Jean Duc de Berry's Book of Hours
The late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries in France are best remembered for the instability of plague, warfare and the madness of King Charles VI. But amidst this cultural upheaval, the royal Valois family also produced one of European history’s great patrons of art, whose sponsorship of the famed Limbourg brothers has left us two of the most lavish and “definitive” illuminated Gothic manuscripts to survive the centuries: the Belles Heures (New York, The Cloisters) and the Tres Riches Heures (Chantilly, Musee Conde). While these two manuscripts are the most famed medieval Books of Hours – an illuminated collection of texts, prayers and psalms, often with appropriate decorations, for Christian devotion – and have been repeatedly printed in facsimile editions, their patron was no less extraordinary himself.
Jean, Duc de Berry, was the third son of Jean II, called “the Good”, King of France (reigned 1350-1364), who is perhaps best known as the French monarch captured at the disastrous Battle of Poitiers. His namesake was born on November 30, 1340, in the Chateau de Vincennes, the younger brother of King Charles V (reigned 1364-1380) and Louis I Duc d’Anjou, and the older brother of Philippe le Hardi, Duc de Bourgogne. The duke’s nephews were the unfortunate, schizophrenic King Charles VI (reigned 1380-1422) and Louis, Duc d’Orleans.
His childhood was largely spent during the heated first phase of the Hundred Years War, and as a prince of the blood, Jean trained diligently in the discipline of arms. With his father’s defeat and capture at Poitiers, he and his brothers had ample opportunity to test those skills, and his gift of command, in the field. In 1360 he received the duchies of Berry and Auvergne from his father, recently ransomed back from England. The truce did not hold, and Jean was again in the field. In 1369 he recaptured Poitou from the invaders and it was bestowed to him as an additional fief by his brother Charles, now King Charles V. The duke married twice. The first was to Jeanne d’Armagnac and coincided with the receipt of his duchies in 1360. Jean outlived his wife, and he remarried in 1389 to Jeanne de Boulogne.
Although the Duc de Berry owned vast swathes of France his love of luxury exceeded even the wealth of his estates. A lover of beauty and great patron of artists he built sumptuous buildings, collected rare jewels and elaborate treasures, dressed richly and commissioned his famed illuminated books. But his urge to collect went beyond the famed jewels, tapestries and books in his collection. One of Jean’s most prized “collections” was his menagerie, which included camels, bears, ostriches, and at one point, a pair of lions. A number of these animals, such as the Pomeranians and the camels, appear in the Tres Riches Heures. He had a particular love of bears and swans, which he used as personal emblems, and his bears and their keeper followed the ducal court on all of his travel. The fierce creatures were said to “follow him like loyal hounds”.
The ducal court was constantly on the move, traveling between the seventeen palaces, townhouses and chateaus he owned throughout his estates, and within and around Paris. A number of these figure prominently as backdrops in the Tres Riches Heures. Favorite artisans and craftsmen became permanently attached to the court, and Jean was famed not only for their presence, but for the collegiality he shared with them. It was not uncommon for the duke to take a meal with a favorite goldsmith, or to engage in a debate of verse with one of his poets or musicians. In the Chronicles, Jean Froissart describes the duke as often deeply engrossed in brainstorming with his painter and master sculptor, Andre Beauneveu.
Yet this luxury came with its own price, for Jean was living in a time of constant upheaval at all social levels of the kingdom. The political turbulence in France, first during his royal father’s capture, and later, during his nephew, Charles VI’s, deteriorating sanity meant that the great dukes found their already vast powers greatly expanded as the management of the kingdom fractured. Although having proven his skill at arms, Jean was a conciliator by nature, and during his nephew’s monarchy, he focused his efforts on trying to achieve a meaningful peace with the English and ending the ongoing feud between the duchies of Burgundy and Orleans, which had destabilized the kingdom as surely as had the English conquests. As if these peace embassies were not enough, the duke also tried his own hand at ending the Great Schism of the Papacy, in which he proved just as ineffective as every other prince and cardidnal.
But it was the feud between the French great houses that would mark the final years of the Duc de Berry’s life. Louis d’Orleans was murdered in 1407, leaving his rival in Burgundy unchecked. Jean had no choice but to commit himself politically to counter the Burgundians. His rank and prestige made him the titular head of the anti-Burgundian “Armignacs.”
Unfortunately, while Duc Jean may have seen himself as defending the crown and the Isle de France, the Armignacs were hated by the Parisians, and in 1411 a mob ransacked first his Paris residence, and then his country estate, Chateau de Bicetre, on the outskirts of the city. By the following year, the Burgundians had driven through his estates and had him besieged in Bourges, his capital. The siege progressed badly for Berry and he took refuge in the cloister of Notre-Dame to negotiate a truce with his Burgundian cousin.
Burgundy had eliminated one rival and brought the other to heel, but the larger effect was to leave the French lords even more factitious than normal, just as the young Henry V of England prepared to invade the continent. Duc Jean was still restoring his holdings when the Harfleur campaign began, ending in the stunning French disaster at Agincourt in 1415. The Duke died shortly thereafter, on June 15, 1416, in the Hotel de Nesle, contemporaries ascribing his sudden decline and death to a heart broken by years of internal feuding and the fateful blow dealt by the fall of French chivalry to death or capture at Agincourt, including his grandsons, Charles d’Orleans and the Comte d’Eu.
January’s theme is Twelfth Night; the Medieval holiday for the giving of gifts, and a holiday in which the good Duke was famous for displaying his largesse.
In the Limborge’s miniature, the Duke sits at his table, surrounded by friend and courtiers. Although we do not have a recognizable “setting” for the painting, as we have seen in the various outdoor images, the red silk canopy above the fireplace proudly displays golden fluers-de-lys on a cerulean field, surrounded by cygnets: Jean de Berry’s heraldry and one of his badges. Thus, we can read the scene as simply being “the Duke’s court”; whichever of his palaces, lodges or town-houses he might be at that day. Behind him the blaze of a large fire in the monumental fireplace is guarded by a wickerwork screen. The cygnet badge and the recurring themes of bears and swans found in the various Books of Hours have a secondary meaning as a symbol of Jean de Berry’s love for the Lady Ursine (from: ours – “bear” and cygne – swan).
At the center of the image is a feast table at which the Duke himself sits, wrapped in a voluminous blue, damascened robe or houppelande. His courtiers wear equally rich, although somewhat shorter, angle-sleeved houppelandes, many worn over what appears to be a high collared, bag-sleeved cotte or doublet, such as those of the two figures at the far left end of the table. Behind the Duke stand two young men whose dress suggest figures from the scenes of spring. One of them, wearing a hat trimmed n rich fur, casually leans on the back of the Duke’s chair, suggesting a close member of his retinue, or perhaps one of his sons. Before the table, two richly dressed squires serve as the Duke’s carver and cupbearer, their heads bare, whereas the older, statelier figures of the court wear hats or elaborate chaperones. It is also interesting to contrast that, throughout the Heures, young knights and squires are often shown with broad purses and bullock daggers suspended from thin belts, whereas the greater lords carry none. All the attendees to the feast appear to be wearing hose, some with ankle boots and some with tall boots.
Behind the Duke several figures are seen entering and stretching their hands toward the fire in the central hearth. In the background hang tapestries depicting knights emerging from a fortified castle to confront the enemy, in what is believed by scholars to represent the Trojans sallying out against the Greeks. Finally, Jean de Berry’s love of hounds is again represented by a faithful white dog in the lower right, successfully begging food from a courtier.
The Limbourg brothers were regular guests at the Duke’s Twelfth Night court, and some of their gifts to their patron have been recorded. This makes familiarity with the court may be reflected in the careful rendering of the faces of the figures, all of whom likely represent real courtiers. For example, on the Duke’s right sits an aging prelate with sparse white hair and a purple coat. This is likely his close friend, Martin Gouge, Bishop of Chartres, who shared the Duke’s love of beautiful books. Over the bishop‘s right shoulder, and somewhat behind is a man with an angular face, wearing a white cap folded over on ear. Scholars now believe this to be a self-portrait of Paul de Limbourg himself, which seems all the more credible since the same coifed head reappears in two other books of hours by the Limbourgs: the Petites heures (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) and the Belles heures (The Cloisters, New York). Even the damask tablecloth and gold saltcellar in the shape of a ship are drawn from life, and appear in the surviving household inventories.
February is often the harshest month of the year, and the Limbourges capture all the chill of a snowy, wintry day, from the pale, faded sky to the snow covered hills.
In the foreground is filled with the depiction of farm, not of the villeins, but of well-to-do peasants: the dovecote, sheepfold, carts and wagons, a wattled enclosure or pantry and the farm house itself. Within the house two peasants have stripped off their braies and warm their naked legs and loins by the fire, wearing little more than simple boots, stockings and tunics. By contrast, the presumed mistress of the house warms her ankles, while remaining modestly dressed in both under dress and a simple, blue back-laced gown, the ubiquitous woman’s garment of the period. As the peasants warm themselves, their linens hang from rods, no doubt to dry from the trudging through the snow.
Near the farm is a young wood-cutter, no doubt warmed by his labors, as he wears little more than a tunic , chausses and braies; his chauses rolled down about their garters. By contrast, another figure, likely man, hustles home, clutching a wool coat over his head and shoulders to keep warm. Finally, in the background, a peasant sets out from the farm toward town, driving a heavily laden donkey.
The severity of winter in a world without central heating permeates the image, from the shuddering figures to the hungry birds scratching for scraps near the house, which the snow makes it impossible to find elsewhere.
March – The First Plantings at the Chateau de Lusignan
The month of March is the first of the great landscapes favored depicted by the Limbourgs in the Très Riches Heures. In careful, crisp detail, the brothers depict the year’s first farm work, a simple scene of plowing set against the grandeur of the Chateau de Lusignan, the home of the fairy queen Mélusine.
The landscape is cut into several sub-scenes, each dedicated to a different sub-plot of land, separated by winding, rural paths, united at a small milestone that resembles one on a subsequent page representing the Meeting of the Magi (folio 51v).
In the background we see a shepherd and his dog, peasants at work in the vineyards and a small, country house. But the scene is dominated by a white-bearded peasant wearing a surcoat over a blue tunic how slowly drives pair of oxen as he guides his plow through the fields. The two oxen are differently colored; the fine reddish hide of the near one stands out in relief against the other, black, animal. The detail is exquisite: the newly tilled earth is covered with faded winter grass, churning it into furrows.
These rustic scenes are dominated by the powerful Château de Lusignan, above which hovers the fairy Mélusine, protectress of the château, who was said to transform into a dragon every Saturday. Each of the the château’s towers can clearly be seen: the Tour Mélusine, the Tour Poitevine below the fairy, the Tour de L’Horloge, and the Barbacane. Lusignan was one of the Duc de Berry’s favorite residences; and the Limbourges depiction of the Tour Mélusine shows the addition of high windows and arched gables he made to the royal quarters.
A quiet scene that is at once both homey and majestic.
In April we see the earth renewed, as the Limbourges bring their entire palette to bear to show the restored grasses, blooming trees and flowing river; although their greatest colors will be reserved for the noble company we join in medias res.
The scene is at Dourdan, improved and fortified by the Duke after he took control of it in 1400. In the scene we see little more than the towers and dungeon of the chateau; ironically, the same pieces of masonry that stand as quiet ruins to this day. Beyond the chateau flows the Orge River, and on its far bank is the village of Dourdan itself. But it is the nobles in the foreground who dominate the scene. Dressed in both a simple, fitted gown and a houppelande, two maidens pick violets, shrouded in the trains and sleeves of their dresses. As the girls amuse themselves, an equally happy, but more serious event transpires, as a young man gifts a woman with a betrothal ring as an older couple – presumably her parents – look on. As the fiance searches the face of his betrothed she extends her finger and lowers her eyes. Her mother is visibly moved, and in recognition of the timelessness of “Daddy’s little girl” the father turns to look affectionately at his daughter.
All four of the nobles are dressed in magnificent houppelandes, chaperones other fabulous fifteenth century hats. The fiancee’s pale blue stands out against the mother’s black, while the future groom wears princely apparel strewn with golden crowns.
Scholars believe that this month represents a real event. In April, 1410, at the time the illustrations for the Très Riches Heures were begun, the Duc de Berry’s eleven-year-old granddaughter, Bonne, daughter of Bonne de Berry and the Comte Bernard d’Armagnac, became engaged to Charles d’Orleans, who was then sixteen. An agreement was reached at Gien and the wedding was celebrated four months later at Riom. As the Duke had just put Dourdan at the disposal of his future grandson, it is believed that this is where the future couple may have met to exchange pledges.
Whereas the May illustration of Les Tres Riches Houres showed us Princes of the Blood riding in the annual “May Jaunt” descending from pagan fertility traditions, June shows that fertility coming to fruition: harvest time. The summer harvest is the provenance of the common man, and the June illumination shows us peasants laboring to mow the fields. In the foreground, two women rake and stack hay. Both wear simple, half-sleeved gowns , one lacing in the front, the other presumably in the back. They have left off their lower sleeve, if ever they were wearing one, revealing the simple white linen of their chemise. The woman on the left wears a turban-style headwrap, that would become particular popular with common women in the 15th century (which could be a rectangular veil wrapped around the head), while her companion wears the older, more common oval veil. Both women are barefoot and barelegged, not wishing to ruin their shoes or hose in the muddy fields.
Behind them, in the midground of the painting, three men mow the field with scythes, wearing little more than simple tunics or linen undershirts, shorter versions of braies and straw hats to protect their heads from the sun. The freshly mown area stands out brightly against the untouched grass, and the already fading shocked hay is still different in color.
The background of this pastoral scene are the walls and gables of Paris itself; in fact, the same buildings whose roofs were represented in the month of May: the corner pavilion, the Conciergerie towers, the Tour de I’Horloge, the double nave of the Grand Salle, the Tour Montgomery, and the Sainte-Chapelle in all its refined splendor. The city walls at the left open into a river gate that seems almost more like a castle door, allowing boats to slip out of the city on the currents of the Seine.
So that’s a window into life in the month of June from a medieval man’s point of view. Stay tuned next month for the July installment of our medieval calendar.
July is the month of harvest and sheep shearing. The Limbourg brothers have depicted July of 1412 outside the Chateau du Clain in Poitiers, one of the Duc de Berry’s many homes, long since lost. A wooden footbridge crosses the Clain River, passing through a free-standing gate house and stops short of the castle. A draw bridge from keep is lowered, joining the bridge and allowing entrance to the castle wall near the right-hand tower. Although the chateau is lost, the three stonework piers that brace the bridge still stand in the riverbed today. at one end a moveable bridge leads to a rectangular entrance tower, and at the other a drawbridge is attached to the chateau.
We glimpse a chapel to the right of the chateau amid buildings separated from it by an arm of the river. The towers are constructed in the style favored by the Duke and evident in his various chateaus: corbelled with machicolations and crenatures, and decorated in the interior courtyard with high windows.
In the foreground, a man and woman each hold a sheep across their knee as they cut their wool with a pair of hand shears; the wool gathers at their feet. The woman wears a simple, blue gown which could be a kirtle or a more structured laced gown with lighter colored half-sleeves and an interesting, black hood. The man wears a long, wide-sleeved tunic over a simpler, blue under tunic and a shapeless, black hat.
Beyond the shearers, two peasants reap golden wheat with hand-sickles. One, closely resembling a harvester in the month of June, wears a straw hat and a simple shirt [link] under which appear his short, closely fitted braies or petits draps, of a style more usually associated with the mid-15th century. His fellow reaper wears a tunic much like the sheep-shearer, but has rolled his sleeves up and his chausses down to combat the heat.
August: the Month of Sun and Summer Retreat
For August, the Limbourg brothers return to the nobility, whom we last saw enjoying the “May Jaunt”. This time, the setting is at Etampes which belonged to the Duc de Berry, but which he often gave use of to Charles d’Orleans. The Chateau d’Etampes was one of the Duc’s favorite retreats, and the artists have painted it so that it dominates the center of the background with its tile-covered gables, round towers, and spectacular, twelfth-century square keep, the Tour Guinette, whose corner towers still stand today.
Through the foreground a party of beautifully dressed aristocrats rides a-hawking. They are led by a richly dressed horseman, wearing a sumptuous houppelande and a white hood or chaperone. Beside him ride two couples. The man in the first wears a similar gown and straw hat with a broad, curved brim, and closely fitted, white chauses or joined hose; his feminine companion sits behind him on his mount wearing a fitted, red and dark gray, back-laced gown, with a broad neckline and a long underdress or kirtle, whose train flows over the horse’s rump. The second couple is engaged in an animated, perhaps flirtatious, conversation. The nobleman wears a parti-colored gown that is less sumptuous than those worn by his fellows and is more reminiscent of those worn in the two decades preceding the Tres Riches Houres. Conversely, his lovely companion’s pink houppelande is the height of 15th century fashion: high-collared, very full and belted beneath the breasts with a broad-girdle.
The entire hunting party is led by a falconer holding two birds on his left fist and dragging a long pole behind him. The huntsman is dressed much like the sheep-shearer and reaper we saw in July; a long, dagged tunic, whose sleeves have been rolled up, just as his party-colored chausses have been rolled down to escape the August humidity. He is the one member of the party depicted wearing ankle boots.
Also referring back to July, the background depicts peasants binding newly mown sheaves of wheat and loading them onto a cart. Meanwhile, some of their fellows have stripped off their clothes and have slipped into the waters of the Juine.
|September in the Tres Riches Hours
The summer months come to an end in the Tres Riches Houres with a depiction of the grave harvest. The setting is the magnificent Château de Saumur, near Angers, which belonged to the Duc de Berry’s nephew, Duc Louis II d’Anjou. While its towers and battlements still stand today, in 1412 construction had only ended about a decade earlier, so the castle is depicted here as it was in its summer: tall, imposing towers with buttresses, crenelations, slate tiled roofs and golden, fleurs-de-lys weather vanes.
This month, the Tres Riches Houres shows us a scene of country life outside the walls of Paris, specifically from the vicinity of the Hotel de Nesle, the Duc de Berry’s residence within the city.
For the image of October, the Limborge brothers depict the imposing towers of the Louvre, built by the Duc de Berry’s brother, King Charles V, as seen from the windows of the Duke’s hotel. In the middle the imposing dungeon built by Philippe Auguste. This dungeon, commonly called the Tour du Louvre, symbolized the power of the crown: from here the king granted appanages were granted and the royal treasure was housed. Only three of the great corner towers can be seen, each with its own poetic name: to the left is the Tour de la Grande Chapelle and the double towers of southern facade, while to the right is the Tour de la Taillerie, followed by the eastern facade, which is also protected by twin towers.
In the foreground, a peasant wearing a blue tunic sows seeds that he carries in a white cloth pouch. Behind him, a flock of birds peck away at his freshly sewn seeds, largely ignoring the scarecrow, dressed as an archer. A bag of grain lies on the ground behind him. To the sower’s left, a mounted peasant draws a “harrow”, a sledge weighted with stone to turn the earth.
In the background, a the rider is wearing a red tunic or possibly a cotte along with a black hood wrapped into a chaperone as well as belt, pouch and tall riding boots.
For the lover of clothing, October is a quiet scene, as the better dressed people are painted as very small background figures strolling outside the walls. But for the architect, the details of the lost Louvre is so precise that even centuries after its destruction, a model was made possible thanks largely to the Limbourgs’ painting.
