbs used in Latin and Romance to refer to cheek rending—including rascar, grafinar, mesar, carpir, desfacer, cortar—signify real physical violence; the mourners scratch, rip, tear, cut, and strip their faces. The thirteenth-century Primera Crónica General describes women mourners as tearing and scratching their faces (tornandolas en sangre et en carne biva), stripping them back to blood and to open wounds. Alfonso X’s great royal legal code, Las Siete Partidas, condemns excessive mourning and refers to cheek rending as disfiguring. Moreover, it forbids priests from administering the sacraments to mourners until they had healed from the marks they had made on their faces. This suggests that cheek rending left real visible marks on mourners’ faces, that their bodies were literally marked, and possibly even scarred, with grief. Images of mourners rending their cheeks bear this out, as many show bloody red lines on the mourners’ faces. A medieval medical text on treatments for women, included in the Trotula collection, even describes an ointment which the women of Salerno used to treat the marks on their faces which they made in mourning for the dead (contra maculas in facie quas faciunt salernitane pro mortuis). If women tore their cheeks both in mourning and in rape, would widows and raped women then have the same facial marks or scars?

Scene of mourning at an honorable death, with women rending their cheeks, late 13th century Castile. From Cantiga 152, Cantigas de Santa Maria. Image reproduced in Heath Dillard, Daughters of the Reconquest: Women in Castilian Town Society, 1100-1300 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), plate 20.

Scene of mourning at an honorable death, with women rending their cheeks, late 13th century Castile. From Cantiga 152, Cantigas de Santa Maria. Image reproduced in Heath Dillard, Daughters of the Reconquest: Women in Castilian Town Society, 1100-1300 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), plate 20.

Because cheek rending was a bodily action performed through real, bleeding bodies, I further suggest that any examination of cheek rending as proof of rape should consider larger questions of how bodies, and especially women’s bodies, functioned before the law. Scholarship on emotion and gestures suggests that weeping was seen as a sign of sincerity, and cheek rending as proof of rape suggests a similar connection between outward appearance and internal mental state. The definition of rape in the fueros hinges on intent, consent, and believability, and in many fueros the cheek rending requirement falls under the heading “What woman should be believed concerning rape[?]” (Qual mugier deue seer creyda por forçada). Cheek rending might actually go further than just proving intention and sincerity, however, as many of these same towns also used the ordeal of hot-iron and the physical bodies of women to prove guilt or innocence. This ordeal was used only with women and only with women accused of certain kinds of bodily, secretive crimes, including poisoning, abortion, prostitution, and witchcraft. For these crimes, the law bypassed the woman’s testimony to access the truth directly from her body.

Mourners tearing their hair and faces in grief, c. 1295, Castile. 1 of 8 wooden panels originally in the chapel of San Andrés de Mahamud (Burgos). The Plañideros panels are currently in Sala 19 of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Cataluyna, in Barcelona, catalog numbers 004372-003, 004372-004, 004372-005, and 004372-006.

Mourners tearing their hair and faces in grief, c. 1295, Castile. 1 of 8 wooden panels originally in the chapel of San Andrés de Mahamud (Burgos). The Plañideros panels are currently in Sala 19 of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Cataluyna, in Barcelona, catalog numbers 004372-003, 004372-004, 004372-005, and 004372-006.

But why only women’s bodies? If men were dishonored, they proved their civil cases through character witnesses and testimony, not through self-mutilation and bleeding cheeks. I am only beginning sustained research, but I suspect that there’s something about the body itself, an understanding that bodies – and especially female bodies, which were seen as more material and less spiritual than male bodies – could somehow demonstrate truth. In cheek rending as proof of rape, women mark and even mutilate their bodies to make visible the internal violence and dishonor of rape; in ordeal, perhaps, the body speaks for itself.

Rachel Welsh is a doctoral candidate in Medieval History at New York University. Her dissertation focuses on ordeal and the use of the body as legal proof in medieval Iberia, and she is interested more broadly in medieval medical, theological, philosophical, and legal understandings of the body as a potential conduit of truth.

Giving Up Stuff, Then and Now

by contributing editor Jake Purcell

Several people have said to me that I would have made a good medieval monk. I never asked why: mostly out of self-preservation, but also because I’m fairly confident that they are wrong.

I like my things way too much. Examples include a bowl that a neighbor used to give out Halloween candy, a table I got from a friendly stranger on Craigslist, the several pieces of furniture that I have spent many days of my life building from rough planks of construction-grade pine.

I’m not a hoarder or a social climber or even that much of a consumer. Instead, that stuff represents social connections, remembrance, and investment of labor. According to a certain set of modern sensibilities, these attachments could be considered benign. There are at least two groups of who would disagree: hardcore minimalists and certain early medieval nuns.

I’m wary of suggesting that tech-bubble beneficiary Graham Hill and the Merovingian Queen Radegund, to take an example of each, have all that much in common. But this is an instance in which the medieval past, however different, can help to illuminate the present. Both individuals organized their lives around the ideal of giving up property: minimalism in the parlance of the former, poverty (though not as we would understand it today) in that of the latter. In both instances, the renunciation of property also sits uneasily alongside their elite status, which I do not think is a coincidence. The comparison illuminates several features of the minimalist movement, including its formal similarities to early Christian ascesis and the incessant revival in the Middle Ages of “apostolic poverty.”



Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Venantius Fortunatus Reading His Poems to Radegund offers a dreamy depiction of life at the Convent of the Holy Cross. Though with Radegund’s connections to the Byzantine court, Venantius’s Italian training and bona fides, and perhaps an architectural plan borrowed from Jerusalem, it might be right to think of the convent as an international cultural hub.

Poverty—in the sense of the renouncing of legal ownership of money and moveable and immoveable goods, and not in the sense of lacking the resources to meet basic needs of survival—ebbed and flowed as an ideal throughout Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. The version which which I’m most familiar relates to the institutionalization of female monasticism in the cloister under an abbess and defined by a set of rules. In Gaul, bishops articulated this vision of monasticism in a haphazard and localized fashion through diverse church councils and monastic rules; it was enacted in practice through widespread royal and noble endowments of monasteries according to different religious preferences and through the administration of bishops who could be more or less interested in the extent to which nuns held to a cenobitic (communal, as opposed to hermetic) ideal.


One well-known example is the Convent of the Holy Cross at Poitiers, founded in the mid-sixth century by Radegund, a Merovingian queen. Radegund’s convent adopted the Regula ad virgines of Bishop Caesarius of Arles, written and revised throughout the early sixth century for a convent that he founded and that his sister headed. Caesarius wanted, above all, for the nuns and convent to be as removed as possible from the world around them. But independence was a difficult ideal to manufacture in practice, largely because of property. Individual nuns had to give up their own property in an effort to divest themselves of markers of difference from the other sisters and of all sorts of bonds of obligation with people outside the convent. Unfortunately, giving away property generated yet more obligations, and any given nun could also inherit property at any future date. All these claims also had to be given up. Once inside the convent, the nuns could not even have their own locked chest or cupboard; almost everything was shared. For Caesarius and those who followed his rule, any reveling in the material should be avoided. But materiality that anchors you in a particular social context is the most pernicious inhibitor of transcendence.

Because the vow of poverty was so important to theoretically pure visions of cloister, one nun could accuse another of—horribile dictu—owning something. In 589, some forty nuns fled the convent. According to the event’s chronicler, Gregory of Tours, the errant monastics denounced their miserable living conditions and the impious behavior of their abbess, Leubovera. Chrodieldis and Basina, the leaders of the revolt and members of the Merovingian royal family, struggled to get secular or religious authorities to address their legal complaints, so they gathered a group of armed men, occupied the nunnery estates, and eventually kidnapped the abbess.

