Tag Archives: medieval history

2013 Book #10 – Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, by Mary Sharratt

Mar 30, 2013

Wow! What an interesting book! For several reasons. And how apropos of my Kindle to recommend it to me one day. You know how the sleep-mode front page of Kindles (at least my Kindle) advertises a book that presumably it thinks you might like? Well, for a change my Kindle was right.


Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen is pretty much exactly what the title says it is. It encompasses almost the entire life of the great 12th century nun and philosopher, Hildegard von Bingen. I’m always just a little surprised when people say to me “Hildegard von Who?”, because Hildegard was one of the most powerful and vibrant personalities of the High Middle Ages. Her writing on every subject from theology to metaphysics to herbalism is one of the reasons why the High Middle Ages was a time of such advancement and enlightenment.

So naturally I was curious when I saw that someone had made a novel of her life.

The most curious thing to me at first glance was that this novel is written in first person. I’ll admit, I’m not really a fan of first person. For me it doesn’t allow for the depth of analysis that you get when something is written in third person. But I’m sure other people would say that it makes them feel closer to the character and what they’re going through. I think that’s what Mary Sharratt is going for by writing in this style.

I knew that Hildegard had had visions from a very early age and that she entered the monastic life as an oblate, but I had no idea how … traumatic that entrance was. As this novel reveals, she was given to the church at age eight to serve as the noblewoman, Jutta von Sponheim’s, well, I guess both servant and pupil would be the right words. What I didn’t know was that the two young women (Jutta was 12 when they entered) were anchorites. What does that mean? It means that they were literally walled into a tiny cell with an even smaller courtyard that was part of the church. Walled in! For thirty years!

Can you imagine being walled into a church at age eight and kept there until you were thirty-nine? I’m dying to rush out and do the research to see just how accurate this is, but from what I understand, yeah, it’s accurate alright. And by all accounts Hildegard was an energetic, free-spirited child and young adult. Oh the crazy things they did in the Middle Ages!

I don’t want to spoil too much of Hildegard’s life as it unfolds in this novel, because I definitely think it’s worth a read. Needless to say, it was quite a life!

That being said, writing a novelized account of the life of a real person who lived 800+ years ago is a tricky thing. Hildegard was a prolific writer and left us a lot of her own words, but I kept finding myself wondering just how many liberties Mary Sharratt took in writing the book. The first half rang much more true – and was easier and more interesting to read – than the second half. By the time the story reached the point in Hildegard’s life where she founded the religious community at Bingen, the story started to lose me.

The danger of writing in first person, in my humble opinion, is that it can get too myopic. Throughout the second half of this book I felt as though it turned into a running commentary on Hildegard’s ongoing self-doubt and introspection. A little less talk and a little more action would have been in order. There was a great examination of the drama of Hildegard’s early days and the characters in the first half of the novel were so well-drawn. But by the second half I felt as though there was page after page of walk-on roles that never amounted to much.

I had no problem with the author’s portrayal of Hildegard as a proto-feminist. There’s enough evidence in her writings to suggest that she was. Where the story strayed into territory that made me cringe a little was in Hildegard’s relationship with her fellow nun and disciple, Richardis. Sure, the author made a point to have Hildegard explain that this was not Eros love but rather Caritas love, but I didn’t think as fine a point needed to be made of it. I got after a while that it was very much a mother/daughter relationship, especially with the age differences, but part of me felt as though somewhere in there was an appeal to modern sexual liberation that wasn’t in keeping with what I’ve read Hildegard actually believed.

However, major props to the secondary character of Volmar, the young priest who befriended eight-year-old new oblate Hildegard when he was no more than a boy himself and then stayed with her as one of her dearest friends to the end. I adored Volmar! I’d love to do some research on him to.

So yes, this is definitely worth a read. Especially if you love history and the Middle Ages as much as I do. I’d watch out for the slow bits in the middle, but once you get around them, I think you’ll enjoy it.

Next up, I begin my effort to read as many of the RITA award nominees as I can with a novel that’s set in Australia! Very handy for what I’m writing right now.

The Last Time A Pope Resigned

Feb 18, 2013

Thank you, modern world, for putting Medieval History back in the news last week! That’s two weeks in a row!