November is somewhat unique in the months of the Tres Riches Houres, for it is the only one painted solely by the later artist, Jean Colombe. Only the same, blue monochrome tympanum that frames the month, as it does all of its brothers, is the work of the famed Limbourg brothers. As in its mates, the tympanum depicts the zodiac for that month; in this case, depicting Scorpio at left, Sagittarius at right. In the center is a classical image of a sun chariot. In this case, the figure can be specifically identified not as Apollo, but as the Emperor Heraclius returning the True Cross to Jerusalem. The source for this symbolic image is an earlier, gold medal, and there is little doubt that it was the Limbourgs inspiration: a copy of the medal was in Jean de Berry’s collection.
Unlike the ten months preceding, November does not present us with a glimpse of a famous city or chateau at the turn of the 15th century. Instead we are at the edge of the deep forest, with the towers of a nameless castle visible on the left edge of the painting. The subject is the acorn harvest. A peasant dressed in a pink tunic or cotte with golden highlights as well as shirt, braies, chauses rolled down and gartered at the knees, low boots and simple hat prepares to throw a stick into the trees, while his pigs greedily eat the fallen acorns under the watchful eyes of a herd dog. In the background, other peasants move through the trees with their own pigs, rooting out the fallen acorns. The overall feel is far more quiet and pastoral than what has come before, but also lacks the energy and vitality of the Limbourgs.
The year ends with a wild boar hunt, again depicted vividly by the magnificent Limbourgs brothers.
As Jean, Duc de Berry was born on December eve (30 November 1340), it is only fitting that this final month of the calendar turns to the Château de Vincennes, where the great lord was born. However, it is not the Château as it was in 1340, but rather as it stood at the cusp of the 15th century. Rising above the treetops is an enormous rectangular donjon and walled enclosure flanked by nine towers begun in 1364 by Charles V. Once the enlargements to the magnificent fortress were complete, it subsequently became the home for a substantial portion of Charles’ art treasures, precious manuscripts, and material wealth. Several towers of the ensemble were partially razed during the course of the centuries.
Part of the Château’s popularity amongst the great lords of France has always been the forests of Vincennes, which had been a prized, royal hunting demesne since the 11th century. Louis VII built a hunting lodge there; Philippe Augustus built the first Château, a small hunting lodge in the 12th century, which was substantially enlarged by Saint Louis, who often held an open air court in the forest.
It is beneath the bowers of this famed wood that we see the hunt come to its conclusion. A bevy of bloodhounds and boarhounds have driven their quarry to exhaustion, and as a huntsman spears it, the hounds are tearing it apart. At the right a hunter blows the mort, or death call, on his small horn.
This final scene, showing the boar’s death, recalls the death of the year and the death of winter, yet is ironically perhaps the liveliest in a calendar full of lively images.
Armour & Military History
Fabric armours were some of man’s earliest defenses against sword, spear and knife. Linen cuirasses and skirts saw action for centuries as the principle body armour of both Egyptian and ancient Greek warriors. The use of metal armours in later Antiquity, seems to have led to a decline in the use of fabric defenses, so much so that there is little evidence of its use in Europe at all by the early Middle Ages (c.500 – 1000 AD), warriors depending entirely upon their shields if ferrous armour wasn’t available. Undoubtedly some sort of fabric armour may have been in use, but if so no clear iconographic representation survives.
By the High Middle Ages (c.1050 – 1350 AD), mail armour had become the dominant defense for the body and limbs. While the protection offered by mail is excellent against cuts and thrusts, it offers little protection against direct concussive blows to the body. Further, individual links can be torn out of a mail coat and driven deeply into wounds with a consequently high risk of infection. As a result, a secondary protective layer was required to dilute the force of blows by spreading them over a wider surface area.
By the 13th century, padded armours had been fully developed and these were widely used on various parts of the body. The garments followed the design of civilian clothing. Thus padded chausses defended the legs, and a padded coif (cap) was worn underneath the helmet.
The body itself was defended by a gambeson or “aketon”, but there seems to be no reason for differentiating between the terms. This was a knee-length, sleeved garment, split in front and back, just like the male surcoat. The gambeson, like the chausses, was quilted and made from either linen or wool (the word “aketon“ derives from Arabic and suggests the use of cotton). They could be quite thick, and the bulk of the quilting generally ran vertically. They could be left a natural linen color, or dyed a variety of colors. While some had integral mittens, others were short sleeved or sleeveless. All of these varieties can be seen in the Macjieowski Bible (c.1250).
With the adoption of plate armour in the Late Middle Ages (1350 – 1500), the need for padded chausses disappeared altogether. Further, as the mail hauberk was shortened and increasingly worn underneath a coat of plates or breastplate, the need for a heavily padded supertunic declined. By the late 14th century, the gambeson had taken on the short, fitted form of a man’s cotte. It was still well padded, but was far less bulky than its earlier counterparts. (This is the model we have chosen to reproduce.) With the adoption of full plate harness in the 15th century, the gambeson further shrank to the form of an “arming cotte” – a lightly padded jacket, primarily de signed to provide attachment points for the steel armour, and to defend against the abrasion from its wear.
While the knights and mounted serjeants used all of these garments as a secondary defense, for many simple foot-soldiers throughout the Middle Ages, padded armour became their only form of protection in battle. They were apparently quite suited to the task. Anna Komnena’s “Alexiad” (1148) tells of a Norman mercenary who wore a “hauberk” made of 17 layers of linen, soaked in brine that was impervious to sword blows, and the same claims were made of the heavily padded “jacks” of the 15th century foot soldier.
Wearing a 14th century Harness with Revival Clothing Arming Garments
For centuries, a knight’s harness consisted primarily of mail, but during the 14th century, pieces of plate armour were progressively introduced, until, by the end of the century, he was the “knight in shining armour,” perhaps the most iconic symbol of the Middle Ages.
Articulated plate armour was a technological marvel, surprisingly maneuverable and comfortable, and capable of rendering the wearer impervious to all but the fiercest blows, thrusts through its gaps, or fearsome, anti-armour weapons such as the poleaxe (and later, firearms). In order for the entire harness to work properly, it had to be fitted to the wearer and the individual pieces properly suspended and hung. This was chiefly the role of the arming clothes, which served as both soft armour and suspension system. Without the correct arming clothes, the armour was prone to bite, slip and shift as it was worn.
Although there are a number of images of knights arming for battle, there is little in the way of actual description. One famous exception is a 15th century English treatise, How a man schall be armyd at his ese when he schal fighte on foote (c.1450), which describes how a knight should prepare himself for combat in the lists. The “lists” in question likely refer to the combat field for a judicial duel, as the manuscript’s description of the martial equipment and other accoutrements closely matches those illustrated in 15th century martial arts texts.
Our arming clothes have been received with great success, but customers always want to know how to use them to mount their armour. Therefore, to help answer this question we have asked Christian Tobler of the Order of Selohaar to prepare a photo essay in conjunction with the text of theHow a man schall be armyd, demonstrating how a man-at-arms, c.1390 would dress for battle. We hope you enjoy!
How a Man Shall be Armed at His Ease when He Shall Fight on Foot
Hastings MS. [f.122b]
Modern English Spelling by Greg Mele
He shall have no shirt upon him but a doublet of fustian lined with satin, cut full of holes. The doublet must be strongly built and the points must be set about the bend of the arms. And the breast before and behind and the gussets of mail must be sown unto the doublet in the bend of the arm. And under the arm the arming points must be made of fine twine, such as men make for crossbow strings and they must be trussed small and pointed as points. And they must be waxed with cordweiners coode [?], and then they will neither stretch nor break. Also a pair hosen of worsted wool and pair of short bulwarks of thin blanket to put about his knees for the chafing of his leg-harness. Also a pair of shoes of thick cordwene and they must be fitted with small whipcords with three knots upon a cord and three cords must be sown fast onto the heel of the shoe and fine cords in the middle of the sole of the same shoe. And that there be between the frets of the heel and the frets of the middle of the shoe the space of three fingers.
To arm a man
For centuries, a knight’s harness consisted primarily of mail, but during the 14th century, pieces of plate armour were progressively introduced, until, by the end of the century, he was the “knight in shining armour,” perhaps the most iconic symbol of the Middle Ages.
Articulated plate armour was a technological marvel, surprisingly maneuverable and comfortable, and capable of rendering the wearer impervious to all but the fiercest blows, thrusts through its gaps, or fearsome, anti-armour weapons such as the poleaxe (and later, firearms). In order for the entire harness to work properly, it had to be fitted to the wearer and the individual pieces properly suspended and hung. This was chiefly the role of the arming clothes, which served as both soft armour and suspension system. Without the correct arming clothes, the armour was prone to bite, slip and shift as it was worn.
Although there are a number of images of knights arming for battle, there is little in the way of actual description. One famous exception is a 15th century English treatise, How a man schall be armyd at his ese when he schal fighte on foote (c.1450), which describes how a knight should prepare himself for combat in the lists. The “lists” in question likely refer to the combat field for a judicial duel, as the manuscript’s description of the martial equipment and other accoutrements closely matches those illustrated in 15th century martial arts texts.
Our arming clothes have been received with great success, but customers always want to know how to use them to mount their armour. Therefore, to help answer this question we have asked Christian Tobler of the Order of Selohaar to prepare a photo essay in conjunction with the text of theHow a man schall be armyd, demonstrating how a man-at-arms, c.1390 would dress for battle. We hope you enjoy!
The day that the appellant and defendant shall fight what they shall have with them in the field:
A tent must be put in the field.
Also a chair
Also a basin
Also vi loaves of bread
Also ii gallons of wine.
Also a mess of meaty flesh or fish
Also a board and a pair of trestles to set his meat and drink on.
And a board cloth
Also a knife for cutting his meat.
And a cup to drink of
Also a glass with a drink made
Also a dozen tresses of arming points.
Also a hammer and a nails and a bicorn
Also a dozen small nails
Also a spear a long sword, short sword and a dagger.
Also a kerchief to the visor of his bascinet.
Also a penant to bear in his hand of his avowed [patron saint].
Arming Clothes: The Foundation
“He shall have no shirt upon him but a doublet of fustian lined with satin, cut full of holes. The doublet must be strongly built and the points must be set about the bend of the arms.
Also a pair hosen of worsted wool and pair of short bulwarks of thin blanket to put about his knees for the chafing of his leg-harness. Also a pair of shoes of thick cordwene and they must be fitted with small whipcords with three knots upon a cord and three cords must be sown fast onto the heel of the shoe and fine cords in the middle of the sole of the same shoe. And that there be between the frets of the heel and the frets of the middle of the shoe the space of three fingers.”
The poem describes a very interesting garment – apparently holed for ventilation – the exact like of which has never been illustrated to our knowledge. But its principle description of a closely fitted doublet to which the armour is attached, is supported elsewhere, and for the Revival arming clothes line, is represented by our pourpoint. Note that while the pourpoint is tightly fitted in the body, it is not laced shut. As the garment is worn, fought and sweated in it stretches and requires some play. The gapping is intentional, and while the garment should be tight it must have room to move; lacing it too tightly short can cause the lacing holes to rip out.
Dressed in shirt, doublet, braies, chausses and low boots, Christian is dressed little differently from normal 14th century daily wear. However, it is the pourpoint that replaces the cotte or cotehardie that will allow him to don his armour properly.
The Feet: Sabatons
“First you must set the sabatons and tie them to the shoe with small points that will not break.”
Unlike dressing in modern clothing, in harness we begin with the shoes! Note that the light, tapered medieval shoe is what allows the sabatons to fit closely to the foot beneath.
The Legs: Greaves and Cuisses
“First you must set the sabatons and tie them to the shoe with small points that will not break.”
Unlike dressing in modern clothing, in harness we begin with the shoes! Note that the light, tapered medieval shoe is what allows the sabatons to fit closely to the foot beneath.
The cuisses are next laced to the pourpoint. This arrangement allows the armour’s weight to hang from the garment, and thus distribute to the entire torso, rather than just the hips. It also allows it to naturally move as the leg moves and bends at the hip. This is why the snug fit of the pourpoint, particularly in the hips, is critical.
“the arming points must be made of fine twine, such as men make for crossbow strings and they must be trussed small and pointed as points. And they must be waxed with cordweiners coode[?], and then they will neither stretch nor break.”
A close-up of the cuisse once it is tied off to the pourpoint. Note the triangulation arrangement that makes the highest point of the leg harness sit in the natural hollow of the leg.
The Body: Gambeson and Cuirass
The gambeson is now added over the pourpoint. It provides several functions: a shock absorber beneath the mail (if worn) and breastplate, protection from chafing and pinching from the plate armour, and ablative armour in its own right. Finally, just as the pourpoint served with the legs armour, the gambeson is a method of attaching the arm harness, as the following photos show.
The gambeson is buttoned shut and belted with a heavy bronze or gold plaque belt. At this point, if Christian were going to wear mail, the haubergeon would be donned. As he has chosen to forego the mail, the cuirass comes next.
“And then the tonlets and the breastplate”
This is an early form of full cuirass, made famous by the surviving example in the famed Schloss Churburg Armoury. It is made in multiple segments that wrap around the body and fasten shut in the back. By the late 14th century, protection for the torso grew to include the full cuirass (a breast and backplate), and a plate fauldor “skirt.”
The Arms: Vambraces, Rerebraces and Spaulders
“And the vambraces, and then gloves [gauntlets].”
A vambrace in period documents can refer to the entire arm harness, which in reality includes a vambrace,rerebrace andspaulders. As with the cuisses, attaching the arm harness with points allows the armour to stay in place, and uses the foundation garment to help support the weight. With the pointing, the straps on the elbow and rerebrace can be fairly loosely fastened, as their principle purpose is to keep the armour from gaping away from the elbow. This makes for greater comfort than constrictive strapping, which can also cut blood flow to the arm.
A close up of the arming points in the gambeson, with a leather tab, sewn to the sleeve, added as a reinforcement. The tab is centered in the upper arm.
Pointing the rerebrace to the gambeson. As with the leg harness and pourpoint, the weight of the arm harness is now suspended from the entire gambeson.
The attachment of the spaulders to arming points on the upper shoulder completes the arm harness.
Christian is now dressed in all of the principle elements of his harness except for helm and gauntlets.
The Finishing Touches: The Bascinet, Gauntlets and Weapons
“And then his bascinet pinned up on two great staples before the breast with a dowbill behind upon the back to make the bascinet sit just so.”
The helmet is the final piece before the knight can take the field. While the poem refers to a later form of the helmet, with a plate neck defense that literally laced or strapped to the breast and back-plates, in the late 14th century the neck and throat were protected only by a simple mail aventail. The size of the aventail gives additional protection to the shoulders and gaps between spaulders and breastplate, while its mass helps prevent blows from sliding into the throat.
by Michael Edelson
One of the nice things about having the tools and equipment to repair your own mail is that you can get a bit adventurous with it. Such was the case a couple of days ago, when I decided to repair a mail haubergeon that didn’t need repairing…at least not at the time. I had just gotten my hands on Revival Clothing’s cotton gambeson and was curious just how good a combination gambeson and mail really were. I decided to conduct a series of tests to find out.
Part 1 – The Armor and Target
The defendant in this case is a free hanging pell covered with gambeson and mail.
Mail – the haubergeon is an inexpensive type available on Ebay from Von Sussen enterprises. It’s imported, probably from India, and arrived with a lot of bad links that needed to be repaired. It was a bargain at 400 dollars, as the same exact mail with better quality control is sold by others for nearly twice the price.
It is made from individually riveted flattened rings (18 gauge, 9.5mm ID) and weighs approximately 20lbs, making it a good compromise between defense and weight.
9.5mm is not the smallest diameter you can find, but a decrease in internal diameter or increase in wire thickness is always accompanied by an increase in weight. An 8mm shirt of the same size may weigh an extra 5 to 10 pounds, which is no small thing when you consider the additional weight of plate, gambeson and other elements of a transitional harness.
Gambeson – the gambeson used in the test is a new offering from Revival Clothing, designed as a less expensive and sturdier alternative to their linen gambeson, widely acknowledged to be one of the best on the market. The cotton gambeson is intended to be used by those who need a protective garment for WMA sparring and intend to wear no other armor. While it is too bulky to use under a plate or transitional harness, it is very suitable to wearing under mail if mail is your only other defense. This gambeson features ‘le grande assiette’ sleeves (exaggerated armholes) for increased mobility. Despite its thickness, it is padded with cotton batting and breathes quite well; it will not bake you alive like some of the cheaper gambesons that are padded with artificial fibers.
Pell – to simulate a human being to the best of my ability without either capturing an actual specimen or buying a large side of pork, I decided to use a free hanging pell. Like a standing person, the pell can react to strikes my moving in the same manner a person would fall back, drop an arm, etc. The pell is made from a 4×4 beam covered in two layers of foam padding (pool noodles), wrapped in duct tape and covered in canvas. It is suspended from a 3ft long chain.
Part 2 – The Setup and the Weapons
To set up the target, the gambeson was mounted on the bell with the neck opening near the top.
Once the gambeson was hung, the pell was removed from the hook, the mail haubergeon was mounted over the gambeson and the pell placed back on its chain. The result was a sturdy suspension of mail and gambeson that was similar to the way it would be worn by a human being.
Now that the target was ready, it was time to prepare the weapons. I decided to test the harness against two types of weapons, the bow and the sword.
Bow- the bow I chose was a Martin Saber compound bow set to a 50lb draw.
Although I do own more traditional bows including a longbow, only a compound bow could guarantee that the arrow would strike exactly where I wanted it to. Due to the location of the tests, accuracy was paramount.
The arrows were regular target tips, which are the closest I had to bodkin points. There have been other tests using broadheads and similar weight bows where the arrow failed to penetrate the mail and gambeson, and I remember wondering why the tester chose an arrowhead that was not designed for piercing armor when much better points are readily available. Although I was not aware of this at the time of the test,Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knighthas a photograph of various medieval arrowheads and one of them has the same shape as the target points I used.
Sword – Although I have a variety of swords to use, I chose the MRL Sword of War for several reasons, the first and foremost of these being that the sword is expendable. It is also a heavy sword and while it cannot compare to the higher end swords available on the market, it has a reasonably hard edge and has performed well in other cutting tests I have put it through.
Part 3 – The Tests
The first test was mail vs. bow. I fired four arrows at the target, two from twenty feet, and two from sixty feet, which was the maximum range I had available.
The first two arrows (20ft) penetrated the mail, gambeson, and lodged in the wood at the center of the pell, though not deeply. They were very easy to remove, which indicates that the mail and gambeson robbed the arrow of quite a bit of energy even at this short range. To provide some perspective, an arrow fired from this bow at 20ft into the pell itself is quite difficult to remove from the wood and can often result in damage to the arrow.
This shows the level of penetration that was required to lodge the arrow in the wood, albeit only slightly.
The second two arrows (60 ft) did not fare as well as the first two. The first of the two penetrated the mail but was stopped by the gambeson, which would not have resulted in an injury for the wearer. The second arrow penetrated both mail and gambeson, but did not achieve anywhere near the level of penetration of the first two, which indicates that it too would most likely not have resulted in injury.
These images show the broken links.
This image shows the damage to the gambeson’s outer shell.
Here is the damage to the inner shell. This is from an arrow fired at 20ft.
The hole circled in red is from the first arrow fired at 60 ft., which bounced off the pell. Note the difference between it and the one next to it; this indicates that it was about to pierce the gambeson but failed to make it all the way through.
I believe, based on the results, that it is safe to say that a range of 30 or more yards would have yielded results that would not have been in the bow’s favor, though a heavier bow would likely have increased the lethal range by a small margin.
Conclusion:a modern mail shirt backed by a gambeson will most likely stop the average modern bow at a range of 30 yards or more, and may prevent serious injury at a range of 20 yards.