An unbelievably protracted jurisdictional conflict ensued, but Chrodieldis finally got her day in court. There, her effort to show that the abbess had ruled unjustly centered almost entirely around various failures to adequately avoid owning things. Leubovera had misused monastery funds, she owned her own property, she had exchanged goods and done so in secret, and she had used silks and precious metals for purposes other than decorating the oratory. These charges, and others, all violated specific provisions of Caesarius’ Regula.

There is something particularly galling about this series of accusations. Chrodieldis was a princess; Leubovera is usually assumed not to have been especially high-born. A princess claimed that someone of lesser status failed to embody poverty well enough. And she did so in order to reorder, according to the hierarchy of secular society, a space where status was not supposed to matter, where it was even supposed to be a hindrance to holiness. It is difficult to avoid the impression that what matters here is knowing the rules of the game, rather than actual renunciation. At least one savvy nun could conceive of an accusation of ownership as a legal strategy that was, of course, ultimately a strategy for righting the social order. (Her argument failed, but only because she could not prove the facts of her case.)

The ability of elites to co-opt supposedly equalizing spaces or values and remake them in their own image is one of the disturbingly pernicious aspects of the renunciation of poverty. The most prolific minimalists today, those who receive New York Times and New York Magazine profiles, are male millionaires who have decided to downsize to seek happiness. Encouraging others to live in small spaces and make do with a limited amount of stuff does wonders for their personal brands. The wealthy who live a restrained lifestyle receive speaking fees, advertising revenue from traffic to their websites, and book deals as a result; those who inhabit small apartments or eschew accumulation out of need do not.

The comparison between early medieval monasticism and the current minimalist movement is not quite as strained as it looks, in particular because minimalism has all of the trappings of early Christianity. There is always a conversion narrative. It offers happiness, financial well-being, and relief from many ills of contemporary life, like feeling out of control. Calling yourself a minimalist denotes not just an aesthetic, but an enlightened cosmology that separates practitioners from others: there is more to life than the increasing accumulation of stuff. (The reader is usually allowed to define for her- or himself what the “more” is.) Like those of any good religion, the principles of minimalism are easily modulated according to class and gender. The magazine profiles of male Silicon Valley entrepreneur-minimalists are one corner of a vast landscape that also includes wildly popular “simple living” blogs primarily by and for young women with children, as well as more masculine-skewing personal finance communities centered around frugality and Financial Independence/Retire Early. “Minimalism Is for Everyone; Be More with Less.”

Minimalism’s similarity of form to early Christianity highlights some uncomfortable differences as well. Medieval monastics renounced property to seek perfection of self and community, but most minimalists comment only on the relationship between self and stuff. Minimalism offers no critique of systems that produce stuff, of how economies are organized, or of the social or environmental impact of consumption. These blinders lead to the very strange state of affairs that someone who owns several electronic devices, flies long distances on a weekly or monthly basis, and stays primarily in short-term domiciles is understood to consume less than someone with an apartment and a slightly larger wardrobe, which is complete nonsense by any normal metric of sustainability or impact. Minimalism claims much of its status because it offers special, countercultural insight. In comparison with early medieval monasticism, which attempted to build from the ground up systems that separated entire communities from the demands of the material world, minimalism’s exhortation to own less to feel better appears neither particularly well-thought nor all that radical.

Conference Report: “Nearness | Rift”

by guest contributor Jack Dragu

On 16 April, I had the pleasure of attending “Nearness | Rift: Art and Time in the Textiles of Medieval Britain,” a one-day symposium hosted by the University of Chicago’s art history department and organized by Ph.D. student Luke Fidler. Named after the image of the crumpled handkerchief famously invoked by Michael Serres to describe a topology “wherein disparate points unexpectedly fold onto and away from each other,” the symposium set itself against a sexier theoretical backdrop than one might suppose any conference on “medieval textiles” has any right to. Fidler, as he made plain in his introduction, aimed to start a conversation that engaged head-on with some of the key historiographical assumptions in the study of medieval art history. Throughout the day, one had the feeling that the scholars he had brought together were collectively attempting to carve out new ways of thinking with textiles as puzzling and ontologically unstable objects of labor and aesthesis, reminding us that our very notion of context (from the Latin contextus, meaning woven or entwined) is historiographically complex and unstable.

Fidler (University of Chicago, Art History) gives his opening remarks.  Photo courtesy Carly Boxer.

Fidler (University of Chicago, Art History) gives his opening remarks. Photo courtesy Carly Boxer.

The keynote lecture was given by Thomas E. A. Dale (Professor of Art History, UW Madison), whose paper, “Materiality, Metaphor and the Senses: Elite Textile Cultures of Medieval England in their Global Contexts,” considered opus anglicanum textiles as a site for exploring how the intimate and the global fold onto each other, as well as for the recent “sensory turn” in medieval art historical studies. Examples of opus anglicanum, such as the vestments of St. Cuthbert and the lavish cope of John of Thanet, serve both as prime examples of medieval English textiles’ globality (both in their wide circulation and reflection of elites’ exotic tastes for Eastern materials and ornament) and also of their “multi-sensorial desire.” While Meyer Schapiro saw in Reginald of Durham’s account of the inventio of St. Cuthbert a surprisingly modern sensibility in his purely aesthetic enjoyment of the saint’s vestments, Dale helpfully guided our attention away from Reginald’s connoisseurship to the aesthesis effected by the garments themselves that is given such vivid witness in Reginald’s account (the “completely undecayed” body still seems to somehow breathing, wrapped in luminous and beautifully detailed vestments that “crackle” when they are unfolded). Thanet’s cope is notable for both its pseudo-Kufic inscriptions and its image of Christ resting a hand on a T-O globe, indicating the importance of Christianity’s global character. Like St. Cuthbert’s vestments, its distinctive use of gold threads and taste for Orientalist exoticism points to the importance of globalism and multi-sensorial piety to opus anglicanum aesthetics.

Dale, as part of a move to consider the broader theological-aesthetic contexts for these objects, then considered the eschatological significance of veils and the metonymic action of “putting on Christ” entailed in the adorning of garments that shine forth with light. Dale’s talk concluded with a case study of sacral kingship analyzing the lavish robes worn by Richard II and his patron saint St. Edmund in the Wilton Diptych, which crystallizes these themes in a secular context. In his equal emphasis on the semiotic significance of the materials and sensoria of opus anglicanum as well as their global context, Dale raised important questions about the potentially widespread geographical genealogies of this class of textiles while also pointing to their ability to crystallize complex social and politico-theological relations and networks.

Following Dale, Valerie Garver (Associate Professor of History, Northern Illinois University) discussed “Garments as Means of Communication Between Anglo-Saxon England and the Carolingian World.” She followed Bernard L. Herman in attempting an “object-oriented approach” to history in her reading of the extensive body of letters left behind by Alcuin of York. Garver paid particular attention to Alcuin’s discussion of clothing in his letters to various Anglo-Saxon correspondents, warning them of Frankish excesses in dress. Garver’s talk, more reliant on texts than the others at the symposium, highlighted the usefulness of a historicism that assumes that objects produce texts, rather than the other way around, especially in the context of the early Middle Ages, a period often weighed down with historiographical problems for its relative dearth of surviving objects.

Christina Normore (Assistant Professor of Art History, Northwestern University) was next, and her “Linear Narrative, Liturgical Time, and the Bayeux Tapestry” confronted some sacred cows in the scholarship and teaching on the famous textile: namely, its secularity and the linearity of its narrative. Normore’s talk was primarily concerned with the history of the tapestry as an object. She began with an intriguing (and humorous) discussion of British school curricula that have students reenact and interpret the “feelings” of the tapestries’ “main characters.” Normally, “we medievalists” would like to assume that we’re above the teaching methods of grade schools, but Normore showed such methods to be symptomatic of a series of assumptions in Bayeux tapestry scholarship that ignore its materiality and liturgical settings. She suggested that the tapestry’s sheer length and weight lead to a persistent tendency, even need, to fragment, skim, and reduce its scale just to engage with the tapestry at all.