Wikicommons – attr: Fabio Pozzebom/ABr

Wikicommons – attr: Fabio Pozzebom/ABr

So for those who might have been living under a rock, a week ago Pope Benedict XVI announced that he was resigning from the papacy at the end of February. And across the world, everyone went “Huh? Can you do that?” The answer is, of course, yes. Yes you can. But the last time a pope resigned was in the year 1415, and that resignation happened under radically different circumstances.

Here is the story of how and why that last pope resigned in 1415.

First of all, the political and religious climate of the Middle Ages was very different than what it is today. The Medieval Church was as much a government and a political force as any kingdom. More so if you consider that it could reach across borders to issue orders and demand money. It didn’t matter what country you lived in, in the Middle Ages you answered to God first and foremost. And since God wasn’t there directly, you answered to his representatives, the clergy, the cardinals, and the Pope. So naturally the papacy and everyone and thing surrounding it had extraordinary power.

In the High Middle Ages the papacy was incredibly effective. Since the reforms of Charlemagne, the Church had risen to be arguably the most stabilizing factor in Europe. It was the Pope who had declared the original Crusades. His wars in the Holy Land were successful, profitable, and supported. Kings of nations rushed to serve as the Pope’s generals, kings of England, France, and various German states. The Church sometimes settled disputes between bickering nations. This was hardcore power we’re talking about here. Citizens of various nations may have had their problems with one another, but the Church was still considered the heart of the world.

So of course things got political in a hurry.

At the dawn of the 14th century, France was arguably the most powerful nation in Europe. I say arguably because France wasn’t really “France” yet. It was a bunch of affiliated kingdoms that happened to have a central monarchy. Northern France and Southern France didn’t get along particularly well. But Southern France and the Papacy were best buddies. What was more, the situation in Rome had become tense and uncomfortable, full of infighting and back-biting amongst the major Roman families with their close ties to the papacy. The Roman curia, the business end of the papacy, actually moved to Avignon in France to get away from the mess.

Avignon Papal Palace - Nice, eh?

Avignon Papal Palace – Nice, eh?

And then, with the election of Pope Clement V in 1305, the offices of the Pope decided not move back to Rome. Nope, they were happy to stay in Avignon, thank you very much. Because Clement V was French and didn’t see any need to enter the lion’s den of Rome and it’s politicking. But this was a huge problem. Rome was the Church and had been since the word go. To have a pope stick so blatantly to their kingdom of origin turned the whole faith into an expression of politics. The non-religious consequences of France being in charge of the one organization that spread through every kingdom in Europe was not something most other nations wanted to deal with.

So the Pope now resided in Southern France. And Southern France didn’t really get along with Northern France. The French government wasn’t immune to the meddling of the Pope. In fact, Philip IV of France was one of the biggest opponents of the earliest French Pope. But the meddling of these French Popes did produce a few good results. Organization was improved and Papal power strengthened. The Pope stayed in Avignon for 67 years, taking on a decidedly French flavor and irritating everyone.

Finally, in 1378, Pope Gregory XI decided it was time to pack up and move back to Rome. (And yes, I’ve just glossed over a heck of a lot of history) And everything was well and good and they all lived happily ever after, right?


Having moved back to Rome, Gregory XI promptly died. It was time to elect a new pope. So all the cardinals gathered together to choose a successor. They looked at each other and said, “Okay, whatever you do, DO NOT elect another French Pope!” So they elected and Italian who took on the name Urban VI. Which was all well and good … until Urban VI went a little bit kooky. He liked to order people around, not nicely either, and he was prone to bouts of temper. So much so that the council of cardinals that had elected him really, really regretted their decision.

So what did they do? They packed up, moved back to Avignon, and elected another pope, Clement VII.

There had been anti-popes before this, men who had been “elected” as pope by various rival factions within the Church. What made this particular split serious was that the same body of cardinals had elected both popes. You couldn’t discredit one of them without discrediting the other. And that’s what happened. Everyone knew having two popes was a serious problem and that one of them couldn’t possibly be the “real” Pope, but since no one was willing to back down and canon law didn’t cover the situation the Great Schism continued.

