Think Piece

Workers’ Protests in the Wake of Pandemic: A Medievalist’s View

By Jenna Phillips

“Labor organizers at Amazon, its groceries subsidiary Whole Foods, Instacart and Target-owned Shipt have said they plan to walk out on May 1, a holiday commonly celebrated internationally as a day to honor workers. Their demands, while diverse, include an expansion of paid sick leave, access to personal protective equipment, better pay and enforcement of social distancing in the workplace.” —CBS News

Pro libertate! 
An end to serfdom. 
A ceiling on rents.
Redistribution of property of the great landholders.

This call for basic human liberties, affordable rent, and the possibility of property ownership for ordinary folk could nearly pass for a list of desiderata on a progressive stimulus measure in the year 2020. In actuality, it comprised the core demands of an insurgent peasantry who–in the year 1381, in the wake of the plague’s course through England–led a rebellion that came to be known as the “Peasants’ Revolt.” 

The plague first spread throughout western Europe in 1347. It returned to the British Isles in a second devastating cycle in 1360. As opposed to our own time of pandemic, when the mortality from SARS-CoV-2 hovers somewhere around 0.5% of those infected (depending greatly on age and gender), the bubonic and septicemic plague would eventually reduce the English population by more than half. Already by 1381, population decline had led to an unequal redistribution of wealth. Some of the lower and middling classes had the means to buy up vacated land, but the very wealthy swept up much, much more.    

Anxiety over wage-hikes, following the pandemic, had helped to enact the unpopular Statute of Laborers of 1351, according to which wages were to be fixed at pre-plague levels. The irony of this income stagnation, despite a depleted workforce, was evident to all. The statute was unevenly adhered to, though violators—workers found to be canvassing for competitive employment offers—could be punished by branding on the cheek, and forced into compulsory service,, as historian Judith Bennett has shown. All the while, taxes were being raised to fund foreign wars and the medieval equivalent of the military industrial complex— in this case, elite cavalry and the Hundred Years’ War with France. Taxes continued to be levied throughout the 1370s, and in 1380, the king’s new chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, assessed a poll tax on every man and woman over the age of fifteen. Only absolute paupers were exempted; everyone else was compelled to pay the same amount of three groats, however well or ill they could afford it. 

From this crucible of social tension and mounting outrage, several eloquent peasant organizers came forth. Eloquent, and literate. (Literacy, today, may seem less remarkable than it once was, while eloquence is an oral-rhetorical skill we longingly remember, dating from the pre-Twitter era). Their communication through letters (recorded by chroniclers of the events) and an acute concern over written documents emerged as one of the most extraordinary elements of the protests. One of the organizers was a defrocked priest (John Ball), others had names belonging to laborers (Jakke Milner, Jak Carter) some with an allegorical ring to them (Jak Trewman). They had wonderful slogans that captured the imaginations of the oppressed, “With right and with might. With skill and with will. Let might help right.” They wanted to chasten the super-wealthy who they felt were robbing the poor, “look that Hob the Robber be well chastised for the losing of your grace.” Even before taxes, the workers were already feeling the pinch of hard times, “the miller hath ground smal, smal, smal, the king’s son of heaven shall pay for all.” They considered that truth was on their side: “stand […] together in truth. and help truth. and truth shall help you.” The copying and circulation of letters among the rebels was itself a declaration that members of the laboring class could participate in the privileged documentary culture that was felt to be the exclusive territory of intellectual elites. An “insurgent literacy,” as Steven Justice, an historian of the revolt, has shown. 

The cost of rebellions, in terms of human life, tends to be high. In England, the first grievances were raised against local officials in Essex and Kent, the counties directly north and south of London. As the movement gained momentum, agents of the crown, their administrative documents, and archives were targeted as the instruments of power. When the rebels arrived in London, the authors of the poll tax, the Chancellor and Treasurer, were beheaded, and Wat Tyler, one leader of the insurgency was also killed. Large-scale violence seemed imminent. The fourteen-year-old king, Richard II, showed himself to be a consummate politician—in order to restore peace and send the rebels home, he agreed to all their demands, bestowing an illusory victory. Once the threat of mayhem in the city of London was over, every single concession was reneged upon, and vicious repression of the rebels followed. Most of the leaders of the protests were eventually executed, some in acts of gruesome exemplary justice, as was that of John Ball “being drawn, hanged, and beheaded before the king at St. Albans; and his body was quartered and sent to four cities of the kingdom.” (Thomas Walsingham, Chronicon Angliae). But the sentiment lingered, and sporadic unrest continued in parts of England in the following years. 