Normore’s talk was followed by a paper by Clare Jenson, a doctoral candidate in Art History at the University of Chicago, on her research on the wonderfully idiosyncratic writings and vestments of John Grandisson, Bishop of Exeter (d. 1369). Jenson discussed Grandisson’s exceptionally detailed writings on the role of vestments in the liturgy, revealing a personality with an exhaustively fastidious attention to detail, such as color coordination and the arrangement of the liturgy.In Jenson’s telling, Grandisson was a keen theorist of liturgy, cultivating a praxis that fastidiously considered liturgical actors individually as well as their “total effect” on the audience as a coordinated group..This praxis was derived not only from his study of theology, but also the examples of “great” bishops before him, such as Anselm. Remarkably, a considerable collection of objects and vestments survives that was created under his patronage and according to his liturgical preferences, allowing for a truly unique research opportunity questioning the relationship between Grandisson’s texts and the objects those texts theorized. Consistent with many other works of opus anglicanum, these vestments also delight in legible juxtapositions of international, exotic styles.

Nancy Feldman (Lecturer in Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) gave the final paper, entitled “Cultural Politics: The Term ‘Opus Anglicanum’ in Late Medieval England.” It was by far the most technical of the papers given, analyzing changes and variations in the threading techniques of English textiles, as well as the shift from a predominance of gold to silver threads in the textiles, which Victorian historians considered a degradation of the style. Feldman’s paper pointed to an essentially global character to the genre of opus anglicanum itself, a term that wasn’t coined until the late thirteenth century and was used most frequently in continental inventories, justifying historically a recent shift in scholarship away from nineteenth- and twentieth-century accounts that use the term to refer to a local phenomenon.

Overall, “Nearness | Rift” stimulated a fruitful discussion that made one feel in the presence of genuinely productive and fresh scholarly conversation. As Aden Kumler (Associate Professor of Art History, University of Chicago) noted in her closing remarks, the papers collectively raised questions and prompted conversations about fundamental and under-theorized issues in textile studies, including the study of technique and movement, forcing scholars to confront the fact that art history today still hasn’t found a way to really grapple with “the applied” as not just a functionalist but an aesthetic category. Kumler reminded us of the fact that textiles are, at their core, assemblage objects made from a stratified aggregation of labor practices and techniques that make them ontologically, topologically, and temporally unstable, leading her to ask the important question of whether or not it even makes sense to see textiles as a medium at all. At the end of the day, what made “Nearness | Rift” feel like success was that it asked more questions than it answered, opening up ambitious avenues for new research.

Jack Dragu is pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Chicago, where he studies late medieval literature and enjoys thinking about things like poetics, self-induced suffering, resistance to hegemonies, and superfluous historicism. He grew up in Los Angeles but has spent his adult life in the Midwest.

Chronology’s Forgotten Medieval Pioneers

by guest contributor Philipp Nothaft

According to a metaphor once popular among early modern scholars, chronology is one of the “two eyes of history” (the other being geography), which is an apt shorthand for expressing its tremendous utility in imposing order on the past and thereby facilitating its interpretation. Yet in spite of the undiminished importance chronology possesses for the study and teaching of history, latter-day historians tend to lose relatively little sleep over the accuracy of the years and dates they insert into their works. Assyriologists may continue to argue among themselves about variant Bronze Age chronologies, but for that happy majority focused on the development of civilization since the dawn of the first millennium BCE, errors in historical dating appear to be a local possibility rather than a global one. We may be wrong in attributing a Greek astrological papyrus or the foundation of a Roman military fortress to, say, the late second rather than the early third century of the common era, but even then we remain secure in the knowledge that the centuries themselves retain their accustomed place, containing as they do a fixed and familiar inventory of historical events. On the whole, it looks like the timeline is under our control.

Like so many amenities of modern life, this feeling of security is the hard-won result of a long process of trial and error, one that can be shown to have started a good deal earlier than commonly assumed. For the thirteenth-century Dominican philosopher Giles of Lessines, who turned to historical chronology in a pioneering Summa de temporibus (ca. 1260–64), the intervals of years between the major events of biblical and profane history were still a bewildering patchwork of individual puzzles, not all of which allowed for an easy solution. Problems were posed above all by the Old Testament, which in spite of its status as a divinely inspired, and hence exceptionally reliable, record of history since the world’s creation confronted Christian historians with a range of pitfalls. Even those who felt equipped to smooth out some of the contradictions encountered in the Bible’s chronological record still had to admit the existence of two discrepant versions: the Hebrew Masoretic text, represented to Latin Christians by St Jerome’s Vulgate translation, and the Greek Septuagint, which differed from the former in several numerical details. On Friar Giles’s count, the Greek translation added a total of 1374 to the Vulgate’s tally of years between Creation and Christ, which effectively double the nine different chronological readings he had been able to extract from the “Hebrew truth,” leaving him with a range of possibilities between 3967 and 5541 years. The margin of plausible intervals was mystifying and threatened to expose the scriptural exegete to the same sort of uncertainty that was encountered in profane chronicles and works of history, where scribal corruption, but also mendacity and ignorance on the part of authors, could mean that dates, years, or even centuries suddenly vanished or were retroactively inserted into the historical record.

In spite of such discouraging signals, Giles of Lessines believed that he had identified a class of sources that was worthy of his unreserved trust: works of astronomy, which linked observed phenomena such as eclipses of the sun and moon to particular dates in history, usually identified according to years of the reigns of ancient kings and emperors. Since these observations provided the raw material for astronomical theories, which in turn underpinned computational algorithms and the tables based on them, it was possible to assess their trustworthiness long after the event. Astronomical books, Giles wrote, “depend on years in the past being noted down with utmost certainty—otherwise the rules and principles they contain would not be dependable for the future” (Summa de temporibus, bk. 2, pt. 3, ch. 2). The predictive success of mathematical astronomy hence guaranteed the accuracy of the underlying chronological data, and vice versa. Friar Giles’s pièce de résistance in exploiting this insight were three lunar eclipses the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy had observed during the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian: more specifically in years 133, 134, and 136 CE. As a seasoned astronomical calculator, Giles was able to use the specific criteria of these eclipses (their time, magnitude, and location) to establish the interval between Ptolemy’s observations and the present. The exercise gave him an entering wedge into the chronology of the Roman Empire, which, among other benefits, made it possible to confirm—against certain medieval critics—that the Church’s practice of calculating the years of Christ’s birth from 1 CE rested on a sound historical basis.

Giles of Lessines was far from the only medieval author to experiment with astronomical techniques in an effort to put chronology on a sure footing. A prominent case is the English Franciscan friar Roger Bacon (ca. 1214–1292?), who had read Giles’s Summa de temporibus, and who was to use astronomical tables to establish the date when Jesus died on the cross. His result of 3 April 33 CE, though unorthodox at the time, continues to be viewed as plausible by many contemporary scholars. In the following century, the application of astronomy to history was pursued by authors such as the Swabian astronomer Heinrich Selder, who used Ptolemy’s eclipses to bring order into biblical, but also ancient Greek and Near Eastern, chronology. Others, like the Benedictine monk Walter Odington (Summa de etate mundi, 1308/16) and the Oxford astrologer John Ashenden (Summa iudicialis de accidentibus mundi, 1347/48), tried to tame the timeline by bringing in assumptions of an astrological, as opposed to just astronomical, nature. In Odington’s case, his efforts to extort the age of the world from a calculation based on 360-year planetary circles proved irreconcilable with biblical chronology, prompting him to boldly surmise that the numbers encountered in Scripture had to be read in an allegorical rather than a plain historical way—an idea that stands in striking contrast to the assumptions made by present-day Young Earth Creationists.