As you might imagine, France and its allies supported Clement VII and his successor in Avignon, while England, the Holy Roman Empire, Flanders, and Scandinavia supported Urban VI and his successors. And once again I’m going to gloss over a lot of history and skip to the end. Because what was the solution to this problem? To put together a council that negated the legitimacy of both popes and elect a new one. Except that neither the Avignon pope nor the Roman pope agreed to step down. So in essence a third pope was created. Three popes! Oy vey!

Pope Gregory XII

Pope Gregory XII

Well, everything was finally sorted out at the Council of Constance in 1414. The council managed to convince Pope Number Three to step down, which he did, and excommunicated the Avignon pope when he refused to step down. The Roman Pope, Gregory XII also resigned, but not before investing his power in the council to elect the next pope. They then elected a new Pope, Martin V, who everyone pretty much agreed on, except for a few Frenchies who were ignored at this point because everyone was too tired to deal with the issue anymore.

So that was it. Gregory XII resigned (under duress) in 1415 in order to end a gigantic mess. As far as we know at this point, Benedict XVI’s reasons for resigning are far more benign. Unfortunately for the Medieval Church, the Great Schism and Gregory XII’s resignation seriously damaged the Church’s authority in Europe. It may have even set the groundwork for the unrest and questioning that led to the Protestant revolution. It remains to be seen what the long-term effects of Benedict’s resignation will be.

Now That They Found Him, Who Was Richard III?

Feb 11, 2013

Last Monday, February 4th, medieval history made big news when the University of Leicester announced that remains that had been found buried under a car park in 2012 were, without a doubt, those of King Richard III. History nerds around the world rejoiced! Jokes abounded and internet memes went viral in celebration.

But who exactly was Richard III? If you found yourself muddling along, pretending you understood the significance of this discovery but really not having a clue, well, today’s your lucky day.

Richard III Hide n SeekRichard III was the last of the Yorkist kings of England and the last of the Plantagenet line. His death at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 represented not only the end of the War of the Roses, but is widely considered to be the end of the Middle Ages in England. He was succeeded by the man who defeated him, Henry VII, the first Tudor king and father to the great Henry VIII.

Okay, you say, but what made Richard III so important? Who was this man really? And why the heck did no one know where he was buried for over 500 years if he was the king of England when he died?

To understand that, you have to take a look at the War of the Roses and the tumult of the throne of England in the 1400s. So in the tiniest nutshell possible, leaving out great huge swaths of complicated history….

It all started in the 1300s with Edward III. Edward was a powerful king. Edward also had 13 legitimate children, including 5 sons. To satisfy them all as they came of age, he created the dukedoms of Cornwall, Clarence, Lancaster, York and Gloucester. These dukedoms and the men who claimed the titles became ridiculously powerful. Edward III was supposed to be succeeded by his son Edward, the Black Prince, but the Black Prince predeceased him. So when Edward III died the throne of England went to his grandson, Richard II, who was nine years old.

Nine year olds generally don’t make great monarchs. This was true for Richard II even when he grew up a little. It didn’t help that everyone that he named as his heir kept dying. Richard’s cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, son of Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt, who had been in exile, saw Richard II’s weakness and returned to England to claim his title of Duke of Lancaster. Henry had the support of the nobles and eventually deposed Richard II to become Henry IV.

You’ve probably heard of his son, Henry V. But similarly to Edward III, Henry V died suddenly, leaving a 9 month old Henry VI king. If you thought 9 year olds made bad kings, try being ruled by a 9 month old! To top that off, as he grew older it became apparent that Henry VI suffered from bouts of mental illness. So real control of the kingdom of England fell in and out of the hands of a series of ambitious dukes who called themselves protectors.

The Tudor Rose crest, which combines the red rose of the House of Lancaster and the white rose of the House of York

The Tudor Rose crest, which combines the red rose of the House of Lancaster and the white rose of the House of York

Henry VI’s branch of the family, thanks to his grandfather, Henry IV, was the Lancastrian branch of the Plantagenet family. The most powerful of the “protectors” of England during Henry VI’s bouts of mental illness was Richard, the Duke of York. Richard didn’t get along very well with Henry VI’s power-hungry queen, Margaret of Anjou, who was determined to see her line continue on the throne of England. By 1455, actual war had broken out between these two factions, the Lancastrians and the Yorkists.