The second part of the test was mail vs. sword. Before explaining the results, I would like to state that I have a good amount of training and experience in test cutting, including traditional training in Japanese sword arts with a heavy emphasis on tameshigiri. I have fairly recently switched my studies to historical European swordsmanship and have conducted extensive test cutting experiments using a variety of swords and cutting media. My only point in bringing this up is to put the results into perspective. As I have in the past cut through butted mail, I did not expect what happened when I struck the target with the heavy war sword.
I attempted to cut through the mail and gambeson a total of seven times and attempted to thrust through it three times, twice with my left hand on the blade in the half sword position. I was literally amazed by the results. The gambeson padded the mail to such an extent that I managed only to scratch the links with the sword, despite my best efforts. I could not find a single deformed or otherwise damaged link.
I walked away from the experience with a sense of awe and respect. Mail is an incredible defense, and while it may not be the best against everything, the question of whether a sword can cut through mail has finally been to put to rest, at least for me.
The sword did not fare as well as the mail, but the damage was easy to repair.
Some readers may be wondering what I set out to prove. Was I attempting to demonstrate the resiliency of historical mail? No. I do not know how this mail compares to historical mail, or how a modern compound bow compares to an English longbow or a Saracen war bow. I do not even know how a modern production sword compares to a historical original.
What I wanted to know was how a modern piece of reproduction mail fared against weapons that bore a close resemblance to their historical counterparts. The compound bow may be a thoroughly modern invention, but it is used to propel an arrow, and in this case with an arrowhead that closely resembles historic originals. The MRL Sword of War is not my idea of a quality sword, but it’s edge hardness is roughly on par with what is expected of medieval weaponry and it can stand up to use against mail, therefore it is able to deliver its edge effectively on target.
If historically accurate mail is better than the one I used for the test, then that says very good things about historically accurate mail. As it is, the mail available today is of very good quality, even if it’s a bargain piece with poor quality control.
This short essay is in answer to all the feedback and questions from you, our customers, we’ve gotten about options for reinforcing pointing holes on our pourpoints and lacing points on other arming clothes. Our pourpoints are double stitched and made as strong as we know how with traditional methods. But there are some of you who want your pourpoint and other arming clothes to really last under extreme
stress. In response, we have gone through extensive testing with various methods on how to further reinforce pointing eyelets.
While evaluating the results, we also took into consideration ease of accomplishing the reinforcement with tools and methods readily available to folks at home, along with issues of authenticity. Our conclusions were twofold – there are two good methods of reinforcement but one is superior in strength and faster to accomplish than the other while both give a nice period appearance.
We feel the the addition of metal eyelet inside the double stitched eyelet was the best method. In order to do this all you need is and awl and a set of eyelet setting pliers (available at any home sewing store) and some eyelets. The method is as follows:
Photo 1 – Awl used to gently stretch stitched eyelets
Photo 2 – Eyelet setter – Dritz Plier Kit – used with 5/32 eyelets
Step 1 – WIth the awl, gently stretch stitched eyelets so that metal eyelets fit inside snugly. Be careful not to stretch them too far – you want a snug fit so that when you set the metal eyelet the edge of it curls tightly around the stitched edge.
Photo 3 – Eyelets after being stretched with awl
Step 2 – Set the eyelet in the stitched eyelet with the right side of metal eyelet on the outside of the garment
Photo 4 – Metal eyelet set in stretched stitched eyelet – before its set
Photo 5 – Back of above – back of metal eyelet set in stretched stitched eyelet – before it’s set
Step 3 – Set the eyelet with the pliers – being careful not to catch extra fabric in the edge of the metal eyelet when you squeeze the pliers to set it
Photo 6 – Metal eyelet being set with pliers setter – be careful not
to catch excess fabric in metal eyelet as you squeeze it to set it
Step 4 – You can stop at this point, but metal eyelets of this style are not strictly authentic to medieval clothing. A handy and very authentic way to conceal them is to stitch over the metal eyelet with thread and thereby completely cover it.
Photo 7 – Metal eyelet after it is set into stitched eyelet
Photo 8 – Back of above photo – metal eyelet
after it is set into stitched eyelet
Photo 9 – option for covering metal eyelet by stitching around it –
this photo shows the process partially completed on one eye
The other method which is arguably more authentic, but we found not quite as strong, is to place very small washers on the front and back of each pointing eyelet and stitch all the way around them – completely encasing them with the stitching while also attaching them to the garment. The result look pretty much the same as the method we show above, but we found it that it did not prove quite as resilient and it took much longer to complete.
The stunning English victory at the Battle of Agincourt achieved eternal fame in Shakespeare’s Henry V, and has moved from the realm of history into mythology as a metaphor for the triumph of the underdog against all odds. Yet, while the general causes for Henry V’s invasion of France, the latest campaign in the Hundred Years War, the siege and long march that led to Agincourt, and the general course and outcome of the battle are well-known, historians continue to debate some of the most basic facts of what happened. Were the English really that badly outnumbered? Were the casualties so one-sided? Was Henry V justified in slaughtering the noble prisoners he had captured?
Henry V’s campaign in France reopened hostilities in the Hundred Years War and was likely launched for a number of reasons; land and wealth perhaps being second to the young king’s desire to unite his nobles in a common purpose, especially after the turbulent reign of his father, Henry IV who had seized the throne by force. War with the old enemy France was an excellent way to unify his barons, demonstrate his worthiness as king and take advantage of the factitious leadership in France, under the mad King Charles VI, to increase England’s French holdings. It is unlikely the young king had any idea his campaign would lead to a crushing defeat of the French, and such a complete fulfillment of his objectives.
Henry invaded northern France on 13 August 1415, and besieged the port of Harfleur with an army of near 12,000, but the town resisted strongly and the siege dragged on. Although Harfleur surrendered on 22 September, the English army did not leave until 8 October, with an army greatly weakened through dysentery and disease. With his army weakened and the winter season rapidly approaching, Henry decided to march to the port of Calais, the only English stronghold remaining in northern France.
Because the siege had dragged on so long, the French Constable, Charles d’Albret had time to call-up a massive feudal army from across France. The French army was able to mirror the English march along the Somme, affectively preventing Henry from reaching Calais without a major battle. The English had very little food, had marched 260 miles in two and a half weeks, were suffering from sickness, and faced three to four times their number of experienced, well-armed and armoured Frenchmen. On 24 October, Henry was brought to ground in a wooded gorge between the villages of Agincourt and Tramecourt, and forced to prepare for battle, with little shelter from that evening’s heavy rain. The mud caused by this rain would prove an important factor in the battle, clearly favoring the dismounted, and more lightly armoured English. Indeed, the mud would prove deep enough that more than one knight suffocated after being knocked into it.
French accounts state that, prior to the battle, the young king reassured his nobles that if the French prevailed, the English nobles would be spared and ransomed, but the French would show no such mercy to common archers, so they had best fight to the bitter end. This is the obvious source for the famed "e;St. Crispin’s Day Speech"e; penned by Shakespeare, but accounts differ significantly as to whether or not Henry actually told either the French of his men that he would not discuss terms for his own ransom. (Whatever he said, or had even desired, he would have known his words to be largely rhetoric. He was a king; the nature of medieval warfare dictated that the French would seek to capture, not kill him, and his own lords would rather see him captured then killed.)
For three hours after sunrise there was no fighting; then Henry, finding that the French would not advance, moved his army to extreme bowshot from the French line (400 yards). Here the archers placed their stakes, and opened the engagement with a barrage of arrows.
The French at this point lost some of their discipline and the mounted wings charged the archers, but were decimated and then driven back in confusion. The Constable himself then lead the center battle, comprised of dismounted men-at-arms. This was a tactic the French had adopted from the English, but whereas dismounted knights had served the latter so well, it proved a disaster for the French. At Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) the English men-at-arms had patiently stood their ground, just as they did here. But the dismounted French knights were pressing the attack. Weighed down by their armour, they struggled to reach and engage the English men-at-arms and became easy targets for the English bowmen. Finally reaching the English line made matters worse. The massive French numbers forced into a narrow gorge meant that they were too closely packed to fight properly. However, as casualties mounted and prisoners were taken, the French started to engage the line to good effect. The thin English was pushed back and seemed poised to break, and Henry himself was almost beaten to the ground. But at this moment, the archers, using hatchets, swords and other weapons, penetrated the gaps among the now disordered French. Unencumbered in the deep mud, the archers were able to outmaneuver their opponents, and many more French men-at-arms were slaughtered or taken prisoner. The second line of the French met the same fate as the first, and when the leaders of the third line sought and found their death in the battle, their men broke ranks and fled to safety.
The only success for the French in the battle also led to one of Henry’s most hotly debated decisions. Ysambart D’Agincourt led a mounted sally from Agincourt Castle and seized the King’s baggage with 1,000 peasants. Thinking his rear was under attack, Henry was now faced with the threat that he held enough prisoners that, were they rearmed, he would have an entire enemy army behind his lines. Thus, Henry ordered the slaughter of all captives. The nobles and senior officers refused the task, for both chivalric and practical reasons. Chivalric, because it offended both their sense of honor, and the general rules of war, and practical, because it meant the loss of a treasure-trove of ransoms. Henry then passed the job to his archers, who had no such compunctions, and the slaughter commenced.
In the morning, Henry returned to the battlefield and had any wounded Frenchman who had survived the night killed. The exact reasons for this second slaughter remain under debate. Apologists for the king say that all noble prisoners had already been taken away and any commoners left on the field were too badly injured to survive without medical care, while critics see both the initial slaughter of the prisoners and the that of the survivors the next day as an act of barbarity; Henry’s bloody statement of his absolute mastery of the day.
The French suffered disastrously, mainly because of the massacre of the prisoners. The Constable, three dukes, five counts and 90 barons were among the dead, and a number of notable prisoners were taken, amongst them the famed poet, Charles, Duke of Orléans and Jean Le Maingre "e;Bouccicaut"e;, Marshal of France.
While there is little doubt that English losses dwarfed those of the French, documentation simply does not support the traditional English claims, upon which Shakespeare drew, that English losses were only thirteen men-at-arms (including Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York) and 100 foot soldiers. Interestingly, the course of these deceptive numbers was Henry himself. The king paid the English retinues at their pre-battle strengths, thereby deliberately concealing their actual numbers, while quickly spreading the story of nearly insignificant English losses, which survive to this day. Modern estimates place the losses at between 300 – 500 English dead; which while not insignificant in an army of 6000 does still pale besides the French "e;royal fellowship of death"e;.
The catastrophic defeat that the French suffered at the Battle of Agincourt allowed Henry to far more than fulfill his original objectives. He returned home with an united nobility, as a celebrated warrior-king, in the mold of Edward III. The Treaty of Troyes (1420) recognized him as the regent and heir to the French throne, which was further cemented by his marriage to Catherine of Valois, the daughter of King Charles VI.
The successes won by Agincourt did not completely break the French spine. Insurrections began two years after the famous battle, and Henry was forced back into the field. Ever victorious, perhaps he would have ultimately prevailed, but he did not live to inherit the throne of France. In 1422, while securing his position against further French opposition, Henry V died of dysentery at the age of 34, two months before the death of Charles VI. He was succeeded by his young son, Henry VI. During his long, disastrous reign, the English were expelled from all of France besides Calais, and England became consumed by in the bloody War of the Roses.
Was Henry justified in ordering the slaughter of the prisoners?
The slaughter of the French prisoners was clearly the single largest contributor to French casualties and one of the bloodiest acts of the Hundred Years War, and seems a monstrous act to modern eyes. Most modern scholars have generally condemned it, and certainly Henry’s own knights refused to carry out the order.
Yet there are many possible reasons for Henry’s order. It may simply have been a bloody act of revenge for the attack on the baggage train. It may also have been simple, equally bloodthirsty, pragmatism: since between one and two thousand prisoners are said to have been returned to England, the number of captives before the slaughter must have been much larger. Henry may simply have not wanted to take the chance, or absorb the cost, of moving a body of prisoners that outnumbered his own army. Thus the slaughter may have simply been a successful, if savage, way of demoralizing the remaining French combatants and quelling those prisoners left alive into acquiescence.
But just as possible, is that the English claims over the last six centuries may be true. Certainly there were more French prisoners than the entire English army, all still in armor on a battlefield littered with weapons. The French third line had not yet attacked, and the French sally against the baggage line (itself a questionable act) had shown that Henry’s rear was unprotected and filled with largely unguarded prisoners. The act, however brutal, may have been the decision of a commander in the heat of battle faced with the need to make immediate decision and without the benefit of hindsight to know the battle was already destined to be his.
Whatever the case, and whatever the distaste the act has for modern scholars, it is worth noting that not a single contemporary chronicler of either side saw any fault in Henry’s actions. It might have stretched the laws of war, but the French had committed similar acts previously themselves. The slaughter ended when it was clear that the French would not sally again and the third line was retreating from battle. The challenge in understanding what exactly happened may be one of learning how to think like a 15th century person, not a 21st century one.
Were the English as outnumbered as traditionally thought?
Agincourt has stood for six centuries as one of the greatest victories in English military history. But the question of how many men fought on each side has never been conclusively determined. In recent years, the debate has swung in two radically different directions.
In Agincourt, A New History (2005), Anne Curry makes an extreme claim that the scale of the English triumph at Agincourt has been overstated for almost six centuries. While she acknowledges that the French outnumbered the English and Welsh, she argues the numbers were at worst only by a factor of three to two (12,000 Frenchmen against 8,000 Englishmen). According to Curry, the Battle of Agincourt was a "e;myth constructed around Henry to build up his reputation as a king"e;. The legend of the English as underdogs at Agincourt was further exaggerated and cemented into English popular history by Shakespeare, who exaggerated the French casualties and reduced the traditional (and understated) English 115 to a mere 29 (Act IV, Scene 8).
Conversely, Juliet Barker’s, Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle, claims 6,000 English and Welsh fought against 36,000 French, with the odds being six to one, from a French heraldic source. How can two contemporary scholars, with the same source material be at such odds?
Simple: the primary sources themselves generally do not agree on the numbers of the combatants involved. The ‘traditional’ numbers are 5,900 Englishmen and 36,000 French, and these are the numbers taken by many documentaries about the Battle of Agincourt. However, at least two chronicles written no more than 30 years after the battle place the number of English at 12,000. But whereas one gives the French crown 25,000 men to make war with, the other says that 25,000 men were in the first two battles, and the third battle was "e;equally great, but fled without ever joining battle."e; Shakespeare showed the battle as having 5-1 numbers, and can be expected to have exaggerated in England’s favor from what the sources he read claimed. Curry and Barker’s claims notwithstanding, most modern historians seem to place English numbers at somewhere around 6,000 and French numbers at between 18 – 25,000.
Myths and Legends
Saints Crispin and Crispinian
To modern people, the names of Saints Crispin and Crispinian are likely only known because of the famous "e;St. Crispin’s Day"e; speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V. But in the Middle Ages, Crispin and Crispinian were well-known, if minor saints; the patron saints of cobblers, tanners, glove makers and all manner of leather workers. Tradition held that they were twin sons, born to a noble Roman family in the 3rd century AD, who fled persecution for their faith, winding up in Soissons, Gaul. There they took on the role of preachers by day, and shoemakers by night. Their congregation grew and drew the unwanted attention of Rictus Varus, the governor of Belgic Gaul. Both twins were martyred by beheading c. 286.
While the feast day of Saints Crispin and Crispinian is October 25, they are among many saints who were removed from the liturgical calendar during Vatican II, based on a lack of evidence that the twins were actual, historical people, and not the syncretic reinvention of a local deity (likely Lugus-Mercurius) into the Christian pantheon. So now they’re gone, but thanks to Shakespeare, perhaps not entirely forgotten.
V for Victory
It has long been told that the famous "e;two-fingers salute"e; derives from the gestures of English archers, fighting at Agincourt. The myth claims that the French cut off two fingers on the right hand of captured archers and that the gesture was a sign of defiance by those who were not mutilated.
This may have some basis in fact – Jean Froissart’s (circa 1337-circa 1404) Chronicle, a "e;journalistic history"e; of Europe in the fourteenth century records the twists and turns taken by the Hundred Years’ War. The story of the English waving their fingers at the French is told in the first person account by Froissart, however the description is not of an incident at the Battle of Agincourt, but rather at the siege of a castle in another incident during the Hundred Years War. Froissart died long before the Battle of Agincourt, so, if the "e;V sign"e; did originate with English longbowman, it was well before that battle.
Agincourt and the Lyme Hall Mastiffs
Sir Peers Legh was an English knight who was wounded at Agincourt. When he fell, his Mastiff stood over him and protected him against all attackers during the long battle. Although Legh later died, the Mastiff returned to Legh’s home and was the forefather of the Lyme Hall Mastiffs, a founding pedigree of the modern English Mastiff breed.
Barker, Juliet. Agincourt : Henry V and the Battle That Made England, Little Brown (2006).
Curry, Anne. Agincourt: A New History. Tempus UK (2005)
Keegan, John. The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. Penguin Classics Reprint (1974)
Seward D. The Hunderd Years War: The English in France 1337-1453, Constable & Compary Ltd (1978)
Websites of Interest:
How a Man Shall Be Armed– Getting dressed for war at the end of the 14th century!
The Great Battles: Agincourt– A concise overview of the battle.
The Battle of Agincourt Resource Site– This collection of Web pages contains information and resources about the Battle of Agincourt that was fought on 25 October 1415 during the Hundred Years War. This main page contains a description of the battle as well as links to lists of books, Web sites, and other sources of information.
The Azincourt Alliance– A group that arranges reenactments of the battle
Agincourt Honor Roll– An overview of the battle and a listing of over 21% of the English soldiers who took the field on October 25, 1415.
The Military Orders
Part One: The Templars
“[A Templar Knight] is truly a fearless knight, and secure on every side, for his soul is protected by the armor of faith, just as his body is protected by the armor of steel. He is thus doubly-armed, and need fear neither demons nor men.”
Bernard de Clairvaux, c. 1135, De Laude Novae Militae
( In Praise of the New Knighthood)
In early 1119, Hugues de Payens and Godfrey de Saint-Omer, two battle-hardened veterans of the First Crusade, approached King Baldwin II of Jerusalem with a proposal for the creation of a new monastic order. But rather than seeking a cloistered life of contemplation, this new Order would serve by protecting pilgrims as they traveled to the Holy City.
Although Jerusalem had fallen into Christian hands in 1099, the "e;Frankish"e; conquerors made up only a fraction of the population. Beyond the walls of the great cities and strongholds, insurrectionists and bandits abounded, making the pilgrim routes often more dangerous to the faithful than they had been before the Holy City came into Christian possession. Consequently, the knight’s proposal appealed to King Baldwin, and he granted their request, gifting them and their seven brother knights with a headquarters on the Temple Mount. The Temple Mount was believed to be Solomon’s Temple (in reality, it was the Al Aqsa Mosque), and it was from this place that the new Order took its name: the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Jesus Christ and the Temple of Solomon. As a monastic order, the knights swore themselves to poverty, and chose as an emblem two knights riding upon a single horse.
The fame of this odd new order of "e;monkish knights"e; spread rapidly, and drew the attention of a powerful patron, the famed Cistercian orator, Bernard of Clairvaux. It was primarily Bernard’s efforts that brought the knights of the Temple to both the attention of the Pope, and official Church endorsement, at the Council of Troyes in 1129. With the Church’s patronage, and Bernard’s continued preaching of the "e;new knighthood of Christ"e;, the Templars’ fame spread; and with that fame came new brother knights and donations of money, land, even mercantile interests, throughout Europe. So swift was the Temple’s rise that by 1139, only twenty years after its inception, Pope Innocent II declared the Order free of obedience to all authority except his own, freeing the brother knights of all taxes, feudal obligation and travel restrictions throughout Christendom.