Seven centuries down the line, we possess sufficient hindsight to discern more or less exactly where authors such as Giles of Lessines and Walter Odington went wrong or, conversely, where their arguments produced results of lasting validity. More so than any particular date proposed in these medieval texts, what remains unchanged is the fundamental soundness of their insight that the predictive capacities of natural science can furnish historical chronology with the sort of security its conclusions would otherwise be lacking. To this day, astronomical phenomena, from comets and the positions of stars to the intervals revealed by ancient eclipses, remain absolutely essential to the basic grid of ancient dates displayed in our reference works. In addition, the range of possibilities has been greatly expanded by novel chronological tools such as stratigraphy, radiometric dating, dendrochronology, and the study of Greenland ice cores.

Owing to these methodological developments, our conventional chronology of the past three millennia rests on such a solid basis that twenty- and twenty-first century attempts to subvert it have been staged almost exclusively from the fringes of respectable scholarship. One of the few flavors of such chronology revisionism to have captivated a larger audience is Heribert Illig’s so-called phantom time hypothesis, which argues for the fictitious character of the period we usually refer to as the Early Middle Ages. If Illig is right, which is more than unlikely, the reign of Charles the Great and all the other persons and events historians of medieval Europe assign to the years 614–911 were no more than an invention, retroactively inserted into the historical record by a cabal of powerful men involving the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III (980–1002) and Pope Silvester II (999–1003).

Beyond the tiresome hermeneutics of suspicion and outright falsehoods that pervade the hypothesis propagated by Illig and his followers lies a valuable reminder to the effect that historians should, at least on occasion, try to assure themselves of the foundations on which their accepted narratives rest. In a sense, the revisionists are indeed correct in assuming that some of these foundations can be unearthed deep in the Middle Ages. Their actual shape, of course, looks very different from what they would have us believe.

C. Philipp E. Nothaft is a post-doctoral research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He is the author of “Walter Odington’s De etate mundi and the Pursuit of a Scientific Chronology in Medieval England,” which appears in the April 2016 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Sensual Charters

by contributing editor Jake Purcell

I share with JHI Blog editor John Raimo a buzzing affection for philology. On the one hand, it’s a tool I feel I need desperately, helping me to tease out how such fickle things as words might be clumped together into sentences. But philology is also a joy: Thinking philologically lets the historian play with words, and to watch others at play.

But it can be challenging, as a historian of institutions, to find ways also of being a philologist. For one, I feel my amateurism very keenly. I have read articles on the different sounds that people alive in Merovingian Gaul (France-ish, c. 450-751) might have meant when they wrote the letter “a;” I have learned my morphological and syntactical shifts from Late to Medieval Latin; I have devoured everything I can find by Roberta Frank; but is it ever enough? Lest reading continue to serve as a substitute for action, I want to strain some of these underdeveloped muscles of philological practice by looking for some of the sensuality in the medieval legal documents that I work with. In particular, what can focusing on the sensuous reveal about evidence, proof, and facts—about how governments sort information into units that are judged to be “false,” and so ineffectual, or “true,” and so actionable?

The sensual philology that I mean is Martin Foys‘, born of the now-expanding list of things that philology can do. Sensual philology sidles up next to New Philology’s earlier interest in the materiality of the text and urges a more ecumenical attention to the relationship between media, words, and bodies, and also the physical world of senses and silences beyond the visual, including non-linguistic systems of communication. Foys’ insights and methodologies don’t seem unique to the relationship between words and sensation, but the stakes of this intersection are uniquely high. Susan Kus, an archaeologist of Madagascar, has pointed out that semiotics is insufficient for understanding things like proverbs, which rely on routine physical experiences for context. The sensory is given meaning beyond the physical experience of the body, and words are embodied with content that is not just intellectual, but physical and affective.

It is easy to see how a reading attentive to the affective and sensory (especially non-visual senses) tenor of a text can be rewarding in passages like this one, from the medieval Welsh tales collectively called The Mabinogion:

His arms were round her neck, and they were sitting cheek to cheek, but what with the hounds straining at their leashes, and the edges of the shields banging together and the spear shafts rubbing together and the stamping and whinnying of the horses the emperor woke up.

Constellations of love-inflected sensory experiences, indeed. Outside of dreams, historians have found plenty of bodily and sensual experiences within and adjacent to medieval institutions. But in the legal documents that I work with on a daily basis? What is their sensuality?

Copyright Genevra Kornbluth. This charter, Archives National K 3 No. 18, is near-contemporaneous with the placitum I discuss. It was written for another Merovingian king, King Chilperic II, on or around March 5, 716. There are at least two things that are remarkable about this particular text. One is that its royal seal is still attached, after 1300 years. Another is that it is written on parchment, a sign of the document's relative youth. Papyrus, not parchment, was probably the Merovingian chancery's preferred substrate for legal documents until the end of the seventh century.

Copyright Genevra Kornbluth. This charter, Archives National K 3 No. 18, is near-contemporaneous with the placitum I discuss. It was written for another Merovingian king, King Chilperic II, on or around March 5, 716. There are at least two things that are remarkable about this particular text. One is that its royal seal is still attached, after 1300 years. Another is that it is written on parchment, a sign of the document’s relative youth. Papyrus, not parchment, was probably the Merovingian chancery’s preferred substrate for legal documents until the end of the seventh century.

Here is a near-translation of most of a Merovingian placitum (a formula-based, post facto record of a dispute resolution adjudication, but also the word refers to the adjudication process itself and also means pleasing or agreeable):

Theuderic, king of the Franks, to the noble men.

One day, we, in the name of God, were seated at our palace at Ponthion along with our retainers so that we could hear everyone’s cases and judge lawful legal proceedings. Representatives of the church of our special protector the blessed martyr Dionysus (where he rests bodily and where the saintly man Abbot Godobald is seen to preside) came to us here and spoke out against the noble man Ermente. They said against him that he had given some of his land called Boran- sur-Oise on the river Isère in the region around Chambli, which he came by for himself legally through his father Nordbert and his brother Gunthechar, both dead. to the venerable man the abbot Godobald for the church of the lord Dionysisus. He had given and confirmed the gift through a deed of sale, and he showed the document to those assembled for reading. When it was read, and while that Ermente was among those present, it was asked of him by our nobles if he had sold that land Boran-sur-Oise of his to that Abbot Godobald for the church of St. Denis, and if he had taken the purchase price for it. Ermente said to those present that he sold to the Abbot Gondobald for the church of his lord St. Denis that land of his in the aforesaid place Boran-sur-Oise in the recently mentioned Chabliois and asked it to be confirmed and received the purchase price according to his satisfaction, and had asked to confirm the sale. For that reason we together with our nobles agreed to decide that, as the noble man Cumrodobald, our count of the palace, testified how the case had been investigated and completed, we ordered that the aforementioned representatives of the venerable man the Abbot Godobald and of the church of his lord Dionysius for their part hold for all time, inviolably and with all rights that same property of Boran-sur-Oise in the abovewritten Chabliois…, with their charters having been looked over…

Many things are confusing about this document: Where is the conflict? Why is text that is standard for a deed of gift spliced onto the end of a judgment formula? I want to leave those aside to point out that, as a group, the Merovingian placita are very loud. People are always speaking, interrupting, claiming, stating, responding, agreeing, promising, asking, asserting, contradicting, professing, testifying, relating, determining, swearing, reading aloud, requesting, interrogating, ordering, declaring, and pledging. Because of all this noise, or maybe in spite of it, people were also doing a lot of hearing; the placita are peppered with curious assurances that this was the case, or that there were people around to hear all this noise.

The impulse to explain in detail seeing and hearing is symptomatic of a larger epistemological habit of Merovingian diplomas: their effort to convey precisely how information was sent and received, especially information related to critical pieces of evidence. Medieval legal writing loved rhetorical specificity (“that land of his in the aforesaid place Boran-sur-Oise in the recently mentioned Chabliois”), and that specificity could manifest itself at different levels, including over the course of the whole placitum. Someone claims that a charter exists, it is made to appear physically for the purpose of reading aloud, it has been read aloud, it contained such and such information. The information is heard, it is confirmed by an official, taken to another official, written in the document, then confirmed again. (This last part, of the process, notably absent from the placitum above, is often described in others, and also frequently confirmed by notes in a Merovingian shorthand made on the documents.)