Battles were fought. Blood was spilled on both sides. Mass amounts of history happened. Finally, Richard of York’s son, Edward, defeated Henry VI (and Margaret) and was crowned Edward IV. Which was all well and good until Henry VI won back the throne for a short time. But only a short time. Edward IV was able to regain the throne permanently.

In 1483 Edward IV died. And yep, once again England was left with a minor as king. Edward V was only 12 when he ascended the throne. Edward IV’s brother, Richard (hint, hint), son of the same Richard, Duke of York, who had been protector of the throne under Henry VI and helped Edward VI to come to the throne, very generously offered to take care of his brother’s children, young King Edward and his younger brother Richard.

And take care of them he did! Young Edward and Richard were moved into the Tower of London for safe keeping … and disappeared. To this day no one knows what exactly happened to them.

Poor Uncle Richard was devastated, of course. So devastated that he had himself crowned Richard III on June 26, 1483. Yes, folks, this is our Richard III of parking lot fame.

Richard III was so ruthless and vengeful that Machiavelli himself would have been proud. He deceived and murdered his way to the throne, and once he had it, all hell broke loose. As early as October of 1483 there was a rebellion by the supporters of Edward IV. Richard managed to put that one down.

In August 1485 there was another rebellion, led by Henry Tudor and his uncle, Jasper Tudor. Henry Tudor was a Lancastrian by descent, tracing his lineage back to John of Gaunt. Richard wasn’t so lucky this time. He met the forces of Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field. After declaring that he would give his kingdom for a horse (or so Shakespeare says), he was killed in action on August 22, 1485.

So why was he buried under a parking lot? And how come no one knew he was there?

Richard III died in disgrace, an unpopular, usurping monarch defeated by a rebel with a legitimate claim to the throne. Henry Tudor, Henry VII, was determined to bring an end to the civil war and stress of succession. He had Richard III buried quickly and without ceremony at a tiny monastic community of Greyfriars in Leicester. He then went on to marry Elizabeth of York, uniting the two warring houses.

A portion of the dig site where Richard III's remains were found - Wikicommons, attr RobinLeicester

A portion of the dig site where Richard III’s remains were found – Wikicommons, attr RobinLeicester

The monastery of Greyfriars was dissolved and demolished in 1530. Since no one had ever made a big deal about Richard III being buried there, the final resting place of the miserable monarch shifted to other uses and was eventually forgotten. There were records of where Richard III was buried, but the actual sight was lost to time. Until some intrepid archeologists went looking for it in 2012.

And voila! There he was! Thanks to radiocarbon dating, reconstructing what the face on the skull they found would have looked like and matching it to portraits of Richard III, and good old fashioned DNA analysis with modern descendants of Richard’s family, scientist and archeologists were able to identify the remains of the nasty king beyond a shadow of a doubt. And history nerds everywhere rejoiced!

Richard III’s remains are set to be interred at Leicester Cathedral at some point in 2104. I dunno though. Do you think a man who was so dastardly deserves to be buried with that kind of pomp and circumstance? Is 500 years enough to forgive a man for the crimes Richard committed?

The Evolution of Ships

Jan 21, 2013

For over a year and a half now I’ve been devoting my Monday blog posts to medieval history. It’s been great! But now that I’ve finished my medieval Noble Hearts series (for now) and am planning to move on to other things, I thought I’d open Mondays up to some other areas of history as well. So welcome to my segue post….

The series I am about to start could, I think, best be described as a series of Regency nautical adventures. I cut my romance reading teeth on pirate-based novels, and now I feel like I want to tread those waters again, no pun intended. But as much as I love the high seas (have you seen my blog post about Master and Commander?) there are things I don’t know. The technicalities of ships, for example. So as I transition from 12th century Derbyshire to the very early 19th century high seas, I thought we could trace the development of the ship from the Middle Ages to the age of Nelson. Here goes….

courtesy of Peter Lelliott

courtesy of Peter Lelliott

What’s the first thing you think of when you think “ships” and “Middle Ages” in the same sentence? Well, if you’re like me at all the answer is Viking longboats. Prior to 1000, these longboats would have been a familiar and terrifying sight along the coasts of England. They were the primary means of transporting Viking marauders from their Scandinavian homelands to England and the continent.