The Templars were organized similarly to Bernard’s Cistercian Order, with a strong, hierarchical chain of authority. When a member was received into the Order, he was required to willingly sign over all of his wealth and goods to the Order, and to take vows of poverty, chastity, piety, and obedience. Most brothers joined for life, although some were allowed to join for a set period of years. Sometimes a married man was allowed to join for a set time or to fulfill a vow, if he had his wife’s permission, but he was not allowed to wear the white mantle of a brother knight. These "e;irregular"e; knights were known as confrere, and were not considered full members of the Order.
Local chapters of the Order were preceptories, and combined the qualities of monastery and castle. Each was governed by a preceptor, who functioned as an abbot and military governor. All Preceptors within a given kingdom reported to a single Master of the Temple, who, in turn, was subject to the Grand Master in Jerusalem. The Grand Master was appointed for life, and oversaw all military and financial matters, although he had an extensive command staff, organized much like a royal household.
The specifics of the Templar’s "e;Rule"e; or code of behavior was penned by Bernard of Clairvaux and Hugues de Payens, and consisted of 72 clauses, based largely on the Cistercian Rule, but adapted for the needs of the "e;new knighthood"e;. The Rule included governance over every aspect of life: how often a knight was to pray, how often he was permitted to eat meat, what types of robes he was to wear, how many horses he could have, etc. As monks, full brothers of the Order were forbidden physical contact of any kind with women, even members of their own family. As the Order grew, more guidelines were added to the Rule, eventually reaching several hundred in length.
The Templars ranks were actually divided into a three-tier system of aristocratic knights, lower-born sergeants, and the clergy. Knights were required to have been born to families of knightly rank, and served as the Order’s heavy cavalry and commanders. Each knight was attended by one to two squires, who were generally "e;confrere"e; – non-members of the Order, either hired for a specific time or volunteers who had taken an oath to serve the Order for a set period of time. Beneath the knights in the Order and drawn from the lower classes were the sergeants, professional fighting men, who served as light cavalry, infantry commanders and administrators. Finally, the third Templar class was the chaplains, ordained priests who saw to the Templars’ spiritual needs. Although the Order’s number swelled to somewhere between 15,000 – 20,000 members by the turn of the 13th century, only about 10% of this number were actual knights. The vast majority of the rest were comprised of sergeants and support staff.
Knights of the Order wore the now famouswhite mantle and white robes, which had been granted to them at the Council of Troyes in 1129. The right to bear the red cross over the breast was likely granted at the start of the Second Crusade in 1147. The robes and mantle were not only a uniform, but the sole garments of the knights; they were forbidden to dress otherwise. Sergeants and confrere were distinguished by a black tunic with a red cross on front and back, and a black or brown mantle, and were required to be "e;in uniform"e; only while they were in service.
The knights put their special freedoms and growing wealth to good use, and rapidly built a network of priories and preceptories throughout Europe and the Levant. They also developed an efficient, well-trained military machine; an elite fighting force that became one of the key lines of defense for the Kingdom of Jerusalem. With a vow of not turning from battle unless outnumbered by more than three to one, the Order developed a reputation of near invincibility. But the Templars were also shrewd tacticians, and this combination of military acumen and fearlessness often allowed them to wield far more influence on the field of battle than their number would have suggested.
The military reputation of the Temple was cemented at the Battle of Montgisard, in 1177. Saladin had marched an army of over 25,000 men from the south to pin down the forces of the sixteen year-old leper king, Baldwin IV, about 500 knights and several thousand infantry, near Ascalon. Eighty Templar knights and their own entourage attempted to reinforce the army and bring Saladin to battle. Seeing them as too small a force to be worth engaging, Saladin turned his back on them and led his army towards Jerusalem.
Once Saladin and his army had moved on, the Templars joined with King Baldwin, and pursued north along the coast to Montgisard. Here they found that Saladin had permitted his army to temporarily spread out to pillage villages on their way to Jerusalem. The Templars took advantage of the Saracen’s disorder to launch a surprise ambush directly against Saladin and his bodyguard. Caught completely unawares, Saladin’s army was spread too thin to adequately defend themselves, and he and his forces were forced to fight a desperate retreat south. From here, things only got worse, as the Sultan was harassed and attacked by Bedouin nomads. By the time he arrived back in Egypt, only a tenth of his army remained, and his entire bodyguard of Mamelukes had been slaughtered, most in battle against the Templars. Although the battle only bought the Kingdom of Jerusalem a year’s truce, the victory, and the Temple’s role in it, became the stuff of legend.
Although relatively small in number, the Templars routinely joined other armies in key battles, their reputation allowing them to claim the vanguard or defense of the army’s rear during a retreat. Although the Order’s focus remained the Levant, by the late 12th century, the Temple was contributing growing numbers of knights to the Iberian "e;Reconquista"e;.
The Horns of Hattin
After the death of King Baldwin IV in 1186, the throne passed to his sister, Sibylla, and through her, to her husband, Guy of Lusignan. This was in large part due to the support of the Temple.
While handsome, brave, skilled in personal combat and from a powerful, old family, there were many reasons to distrust the wisdom of making Guy king. A relative newcomer to Outremer, he had little understanding of the delicate balance of power that Baldwin, or his predecessors had maintained by acknowledging and protecting many of the unique social and legal institutions of the native population. Worse, Guy’s crusading zeal was matched with his crass opportunism. In 1184, he attacked a tribe of Bedouin shepherds who had paid a tribute to the local Christians for allowing them the privilege of grazing their sheep. Guy and his men massacred as many of the tribe as they could and drove away the rest along with their flock. Although reprimanded by Baldwin, Guy continue to pray off of subject Muslims, straining racial tensions within the kingdom.
Further, while an excellent field commander once battle was enjoined, Guy had shown little skill as a tactician or strategist, and suffered from indecisiveness. Unfortunately, he had also been a patron of the Temple, which was itself chomping at the bit for a chance to engage Saladin, after the long series of truces that had been maintained by Baldwin, and his eagerness for battle may have been part of what led the Temple to throw Sibylla and Guy its support.
Certainly, if the Temple wanted war, its opportunity, and near destruction of its presence in the Levant, came on July 4, 1187, at a place called the Horns of Hattin. The Horns are so called for the two rocky peaks that rise over the brush covered slopes behind Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee. It was here that Saladin brought an army of over 12,000 mounted men to meet the forces of Jerusalem. The exact numbers of King Guy’s forces are unknown, but while his army has been estimated at 15 – 20,000 men, no more than 1,000 were knights, hastily assembled by depleting the garrisons of the surrounding cities.
At the urging of the Templar Grand Master, the Christian army set out for Tiberius in the early morning hours of July 3rd, leaving in their wake a well-watered camp to trek across the dessert, under the hot desert sun. By evening of July 3rd, the crusading army arrived at a plateau below the Horns of Hattin, having yet to find any water. Saladin’s men had come before them, and blocked the only stream.
Panic began to set in, and many men set out from the plateau to quench their thirst, only to be captured by Saladin’s men. The Moslems then set the dry grasses covering the hill ablaze, exacerbating the Christian’s thirst and desperation. By morning, Saladin’s men had completely enclosed the crusaders, and as dawn approached, the Moslem horns called the attack. Half-mad with thirst, and dramatically outnumbered, Guy’s army charged recklessly into the enemy. The battle was a slaughter. By the end of the day, only a small contingent of knights, charged with protecting King Guy and his command tent, still stood.
The leaders were then rounded up and taken to Saladin’s camp. The common soldiers were sold into slavery. The barons and knights were to be ransomed back to their people, with the exception of the Military Orders. Each Templar and Hospitaller was forced to his knees and beheaded. Saladin spared none except for the Grand Master of the Temple, Gerard de Ridefort. As for Guy, Saladin is said to have told him, "e;Have no fear. It is not the custom of kings to kill kings."e; Guy was released the following year from a prison in Nablus. He was ultimately forced to renounce his claim to the throne of Jerusalem; although he would later purchase Cyprus from the Templars and found a dynasty of Cypriot kings that survived for three hundred years.
Accusation and Trial
Although the Temple’s fortunes rebounded during the Third Crusade, even the gains of Richard I (the Lionheart), could not restore the Kingdom of Jerusalem, only fortify its remains for a time against the inevitable. In 1291, the city of Acre, which has served as the kingdom’s capital for a century, fell to the Mameluke Sultan Baibars, thereby extinguishing the last vestiges of "e;Outremer"e;. With the Holy Land back in Muslim hands, the Military Orders’ raison d’etre came into question. The Hospitallers fell back to their fortresses at Rhodes, Cyprus and Malta, and turned their eyes to protecting the eastern Mediterranean sea lanes against the ascendant Mamelukes. Other Orders sought enemies of the faith closer to home. Since the 1220s, the Teutonic knights had launched successful crusades against the Prussians, and now turned their attentions to the Lithuanians and Orthodox Russians. Only the Iberian Orders were largely unaffected by the fall of the Holy Land, as their battle had always been on the borders of their own homeland. As the Levantine Crusades came to an end, the Spanish Reconquista was entering a new phase of aggression, and the Iberian Military Orders were in the forefront.
But the Temple’s focus had been tied to the fortunes of Outremer. While the Temple had become increasingly involved in the Reconquista, the Iberian wars simply did not justify the vast network of preceptories dotted around Europe that made the Order omnipresent in the daily affairs of the Christian kingdoms. The Templars still owned vast land holdings, businesses, and shipping interests, and they still functioned as a bank or store-house for the personal valuables of some of the wealthiest European nobles and merchants. Since the Order was still not subject to any but the Pope, its wealth, military power and legal freedoms effectively made it a "e;state within a state,"e; bolstered by an army that had the legal authority to freely pass across any borders, but now had little clear purpose. It seemed only a matter of time before the Templars sought to create their own "e;monastic state"e;, as the Hospitallers were doing in Rhodes, and the Teutonic Order was seeking to do in the Baltic. But while Rhodes and Russia were on the fringes of Roman Christendom; the Templar’s European power-base was in France, England, Italy and Spain. It was thus little surprise that the rulers of Europe began to eye the Temple suspiciously.
Unfortunately for the Order, it was about to run afoul of the one man with the authority to bring it to heel, the Pope. The Avignon papacy, or as it became known, the "e;Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy"e; had already begun, and the new pope, Clement V, was a weak man, at precisely the same time that France was being ruled by a particularly aggressive, and ambitious, king: Philip IV ("e;the Fair"e;). Philip was deeply in debt to the Templars from a failed war with the English, and had made several attempts to ingratiate himself with the Order, even suggesting a role for himself as a member – while still maintaining his throne. Precisely what Philip proposed with his membership, and what this meant continues to be debated by historians, but the Order refused. Meanwhile, Pope Clement sent letters to both the Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay and the Hospitaller Grand Master Fulk de Villaret to discuss the possibility of merging the two Orders; an idea to which neither was amenable. But as their overlord, both agreed to meet with the Pope. During this meeting, de Molay and Clement discussed charges that had been made two years prior by an ousted Templar, which both agreed were likely false. Or so de Molay thought. Clement did not drop the matter, but sent a written request to King Philip, asking for his assistance in the investigation.
This gave Philip the opportunity for which he had been waiting. On Friday, October 13, 1307, Philip ordered de Molay and scores of other French Templars to be simultaneously arrested across France, on the charges of heresy and blasphemy. Under torture a number of knights, including Grand Master de Molay, confessed, and Philip sent the confessions to the Pope. Clement issued the bull Pastoralis Praeeminentiae, which instructed all Christian monarchs in Europe to arrest all Templars and seize their assets. While a number of monarchs followed the orders, others delayed, allowing the knights a chance to flee.
As hearings to determine the Templars’ guilt or innocence began, many of the knights, now freed from torture, recanted. Many determined to defend themselves in public trials, but Philip moves swiftly, and used the forced confessions to burn over fifty Templars at the stake while the Papal hearings were still proceeding. The proceedings dragged on; until the king then made it quite clear to Clement that he was willing to use force if the Pope did not comply with his wish to have the Order disbanded. At the Council of Vienne in 1312, Clement issued the Vox in excelso, which officially dissolved the Order. However, if Philip has expected to seize the Templars’ assets, he was thwarted, for Clement also issued the Ad providam, which turned over most of the Order’s wealth and holdings to the Hospitallers.
As for the leaders of the Order, the Grand Master Jacques de Molay, and Geoffrey de Charney, Preceptor of Normandy, recanted their confessions and were declared guilty of being relapsed heretics. They were sentenced to burn alive at the stake in Paris on March 18, 1314. According to legend, de Molay called out from the flames that both Pope Clement and King Philip would soon meet him before God. Pope Clement died only a month later, and King Philip died in a hunting accident before the end of the year. Although de Molay’s curse is likely the stuff of legend, that legend spread quickly, and probably helped begin the Templar "e;mystique"e; that continues to this day.
The remaining Templars were arrested and tried throughout Europe, but few were convicted. Many joined the other military orders, while the Templars of Portugal simply changed their name to the Knights of Christ. In Scotland, the already excommunicated King Robert the Bruce refused to take any action against the Order, and many English Templars may have simply fled north, just as many German and Italian knights are believed to have slipped into Switzerland, were the papacy’s power was weak.
Thus the Order of the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Jesus Christ and the Temple of Solomon passed into history and mythology, and lives on primarily in the speculations of Masonic historians and conspiracy theorists today. The Roman Catholic Church has long held the position that the persecution of the Templars was unjust, and that Pope Clement was pressured by King Philip to disband the Order. The Vatican set the matter to rest in October 2007, the 700th anniversary of the Templars’ arrest, when the Vatican published secret documents about the trial of the Knights Templar, including the Chinon Parchment, a record of the trial of the Templars, showing that Clement initially absolved the Templars of all heresies in 1308, before formally disbanding the Order in 1312.
Barber, Malcolm.The Trial of the Templars, 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Barber, Malcolm.The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple. Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Frale, Barbara (2004). "e;The Chinon charter – Papal absolution of the last Templar, Master Jacques de Molay"e;, Journal of Medieval History 30 (2): 109-134.
Howarth, Stephen,The Knights Templar, Marboro Books, 1991
Partner, Peter.The Knights Templar and their Myth. Destiny Books; Reissue edition (1990).
Upton-Ward, JM.The Rule of the Templars: The French Text of the Rule of the Order of the Knights Templar. The Boydell Press, 1992
The Military Orders
Part Two: The Hospitallers
Although the Knights Templar was the first and most famous of the military orders, much of their fame today is tied to their dramatic fall. But the ultimately most successful and important of the military orders was the Templars’ great rival, theSovereign Military Hospital and Order of St. John of Jerusalem, or the Knights Hospitaller.
The Order’s precise origins have been obscured in legend and romance, but precede both monastic knighthood and the Crusades. All accounts name the founder as one Gerald or Gerard Tum (also referred to as Tune, Tenque or Thom). Gerard was likely born at Amalfi around 1040, and had come to Jerusalem with a merchant caravan sometime prior to the First Crusade. This is where accounts begin to differ. In some, Gerard was a merchant, in others, a soldier. Some claim that he chose to remain in Jerusalem, and assumed the management of an Amalfian hospice within the pilgrim’s quarters of the city. This hospice was staffed by Benedictines and dedicated to St. John of Alexandria. But other accounts say that he built a new hospice and infirmary just outside the Holy Sepulchre, and dedicated it to St. John the Baptist. Regardless, his title as founder is attested to by a contemporary official document, the Bull of Paschal II of 1113, referring to him as the founder of a hospice of St John the Baptist. This was renewed and confirmed by Calixtus II shortly before Gerard’s death in 1120.
Gerard Tum, founder of the Hospitallers, from an 18th c engraving.
However Gerard’s hospice came into being, it flourished with the establishment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099. Grateful pilgrims bequeathed the hospice with territory and on-going sources of revenue, enabling Gerard’s successor, Raymond of Provence (1120-60), to build newer, larger buildings around the church of the Holy Sepulchre. He also shifted the focus from travelers’ hospice to hospital. Strictly speaking, therefore, the Hospitallers of Jerusalem began with Raymond of Provence. Raymond wrote the Order’s Rule, based on that of the Augustians, which established the Order’s first goal as the permanent maintenance of a hospital, staffed at its expense with five physicians and three surgeons, with the monastic brothers serving as attendants and administrators. There was no mention in the Rule about knights or military duties.
As the hospital continued to grow and thrive, Raymond added a second innovation: an armed escort to protect pilgrims. He drew this escort from newly arrived, European knights andturcopoles(light cavalry, recruited from among the natives of mixed blood). Raymond also created the first two military offices: amarshal, to command the knights, and aturcopolier, for the turcopoles, to manage this private army. It is unclear precisely how this military attachment transformed the entire organization into a military order, but it was probably inspired by the growing fame and prominence of the Knights Templar, who has been established in 1119.
The Templar’s influence on the growing Order of St. John was obvious. Like the Templars, the Order was exempted from all authority save that of the Pope, paid no tithes and owned its own buildings. Like the Templars, as the Hospital expanded beyond its Jerusalem headquarters, the Order establishedpriories, which were further subdivided intobailiwicks, comprised of multiplecommanderies. Although these commanderies were always established around a hospital, they were also carefully designed as a military instillation. Finally, the Hospitaller knights followed their Templar brethren in adopting a distinctive habit: a white "e;Maltese"e; cross on a black surcoat or cloak. In warfare, this mantle might be exchanged for a red surcoat with a white cross.
The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (c.1090 – 1291)
By the mid-12th century, the Hospitaller knights were clearly considered "e;military brothers"e;, co-equal with the infirmarians and subject to the Rule of the Order. Although nothing in the Rule gave precedence to the knights when determining overall leadership, it was perhaps inevitable in a warrior culture that the martial arm would come to dominate the Order’s administration. Beginning with Gosbert, the fifth successor to Raymond, all of the Order’s grandmasters were knights, and routinely led the knights into battle personally. Nevertheless, the first specific mention of military service was not appended to the Rule until the statutes of the ninth grand master, Alfonso of Portugal (c. 1200). Alfonso made a clear distinction between confrere, secular knights who served for a pre-specified time (usually of one to seven years), and monastic knights, who took the same three vows as the infirmarians. Chaplains, or ordained priests, formed the Order’s third division.
Krak des Chevalier
By the time the Kingdom of Jerusalem reached its height under Kings Baldwin III, Amalric and Baldwin IV (1160s – 1180s), the Hospitallers had over 140 estates throughout the kingdom, and over ten times that number in Europe. They also built or took command of seven massive strongholds, including the impenetrable Krak des Chevaliers, the most famous and impressive of all the Crusader fortresses. Originally built by the Syrians of Aleppo, during the 1170s the Hospitallers expanded it into the largest fortress in the Holy Land, creating a concentric castle by adding an outer wall three meters thick with seven guard towers eight to ten meters thick, and adding a dry moat and barbican. The fortress held about 50-60 Hospitallers and up to 2,000 turcopoles and foot soldiers. The Order’s grandmaster lived in one of the towers.
The Temple and the Hospital were both military Orders, headquartered in Jerusalem, and with similar, papal dispensations, so it is no surprise that a fierce rivalry developed between them. Unfortunately, this rivalry played its own part in destabilizing the Crusader kingdom. Kings and generals were reliant upon the Orders’ combined might, but they also had to navigate the jealousy and competition they felt for one another. On the battlefield, each Order demanded to be given the most perilous posts – the van and rear guard. Of these, the vanguard had the most prestige, so it became impossible for a commander to simply assign one Order to the rear and one to the van without someone taking offence. Peace could only be achieved by having the two Orders alternate who held which position. While this achieved political peace, it added needless complexity to the kingdom’s military organization.