Getting information from one charter to another apparently required an odd alchemy, one that created a tangible link between the ink of the words on the page of the charter mentioned in the placitum, the ears of the king and court who made and recorded the decision, and the ink of this new placitum itself. Knowledge here is embedded in sensory experiences as a kind of physical movement. Seeing, hearing, and reading drag pieces of data from out of the secret interiors of people and documents into the open (Merovingian law always happens publice), where their truth can be verified or denied. But the careful nestling of source of information against source of information doesn’t stop here, at the decision; it extends all the way to the scribe, who is, after all, the one to record it. The carefully described passing of information from document to group to official to scribe to confirmer glues all of this information together into a coherent, sure narrative.

So, what does this shifting of perspective do for the legal or institutional historian? Most pressingly, it shows that Merovingian legal writers had assumptions that were different from those of the modern legal tradition about how writing worked as a technology, about what the law could do, and about how legal institutions made and preserved facts. The Merovingian placita offer a good opportunity to think about these issues: The placitum is probably a Merovingian genre. developed and use by Merovingian legal writers to meet the needs of Merovingian institutions. The documents are not transcripts, but recollections structured by formulas designed to elicit specific kinds of information.

A more traditional approach to this essay would have asked about categories of and rules for evidence – the relative efficacy of testimony versus written documents, or the place of oath-taking and the ordeal. Looking at the physical world of the placita shows how unsatisfying a Merovingian scribe might have found those sharply drawn categories. Facts were facts not because they could be isolated and examined individually, but because they could maneuver so lithely among texts and between text and speech, they could be read, spoken, and heard.

Violence as Legal Argument in Eleventh-Century France

by guest contributor Matthew McHaffie

Eleventh-century France is often described as a feuding society, where social and cultural attitudes towards violence found their meanings in feud and vengeance. From tit-for-tat revenge killings, to conflicts between lords competing for resources, to violence against property, violent acts were all explicable within this cultural framework of feud.

Feud is, fortunately, no longer equated with disorder and outdated ideas of ‘feudal anarchy.’ Historians have demonstrated well the inherent limits upon feuding violence (the ‘peace in the feud’), and feud makes sense in the context of the broader political and social structures of the time. France during the eleventh century lacked centralized institutions or any attempt by a ‘State’ to monopolize the legitimate use of force. Instead it was these feuding practices that constituted the normal social approach to violence. But legal institutions did exist in this period, and explanations for the logic of social violence must take such institutions into account.

One way into the relationship between the violence of feud and medieval judicial institutions is through documents recording court cases and disputes. The region of Anjou, in northwestern France, provides more than 1,000 such records from the period c.1030 to c.1150. Angevin charters and notices (notitiae) were written by and preserved by ecclesiastical institutions and are justly famed for their unexpected narrative richness, a result of a revival of Latin culture combined with the appearance of novel legal situations as monastic communities came into ever-closer contact with an increasing range of laymen.

Let’s look at one case from the cartulary of Saint-Aubin d’Angers (Angers, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 829) in detail. In the early 1080s, Bouchard fitz Guérin and Eudes de Sermaise were summoned to the court of Roger de Montrevault in Jarzé – one of the decentralized seigneurial courts characterizing France of this period (cf. Bertrand de Broussillon, ed., Cartulaire de Saint-Aubin d’Angers [Angers, 1896-1903)], no. 270). Bouchard and Eudes entered woodland belonging the monks of Saint-Aubin, a prestigious Angevin monastic house, and chopped down two oak trees. They were confronted at the woodland by Adenor de Jarzé, who in the 1060s, along with her now late husband and son (also dead), had given this very woodland to the monastic community; during the ensuing scuffle, a number of Adenor’s men (homines), whom the widow had brought along to the woodland, were left either wounded or slain. In court, we are told that only Bouchard recognised his wrong (culpa), for which he was fined 30 solidi.

The Tower of Saint-Aubin is all that survives (in addition to part of the cloister, now part of the modern Préfecture de Maine-et-Loire) of the great Angevin abbey (© author)

The Tower of Saint-Aubin is all that survives (in addition to part of the cloister, now part of the modern Préfecture de Maine-et-Loire) of the great Angevin abbey (© author)

There is no doubt that violence was at issue in the case. The actions of the two men are violent – entering monastic land, chopping down trees, carting off wood, and, killing and wounding others. But, in drawing attention to the parti pris nature of monastic accounts of disputes whose authors were liable to misrepresent the actions of their lay adversaries, historians have interpreted violence like that committed by Bouchard and Eudes as feud. Violence against property also constituted a form of direct action – a means of symbolically expressing and making a claim, in this case of inheritance, upon property. We know that Bouchard (though not Eudes) had a proprietary claim upon this land: His father, Guérin, had held rights in the woodland in the 1060s, but was persuaded by the lord of Jarzé and his wife, Adenor, to relinquish his share.

Saint-Aubin’s charter scribe does not at all acknowledge this claim, however, and here the document becomes particularly interesting. The draftsman included in the account of the dispute a fictional speech ascribed to Adenor de Jarzé when she confronted Bouchard and Eudes at the woodland: ‘Do not violate the alms of Thibaud, my husband, and of myself and my son, for I shall have Lord Roger – your lord too! – hold a just judgment between you and the monks of Saint-Aubin as soon as he gets here. Indeed, it pertains to him to judge that which requires judgment.’ The speech contains two elements: an offer of settling the case in court, and an affirmation of the legitimacy of that court.

So, let’s take stock of what we have here: (i) a narrative silence on the substantive issue of the property dispute, namely Bouchard’s inheritance; (ii) a narrative emphasis on the ‘violent’ aspects of the dispute – especially violence against property; and (iii) a statement about the legitimacy of a seigneurial court to judge and provide legal redress. Might the three points be related? Almost certainly, and the interrelation between these three narrative points suggests the following interpretation. Bouchard sought to make a claim upon what he viewed as his inheritance, and did so through direct action; the monks, initially playing the role of defendants, cast themselves as the plaintiffs by isolating and emphasising the aspects of violence and wrongdoing in the case; and, this narrative strategy – or rather, this legal strategy – was designed to make sense within the framework of the court. The language of violence here seems to function as a legal fiction, but one with very real consequences in that it produced a judgment against Bouchard, defeating his proprietary claim.

Let’s draw out the broader significance of this for how historians have understood judicial notions of violence. Historians continue to emphasise two processes taking place in the twelfth century which supposedly brought about a transformation in how violence acquired legal meaning. First is the revival of categories and distinctions drawn from learned law – particularly the distinction between public/private, and criminal/civil. Second is the application of these concepts by royal governments keen to construct a superior, public jurisdiction, and begin the process of monopolizing the use of force. Such an explanation binds legal development – or rather, the development of legal thought and attitudes towards violence – almost exclusively to the State, and one feels the legacy of Max Weber here.

Now, Bouchard’s case complicates this model of the development of legal thought. Not only does it suggests that eleventh-century social and cultural approaches to violence cannot be explained solely in terms of feud, but neither can juridical conceptions of violence be explained solely in terms of the State. Not feud because explaining all social violence qua feud can only be half the story: regardless of whether Bouchard and Eudes felt their actions were just, the court patently viewed matters differently, implying alternative, non-feud meanings of violence. Likewise, not the state: the legal discourse of violence seems to derive its meaning from how contemporary courts – however decentralized and non state-like – understood it.