The events of these first decades following the appearance of the plague starkly reveal that profits and losses were borne unevenly across English society.  Taxation, rents, and wage manipulation ignited the peasants’ uprising, but what the rebels wanted was also dignity, freedom. Serfdom did eventually come to an end in England, though not solely due to the events of 1381 (it was not eradicated until the fifteenth century, and economic historians argue over the causes leading to its demise). The symbolic legacy left by the protests has had a long afterlife, and writers in every century since have retold the events in one way or another; in the twentieth century, it became a touchstone for Marxist and socialist movements.

On May 1, 2020 (the traditional festival of Spring, and, since the nineteenth century, a day marked as International Workers’ Day), laborers at some of the world’s most powerful companies walked out, protesting potentially deadly working conditions as the novel coronavirus takes hold in warehouses. “We all have one common goal which is to save the lives of workers and communities […] Amazon is a breeding ground [for this virus] which is spreading right now through multiple facilities,” said one of the organizers, Chris Smalls. A leaked internal memo from Amazon, obtained by Vice News last week, revealed their public relations strategy to label Smalls as “not smart, or articulate.” This was much the same attitude held by fourteenth-century officials toward rustic insurgents, who they wished to label as vulgar and illiterate. While their employers today take in record profits, protesters ask for personal protective gear, health care benefits, paid leave, hazard pay. These requests may seem mild in comparison to the supreme demand of the medieval insurgents—pro libertate, an end to serfdom. One commonality to be seen in these disparate crises is that that humane working conditions, and even human dignities, are easily pushed to the wayside when profits beckon, or as the fourteenth-century insurgents put it, “when covetousness is held wise.” 

Jenna Phillips holds an Andrew Mellon Foundation postdoctoral fellowship at the Huntington Library, and is at work on her book, Sound, Violence, and the Period Ear in Thirteenth Century France. She completed her PhD in medieval history from Princeton University in 2016. 

Think Piece

Prophetic Medicine in the Indian Yūnānī Tradition

by guest contributor Deborah Schlein

When Greek medical texts were transmitted and translated in the ʿAbbasid capital of Baghdad in the ninth and tenth centuries, they paved the way for original Arabic medical sources which built off Greek humoral theory (the four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile; in Arabic: dam, balgham, ṣafrāʾ, and sawdāʾ). The most famous of these sources is Ibn Sīnā’s (d. 1037) Qānūn, Latinized to Avicenna’s Canon. The Qānūn is often cited as the foundation of what became known as Yūnānī Ṭibb, or Greek medicine, hearkening back to its use of Greek humoral theory as the basis of aetiology, diagnosis, and treatment. With the movement and transmission of texts such as the Qānūn, the study and practice of Yūnānī Ṭibb flourished and adapted to new surroundings.

While Yūnānī medicine has a long history in the Islamic world, popular medicine also drew enthusiastically on other traditions. Practices included the use of amulets, local knowledge of flora and their medicinal properties, prayer, and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī, or Prophetic medicine. This last is characterized by the use of folk remedies, medical traditions cited in the Qur’an, and, most notably, the use of medical ḥadīth, or sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad, which were collected in book form.

Both al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī and Yūnānī Ṭibb had a large following in the Islamic world, and still do to this day. India is a perfect example of the staying power of these kinds of medicine. When Yūnānī arrived in South Asia, scholars and intellectuals fleeing the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century brought with them medical knowledge based on Arabic sources, beginning a medical tradition which would adapt and thrive from the period of the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1516) into the modern day. Knowledge of al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī also accompanied these scholars to India. Today, Yūnānī colleges are supported by the Indian government, and medical practice in the region is a mixture of the traditions that flourished there, including Yūnānī, Ayurveda, al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī, and allopathy (often called Western medicine).

Yet, too often, the medical traditions are discussed separately, without mention of the ways in which they influenced one another, particularly in regard to Yūnānī‘s adoption of treatments from al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī. Even a cursory glance at the sources, however, can tell a reader how these medical traditions interacted and shaped each other over the centuries. A study of Yūnānī manuscripts and their reception gives a clearer picture of that mix of Yūnānī Ṭibb and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī during such earlier periods as the Mughal empire, showing that the different bodies of knowledge in fact interacted.

One way to better understand the reception of these texts and the interactions of these medical traditions is to study the marginal notations in the premodern manuscripts. These notes are a window into the thoughts of the readers themselves: they refer to other medical sources, describe prescriptions the readers used and knew to be beneficial, and relate the realities of the medical traditions in practice. One single manuscript can have marginal notations with references to Galen, Ibn Sīnā, and the Prophet Muḥammad, all concerned, for example, with the best remedy for toothache. These notes, therefore, tell us a great deal about the usage and understanding of the text at hand.