Viking longboats were single mast, open boats with high stem (front) and stern (back). They were somewhat simpler than the ancient Greek trireme. Like a trireme, a Viking Longboat was primarily oar-driven. Oarsmen would sit in two long rows on either side of the boat to propel it. The much older trireme was a bit more advanced in that it had more than one layer (they were too small to be called “decks”) of rowers. Triremes also had two masts and a slightly different keel. Keep that in mind for later developments.

The advantage of the longboat was that it was small and light enough to be picked up and carried over sandbars. But they weren’t as effective for distance. That’s where the cog came into play.

courtesy of Heinz-Josef Lücking

courtesy of Heinz-Josef Lücking

The cog was the great innovation shipping in the Middle Ages. Developed around the 12th century, these flat-bottomed ships had hulls that curved up with overlapping strakes. They were built of oak and also had a single mast with square sails. These ships were a little bigger, could hold a few more people, and could travel over longer distances. They had to travel longer distances because they were too big to carry over sandbars. Necessity was, as always, the mother of invention.

Another important development in cogs was their decks. These decks, called “castles” were added to the front and the back, the forecastle and the aftcastle or sterncastle. And if you know anything about much later ships you should start to recognize some terms here. Cogs were generally in use in northern waters, but there were Mediterranean variants, cochas, which owe part of their development to the evolution of the trireme.

The next great innovation, which was actually simultaneous to the cog, was a vessel called a hulk. Hulks were generally in use in the Baltic Sea and along rivers and coasts. They were not sea-going vessels, but they were key to Dutch trade. These boats were also flat-bottomed and curved upward at the stem and stern. Their use was important because it meant an expansion of trade. And once the people of Europe got a taste for trade with distant lands, the development of ships took on a new urgency.

courtesy of Wikicommons

courtesy of Wikicommons

It was the Portuguese who first developed the caravel in the 15th century. Caravels looked a lot more like the ships we think of when we think of the Age of Sail. They had one to three masts and could be rigged with either square sails or lateen (triangular) sails or both. The shallow keel design was developed in part by Henry the Navigator. Henry was interested in exploring the Atlantic and the shores of the North African coast. He needed a vessel that was faster, more agile, and easier to navigate to do it.

Guess what? You’ve heard of some famous caravels without even knowing it. Two famous ships, the Nina and the Pinta, were caravels. They may have been fast and maneuverable, but they didn’t have much room for men or cargo. The famous ship that completes the set, the Santa Maria, provided the next step forward in ship construction.

replica of the Santa Maria, courtesy of Wikicommons

replica of the Santa Maria, courtesy of Wikicommons

The Santa Maria was a vessel known as a carrack. The carrack was the single most important ship design that influenced the great ships of the Age of Sail. While keeping many of the same features of caravels, carracks were larger and capable of holding more men and cargo. They had three to four masts that carried square and lateen sails. They also had a rounded stern and more decks. These were ocean-going vessels. They could withstand heavy seas and long distances. Carracks made circumnavigation and trade with the orient possible.

They were also mighty handy as ships of war. Another example of a famous carrack was Henry VIII’s ship Mary Rose, which sank in battle but was raised and reconstructed in 1982 and has taught us a lot about the design. One all-important feature is that the hull was constructed with clinker planking, which means that the planks overlapped and fitted smoothly, making it possible to cut gun ports in the sides. Gun ports meant more than one deck of cannons was possible, which changed a ship from being a floating storage unit to being a fortress on the high seas.

The Mary Rose and other carracks had most of the elements of much later ships: multiple decks, forecastle and sterncastle, cabins for important crew members, and a galley. They were a far cry from the Viking longboats or the oar-driven triremes of the Greeks. In fact, the Age of Sail is said to begin with the Battle of Lepanto, when a coalition of Southern European Catholic countries known as the Holy League fought the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean. That was the last time oar power was used in battle. After that it was all sail all the time.

Next week we’ll take a look at where ships went from here. I’ll answer such pressing questions as “what’s a frigate?” (always loved that name) and “is it good or bad to be a third-rate ship-of-the-line?”