The determining factor here would be the dynamic of litigation itself: the searching out for advantageous forms of legal argument to aid one’s case. The monastic emphasis on violence was precisely that, a strategy, built on the distinction between proprietary questions and those centred on wrongdoing, and the implicit hierarchical relationship between these two substantive types of question where matters of violence seem to have held greater import in court. It is the seigneurial court which needs emphasis here as well: violence qua legal argument could only have had value if courts would accept the problem of violence as one meriting special treatment. Contrary to dominant views of eleventh-century France as a feuding society, Bouchard’s case suggests for us a much closer relationship between contemporary legal institutions and the meanings of violence.

Pursuing the implications of this relationship will provide an exciting avenue of research for the future, but here a couple of key questions emerge. One concerns the contribution made by seigneurial institutions – which remained the primary point of legal contact for most individuals in France to 1789 – to substantive categories of legal thought prior to the renaissance of learned law. A second question concerns the larger mechanics of what drives legal change, here centred on notions of violence. Juridical notions of violence have traditionally been explained in terms of crime and ‘public’ law. What the above case suggests is that the desire to avoid the proprietary questions of ‘private’ law is actually more important in giving juridical notions of violence shape. All this raises the possibility of multiple lines of legal development in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Legal thought branched out in myriad ways; some may have led to dead ends whereas others – like crime – would have long lives indeed. But what is most interesting is the attempt to uncover these hidden legal narratives, which make for a much more complex, but much richer legal history.

Matthew McHaffie completed his PhD in 2014 at the University of St Andrews. He is now a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at King’s College, London, and is currently preparing a monograph on seigneurial justice and the development of customary law in northwestern France, c.1000 to c.1200.

Moses Gaster: Folklore, ‘Medieval’ Judaism and Turn-of-the-Century Jewish Historiography

by guest contributor Yitzchak Schwartz

Historians have a very specific idea of how Jewish intellectuals understood their history at the turn of the twentieth century. Most see Jewish historiography of the period as centered around the German Wissenschaft des Judentums (roughly ‘Jewish studies’). Such prominent practitioners in this school as the philosophical historians Leopold Zunz, Abraham Geiger, Heinrich Graetz for instance saw the Judaism of their day as stuck in the rut of a medieval past characterized by suffering and superstition.  Many of them portrayed ancient Jewish history as pointing the way towards a reflowering of Jewish civilization in the modern period.  They imagined classical Jewish history as a time before medieval Jewish legalism, the proliferation of Jewish mysticism and the institution of legal and social barriers to Jewish participation in general society.

Moses Gaster in 1904

Moses Gaster in 1904

Moses Gaster (1856-1939), a Romanian-English Jewish intellectual, might serve as a model with whom we can broaden this narrative of Jewish historiography and explore alternative turn-of-the-century metanarratives of Jewish history. Gaster was both a popular and academic historian even as his work took place at the borders of academic scholarship of the period. Using the emerging discipline of folklore, his work trumpeted medieval Jewish life, legends and folklore as containing rich lessons for the Jews of his own day and as a valuable means of accessing Jewish folk culture.

Gaster was born in Bucharest in 1856 to a wealthy Romanian-Jewish Family of Austrian descent. He attended gymnasium while receiving a classical Jewish education from private tutors. Later, Gaster completed his first degree in Romania at the University of Bucharest and pursued a doctorate at Breslau, where he also studied under Zunz and Graetz at the Breslau Jewish Theological Seminary. Gustav Gröber, Gaster’s mentor at Breslau, was a philologist and pioneer of scientific comparative textual criticism in the service of philology. Gaster’s dissertation traced the history of the Romanian phenome k from its Slavic and Latin roots, incorporating folkloric materials as a means of discerning its development. During his time in Germany, he also began corresponding with Bogdan Petriceicu Hasdeu (as Măriuca Stanciu documents in a biographical essay on Gaster (82), the first scholar  to apply the structural and comparative methods of Jakob Grimm and Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl to Romanian folklore. Before completing his doctorate, Gaster began to publish in Hasdeu’s journal Trajan’s Column (Columna lui Traia), and began authoring studies on the structure of folktales along the lines of Hasdeu’s work in various Romanian and German-language publications.

Returning to Romania in 1882, Gaster took a position at the University of Bucharest. Applying Hasdeu’s methods, Gaster began to argue what would become a major theme of his work: the idea that Jewish folklore and legends as preserved in the Talmud constituted a lost link between Romanian legends and the literature and folklore of the classical world. (A convenient summary of his work on this topic appeared in an honorary volume published for his eightieth birthday, in an article by Bruno Schindler (21-23). In 1885, after he was exiled from Romania because of his proto-Zionist activities, Gaster settled in London and was appointed Hakham (Rabbi) of London’s Sephardic-Jewish community and Lecturer of Slavonic Literature at Oxford. In England, he encountered a very different field of folklore than he had known in Central Europe. There, folklore was less established a discipline, and was primarily the province of educated laypeople organized around the Folklore Society in London. In this atmosphere, Gaster became increasingly omnivorous in the source material he analyzed, and functioned increasingly independent of any established discipline, even folklore. He also began to focus more on Jewish subjects, which became the primary thrust of his research, writing on topics as diverse as Biblical archeology, the history of the Samaritans and Jewish mysticism. He heavily involved himself in the society, serving from 1907 to 1908 as its president and publishing extensively in its journal, which featured contributions from gentlemen scholars as well as academics working in other fields.

What unified Gaster’s work was an interest in the history and ways of life of ‘medieval’ Jewry, defined as the Jews of the post-Roman to modern periods. His scholarship was revolutionary in arguing for the importance of medieval Jewish texts and practices, and especially so in its retreatment of Jewish mysticism. His interest in folk practices as sources of value in and of themselves paralleled Central European nationalist folklore studies even as it comprised a new approach in the historical study of Judaism. Gaster’s revisionist narrative of medieval Judaism is perhaps best expressed in a public lecture delivered before the Jews’ College Literary Society shortly after his initial arrival in London in 1886. In it, he expressed the idea that medieval Judaism contained treasures for the Jews of his own day, and that “This youngest among the sciences… the science of Folk-Lore…” was the means to access this rich past. He begins with an explicit challenge of the Graetz-Zunzian picture of Jewish life in medieval times, one that also challenges its focus on elite levels of Jewish society:

When we look back at bygone times and try to picture the life of the Jews within the walls of the ghetto … we see only the gigantic towers lifting their heads to the sky above… whilst all beneath them is plunged into night and darkness…. Such is the picture presented our minds when we attempt to realize the life of the ghetto. Is this picture true? The science which endeavors to answer these and similar questions is a new one… The science of Folk-Lore…. Thanks to this science we now recognize as mere legends matters which we considered as facts for centuries, and, on the other hand, many a poetical fiction… is reinstated in its rights. We look with other eyes on the heaped up treasures of Jewish aggadah [the legends and ethical teachings of the Talmud]… Brought under this new light cast on them they glitter and gleam in a thousand colors.

Gaster’s disciplinary independence allowed him to open up new directions in the study of Judaism. His acknowledgement of the importance of mysticism in Jewish life and of the vitality of the Middle Ages presaged the revolution wrought by the scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem’s scholarship decades later. Likewise, the attention to Jewish Law as a historical source evinced in much of his work would only become mainstream in Jewish-historical scholarship after the work of Jacob Katz in the 1950s.  Taken as a whole, his work suggests some exciting new directions for the study of Jewish historiography.

Yitzchak Schwartz is a doctoral student in modern history and Jewish Studies at New York University. He studies the role of popular ideas in religious and intellectual movements and narratives of history. He can be reached at

Progressive Past, Conservative Present: Surpassing Art Historical Genres in a Late Medieval Book of Hours

by guest contributor Matthias Pfaller

The Tower of Babel, one of the images made for Henry VI. BL Add MS 18850, f. 17v (photo courtesy British Library)

The Tower of Babel, one of the images made for Henry VI. BL Add MS 18850, f. 17v (photo courtesy British Library)

The Bedford Book of Hours, illustrated by the most capable artists of Paris of the fifteenth century, is one of the most splendid of late-medieval illuminated manuscripts, and one of the most famous pieces in the British Library’s present collection. Commissioned some time between 1410 and 1415, in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War, it was intended for the French dauphin; this, at least, is what scholars guess from its lavish production. However, in 1423, the book switched sides: it was bought by the Duke of Bedford, the brother of English King Henry V, who married that same year. The newlyweds customized the almost-finished book, and had their portraits and emblems added on several folios.