The major medical encyclopedia of Najīb al-Dīn al-Samarqandī (d. 1222), al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt (The Causes and the Symptoms), and its attendant commentaries follow Yūnānī medical theory. Copies of both the commentaries and the original work number in the hundreds in the Indian manuscript collections, not far behind Ibn Sīnā’s Qānūn and its commentaries. Al-Samarqandī’s sources come from medical greats such as al-Rāzī (d. 925), al-Majūsī (d. 994), and, of course, Ibn Sīnā, but unlike the five-volume medical compendium that is the Qānūn, al-Samarqandī’s al-Asbāb wa al-ʿAlāmāt is a handbook of medical diagnoses and treatments that was meant for personal use, to be referred to and utilized in practice. Other medical scholars, such as Nafīs b. ʿIwad al-Kirmānī (flourished 1437) and Muḥammad Akbar Arzānī (flourished 1700) took up the text and wrote major commentaries on it, in Arabic and Persian respectively. I now turn to an Indian manuscript of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ [commentary of] al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt in an effort to shine light on the interactions of Yūnānī Ṭibb and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī.

Al-Kirmānī dedicated this Sharḥ to his patron, the Timurid ruler Ulugh Beg, in whose royal court he was a physician. Copies of the Sharḥ can be found all over India, and are even more common in the region than al-Samarqandī’s original text, upon which the commentary is based. The Raza Library in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh holds six manuscripts of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt, ranging in date from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries and covering the transition of power from the Mughals to the British Raj. One particular manuscript, No. 3999 (Raza Library, Acc. No. 4195 M), is an eighteenth-century copy of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ, and its margins are littered with explanations, prescriptions, and references to other medical sources, mostly in Arabic. While some notes offer quotes from Galen or Ibn Sīnā, others refer to the works of al-Samarqandī himself. What makes this manuscript important to the study of Yūnānī and Prophetic medicine’s interactions, however, are the many notations citing early Islamic and, in some cases, pre-Islamic medical advice.

The margins of fourteen folios exhibit references to the Prophet’s advice and actions in the realm of medical practice. These various ḥadīth are reported by a total of twelve different companions and members of the Prophet’s family, and they showcase Muḥammad’s own knowledge of the region’s flora and their medical benefits, as well as the traditional folk medicine of the Arabian peninsula. For example, the mid-point of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ advocates the use of medicaments to rid the body of excess fluid to relieve dhāt al-janb, or pleurisy, which is an inflammation of the tissue lining the lungs and the chest cavity. The marginal note on this page relates the report of Zayd b. Arqam, a companion of the Prophet, who says that Muḥammad named zayt (oil) and wars (memecylon tinctorium, a Yemenite dye-yielding plant) as treatment for pleurisy (MS. No. 3999, f. 166b). Similarly, while al-Kirmānī explains al-Samarqandī’s definition of kulf, or freckles, as localized changes of color in the face to shades of black or red, the ḥadīth states that Umm Salama, one of the wives of Muḥammad, related that the Prophet spoke of the use of wars (seemingly, a common medicament at the time) to coat the affected areas of the face in order to counteract these spots (MS. No. 3999, f. 336a). Here, these marginalia serve to underscore the accuracy of the lessons of the text’s author, but they also give more specificity to how the ailment should be treated.

One additional notation is worth noting because it predates Islam: it is attributed to Luqmān the Ḥakīm (literally, wise man), a pre-Islamic sage who is mentioned in the Qur’an. His treatments (Elaj-e-Lokmani, or “treatment of Lokman”) are still practiced today in an orally-transmitted medical tradition in Eastern India, particularly Bengal. Luqmān’s medical advice, like the ḥadīth of the Prophet, recalls the medicine practiced in Arabia at the time. The notation before the text begins prescribes a treatment using gharghara (a gargle) and julāb (julep, a fruit- or petal-infused drink) for problems originating in the stomach (f. 1a, MS 3999) and is written in Persian. The Arabic note following it describes the above treatment’s source, denoting Luqmān the Ḥakīm as its originator. This reference to a pre-Islamic sage’s medical advice brings to the fore the Arabian medicine upon which al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī is based. These references reveal the thoughts of the manuscript’s reader, and force the scholar to question the boxes to which these medical traditions have often been assigned.

It is clear that the early Arab medicine described by the Prophet, and practiced before and during his lifetime, was very much alive and influential throughout the time of Yūnānī medical manuscript production and study in India. The treatments explained in al-Kirmani’s Sharḥ must have reminded the reader of the Prophet’s own medical advice. He may have written these thoughts down as a memory aide, for future readers of the text, or to underscore the benefits of these remedies. Whatever the reasoning behind these notations, the margins of this particular Yūnānī manuscript show that there was an awareness of al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī in the study of Yūnānī Ṭibb, and the two were not at all mutually exclusive.

Deborah Schlein is a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. She is currently pursuing archival research in India with the support of a Fulbright-Nehru grant.

Think Piece

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.

Think Piece

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.

Intellectual history

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.

Think Piece

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.