After Saladin captured Jerusalem, the Hospitallers only remaining Levantine possessions were in the Principality of Tripoli. They lost these a little over a century later when Acre fell in 1291. Fortunately, as with their rivals of the Temple, the Hospitaller’s great wealth and European possessions allowed them to survive the loss of their Asian possessions. Still wealthy, well-armed and well-numbered, the Order retreated to the city of Limassol, on the island Kingdom of Cyprus, where they already had possessions.
A 14h century depiction of the Hospitaller Grandmaster and his knights.
The Knights of Cyprus and Rhodes (1309 – 1522)
Although King Amaury Lusginan had granted the Order a new home, the knights quickly found themselves drawn into the internal politics of the island kingdom. Guillaume de Villaret, the 24th grandmaster of the Order, determined that the only way to protect its autonomy was to acquire a desmesne of its own. He chose the island of Rhodes, which was under Greek Byzantine rule. Guillaume died before further plans could be made, and the conquest of the island passed to his successor and nephew, Fulk de Villaret.
Besieging an island required the knights to transform from a cavalry-based army to a naval power. Fulk proved up to the task, equipping the Order with galley fleets, built on the Venetian model. The attack on Rhodes and its surrounding islands was launched in 1307, and the island capitulated two years later. The Order of St. John had a new home.
Although considered the same Order, the Knights of Rhodes differed in practice from their Jerusalem-based antecedents in many ways. Firstly, the Order was now a temporal principality, with the sole responsibility and authority over its island territories. Secondly, the Order now found itself a naval power, with a unique position between Latin, Greek and Muslim territories. Rather than protecting pilgrim routes, their new role was to patrol seaways; their galleys giving chase to Muslim sea pirates, and in turn praying against Turkish merchant galleys.
The third change was the Order’s sudden rise in wealth and numbers with the unforeseen suppression of the Templars in 1312. This required the Order to reorganize yet again, dividing itself into "e;nations"e;, priories and commanderies. Each of the eight nations, loosely corresponding to an existing kingdom, was led by one of the eight senior officers of the Order. The grandmaster was elected from these eight officers, and ruled from Rhodes. He had supreme authority, but ruled with a curia regis comprised of both the leaders of the eight nations, and a local "e;supreme council"e;. Each nation was subdivided into three priories, and the priories were divided into 656 commanderies.
The Knights of Rhodes used their new wealth to build an impressive navy. Throughout the 14th century, they progressively turned from naval patrol to raiding Levantine coastal cities, targeting the wealthy ports of Egypt, which the Mameluke sultans proved powerless to stop. But in the 15th century a new power arose in the Orient; the Ottoman Turks. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet II, decided to turn his attention to the Order, which was now the largest threat to Muslim ships.
The Siege of Rhodes, 1480
The Order found itself waging a defensive war for its survival. After years of skirmishing, in 1480 Mehmet personally led an attack in with 50 ships and 70,000 men which struck at Rhodes itself. Bolstered by reinforcements from France, the Order repulsed the invaders and broke the siege. Their success bought the knights another two generations of military stalemate. But when the Ottomans returned in 1522, the new Sultan, Suleiman II, determined to overwhelm them with sheer numbers. Rhodes was besieged by a fleet of 400 ships and an army of 100,000 – 140,000 men. Against this horde, Grandmaster Pierre d’Aubusson had a force of 7,000 men. Only the Venetian garrison at Crete answered his call for aid. The Knights resisted daily onslaughts for six months. By the end of November, both sides were demoralized, exhausted, and suffering from disease. Suleiman offered the citizens peace, their lives and food if they surrendered, versus a promise of torture, death or slavery for continued resistance. On 22 December the inhabitants of Rhodes accepted Suleiman’s terms. The knights were given twelve days to leave the island and allowed to take their weapons and any valuables or religious icons. Native islanders who wished to leave were given a three year passport off of the island, and those who remained were granted a five year exemption from taxation. Finally, the Sultan forbade his troops from desecrating any churches, or converting them into mosques.
On 1 January 1523, the remaining knights and soldiers marched out of the town in full military order, armed and armoured, with banners flying and drums beating. The show of strength belied the reality; the ships they boarded had been leant to them by Suleiman himself. They sailed to Crete, accompanied by several thousand civilians. The second phase of the Order’s history had come to an end, but it was about to once more rise like a phoenix.
The Knights of Malta (1530 – 1798)
After the flight to Crete, the leadership of the Order came to Sicily, which was then under Spanish rule. The grandmaster appealed to Charles V to provide his Order with a new home, and was granted the island of Malta, along with the cities of Gozo and Tripoli. In Malta, the knights swiftly built a small fleet of galleys and turned to fighting the Barbary pirates. As nominal vassals of the Spanish king, they proved useful in aiding Charles V in his expeditions against Tunis and Algiers.
The Ottomans were not happy to see the Order resettled, and in 1565 a new expedition was launched against Malta. The island’s 700 knights and 8000 soldiers were besieged by an invasion force of about 40,000 men. Initially the siege seemed destined to be a repeat of Rhodes, as the Turks seized half of the island, slaughtered about half of the knights, and destroyed nearly the entire old city. But as the siege dragged on throughout the summer, the tide slowly turned against the Turks, and disease ran rampant through their camp. The siege was broken in September by a relieving Spanish army, thereby giving the Hospitallers the victory. The retreating Turks are said to have left with more than half of their army slain. A new city was built, and named Valette, in memory of the Order’s grandmaster who led the island throughout the siege.
While the knights would also gain renown for their aiding of the Venetian fleet at the great naval battle of Lepanto (1571), which decisively broke Ottoman sea power, these were the final great deeds of an Organization which had endured for over half a millennia. After Lepanto, the history of the Knights of Malta becomes nothing more than an endless series of inconclusive raids and naval actions against the pirates of the Barbary Coast. Many charged that the Knights became little more than corsairs themselves, rescuing Christian slaves and selling those captured Turks that were deemed unsuitable to rowing in one of the Order’s galleys. Certainly, slaving became one of the largest enterprises in Malta, and both the island and the Order slowly gained a reputation for decadence. In 1581, Grandmaster Jean de la Cassière was the victim of a revolt by his own knights. Their principle demand was enforcement of the vow of celibacy and the expulsion of the concubines and courtesans that were found throughout the capital. Outside of Malta, individual commanderies became increasingly autonomous, the knights carving out small, island fiefs for themselves.
The overall decay of the Order was probably hastened by the Protestant Reformation, as large swathes of the Order’s property were confiscated by Protestant nobles, particularly in German-speaking lands. With the Order’s power weakened and its prestige badly damaged, even Catholic monarchs began to encroach upon the commanderies, absorbing a territory and recasting it as a monarchical, ceremonial "e;knightly order"e;, while keeping the local treasury for themselves.
In the end, Malta did not fall to the cannons of the Turks, but in a bloodless betrayal by its own grandmaster, Count Ferdinand von Hompesch. On 12 June 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte asked for the right to harbor and resupply his ships during his expedition to Egypt. Once inside Valletta, Napoleon turned on his hosts, and von Hompesch immediately surrendered the island and all of the Order’s holdings. His defense was the rather hollow argument that the Order’s Rule forbade fighting against fellow Christians. Von Hompesh resigned his position and abandoned the island in disgrace, signaling an apparent end to the Knights of St. John.
And yet, the remnants of the Order persisted, rising from the ashes as it had twice before. While over 90% of its holdings had been lost, and there was no grandmaster, individual commanderies persisted, mostly in Eastern Europe, where the Order had found a patron in the Russian Czar. When the Order was summoned to attend the first of the Geneva Conventions (1864) it was recognized as both a military and humanitarian organization, and given an equal seat with the other nations of Europe. This set the stage for Pope Leo XIII to reinstitute the office of the grandmaster in 1879. At that time, the pope also reaffirmed the conditions for admission to the Order: membership in the Catholic faith, nobility of lineage, attainment of full legal age, and a recognized integrity of character. The Knights entered the 20th century with a return to their roots as humanitarians and medical personnel, based out of four commanderies: three in Italy and one in the Czech Republic. In the final years of the 20th century, the Order was allowed to return to the island of Malta, and established its headquarters in the Fort St. Angelo, on the escorts of Valletta.
Brockman, Eric.The two sieges of Rhodes. 1480 – 1522. London 1969.
Nicholson, Helen J.,The Knights Hospitaller, 2001
Peyrefitte, Roger.Knights of Malta, 1968
Pickles, T.Malta 1565: Last Battle of the Crusades; Osprey Campaign Series #50, 1998.
Seward, Desmond,The Monks of War: The military religious orders, 1972.
Tenison, EM.,A Short History of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem: from its earliest foundation in 1014 to the end of the Great War of 1914 – 1918. 1922
Trial by Combat:
The life-and-death duel between James le Gris and Jean de Carrouges
About this period, there was much conversation in France respecting a duel, which was to be fought, for life or death, at Paris. It had been thus ordered by the parliament of Paris, where the cause, which had lasted a year, had been tried, between a squire called James le Gris and Jean de Carrouges, both of them of the household of Peter, count d’Alençon, and esteemed by him; but more particularly James le Gris, whom he loved above all others, and placed his whole confidence in him. As this duel made so great a noise, many from distant parts, on hearing of it, came to Paris to be spectators. I will relate the cause, as I was then informed.
– Jean Froissart,Chronicles, Book III
In 1386, a few days after Christmas, two old friends met before the watchful eyes of King Charles VI of France, his court and a rowdy mob. Dressed in full armour, and mounted upon their destriers, they were sealed within an enclosed list. Their objective was simple – each sought to kill the other. Not only their lives now relied upon force of arms to prove God’s Judgment, but so did that of the heavily pregnant noblewoman who silently looked on. The crowd grew anxious with anticipation as the knight and squire mounted their horses….
If the above seems the climactic scene of either a Ridley Scott film or a juicy, bodice-ripping romance novel, the events leading to this tragic event – the last trial-by-combat approved by the French Parliament – are equally melodramatic. We would wonder if the famed chronicler Froissart weren’t playing the novelist, were not the events corroborated and recorded in numerous other sources. So how did we get here?
Jean de Carrouges was a Norman knight of a very old house, whose life had seen a series of declining fortunes. While bold, even brash, in war, these traits had served him poorly in politics and in his personal affairs. With the death of his overlord, the Count d’ Alençon, the new count Pierre was a rather vain man, given to both flattery and fine gifts.
Enter the squire, Jacques le Gris, who was a very different sort of man. Born barely within the rungs of the gentry, he was a clever and charming fellow, with all the skills of the social climber. Oddly, he formed an early, strong bond with Carrouges, and the two undertook a number of adventures together in their youth. Count Pierre also grew interested in this young knight-from-nowhere, and he became a favorite at court. Yet the more that Le Gris drew the Count’s praise, the more Carrouges drew his scorn.
Little by little, Sir Jean saw many of his family’s traditional holding and rights slipping to others, and he increasingly forced to ply his military skills in foreign expeditions in order to hold what remained. Tragedy struck when his wife died suddenly, leaving Carrouges without an heir. More years of hardship and battle, however, brought the embittered knight consolation in a new bride, Marguerite. The daughter of a traitor, the lady was nevertheless young, beautiful and of an old, wealthy house, and it seemed as if God had thrown them together to repair their broken reputations.
Meanwhile, as Carrouges was out burning villages for booty, Le Gris continued to prove his loyalty and usefulness to Count Pierre (not least by providing several health loans), and the Count naturally rewarded him – by granting Le Gris certain plots of land that Carrouges family had previously held. Carrouges was mortified, not only by the loss of the land, but by his "e;friend’s"e; contentment to hold it, and he demanded the matter be taken to court. Of course, the court was that of Count Pierre, who naturally concluded that his earlier decision had been within his rights. His famous temper getting the better of him, Carrouges rode for Paris to bring charges against both LeGris and the Count. A minor knight’s suit against a great lord was quickly dismissed. Ill-favored before, Carrouges now returned home disgraced, and was soon again seeking his fortunes in foreign wars.
Such were the lives of minor manorial knights in the Middle Ages, and the decline of the Carrouges family (as Marguerite had yet to become pregnant) was little different from many other families. But all of that changed in the most unlikely of ways – an effort by another of Count Pierre’s knights, and a friend to both men, who sought to reconcile them during a holiday feast in his own hall. At first it seemed as if this play would bear fruit, Carrouges introduced his young bride and Le Gris complimented her and exchanged pleasant words with his old friend. But something, and the histories are not certain what, made the meeting turn foul and the reconciliation did not go as planned. Whether or not it was another long litany of insults that Le Gris usually had to bear as Carrouges temper and pride again got the better of him, the usually calm, controlled Le Gris seems to have quietly snapped. Carrouges was soon off for Scotland, and Marguerite was left alone with her mother. It is here, as Le Gris enacted his revenge, that Froissart picks up the tale:
He took leave of his lord, the count d’Alençon, and of his wife, who was then a young and handsome lady, and left her in his castle, called Argenteil, on the borders of Perche, and began his journey towards the sea-side. The lady remained, with her household, in this castle, living in the most decent manner. Now it happened (this is the matter of quarrel) that the devil, by divers and perverse temptations, entered the body of James le Gris, and induced him to commit a crime, for which he afterwards paid. He cast his thoughts on the lady of sir Jean de Carrouges, whom he knew to be residing with her attendants, at the castle of Argenteil. One day, therefore, he set out, mounted on the finest horse of the count, and arrived, full gallop, at Argenteil, where he dismounted. The servants made a handsome entertainment for him, because they knew he was a particular friend, and attached to the same lord as their master; and the lady, thinking him no ill, received him with pleasure, led him to her apartment, and shewed him many of her works. James, fully intent to accomplish his wickedness, begged of her to conduct him to the dungeon, for that his visit was partly to examine it. The lady instantly complied, and led him thither; for, as she had the utmost confidence in his honour, she was not accompanied by valet or chambermaid. As soon as they had entered the dungeon, James le Gris fastened the door unnoticed by the lady, who was before him, thinking it might have been the work of the wind, as he gave her to understand.
When they were thus alone, James embraced her, and discovered what his intentions were: the lady was much astonished, and would willingly have escaped had she been able, but the door was fastened; and James, who was a strong man, held her tight in his arms, and flung her down on the floor, and had his will of her. Immediately afterward, he opened the door of the dungeon, and made himself ready to depart. The lady, exasperated with rage at what had passed, remained silent, in tears; but, on his departure, she said to him, — "e;James, James, you have not done well in thus deflowering me: the blame, however, shall not be mine, but the whole be laid on you, if it please God my husband ever return."e; James mounted his horse, and, quitting the castle, hastened back to his lord, the count d’Alençon, in time to attend his rising at nine o’clock: he had been seen in the hôtel of the count at four o’clock that morning.
Lady Marguerite said nothing of this to anyone, and the days passed. When her husband returned, she told him of Le Gris assault:
When night came, sir Jean went to bed, but his lady excused herself; and, on his kindly pressing her to come to him, she walked very pensively up and down the chamber. At last, when the household were in bed, she flung herself on her knees at his bedside, and bitterly bewailed the insult she had suffered. The knight would not believe it could have happened; but at length, she urged it so strongly, he did believe her, and said, "e; Certainly, lady, if the matter has passed as you say, I forgive you, but the squire shall die; and I shall consult your and my relations on the subject: should you have told me a falsehood, never more shall you live with me."e; The lady again and again assured him, that what she had said was the pure truth.
Sir Jean de Carrouges immediately went to Count Pierre demanding justice – either in the form of Le Gris’ confession and punishment or through trial by combat. The Count granted an inquest was held and the lady delivered her charges against Le Gris. The squire denied the charges, insisting that a witness could place him at home that evening. The Count concluded that, as it were impossible to ride seventy miles one day, the charges were impossible. He advised the Lady de Carrouges that she must have dreamt the entire episode, and declared the matter settled. Enraged, Carrouges stormed out, and determined that for the second time, he would go to Paris and appeal to Crown and Parliament to have his overlord’s ruling overturned.
The parliament heard the case, and summoned Le Gris, who again claimed his innocence. But now the matter had grown even more complicated, for Marguerite de Carrouges was pregnant, and could not be certain which man was the father. The scandal spread throughout France, and the investigation dragged on.
The cause lasted upwards of a year, and they could not any way compromise it, for the knight was positive, from his wife’s information, of the fact, and declared, that since it was now so public, he would pursue it until death. The count d’Alençon, for this, conceived a great hatred against the knight, and would have had him put to death, had he not placed himself under the safeguard of the parliament. It was long pleaded, and the parliament at last, because they could not produce other evidence than herself against James le Gris, judged it should be decided in the tilt-yard, by a duel for life or death. The knight, the squire, and the lady, were instantly put under arrest until the day of this mortal combat, which, by order of parliament, was fixed for the ensuing Monday, in the year 1387; at which time the king of France and his barons were at Sluys, intending to invade England.The king, on hearing of this duel, declared he would be present at it. The dukes of Berry, Burgundy, Bourbon, and the constable of France, being also desirous of seeing it, agreed it was proper he should be there. The king, in consequence, sent orders to Paris to prolong the day of the duel, for that he would be present. This order was punctually obeyed, and the king and his lords departed for France. … When the king of France was returned to Paris, lists were made for the champions in the place of St. Catherine, behind the Temple; and the lords had erected on one side scaffolds, the better to see the sight. The crowd of people was wonderful. The two champions entered the lists armed at all points, and each was seated in a chair opposite the other; the count de St. Pol directed sir Jean de Carrouges, and the retainers of the count d’Alençon James le Gris.
On the knight entering the field, he went to his lady, who was covered with black and seated on a chair, and said, "e;Lady, from your accusation, and in your quarrel, am I thus adventuring my life to combat James le Gris: you knew whether my cause be loyal and true."e; "e;My lord,"e; she replied "e;it is so; and you may fight securely, for your cause is good."e;
The lady remained seated, making fervent prayers to God and the Virgin, entreating humbly, that through her grace and intercession, she might gain the victory according to her right. Her affliction was great, for her life depended on the event; and, should her husband lose the victory, she would have been burnt, and he would have been hanged. I am ignorant, for I never had any conversation with her or the knight, whether she had not frequently repented of having pushed matters so far as to place herself and husband in such peril; but it was now too late, and she must abide the event.
The two champions were then advanced, and placed opposite to each other; when they mounted their horses, and made a handsome appearance, for they were both expert men at arms. They ran their first course without hurt to either. After the tilting, they dismounted, and made ready to continue the fight. They behaved with courage; but sir Jean de Carrouges was, at the first onset, wounded in the thigh, which alarmed all his friends: notwithstanding this, he fought so desperately that he struck down his adversary, and, thrusting his sword through the body, caused instant death; when he demanded of the spectators if he had done his duty: they replied that he had.
The body of James le Gris was delivered to the hangman, who dragged it to Montfaucon, and there hanged it. Sir Jean de Carrouges approached the king and fell on his knees: the king made him rise, and ordered one thousand francs to be paid him that very day: he also retained him of his household, with a pension of two hundred livres a-year, which he received as long as he lived. Sir Jean, after thanking the king and his lords, went to his lady and kissed her: they went together to make their offering in the church of Nôtre Dame, and then returned to their home.