In 1430, the book again received a new owner, the Bedfords’ nephew King Henry VI of England, who had just become old enough to be crowned king of France under the provisions of the Treaty of Troyes. Accordingly, the book of hours was adapted to the needs of the boy king and got new miniatures, emblems, and, curiously, two lines of descriptive text underneath the border decoration on almost every folio.

These captions have been passed over in almost every article and monograph on the Bedford Book of Hours. Scholars made attempts to date them and roughly reflected on their purpose, but left it at that. The real problem for me, however, is not the scarce material, but the description and proper classification of this feature. They do not belong to any established text genre like prayers, bible excerpts, or standardized exegesis. Nor are captions generally an inherent part of genres such as books of hours, apocalypses, moralized bibles, and psalters. There is a standardized categorization known as “extra-textual content,” where we find all kinds of text too idiosyncratic to be subsumed under general terms, like speech in banderoles, occasional subtitles, and scribbles. But as the basis of a detailed analysis of the captions, this seems not at all satisfying in accuracy and meaningfulness.

Since these captions—an elaborate program on almost 300 folios in a royal commission—can hardly be a side-product of some other decoration, the idea was to look for predecessors. Indeed, a descriptive one to three lines beside miniatures is actually quite a common feature in a range of books from the twelfth to the fifteenth century across Europe. Yet no classification in manuscript studies considers this element, which makes every description specific to the object in question, without the possibility of grouping the findings under common traits.

St. Luke. BL Add MS 18850, f. 20v (photo courtesy British Library)

St. Luke. BL Add MS 18850, f. 20v (photo courtesy British Library)

The usual detour in such instances is to connect the objects in question through a demonstrable influence, still keeping the texts separate. In this case, a corpus of English manuscripts from the thirteenth and fourteenth century with captions suggests an English tradition of descriptive subtitles. A group of apocalypses (Bodleian Oxford MS Auct. D. 4.17, Pierpont Morgan MS 524, Trinity Cambridge MS R. 16.2) dating from around 1255, as well as the Holkham Bible Picture Book from 1330 (BL Add MS 47682), and the Psalters of Peterborough (KBR MS 9961-62) and of Queen Mary (BL Royal 2 B VII) from around 1315, all feature captions in the same manner as in the Bedford Hours. The Psalters were made for the English royal family or came into their possession, which is why it is reasonable to assume later kings have known them. It is therefore possible that the Duke of Bedford may have chosen to have captions added in the French manuscript to remind the young king of his English roots (aside from the obvious descriptive factors of such text).

This theory ties together a small number of subtitled manuscripts, but does not solve the categorization problem of treating captions as random extra-textual content. Upon closer examination, the English manuscripts mentioned above — besides inhabiting traditional genres such as the apocalypse, bibles and psalters — all show links to the French genre of the moralized bible, which is itself a strict corpus of a few manuscripts from the thirteenth century onwards, created for the French royal family. When the first of these bibles came to the English court in 1250, it massively influenced local book production, so that the standard text of English apocalypses actually derives from the French moralized bible. In the Peterborough and Queen Mary psalters, too, the narrative of typological cycles was inspired by the French type. Most important, the pictorial program of the Bedford Book of Hours follows the same scheme. From there it is only a small step to suggest that the captions, added at least a decade after the painting of the miniatures, were intend to complete the moralized bible that the images had begun.

Seeing a moralized bible within a book of hours stretches the boundaries of classic genres in manuscript studies. Indeed, the format of the moralized bible in the Bedford Hours does not at all correspond to what a moralized bible usually looks like. However, the structure, content and purpose of both pictorial and caption program allow this association and, what is more, finally offer a possibility to describe captions of this particular sort as part of a genre which turns out to be more flexible than initially conceived. This allows features like captions to be integrated into our understanding of medieval book production, instead of being treated “extra-categorically.”

Matthias Pfaller received an MSc in Art History from Edinburgh University. From September, he will be a graduate intern at the Getty Museum.

Accessing the Secrets of Early Medieval Relic Labels

by guest contributor Jake Purcell

Sometime in the eighth century, a nun sat at her writing desk in the scriptorium of the monastery at Chelles and cut a small strip of parchment measuring about 90 by 15/22 millimeters. In a script recognizable as a hallmark of her institution, she recorded, perhaps a little hastily, the words “rel sci gennouefe,” that is, “relics of Saint Genovefa” (Chartae Latinae Antiquiores, ed. Atsma et al., Vol. 18, No. 669: XL). She or one of her sisters took the piece of parchment and attached it to a small sack containing, presumably, a piece of the body of the saint, or perhaps some piece of matter associated with her or her miracles. Whatever the relic’s source—likely a wealthy patron—when the label was finished, a nun brought the relic to a small chassis and deposited the relic inside, where it sat undisturbed among many similarly encased and identified relics until the next relic that arrived at the monastery needed to be added.

This eighth-century relic label for relics of Pope Marcellus comes from the large body of labels that survive from the Sens cathedral treasury. It features a decorated chrismon, or cross, at the beginning (not uncommon for a label), as well as a series of markings at the end that might be the scribe's monogram or a note in a bureaucratic shorthand system called Tironian notes. Both of these features make it look like a tiny legal document. ChLA Vol. 19 No. 682:LIII Image courtesy Genevra Kornbluth.

This eighth-century relic label for relics of Pope Marcellus comes from the large body of labels that survive from the Sens cathedral treasury. It features a decorated chrismon, or cross, at the beginning (not uncommon for a label), as well as a series of markings at the end that might be the scribe’s monogram or a note in a bureaucratic shorthand system called Tironian notes. Both of these features make it look like a tiny legal document.
ChLA Vol. 19 No. 682:LIII
Image courtesy Genevra Kornbluth.

Early medieval relic labels are tiny objects with short texts—often frustratingly so, I find. As historical sources, however, they punch well above their weight in dispelling some of the obscurity of the worlds that produced them. Relics were closely connected with specific geographies, either because individual saints (like Genovefa) were venerated at and patrons of particular institutions in particular locales (such as Paris, which she was said to protect), or because those relics were associated with events that took place in specific places, such as the river Jordan in the Holy Land. As a result, labels reveal a lot about the geographic horizons of an institution like Chelles, as well as how those horizons changed over time. It is not too surprising to find evidence of a Parisian connection to Chelles, since only about twenty kilometers separated the two sites. But there are also some seventy further labels from the seventh and eighth centuries, allowing scholars to construct something of a network. The relics that were at Chelles earliest, copied in scripts that can be dated to c. 700, almost all come from saints in Gaul (examples include Martial of Limoges or Cassian of Autun), with single examples from Italy (Pope Martin) and the Holy Land (the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus). Relic labels in scripts datable to the eighth century or the second half of the seventh century suggest slightly wider horizons for Chelles, as more relics from Rome and the Holy Land appear, as do multiple relics from Egypt and Byzantium (Michael McCormick, Origins of the European Economy, 308-314). This is only one of the shifts visible in the labels from Chelles, but it is enough to provide a sense, otherwise quite dim, of where else and to what degree the female monastery of Chelles was connected with its outside world.