Medieval Monday – Everybody’s Favorite: Taxes

Jan 07, 2013

A yes.  There it was on Friday.  My paycheck, complete with our new tax rate.  A big chunk of change less than what I have been getting.  Yep, there are only two certainties in life: Death and Taxes.

But I don’t really feel the same soul-consuming ire about taxes that a lot of my fellow Americans are feeling right now.  For one, taxes have a purpose.  They support the common good.  For another, taxes in Europe are much higher than they are in America (and a lot of us would do well to remember that!).  But more than anything, taxes nowadays are a whole lot more reliable and accountable than they were in the Middle Ages.

Taxes were a given in the Middle Ages.  And no, people didn’t like them much.  A chunk of the Robin Hood legend is about rebellion over taxes.  Robin Hood had a good point.  Taxes in the Middle Ages were not consistent, they were not well-regulated, and in a lot of instances they just plain weren’t fair.

medieval coinMedieval taxes were a direct result of the feudal system.  A lord offered his protection and governance to his people in exchange for their military service and production.  Whether that was a king providing a military presence for his barons or an individual lord providing clothing and food and solving disputes in exchange for labor in his fields, the relationship was firmly understood and unbendable.

It was also a little unpredictable.  If, for example, a king wanted to raise an army to attack his neighbors one year, suddenly all of these “taxes” would go up.  Men would be pulled from their lives and thrust into armor and shuttled off to parts unknown, possibly never to return.  The lord would need to pay for his service, so he would demand more revenue from his serfs to pay for it.  The serfs would suddenly find themselves in a position of owing more and working harder without warning or recourse.  Kind of makes the $20 I was missing out of my paycheck look like a walk in the park.

But it wasn’t just the sudden need for revenue that hit medieval people in their wallets.  Every year peasants had to pay taxes to their lords.  There was an annual plow tax and a tax to use the lord’s mill.  Depending on where you were and when you lived, there were taxes that needed to be paid when people married and taxes to be paid when people died.  Not to mention the fact that a large percentage of the produce of the land that peasants cultivated went straight to their lord’s purse and not their own.

In a very real way, if you were a peasant in the Middle Ages, your king owned you.  Puts taxes in a new perspective, doesn’t it.

Of course, as with a lot of other things, the system was tweaked in the High Middle Ages.  It was an age of prosperity.  Economies throughout Europe were healthy and growing.  New lands were being reclaimed from the forests and marshes and settled.  More revenue!  The prosperity extended to everyone.  Gradually you ended up with a situation where the defining tax of the day was scutage.



Scutage was the cash tax that a vassal paid to their lord instead of providing labor.  It extended from wealthy peasants paying their lord instead of working their land for them to lords paying the king instead of bundling all of their sons off to fight bloody wars.  (Although there was still a heck of a lot of glory in warfare and plenty of nobles volunteering for the job)  Somebody at some point probably complained about scuttage.  Maybe the fees were getting too high or they didn’t like the causes it was going to support.  But the tax was a whole lot better than what happened when it disappeared.

In the fourteenth century, after the economy tanked, famine swept the land, and the Black Death decimated populations, labor was in greater demand than cash.  So lords all over the place tried to do away with scutage and to reinstate labor as payment of feudal dues.  Well, to make a long story short, it didn’t work.  Vassals weren’t having it.  Prices and wages were out of control.  Economies were turned inside-out.  And the Middle Ages ended.  It was a whole new world, done in by tax laws.

So what can we learn from this turbulent episode of the Middle Ages as we face our own taxes?  Well, for one, it’s not the end of the world to pay your government money.  No one likes to do it, but at least they aren’t marching into your house demanding you suit up and fight or go work in the fields 40% of the year.  In the modern world we have more of a say in how our taxes work because we can vote for people and laws that would change things.  And whether you agree with where it goes or not, our tax money does legitimately help our neighbors.  Even though rates may rise and fall, no country could suddenly impose a massive tax on its people that would leave them destitute, not without provoking a major revolution.

And so I sigh and shake my head at my paycheck and recalculate my budget, all the while thinking, “At least I don’t have to pay to use the plow.”