Sir Jean de Carrouges did not remain long after in France, but set off, in company with the lord Boucicaut, sir Jean des Bordes, and Sir Lewis Grat, to visit the Holy Sepulchre, and the sultan of the Turks, whose fame was much talked of in France. Sir Robinet de Boulogne was also with him: he was squire of honour to the king of France, and had travelled much over the world.
This was the last judicial duel to be sanctioned by the French parliament. While many other judicial combat did occur in the 15th and early 16th centuries, they occurred in the realms of great lords who could defy the parliament if they chose, such as Brittany and Burgundy, and in the 16th century, under the direct authority of the King himself. This practice would end in 1547, with another bloody combat fought over a woman’s honor – the famed Jarnac-Chastaineraye duel. From this time forward, the formal judicial combat was replaced by illicit, private duels.
As for the Lord and Lady de Carrouges, their survival of the bloody affair brought them a great deal of fame, and not a little infamy. Whispers of what really happened that night continued to circulate around Marguerite, especially after she bore her son, who became Jean de Carrouges’ heir. Carrouges himself became a favorite of the king and was entered as one of his own knights, at last gaining a measure of the wealth and fame he had long sought. Ironically, this fame may have worked against him. Jean de Carrouges was chosen by Boucicault, the Marshal of France, to attend upon him in a crusade upon the Turks, a crusade which claimed his life at the disastrous battle of Nicopolis in 1396.
As for Le Gris, his guilt or innocence continue to be debated, not only throughout the life of his accusers, but down the centuries, giving rise to several alternate versions of the tale, and even launching a formal inquest and investigation of the case in the 18th century (in which Le Gris was convicted). Yet still the old myths persist and the knight, the squire and the lady, or at least their places in history, remain locked in battle.
Froissart,Chronicles, Book Three. (from the Thomas Johnes, translation, v. 2, pp. 203-06 .)
Nielson, George,Trial by Combat. Ediburgh, 1890 (2000 reprint).
For the latest, and perhaps most thorough, treatment of the Carrouges-LeGris duel, a new work,The Last Duelby Eric Jager, is highly recommended (www.thelastduel.com).
To see how a knight of this time might be armed for such an encounter in the lists, see our articleHow a Man Shall Be Armed.
by Gregory Mele
The question of raw silk (“silk noil”) is a tricky one. It’s one of those pieces of “general knowledge” amongst many sewers of medieval costume that “it wasn’t used” much as many will say that cotton “wasn’t used”. Of course, reality isn’t black and white, it is many shades of grey. Working from incomplete records, a handful of surviving samples, purchase rolls, etc., is like trying to view the world blind in one eye and with a cataract partly obscuring the other. It’s enough to drive you crazy – or to provide years worth of fun playing detective, depending on your temperament!
The issue of how much silk was used, whether it was first, second or third grade silk (also called “silk noil”) or blended silks (without even touching what sorts of blends and what they looked like), varied greatly from century to century and place to place. Even more importantly, it depended not only on the intended customer and their use for the fabric, but on the strength of the local weaving guilds in that time and place and their ability to protect their rights through enforced legislation. Thus what might be true in Flanders might not be in Aragon. In a place like Italy – the makers of fashion in the late 14th century and throughout the next century this means that what might be true in 1360 might not be by 1375, revert back to the first standard in 1400 and have changed again by 1450. At times what might be true in Venice might not be in Florence, etc.
This being said, we can establish some pretty broad patterns. There is an excellent, fairly new source called The Silk Industry in Renaissance Venice, by Luca Mola (Johns Hopkins University Press. 2000) that looks at the use of silks of a variety of grades, mixed grades and silk blends in the 14th -16th centuries, and much of what follows comes from this source. This gives the data something of an Italian slant, but as the principle silk center for central and Western Europe, the data is still fairly safe.
In the 12th and 13th century mixed fabrics (comprised of any combination of the three grades of silk) seem to have been quite common, and even garments of plain third grade silk (our friend silk noil) seem to be clearly documentable. So no problem there. In the 14th century, this becomes a trickier issue. Second and third grade silk were being used in their own right, and more commonly in silk blends through the first half of the 14th century. In the second half of the century, the Italian cities began to increasingly legislate fabric quality. Their first goal was to make sure that these lesser silks” were not being used in the weaving of luxury fabric such as brocades, satins and velvets. These expensive fabrics were a key component of the fabric trade and were aimed at a wealthy clientele. It seems fairly clear that the Guilds jealously protected the purity of their fabrics until standards began to relax in the 16h century.
However, there was both a middle grade of trade fabric as well as a “domestic” grade (“drappi domestici”) which were not intended for export. These could be second grade silk garments as well as mixed garments with a weft of noil or another fiber. This cheaper fabric would have been used by the lower parts of the upper class and the middle classes for less-formal garments. It allowed people to wear silk garments without paying the exorbitant rates attached to first quality fabric. Luca Mola gives fairly substantial evidence of these fabrics being used in the garments of Venetian citizens ranging from artisans to nobles, with data ranging from the 14th -16th centuries. He is careful to point out that the practice of widely exporting these fabrics died out in the second half of the 14th century until the 16th, but remained a common practice domestically.
Unlike the blended export fabrics the Guilds were specifically banning, wherein the rougher fibers were generally hidden, some of these fabrics seemed to have had a nubby quality that would have been wholly unacceptable in a fine fabric, but was suitable for the day wear of noble, or the attire of an artisan. There are some surviving examples of this sort of fabric in the Victoria and Albert’s fabric collection as well as in Ferrara.
So we have historical evidence of the use of a wide variety of silks and silk blends in the 14th century, although the Italian Guilds themselves tried to prevent their export. (On the other hand, as was pointed out in Olga Sronkova’s “Gothic Woman’s Fashion” the continual passage of new legistlation and fines prohibiting the practice in cities such as Lucca, and records of multiple seizures of fabrics being shipped out of Genoa to various parts of Europe suggests that the ability to prevent the export of “domestic fabrics” may have been somewhat limited.) But as you can see there are plenty of areas where the exact details are unclear, and we are forced to make guesses.
I hope this somewhat tangled history has at least given you an idea of what our historical data is. In choosing to use modern raw silk in our garments, we looked at the historical provenance of the fabric, as explained above – the nature of the garments – the dress of the middle classes, gentry or day wear of the lesser nobility. We then had to measure this against the financial reality of offering a line of “off the rack” clothing and try to chose a fabric that was a reasonable compromise for the domestic mixed silks that would have been available. We do not know with a certainty how many of their silk noil fabrics matched the noil fabrics being woven today, nor how common the nubby mixed fabrics were. Indeed the challenge for any professional costumer is to balance the choices of fabric (type and weave), machine stitching (how much? Can it be hidden?), and fittings (are they to be cast of an historical original? Of what material?) and to balance that against what the customer can afford. In our silk cotte we have tried to produce a garment that is clearly designed after historical sources, has no visible machine stitching other than its buttonholes, has buttons cast from a surviving period original, and is made of a fabric with an historical counter-part.
At Revival Clothing we provide quality reproductions utilizing materials and construction methods that are as close as possible to the originals while still being able to offer them at a reasonable price. The ornamentation of clothing in period was very individualized and to look authentic it typically needs to be done by hand. We view our garments as canvases upon which you can create your unique medieval look, even if you’ve never sewn a stitch. Below are three examples of gowns and two examples of surcoats that have been modified and ornamented using three different methods that methods used in the time period. These techniques can be used on any garment: hoods, cottes, chauses or even gambesons. Note that, with the exception of the block printing example, these examples were made using machine stitching, but they could also be done using hand stitching.
Shown here is our Gold Linen Gown with Linen Barbette, Rectangular Veil and Ladies’s Turret Hat. This gown was block printed using fabric paint and stamps commercially available at the craft store. Each piece was faced on the inside with plastic to prevent bleeding on the opposite side, painted, left to dry and then the painted areas were heated treated with an iron to set the paint according to the paint manufacturers instructions. In addition the neck and sleeve edge were finished with red piping (available at the fabric store) and the sleeves were slit to add red handmade fabric buttons that close with handmade fabric loops.
Shown here is our Blue Silk Gown with a Linen Barbette, Rectangular Veil and Medieval Underdress. The long sleeves of this gown were cut to form oversleeves that hang down (this style proceeded the evolution of the separate tippet and can be seen in the Lutrell Psalter, circa 1340) and are lined in dark green. The entire gown was painted with fabric paint in the simple three circle pattern found in the clothes of several 14th century manuscripts. At the neck, hem trim was added that has the depth and appearance of embroidery. Finally, a scallop pattern of machine embroidery was added below the trim around the neck, sleeve edge and hem. This is an excellent example of how several methods of ornamentation can be used on one garment.
Shown here is our Black Silk Gown with Linen Wimple and Silk Veil. Applique was used on this gown at the neck, sleeve edges and wrist. The fabric used for the applique came from a single scrap of tapestry fabric – different parts of the pattern were used on each of three areas. The method employed involved cutting around the pattern leave 1/8″-1/4″ from the edge of the desired part of the pattern. Then the tapestry was pinned to the dress and a machine satin zig-zag stitch was used on all the raw edges. In this case, the fabric used was pretty stiff and generally stayed in place with pins, but when using a lighter weight fabric in the applique it can be useful to stabilize the area by first fusing the applique to the garment using Stitch Witchery, or a similar product, found at the fabric store. The inspiration for this design comes from a depiction of a maiden of noble birth shown as an angel in the painting of the Resurrection by the Vyssi Bord Master dating circa 1350.
Shown here are two of our Surcoats that have had multiple layers of piping added at the armhole and neckline. The first Surcoat is pattern and is worn with our Green Silk Gown, Silk Veil, Barbette and Ladies Tapestry Hat pattern. The second Surcoat is shown with our Red Silk Gown and Rectangular Linen Veil. The multicolored piping used on both can be found in the home decorating section of retail fabric stores. The piping was simply top stitched on the finished edge of the surcoat making for a quick, simple project that adds the perfect, individualized finishing touch.
Shown here is our Wool Cotte and Linen Liripipe Hood. The Wool Bag-sleeved Cotte has had woven trim added to the cuffs, hem and front opening. The trim was chosen for its colors and period appropriate pattern and top stitched on the finished cotte. The buttonholes were restitched into the trim along the front opening. We’ve replaced the traditional pin closure on the Linen Liripipe Hood with a row of several small pewter buttons and added the corresponding buttonholes. The wool cotte is shown with our Wool Chauses in the black/brown tweed and both the linen hood and our Men’s Tapestry Hat. The linen hood is shown with our Men’s Tapestry Hat and our Wool Tunic in the black/brown tweed.
Here we have a coordinated set of 12th century outfits – our Silk 12th century Pendant-sleeved Gown and Silk Supertunic Linen Under Tunic. The Silk Gown was rinsed several times to slightly dull the intensity of the color and give it a slight aged, naturalistic look. Tablet woven trim was then sewn to the neckline and then gold hand embroidery was added to both top and bottom of the trim. Geometric patterns common to this period were also hand embroidered in browns and greens around the upper arm and the inside edge of the sleeve. The Gown is shown with our Linen Underdress, Linen Wimple and Double Wrapped Tapestry Belt.
The Men’s Supertunic is enhanced by the additional of woven trim at the Upper arm and coordinated trim was added to the neckline of the Linen Undertunic. This is a great example of how a little trim, judiciously applied and few minutes of sewing takes an ensemble to the next level.
This outfit combines our Silk and Linen Men’s Clothes for a unique particolored effect. Our Reversible Silk Cotte is worn with both Silk and Linen Chauses, Ribbon Garters, Linen Liripipe Hood, Coif and Shirt. One of each of two pairs of chauses, Blue Linen and Green Silk, are worn for particolored effect. Notice that cuffs of the cotte are rolled up to show the contrast color and the particoloring extends to the garters and the short boots. It is the details like this that really bring an outfit to life. The Blue Linen Hood has had trim added to the front edge for added contrast. Note that trim was chosen that has a matching background color to the Blue linen to further the illusion and make the trim look like it was embroider directly on to the hood. Our model is showing off the advantages to ladies to sometimes adopting medieval men’s clothes on the hottest days.
This outfit consists of our Wool Tunic and Hood and Linen Chauses for a completely particolored look. Our Wool Tunic is worn with both particolored Linen Chauses, Ribbon Garters, Ankle Boots, and Leather Gloves. We have extended our particoloring right down to the Gloves and Boots combining the colors of Brown, Green, Red and Gold, using the brighter colors to accent the more subtle tones. Here, we also show our Wool Dagged Hood rolled up into the Chaperone Hat. In the second photo we show the two particolored outfits together to demonstrate the full vibrancy of a medieval illuminated manuscript.
It all began when men began indiscriminately showing off their legs, and women bared their collarbones…
When viewed across its long history, Western fashion is seen as particularly unique for two reasons. The first is a continuous evolution of style that is unlike anything seen in other cultures, with changes in fashion that can often be marked decade by decade. The second is the sharp contrast that has long existed between men and women’s formal costume, generally consisting of a short shirt and jacket for men, and a long gown for women.
Yet neither of these things was true throughout either Antiquity or the long centuries of the Early and High Middle Ages. Nor, after centuries of slow evolution and innovation, is it likely that anyone would have expected a single garment to be the birth of modern European fashion. But it should not surprise us today that the history of costume was swept along as the rest of European society and technology was up-ended by the sweeping changes wrought by the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, and the first stirrings of Humanism in the Italian city-states.
At the turn of the 14th century, the simple tunic and dalmatic had formed the basis for male and female costume in Europe for nearly a millennium. While in any given century or location the tunic might be worn longer or shorter, with tighter or looser sleeves, and with or without an additional over-tunic, the basic pattern always remained the same: a loose, relatively unconstructed garment made of straight seams and draped fabric, which was primarily given shape through belting.
Left: Buttoned cotehardie onJoan de la Tour, weeper
from the tomb of Edward the III, c 1377-86.
Right: Laced cotehardie on Catherine Beauchamp,
Countess of Warwick, c 1370-1375, St Mary’s Church
Unlike thecotehardie,houppelandeor doublet, the cloak requires little explanation even to those unfamiliar with medieval or Renaissance clothing. A loose skin, fur or fabric wrap was an all-purpose outer layer of clothing for nearly all cultures from the Neolithic Age to the 19th century. Although its waning popularity in the last hundred years has largely relegated it to "e;historical"e; and "e;vintage"e; clothing, the cloak persists in popular imagination as a staple of both quasi-historic fantastic literature and the far-future realms of science fiction.
In ancient times and pastoral cultures, the simple shape of the cloak has spoken to its twin nature as an outer garment by day and makeshift bedding by night, making it a staple garment for both genders of all classes and cultures. Whether it be the distinctive red cloak of the Roman centurion, the sweeping mantle of a Byzantine Emperor, the striped hayk of Arabian nomads, the woven poncho of a Peruvian, or the silken opera cape of the Victorian gentleman, the basic form and function of the garment remains the same. Although occasionally a simple rectangle of fabric, particularly in earlier periods and amongst more primitive cultures, for most of its history the cloak has either been semi-circular or circular in shape. What has changed from time to time, and place to place are the preferred fabrics, length and methods of closure used in its manufacture.
Most primitive and ancient cloaks were simply draped and pinned about the person. By the classical era, there were clear national styles, even within as relatively small a region as the eastern Mediterranean. In the warm climate of North Africa, where even the wealthiest classes often wore little more than a kilt, the cloak was simply a light covering against sun and wind, and the Egyptians favored a shorter cape made of very fine cotton, arranged in careful pleats descending from a broad, decorative neckband. Across the Mediterranean, Greeks and Romans favored larger, heavier garments that were designed to provide warmth in winter and protect against rain. Peasants, soldiers and traveling men wore knee-length cloaks that fasted at the shoulder, such as the Greek chlamys and the Roman sagum. The Roman, paenula followed a similar model, but added a short hood to cover the head. These short cloaks were generally woolen, not pleated cotton, but otherwise differed little from their Egyptian counterparts. However, amongst both sexes of the middle and upper classes an entirely different type of garment, the Greek himation and the Roman palla, was worn, comprised of rectangular lengths of fabric draped and wrapped about the body. The most distinctive Roman garment, the woolen toga, was nothing more than an outgrowth of these older, wrapped mantles, which became the symbol of Roman citizenship. It was considered scandalous for women to wear the toga, and they instead wore the simpler palla, which functioned as both cloak and veil.
A statue of Livia Drusila in the stola and palla of a Roman free woman.
North of the Alps, the Iron Age cloak followed a similar pattern throughout Europe for both sexes, and was not dissimilar to the Greek chamlys – a predominantly square or rectangular cloak, usually about knee length, fastened at the shoulder by a brooch or pin. The shoulder fastening was particularly common for men, as closing the cloak at the right shoulder kept the right arm – the sword arm – uninhibited. Northern cloaks were generally woolen, and sometimes fur-lined. They might have hoods, but commonly a separate hood or hat was worn.
Although Byzantine fashion went through many changes during the 1000 years in which the Eastern Empire outlived its Western counterpart, Byzantine society was highly conservative, and continued to reference its classical antecedents. Although the toga itself had been replaced by the tunic and dalmatic in the 6th century, the old Greek chlamys, fashioned at the shoulder, persisted throughout the Middle Ages, although it could be worn as short as hip-length or as long as to the ankles. Byzantine fashion, and artistic models, remained so rigid through the Empire’s history that there is virtually no difference between the long chlamys depicted on a mosaic of the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, from that shown in the icon of a military saint in the 14th.
The Byzantine cloak remained virtually unchanged throughout the Empire’s history as seen in this 6th c mosaic of Justinian I in Ravenna, Italy, and this 14th c icon in Istanbul.
Classical fashions influenced European cloaks in a more subtle fashion. In the early Middle Ages, short cloaks, and those of the working classes, more or less followed the old, Germanic model: square, rectangular or semi-circular, and usually pinned at the shoulder. Fabric was invariably woolen, and length was mid-knee to ankle. In the late 11th century the "e;mantle"e;, a long, voluminous semi-circle cloak, supplanted the old rectangular cloak amongst the nobility and wealthier classes. Unlike earlier circular cloaks, the mantle was far more-fully cut and generally closed in the front by cords or chains across the chest, often attached to a metal boss on each side of the garment.
By the turn of the 13th century, the first full circle cloaks had appeared. An example of conspicuous consumption, full-circle mantles could be worn like their half-circle counterparts, but were more commonly worn in one of two fashions. The first used the same front-closure and then took the vertical hem from one side and pulled the fabric up and over the opposite shoulder, and onto the back. The second fashion drew one side of the edge well over the left shoulder and across the chest, where the extra fabric was tucked through the belt. The overall effect hearkened back, consciously or unconsciously, to the late Roman toga, and is usually only depicted in the images of great magnates.
The elaborately embroidered coronation cloak of Roger II (1095 – 1154) of Italy is not only a perfect example of the medieval “mantle”;, but is one of the best preserved pieces of medieval clothing extant.
In the mid-13th century there was a short-lived fashion called thegardecorps. This unusual over garment had a pair of long, wide sleeves that were added to the body of the old knightly surcoat. The sleeves were cut with a vertical opening near the armpits so that the arms could pass through and be free of the garment when its bulk and warmth was not required. Overall length could vary, but was usually no more than knee length. The garment could be worn with a hood and shoulder cape, or might have an integral hood of its own. An outgrowth of the surcoat, the gardecorps was meant to replace both that garment and the cloak as a final layer when traveling outdoors. Although in many ways it pre-figured the short, split-sleeve houppelandes of the 15th century, the gardecorps was never a dominant fashion and it was the separate cloak and over tunic that persisted and evolved in the 14th century.