In addition to situating a female monastery in an international network, relic labels also reveal something of the institutional culture of a female monastery. Part of this is the construction of a dramatis personae of the saints venerated by the nuns. Devotion to saints was a localized affair in Merovingian Gaul, based on the relics, patrons, and liturgical texts at a given institution. The list of saints is not a blandly generic comment on early medieval superstition, but a reflection of the religious life at Chelles specifically. In addition, these lists provide some sense of the annual rhythms of the liturgical year that regimented the lives of the women who lived at Chelles (Yitzhak Hen, Culture and Religion in Merovingian Gaul, 92-96). After Genovefa’s relics arrived at the nunnery, every year on January 3, those relics were placed on the altar, prayers to her were added to the mass, and a feast was held in her honor. The same was probably true for most or all of the saints whose relics were housed at the monastery, though the day on which the saint was venerated depended usually on the date on which the saint died, giving Chelles a fairly busy sanctoral cycle, honoring at least 48 saints.

Finally, the need for labels suggests a set of complicated semiotic and theological issues that surrounded relics in the early Middle Ages. Another label at Chelles proclaimed the contents of its sack to be “de barba sancti bonifatii,” “from the beard of Saint Boniface” (ChLA Vol. 18, No.669:XXIII). This label distinguished the contents of its silk container as unique hair: holy hair from a holy individual, and thus separated from the general category of “hair” (Julia M.H. Smith, “Portable Christianity: Relics in the Medieval West (c.700-1200),” Proceedings of the British Academy 181 (2012): 143-167). It was not enough that the venerator of a relic know that the matter was in some way holy, however—Late Antique and medieval writers were clear that relics of uncertain status or uncertain identity should not be venerated (however imperfectly that dictate might have been followed). The label thus also did the important work of indicating that this holy hair came from the holy beard of St. Boniface, distinguishing it from the several other holy beards housed at Chelles in the eighth century. To lose knowledge about the identities of objects housed in a nunnery was a terrible tragedy for an institution whose reason for being centered, at least in part, on those objects. This was a risk that the humble relic label could help to address.

Relic labels are useful for pulling back the curtain on the geographic and institutional worlds of Merovingian Gaul, but their production and use also offer a host of questions about the relationship between documentary practices, authenticity, and institutional knowledge-making. When the nun of Chelles wrote “rel sci gennouefe,” she was making an epistemological claim about the matter contained in that particular sack and an argument about the authenticity of the relic itself. Crafting a label established an institutional, intellectual, and social context for the relic. The labels themselves did not simply relate names, but gestured to stories about holy figures and sacred geographies, revealed the nuns’ engagement with the relic as a relic, and suggest a kind of bureaucratic processing of holy matter—not that there were official guidelines in eighth-century Francia—that gave the relic a confirmed home in the institutional church.

Jake Purcell is a Ph.D. student in Columbia University’s history department studying the institutional and legal history of early medieval Europe. He is interested in documents, legal or otherwise, and the institutions that produced them in Merovingian and Carolingian Francia.

Out of chaos, some sort of order: The International Congress on Medieval Studies at 50, May 14-17, 2015

by guest contributor Elizabeth Biggs

The International Congress on Medieval Studies held in Kalamazoo last week was immensely diverse, given its 3,000 attendees, but a good reflection of medievalists generally. It didn’t take itself particularly seriously, the alcohol flowed generously, and a good book or argument was warmly welcomed. It was the fiftieth birthday of the conference, as well as other major anniversaries such as 600 years since the Battle of Agincourt and 750 years since the first acknowledged Parliament.Agincourt Everyone was there to have a good time, hear excellent papers and meet old and new friends. Every evening ended with multiple wine receptions, often with an open bar, sponsored by publishers, universities or learned societies. The book exhibit was equally generous, with huge numbers of publishers, secondhand book dealers, and manuscript dealers swarmed by eager delegates. Perhaps the most popular session of all was that of the Pseudo Society on Saturday evening, when a lecture hall was filled to bursting with medievalists there to hear about how IKEA is a secret society where Viking survivors are hiding, among other papers that toyed with academic norms for laughs as well as making a serious point about the absurdities of being an academic.

Some speculations about the true nature of IKEA.

Some speculations about the true nature of IKEA.

Medieval history has certainly changed and grown in the last fifty years. The dizzying array of topics in medieval studies that were included in the thick program ranged from experimental archaeology using ballistics gel to gauge the effects of different arrows on different types of armor, to digital humanities efforts to edit texts online and the England’s Immigrants project database. None of these topics would have been conceivable at the first major conference at Kalamazoo in 1964, when the cost was just $5, and there were five parallel sessions in a two-day event rather than the current just under fifty parallel sessions across three and a half days. Even then, the conference was already self-consciously interdisciplinary. It featured theology, liturgy, philosophy, history, and English literature, although in separate disciplinary sessions. All of those themes were still present this year, even if they are now often couched in different language. Liturgy is as likely to be discussed in terms of space and ritual as in terms of the books used by nuns. The study of how other periods conceptualized the idea of the “medieval” has hearteningly become popular, and illuminates both our understanding of the term “medieval” and the later periods under consideration. Kalamazoo now also is doing useful work in thinking about the changing state of the profession in the age of adjunct teaching. There were sessions on being a medievalist in a small college where no one else does what you do, on the possibilities of alt-ac careers of all types, and on how best to teach medieval topics in diverse settings. All of this was an important reminder that being a scholar is wider than research, and that teaching and working outside the ivory tower are vital parts of medievalists’ experiences.

The sessions I ultimately chose to go to were all fascinating and made me think in new ways about the work I’m doing. The sheer size of the conference meant that I created, in effect, a mini-conference of late-medieval English history, with a side jaunt to medicine and canon law, to pick up some of the ways in which scholars are thinking about these issues. I went to a session on Magic and Medicine in which Kristen Geaman looked at a court case that I’ve been trying to write about for my own thesis, the 1441 treason and witchcraft trial of Eleanor Cobham, through the lens of medieval infertility treatments.

Humphrey and Eleanor Cobham.

Humphrey and Eleanor Cobham.

She argued that we should take Eleanor at her word that she wanted a child, and so she might well have commissioned magical activity. I’d never thought before that Eleanor might actually have done more than play around with horoscopes, and have always read the court records as politically motivated, given that Eleanor’s husband was the heir presumptive to the young Henry VI and his enemies were circling. I’m glad to be able to rethink those assumptions! Even very old forms of scholarship, such as prosopography, gained new life. Caroline Barron on the glovers of London or John McEwan’s work on the distribution of wealth in the city used older methods to assess new questions in social and economic history that often reflect the experiences of modern society: experiences of inequality, how to survive in a rapidly changing world, and how best to create supportive institutions that protected members’ careers and incomes.

The reason I could be there at all was thanks to a travel bursary from the Society of the White Hart, as I was speaking in their session on political power. I think they found my interdisciplinary paper—with its architectural study alongside chronicle evidence of politics in Richard II’s reign—different, but the comments and questions were unfailingly generous and helpful.

The restored St. Stephen's Cloisters, looking west to Westminster Hall, also part of Richard's repair work at the Palace.

The restored St. Stephen’s Cloisters, looking west to Westminster Hall, also part of Richard’s repair work at the Palace.

They left me heartened about the work that I do, looking outwards from an institution to the cultural and political world around it, rather than the general inward-looking run of institutional history. It is amazing how much it helps to know that I’m doing work that people from a range of fields think is interesting. Kalamazoo reminded me of the range of work medievalists do and the range of settings they do it in, from research universities to public engagement, to teaching colleges. It reminded me that my day job may well turn out to be outside academia entirely, but that I can still be a small part of a huge, sprawling conversation. I’ll hopefully be back next year, to drink more wine, meet more people, and continue to reflect on what it means to identify oneself as a medieval historian, whether teaching inside or outside a university.

Elizabeth Biggs is a Ph.D. student in History at the University of York. She is researching Stephen’s College, Westminster, from 1348 to 1548, as part of a larger AHRC-funded project on St Stephen’s Chapel from 1292 to the Blitz in 1941. Her work focuses on the people who worked at the college, donated money and lands to the college, or who knew it through its presence at the heart of the medieval Palace of Westminster. She can be reached on Twitter and via email.