The Gardecorp was a short-lived fashion, combining both cloak and surcoat.
Most high and late medieval cloaks did not have an integral hood. Instead, it was worn with a separate hood that usually had a cowl which fell completely overly the shoulders. Although the lack of integral hood at first seems odd, the arrangement provided two layers of wool over the neck, throat and shoulders during inclement weather, which worked much better to keep rain, snow and cold air out. Conversely, in warmer weather, the cloak could be set-aside to reduce heat, while the hood was still present to cover the head against rain and sun. For additional warmth, mantles were often lined; sometimes with a contrasting fabric, or with fur amongst the wealthy.
Although the semi- and full circular cloak retained its basic form during the later Middle Ages it is shown as being worn less often by the wealthy, except usually in winter and when travelling. This is likely attributable to the appearance of the voluminous houppelande, usually worn over a doublet or gown, which like the gardecorp before it provided a great deal of warmth and protection from the elements, especially when worn with a separate hood or chaperone.
A beautifully preserved cloak of the late 16th century, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
At the turn of the 16th century, cloaks again began to be seen as a more common component of daily fashion, both in their old form, and increasingly in the style of a shorter cape. The influence of Spanish fashion, where the cloak had always remained popular, during the second half of the sixteenth century led to the reintroduction of cloaks throughout Europe. Spanish styles varied greatly in length and fullness, by the addition of hanging or open sleeves, such as had been seen with the gardecorps and houppelandes, and by the use of a wide or turned back collar. Cloaks could be worn over both shoulders or covering only one, draped over an arm or slung around the body by its fastening cords. As in previous centuries, the wealth commissioned their cloaks in sumptuous fabrics, but now particular attention was paid to the lining, which was often as elaborate as the outer shell.
The cloak continued to be an item of fashionable dress for men in the seventeenth century until, in the last quarter of the century the advent of the habit d la francaise finally replaced the cloak with the traditional three-piece suit. With the development of the men’s suit, also came the appearance of the greatcoat, and the cloak’s popularity began to wane for the final time. By the nineteenth century, men generally wore greatcoats rather than cloaks, but voluminous cloaks with shoulder capes still persisted when travelling, and black opera capes were fashionable with evening dress. The opera cloak was usually of velvet or cloth, fastened with silk cords and lined with coloured silk. Cloaks and capes had persisted in feminine fashion all this time because their fullness and looseness was well-suited to wearing over the immense skirts of the period. But as women’s clothing assumed a more natural line in the 20th century, female versions of the overcoat also became more popular, and finally all but completely supplanted the cloak.
©2009 Revival Clothing
The giving of gifts was central to Norse culture. In a culture where one wore their wealth, a warrior proudly displayed golden armbands and fine belt fittings, while a woman’s neckrings and amber beads denoted her husband’s status. The giving of rings, armbands, swords, spears and fine cloaks were all traditionally bestowed by jarls to their warriors as rewards.
The seamstress’s art was prized amongst Norse women, and the needle-case and scissors were not merely tools, but adornments. As with a man’s rings, the finer the woman’s station, the fine the quality of these tools, which would be worn pinned to her apron and would ultimately become part of her grave goods. Thus, as a jarl gave rings, armbands, and weapons, women gifted clothes.
The gift of a shirt from a woman to a man, was a unique gift, which could only be respectably given between betrothed or married couples, or from a mother to her son. Unlike other gifts of clothes, a shirt must be newly made. The importance of the shirt-gift is a recurring theme in the Sagas, such as in Kormak’s Saga, wherein Kormak uses the gift as way to test the fidelity of his old lover:
Now Thorvald the Tinker asked Steingerd to wife. Her folk were for it, and she said nothing against it; and so she was wed to him in the very same summer in which she left Bersi.
When Kormak heard the news he made as though he knew nothing whatever about the matter; for a little earlier he had taken his goods aboard ship, meaning to go away with his brother. But one morning early he rode from the ship and went to see Steingerd; and when he got talk with her, he asked would she make him a shirt. To which she answered that he had no business to pay her visits; neither Thorvald nor his kinsmen would abide it, she said, but have their revenge.
(Kormak’s Saga, Chapter 17; translation by W.G. Collingwood & J. Stefansson, 1901)
In the same way, in Gisla Saga, the hero’s brother Thorkel learns of his wife Asgerda’s unrequited love for his friend Vestein, when he overhears her talking with Vestein’s sister, and learns that she is making him a shirt:
Thorkel the Soursop was very fond of dress and very lazy; he did not do a stroke of work in the housekeeping of those brothers; but Gisli worked night and day. It fell on a good drying day that Gisli set all the men at work hay-making, save his brother Thorkel. He alone of all the men was at home, and he had laid him down after breakfast in the hall, where the fire was, and gone to sleep. The hall was thirty fathoms long and ten broad. Away from it, and to the south, stood the bower of Auda and Asgerda, and there the two sat sewing. But when Thorkel wakes he goes toward the bower for he heard voices, and, lays him down outside close by the bower. Then Asgerda began to speak, and said:
"e;Help me, Auda dear; and cut me out a shirt for my husband Thorkel."e;
"e;I can’t do that any better than thou,"e; says Auda; "e;nor wouldst thou ask me to do it if thou wert making aught for my brother Vestein."e;
"e;All that touches Vestein is a thing by itself,"e; says Asgerda; "e;and so it will be with me for many a day; for I love him more than my husband Thorkel, though we may never fulfil our love."e;
"e;I have long known,"e; said Auda, "e;how Thorkel fared in this matter, and how things stood; but let us speak no more of it:’
"e;I think it no harm,"e; says Asgerda; "e;though I think Vestein a good fellow. Besides I have heard it said that ye two–thou and Thorgrim–often had meetings before thou wert given away in marriage."e;
"e;No wrong came of it to any man,"e; said Auda, "e;nor has any man found favour in my eyes since I was given to Gisli. There has been no disgrace. Do pray stop this idle talk."e;
And so they did; but Thorkel had heard every word they spoke, and now he raised his voice and said:
"e;Hear a great wonder,
Hear words of doom;
Hear matters mighty,
Murders of men!"e;
(Gisla Saga, Chapter 6; translation by G.W. DaSent, 1866)
In the more fantastic of the Sagas, the shirt was just as worthy as a sword or ring to be imbued with magical powers. During an adventure in Ireland, the hero Orvar-Odd (Arrow-Odd) wins an Irish witch named Olvor for a bride. Their first meeting comes after he has killed her three brothers and found the beautiful girl hidden with three other women. Olvor comes forward and offers a shirt, and by implication herself, to Odd:
Then the other women took hold of her and tried to keep her back, but she told them not to do so. “I want to make a bargain with you, Odd,” she said. “Let me go in peace, I’m not short of money.”
“Your money is the last thing I want,” said Odd, “I’m not without silver or gold either.”
“Then I’ll make you a shirt,” she said.
“The answer is still the same,” said Odd. “I’ve had more than enough of shirts and shirt-making.”
“You’re in no position to get a shirt like the one I’ll make for you,” she said. “It will be made with silk and embroidered with gold. And I’ll endow the shirt with certain qualities you’ve never been offered before.”
“Tell me more,” said Odd.
“You’ll never be cold in it, either by sea or land. You’ll never be tired when swimming, never hurt by fire, never troubled by hunger, and no iron will bite you. It will protect you against everything, with one exception.”
“What’s that?” said Odd.
“Iron will bite you if you run away,” she said, “even though you wear the shirt.”
“I’ve better things to do than run away from battles,” said Odd. “When can the shirt be ready?”
(Olvar-Odd’s Saga, Chapter 12, Translated by Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards)
Odd’s comment that “I’ve had enough of shirts and shirt-making”, perhaps suggest a number of youthful misadventures in love. Certainly, it makes it clear that, like many Norse heroes, he was no stranger to the wiles of women, whom the Sagas seemed to universally agree were the most dangerous creature in the Viking’s universe!
Q: First off, why shoes? That is to say, if your original medieval handicrafts interest was armouring, what made you decide to pursue Medieval cobblery?
DS: I learned how to make shoes as an outgrowth of making armour. In order to make armour for the feet (sabatons) the shoes have to be the right shape. Modern shoes cannot be used as a basis to build sabatons that look right.
Q: can you tell us a little about where you learned how to make medieval shoes, and how long you have been do so?
DS: I first began making shoes sometime in the late 1980s, and it really was an outgrowth of my interest in armouring. I was driving from Chicago to Milwaukee to study armouring with Aaron Toman and Wade Allen (of Valerius Armouries), and they had discovered a lot of shoemaking supplies left over in the factory they were using as their shop space. They also found that their leather supplier has a lot of shoemaking supplies. At this time there was simply nothing readily available in the way of medieval footwear in the USA, and without the presence of the Internet, finding overseas vendors was all-but-impossible. Consequently, most people were using modified moccasins, moccasin boots or various forms of non-descript ankle boots. I can’t tell you how many “cavalier boots” were just motorcycle boots that had tall leather uppers stitched on!
By this point Aaron and Wade had taken the state of their armouring to a much more advanced level – a level that most armourers have just begun to match in the last seven or eight years. So it seemed horrid to have this carefully replicated leg harness end in a pair of jack-boots! Basically, it meant that, if they were going to have the right footwear with their armour, they were going to have to figure out how to make it themselves. I was fortunate enough to in the right place at the right time. It was basically a convergence of interest and opportunities.
Q: How many surviving shoes from the period 1000 – 1500 do we really have? Is there anything about them or their construction that might surprise the average reenactor?
DS: Footwear isn’t like linen gowns, where much of our reconstruction must come from looking at artwork. There are thousands of surviving medieval shoes out there! In fact I own dozens of original shoes myself. The reason we do not see more of them in museums is that frankly, after nearly a millennia in a refuse pit, they are just ugly! Many of the surviving examples look like old, rotten banana peels–black and desiccated. These are not the sorts of things that most museums want to display.
But there is a lot to be learned from these shriveled husks. The most unusual feature that I have found on the shoes I have handled is the number of pieces from which they were made. Medieval man was a great conservationist of resources and you can see it in these shoes, which are often pieced together out of little bits. No leather was wasted. The other thing I found surprising was how thin the soles were on the surviving examples. They really are just leather slippers. I must admit that I feel it necessary to make the soles on the shoes I designed much thicker so as to provide reenactors with modern feet a modern level of comfort. They will also last longer with the thicker soles.
Q: What made you decide to develop a premium shoe line with Revival?
DS: Moving from custom work to design work was really a natural evolution that followed changes in my life. I ran a custom shoe business for more than a decade and have probably taught more people to make shoes than anyone else in the medieval reenactor community. I have written more than a dozen books and created numerous videos on how to make medieval shoes and boots (talbotsfineaccessories.com) I have taught classes all over the country and have sold thousands of copies my shoemaking instructional materials to people on every continent in the world except Antarctica (so come on Antarctica, someone buy my books! It’s the perfect project while you’re snowed in your research lab.)
By profession, I am a high school principal and will be completing my doctorate in a little over a week. Sadly, that means I simply no longer have the time to make shoes for individuals. Nevertheless, I still gets order requests on at least a weekly basis. Part of the reason the folks at Revival Clothing approached me was that they were unhappy with their current designs and has asked me to critique them. I knew the pattern well, as it had been adapted from one of my old patterns used by a former student who ran a business called Alistair’s Footwear. Unfortunately, there were a number of refinements that I had adopted in the ensuing decade that had never gone into Alistair’s patterns, and they made the final product close but not correct.
After I gave them my feedback, the Revival folks came back with an intriguing proposition: what if I helped them design an entire new line of leather goods? I jumped at the chance. It was just the opportunity I was looking for. Here was a way that I could still be helping reenactors get quality footwear at a reasonable price without spending all of my free time in my workshop. I had previously had the chance to work with Revival as a consultant and fit model when they designed their gambeson, so I knew that their business model was to combine quality and authenticity with a practical price-point that the average reenactor could meet. Because Revival has been able to meet that goal and maintain a standard of high quality, I felt confident that they would be willing to let me design a range of footwear that would meet my own high standards without making any compromises. It was a perfect fit (just like our shoes).
Q: What makes it “premium”?
DS: For me, there are three key elements that give the new line the “premium” label:
1. Historically Accurate and Documentable Design: each of the shoes in our line is base on specific historical examples. In many cases the originals are pieces that I have personally owned or handled.
2. Superior Materials: Our leather is barrel dyed and the color permeates the leather. This is not only much closer to a medieval process and finish, but it keeps the leather soft and supple. It also means the product does not get the plasticized surface coating that is often used for other “medievalesque” footwear.
3. Historically Accurate Construction: each shoe is hand sewn using the authentic edge/flesh or grain/flesh stitches used in the Middle Ages and renaissance. In the case of the ankle boots we have opted to use a later period technique with nailed soles so that we can have thicker soles. The deciding factor in this was the on-going request from reenactors who use the boots in combat, and want the more solid foundation while in the field. As I alluded to earlier, another key point is the construction of the toes on our footwear. Our toes are finished like proper medieval shoes, and don’t use a single stitch to finish their toes. This technique was invented in the mid 1990s run by Alastair’s Footwear, as an expedient to make shoe construction faster, because turning the toes properly is difficult and time consuming. Unfortunately, the modern “innovation” isn’t just inaccurate, it’s mechanically weaker. That single stitch can break easily and the opening at the end of the toe is not water tight. I was adamant with Revival that we the time to make the toes of our shoes better, and they readily agreed.
Q: How has designing an off-the rack shoe line been different from running a custom-shoe business?
DS: The biggest difference, and no small challenge, is that our shoes need to fit a wider variety of feet. When I ran a custom shoe business, I made specifically fitted shoes for specific feet. I have made shoes for people with special foot needs (extra toes, fused ankles, etc…) I have also made shoes for people who have unusually shaped or sized feet (16 EEEE, AA width heel and D width ball, flat feet, etc…) We simly cannot do that with a shoe line, so our shoes are made to fit most people. For those for whom custom shoes are necessary, I generally recommend people to contact armalnn.com, where another of my former students continues the types of shoemaking that I used in my custom footwear business.
Q: What made you choose this particular ankle boot and turn shoe to launch the new leather goods line?
DS: The boots and shoes I chose were selected for their usefulness across a relatively broad period of time. Revival’s core line has been the High and Late Middle Ages, so I obviously wanted to fit as much of that period as possible. Once that decision was made, I also selected beautiful, classic examples of shoes from within that period. There are some really cool examples of footwear that I would like to add to the line but many of them are only appropriate for a very limited period of time (i.e. 1250-1275.) As the line expands and grows, you may see a few of these unique shoes appear.
Q: If you read internet forums, there is a lot of “common wisdom” amongst reenactors about the relative merits and liabilities of turned shoes verses nailed or welted soles. Can you explain what the real versus perceived advantage of each is?
DS: That is a difficult question. Each has its advantages…
The turn shoe is the most authentic option. They are wonderful for most applications. I fight in a pair of turn shoes and wear turn shoes for most of my reenactment interests.
Having said that, I realize that some people have very sensitive feet, need to wear orthotics inside their shoes, need more support when they fight, or the like, and the nailed sole is great if you want a more rugged, thicker soled option. If you have to walk on a lot of gravel or stones they are perfect. The other advantage is that if you need to replace the sole because it has worn out, any shoe repair store understands nailed soles and can replace it easily.
Welted construction is an historical technique that is bit like both turned and nailed shoes, and yet neither. It is authentic, and quite distinctive, for later period shoes and it easily accepts thick soles. The real drawback comes in its appearance, which reads as very modern to the eye, especially when applied to a High Medieval shoe. A nailed shoe, while using later construction methods to create a more rugged product, at least still appears medieval.
Long story short, if your first goal is authenticity, stick with the turn shoes. If you want to look authentic but need more durability, go with the nailed shoe. Save the welted soles for those designs to which they are historically correct.
Q: There is also a lot of discussion about colored shoes depicted in illuminations vs. the color of surviving artifacts. Who would be most likely to have colored shoes and why? For authenticity purists, which colors should be their first choice, and why?
DS: This is a tricky question. Certainly there are illuminations and paintings of people wearing colored shoes. However there are no surviving examples of leather shoes in colors. There are some surviving cloth shoes in red and other colors. All the surviving examples I have ever encountered have been brown or black. The black may actually be a dark brown that has darkened further due to the passage of 500 years while being submerged in earth/mud/water… So the most conservative answer for the authenticity purist would be to select brown shoes, followed by basic black for portrayals with a little more status.
Nevertheless, for most people, especially if your portrayal is the mercantile or knightly class, I say go with the colors! Be heraldic! Be dramatic! Buy two pairs in different colors and wear a one color on each foot with parti-colored clothing. One rule of thumb for medieval fashion in the Late Middle Ages is that ostentation and conspicuous display is a way to show your importance, wealth, or illusion thereof! So embrace that idea and coordinate your shoes with your clothing!
Q: Finally, what’s on the horizon?
DS: Lots of exciting new things; some which I think will be a pleasant surprise! But without tipping the hand too much, our next addition to the footwear line will be the Gaston Phoebus Hunting Boot. This boot is based on the circa 1400 illuminated manuscript commonly referred to Gaston Phoebus’ Book of Hunting, and will be the prefect completion to the Gaston Phoebus wardrobe that Revival already offers. This is an above the knee boot with buckles along the calf and ankle to give a fitted look and feel. I have just seen finished prototypes and am very pleased with the boots; I can hardly wait to have a pair for myself!
©2008 Revival Clothing
Western Martial Arts
Martial Arts: the Arts of Mars, the Roman god of war.
Throughout the history of civilization, martial arts have been both vocation and avocation; a pragmatic system of personal combat and internal method of personal growth; a way to hone, refine and test one’s prowess, self-discipline and self-control. Although expressed by different adherents in different ways throughout the centuries, the paradoxical nature of martial arts – refinement of self through the study of the killing arts – are the embodiment of the old Roman maxim si vis pacem, para bellum – “If you love peace, prepare for war”, which itself comes from Vegetius’ De Re Militari, one of the cornerstones of military thought in late Classical and Medieval Europe.
Thus, it is ironic that for the last century, most people have associated the Arts of Mars solely with the peoples of Asia. In a paradox worthy of the twin nature of the martial arts themselves, as the swords and guns of Western armies colonized most of the world, the engines of the Western Industrial Age made many of its most ancient fighting traditions obsolete. The triumph of the Western military machine – seen in sleek aircraft, rapid fire rifles, heavily armoured tanks, and vast naval fleets of steel-hulled ships – made its most ancient symbol, the sword, irrelevant.
What are Western Martial Arts?
But the sword has always had a symbolic and romantic power that is not easily forgotten, and over the last twenty years there has been a growing interest in the rediscovery and preservation of Western Martial Arts(WMA). This term refers to the study, recreation and preservation of combat skills developed in Europe or European colonies during the 14th through the turn of the 20th centuries. WMA include both historical martial arts that were lost through time (generally called “Historical European Martial Arts” or HEMA), and surviving, traditional European martial arts and combat sports such as boxing, fencing, savate, and many different traditions of stick fighting, grappling and wrestling.
Traditional WMAs are taught much like their Asian counterparts – through a living lineage of master-teachers, passing on what was taught to them by the previous generation, maintaining a technical, pedagogical and philosophical “core”, while adapting to the needs of the current generation. In Western combat sports, such as boxing and wrestling, the “master” has become the “coach”, and training often combines the qualities of the martial arts hall with the athletic playing field, as the arts were adapted in the last two centuries to focus on full-contact competitions, while maintaining varying degrees of effectiveness in self-defense.
What’s Old is New: the HEMA Renaissance
Both of these paths are familiar to students of Asian fighting arts. But where the Western Martial Arts “family” is virtually unique is the interest in the historical traditions of the Middle Ages and Renaissance as its centerpiece. HEMA have no living masters from unbroken lineages. But whereas most martial arts exist primarily in oral tradition, European masters of sword, lance, axe and horse have left their descendants a rich corpus of beautifully illustrated manuscripts, detailed instructional manuals and treatises on the “art of arms”. Moreover, much like fossils, these “fight books” are not the ancient art of the sword as altered by succeeding generations, but are descriptions of original art as practiced by the weapon who bled and died on the battlefield and in the champ clos of the dueling ground to perfect its mysteries. When they speak to us of how the sword or spear is best to be used it is with not only the authority of tradition, but the pragmatic experience of a battle-hardened drill sergeant.
“Fightbooks” written by medieval and Renaissance masters-at-arms form the centerpiece of HEMA reconstruction
To recreate the art a growing, international community of swordsmen, scholars and weaponsmiths have been engaged in a unique form of experimental archaeology primarily using historical documents, supplemented by experience in existing living traditions of both the West and East, and practical experimentation.
The HEMA revival began in the late 1800s, but did not survive much beyond WWI
Although the first attempts at HEMA reconstruction date to the late 19th century, the cultural upheaval of World War I and the Great Depression brought most practical work to an abrupt and untimely end, leaving exploration of historical European martial arts to a small field of scholars working from a largely academic or theatrical perspective. The only significant practical study of European swordplay were the experiments of the SCA and the European reenactment community, who were experimenting with making and using medieval weapons and armour, but were largely ignorant of the works of the long-forgotten masters.
Then, in the 1980s, isolated aficionados in the United States and Europe independently began researching Historical European Martial Arts. In the 1980s and 1990s, Patri J. Pugliese became a one man engine for uniting many of these researchers, by making photocopies of historical treatises available, spurring on research, particularly in reenactment circles.
Then came the Internet. Patri’s work had inspired William Wilson (Barwn Meistr Gwylym ab Owain, OL OP DW) to create Rapier-L, a discussion list for historical swordsmanship, and the first of its kind. With the power of online communication, isolated researchers around the world were suddenly in immediate, daily contact, and were able to share resources in a way previously unimaginable. During the late 1990s, translations and interpretations of historical sources began appearing in print as well as online, particularly through the early efforts of Hammerterz Forum, the Historical Armed Combat Association (HACA) and Academy of European Martial Arts (AEMMA), giving birth to what are now flourishing HEMA communities in Europe, North America and Australasia. Since 1999 a number of these groups have held the Western Martial arts Workshop (WMAW) in the United States. In 2001 the Historical European Martial arts Coalition (HEMAC) was created to act as an umbrella organization for groups in Europe. Since 2002, HEMAC has organized the annual International Historical European Martial arts Gathering in Dijon, France. In 2003, the Australian Historical Swordplay Federation became the umbrella organization for groups in Australia, and an annual Australian Historical Swordplay Convention has been hosted and attended by diverse Australian groups since 1999. The HEMA Alliance is a martial arts federation containing dozens of HEMA schools and clubs from around the world, providing insurance and research accreditation to its members.
Today, HEMA-specific schools and groups can be found throughout the world
Building a Better Dinosaur: the HEMA Approach
If historical European martial arts are at the center of the revival of interest in WMAs, they are also the ones that present the most challenges to adherents. How do you resurrect the dead? The world of the knight and the courtier is long gone, and often seen through a glass darkly. While the fight books, weapons, armour and arming clothes of this era are fossils for the modern student to study, a fossil is not a dinosaur, and necromancy does not raise the dead, only calls forth their ghosts. Historical European martial artists are one part paleontologist, one part necromancer, and one part devoted student laboring under the unseeing eyes of a long dead master.
In the absence of a living tradition, different HEMA groups take different approaches toward the best way to reconstruct and revive their lost traditions. For example as in the Asian martial arts community, they place different emphasis on the virtues and flaws of forms work, sparring and competitions. But where they all agree is that, to “get it right”, you need the right tools. HEMA and living history come together in the quest for better weapons and armour to replicate techniques and experiment with the cutting power of swords. While HEMA practitioners may also be living historians, as martial artists, many are also interested in using modern equipment, such as synthetic sparring weapons, fencing masks and lightweight protective gear to be able to recreate or simulate various forms of full-contact fighting. The changes and innovations are constant and on-going.
The Revival Clothing Western Martial Arts Line
Revival Clothing has been honored to be a part of, and trusted supplier to, the HEMA community since we first opened our doors. The proprietress, Nicole, does not just “sew for western martial artists”, she is one. As a founding member of the Chicago Swordplay Guild, she has had the chance to spend over a decade learning what old masters taught about wielding everything from the elegant rapier, to the fearsome poleaxe, and has long since been swept away in the siren song of the sword. Indeed, our name “Revival” is a homage to the path that all practical archaeologists and living historians walk: giving new life to the legacy of our ancestors.
This is precisely why our very first product, the Model-T gambeson was designed specifically to answer the needs of both her SCA and WMA friends, who wanted a way to practice unarmored combat, but have a foundation for building a historically correct harness. Since that time, we have steadily expanded our line to meet the needs of HEMA practitioners.
The larger HEMA community has generally organized around two approaches toward training clothing and equipment. The first, pioneered by Hammaborg in Germany is built around a modernized version of 19th century fencing equipment for sparring and modern athletic gear for training. The other is based on a similar aesthetic as is found in many Asian arts such as kendo and aikido: a modern, rugged “uniform” that has the silhouette of historical clothing, while not being costume.
In developing our Western Martial Arts line we have begun with the second approach, since the design elements that make medieval clothing so well-suited to wielding medieval weapons is what we know best. The first dedicated products in the WMA line are our Wrestling Jacket and Fencing Doublet.
Medieval wrestling was what is termed “jacket wrestling” in the martial arts community, meaning that the opponent’s doublet or gambeson could be used to facilitate a number of holds, chokes or throws. Jacket wrestling is extremely taxing on the combatant’s clothing, which is why modern martial arts often used specialized clothing such as a judo gi or sambo kurtka. For several years our friends and customers in the WMA community have asked us if could design something a similar garment for medieval martial artists that would have basic shape and fit of a late medieval garment, while having the strength required for grappling. Made from either 18oz, 100% cotton duck, or in the very sturdy but softer and more flexible cotton Monk’s Cloth, our Wrestling Jacketwill take a beating in drill or free-play.
The Revival Fencing Doublet combines the principle design elements of a simple doublet with the best elements of a modern fencing jacket. The fitted body, padded shoulder roll, V-shaped hem and a high collar gives the doublet an historical line and feel, but it is made out of heavy weight 18oz 100% cotton duck, providing great durability while remaining light-weight. The double layers in the front and neck reinforced armhole seams provide superior resistance to tearing under strain. Blade penetration is made all but impossible with an offset, left side closure that zips shut with a hidden zipper, closing with velcro at the neck.
Adapted from period designs, these garments maintains the silhouette and principle design elements of a simple, period garment, combined with the best elements of a modern martial arts and fencing jackets with a specific eye towards durability, affordability and safety. They maintain historical line and feel, but are made out of heavy weight 18oz 100% cotton duck, providing great durability while remaining light-weight and breathing well – crucial for a long day of training.
Currently, these two inaugural products are supported by line of accessories, including fencing hoods, padded leather gloves and footwear. They will soon be joined by designs for those with a “modernist” aesthetic, and accessories, such as durable sword bags, that will be useful to all.
The revival of Historical European martial arts is near and dear to our hearts, and we are pleased to be able to continue to play our own, small role in helping that community grow.
Christian wears our 14th century Gambeson with plate armour
We’re proud to have our products appear in Christian Tobler’s new title, Fighting with the German Longsword, a training guide for practitioners of the medieval fighting art of Master Johannes Liechtenauer – the Kunst des Fechtens, or Art of Fighting.
Christian spoke about the choice of gear for this project::
“In Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship, I chose a 15th century look for the costumes and armour, given that it was translation and interpretation of a manuscript from that century. For this training book, I wanted to show armour and equipment that was more readily available to the practitioner. Many elements of 14th century armour can be purchased without the wait and expense associated with a full 15th century gothic armour harness. The Revival Gambeson is an excellent foundation for such a 14th century harness. It then followed that the look for the clothing shown in the unarmoured sequences should be in harmony with the armour, so we chose cottes and footwear from Revival to achieve the look we wanted. The rest is history…”
Ben and Christian bouting in Gambesons
Striking the Zwerchhau
The Third Half-Sword Guard
The First Spear Guard
Striking up to the face after a Krumphau
Christian Henry Tobler in our Mens' Silk Cotte
The Guard Ochs
Revival Clothing featured in,
By: Robert N. Charrette
Armizare (“the Art of Arms”) was the name the warriors of medieval Italy gave to their martial art, which included the wielding of sword, axe and spear with wrestling, knife-fighting and mounted combat. In the waning years of the 14th century, Fiore dei Liberi was a famed master of this art, whose students included some of the most renowned and dangerous fighting men of his day.
Toward the end of his life, Master Fiore preserved his teachings in a series of illustrated manuscripts, four of which have survived to the present day, and have become the basis of a world-wide effort to reconstruct this lost martial art. However, because medieval books were written for an audience with different expectations than the modern readers “how-to” manuals, today’s students often have trouble understanding the old swordsman’s choices in including, omitting or organizing information as he did. They may see that fighting art was a system, but lack the background to see the systematic instruction of the book itself.
In Armizare: The Chivalric Martial Arts System of il Fior di Battaglia, Robert Charrette brings together his experiences as a martial artist and respected 14th century living historian with his skills as a professional author graphic artist to not only take readers on a walking tour of Master Fiore’s manuscripts, but into the mindset behind its creation. More than just an interpretation of an old book’s contents, this is a tool-kit that reveals Fiore dei Liberi’s brilliance as not just a fighter, but as martial arts teacher. Whether a long-time student, a newcomer to the art or a more academic devoté of the medieval warrior and his craft, readers will find themselves educated and entertained as a door is opened into another time and place – the training hall of the medieval knight.
Three photos from Armizare showing our Wrestling Jacket in use worn with Simple Hose, Buckled Ankle Boots and Thin Belt
About our Wrestling Jacket seen in Armizare
The interest in medieval and Renaissance Western Martial Arts (WMAs) has grown dramatically over the last decade. Dozens of manuscripts and printed books survive from the period 1300- 1600, detailing the historical use of a wide variety of weapons, wielded in and out of armour, on foot and on horseback. Wrestling with and without weapons is a key component of these martial arts.
Medieval Wrestling was what is termed “jacket wrestling” in the martial arts community, meaning that the opponent’s doublet or gambeson could be used to facilitate a number of holds, chokes or throws. Jacket wrestling is extremely taxing on the combatant’s clothing, which is why modern martial arts often used specialized clothing such as a judo gi or sambo kurtka. These garments maintain the general form of traditional clothing, while having been specifically designed for durability. For several years our friends and customers in the WMA community have asked us if could design something a similar garment for medieval martial artists that would have basic shape and fit of a late medieval garment, while having the strength required for grappling. After a great deal of thought, and a little trial and error, we think we have done just that!
Monks cloth is a very sturdy but a softer, more flexible cotton fabric making our Premium Wrestling Jacket lighter weight, softer and more comfortable. It allows the jacket to move more smoothly, to be gripped more easily, and is less abrasive on both you and your partner as you wrestle. Monks cloth has a loose weave that will tighten when washed but loosen back out with wear. This fabric is commonly used in various eastern martial arts garments due to its breathe-ability and strength. Two layers thick, our Premium Wrestling Jacket provides both a certain amount of cushioning and close fit allowing for the best freedom of movement and comfort while participating in western martial arts.
Medieval Swordsmanship Building Morale in Afghanistan, and Revival Gets to Help!
I am touched by outpouring of support from so many folks in the WMA community. Thanks so much for your generous donation. It will be much used and appreciated by all of us in our training group here.I will be sure to send you some pictures of us training with your gambesons when they arrive!
CW3 Jeffrey Larson
Running a small company can be all-consuming, and it’s easy to get lost in your own little world. But every now and then an opportunity comes along for you to make a difference in a small way. Early this Spring, we were forwarded a letter from Jeff Larson, a Chief Warrant Officer with the 82nd Airborne, who is stationed in Afghanistan. Before being sent overseas, Jeff had been part of the western martial arts moment, actively researching and studying 15th century sword fighting. As we all know, the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are under a great deal of pressure, and many have been away from home for quite some time. So Jeff decided to take matters into his own hands, and try and give the guys an outlet for some much-needed morale building and R&R: he began an historical fencing club in Afghanistan! Obviously, longswords, rapiers and bucklers aren’t easy to come by in a country torn-apart by decades of war, so the guys were making due with what they had: a pair of battered old fencing masks, flak jackets and sweatshirts, cut down broomsticks, a couple of foils (no, we have no idea where he found those!) and whatever else Jeff could come up with.
In his letter, Jeff wanted to get the word out that there was a new historical European swordsmanship group in the most unlikely of places, and if someone maybe had a few spare wooden wasters (training swords) or an old mask they wouldn’t mind sending, it would mean a lot to the guys. Thanks to the efforts of our friend Pete Kautz at Alliance Martial Arts that letter spread from group to group and vendor to vendor, and the response was far more than Jeff had anticipated! Martial arts schools as diverse as the Chicago Swordplay Guild and Nearing School of Wing Tzun took up collections to buy new fencing masks, Mr. Kautz donated a complete set of his training videos, and the folks of Purpleheart Armouries literally sent an armoury of wasters, training daggers and bucklers.
We’re proud to say that Revival joined these other fine folks and quickly sent off a pair of our cotton gambesons off to Jeff right away. We just heard from Jeff (May 06) and here’s what he had to say:
“I just wanted to give you a little update of our activities here and a few pictures. We have had some challenges recently with conflicts with training locations. We’ve worked it out now so that we train in the rehearsal hall of the 82nd Airborne Division Band. While it’s a bit small, I control the building so I can eliminate any conflicts. Attendance is always in a state of flux.
Many time folks can’t make it because of guard shift changes or having to go out on missions. We continue to keep going strong from week to week with those that are able to come. I’m very grateful to be able to continue to pursue HES training here. It definitely helps to keep the morale up.”
We just wish that our gambeson could protect them in the field the way it will in the fencing hall, and look forward to when they can all cross swords here at home. Be safe guys, and know we’re thinking of you!
Upper left: Jeff Larson, modeling one his group’s new cotton gambesons.
Upper right: The gambeson and new fencing masks getting put to use as the guys train (while trying not to destroy their band equipment)!
Bottom: “We few, we happy few…”
The 15th century provides us with many of our stock, childhood images of the “Middle Ages”: the knight in shining armour, the joust, even elegant ladies in tall, pointed hats! Yet it is a paradox, for by this time, many of the hallmarks of medieval society had already faded and were being replaced by a culture associated with the Renaissance. Feudalism, that uniquely “medieval” political system, had effectively been dead for centuries. Medieval monarchs increasingly looked to develop effective, professional armies that could be more adaptive, better trained and able to stay longer in the field. At the same time that his employers were reexamining his role on the battlefield, the knight’s newly completed harness was increasingly challenged by a combination of arms, in the form of pike, bow and gun, and they would soon unseat him from his place at the center of military society. Even the joust had become an increasingly artificial, international sport, rather than serious military training. Meanwhile, intrepid merchants became the new knighthood of Europe, seeking new wealth in Asia and Africa, and launching what has been called the “Age of Discovery”.
In the year 1400, England and France were still locked in the Hundred Years War, and France was ruled by a mad king, with its worst defeats still yet to come. Emboldened by the weakening of the French monarchy, the powerful Dukes of Burgundy continued to grow more autonomous, building in all but name an independent kingdom, and a court that became the cultural center of northern Europe. In Iberia, the ancient Muslim culture of Al Andalus had been driven back by the Spanish kingdoms, until only the small kingdom of Granada remained, giving the Iberian Christians more time to war against themselves. Meanwhile, far to the east, the battle of Cross and Crescent was taking a very different course: the ancient Byzantine Empire was making its last stand against the inexorable advance of the Ottoman Turks. And through it all, the bankers and trading houses of Italy and the Hanseatic League grew ever wealthier.
The 15th century was a period of drama and elegance, as well as an idealized romanticizing of chivalric ideals. An illustration from Rene d’Anjou’s “Book of Love”. (1465)
By 1500, the “Middle Ages” as we think of them had been all but swept away. France had emerged victorious from the Hundred Years War and brought her rebellious duchies to heel, including Burgundy, making the monarchy stronger than it ever had before. England, on the other hand, and proceeded from the disastrous loss of her French territories into a bloody, thirty year long civil war, the War of the Roses, that saw the Plantagenets lose the crown of England after nearly three and a half centuries of unbroken rule. In 1453, Constantinople at last fell to the Turks, bringing to an end the last true survivor of the ancient Roman Empire. Meanwhile, the Spanish kingdoms of Castille and Aragon had driven out the last of the Muslim rulers, and had united into a single Spanish kingdom, creating what was soon to become a European superpower.
But during the intervening years of this century, European society would undergo far more change than just political upheaval. A new intellectual culture was brewing that would bring sweeping changes in art, science, fashion and a drive for exploration. The Renaissance was being born.
It is often argued that the sweeping changes of the 1400s were driven first and foremost by a change in intellectual culture that returned to a reading of classical authors, put a new emphasis on secular topics and legitimized the striving for personal accomplishment. This new ideology was Humanism.
The Middle Ages had been dominated by the intellectual culture of Scholasticism, which focused on resolving contradictions between famous Classical authors. Over time, the commentaries by these later scholars would develop an authority almost equivalent to that of the original author, so that a trained scholar might say that he had studied Aristotle without ever having read an actual word written by Aristotle himself! In the late 14th century, however, a new intellectual movement began to take shape in northern Italy. Because of their mercantile dominance, the Italian cities had long since had a need for highly educated, literate men with secular backgrounds. Initially, such a clerk, notary or lawyer was known as a humanist if he was a student or teacher of Latin and Latin literature but was not a Churchman. These "e;humanist"e; scholars began to rediscover many Latin and Greek texts, particularly poetic, historical and rhetorical works that had been neglected or even oppressed by clerics. By the mid-fifteenth century, the philosophy of Humanism had come to describe the studia humanitatis – a complete curriculum of grammar, rhetoric, moral philosophy, poetry and history as learned from a direct study of Classical authors. Above all, these Humanists asserted that, as Man was created in the image of God, his unique ability to reason, appreciate beauty and to create and fashion objects was an inherently divine quality. As such, art and science were twin pillars that not only ennobled, but essentially sanctified man.
In the century that followed, Humanist political writers such as such as Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas More would use the idea of Classical authors to criticize their governments, while new exposure to Plato would lead theologians such as Giordano Bruno and Martin Luther to challenge Church leaders not only politically and morally, but at the very philosophical underpinnings of their Aristotelian world view.
Art and Science
The Humanist worldview naturally intermingled Art and Science. Noted artists such as Leonardo da Vinci made observational drawings of anatomy and nature, while disciplines such as music and fencing were considered to be both a science and an art, as they were governed by certain undeniable physical laws of proportion and time, but were applied in a creative, ever-changing fashion. The most noted artistic change of the 15th century was the development towards a “realistic” sense of perspective. Masters such as Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337) had begun this process in the 14th century, but it did not achieve its full-flowering as a formal “technique” to be studied and used as a measurement of the artist’s skill, until it became popularized by the architect-sculptors Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) and Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). Once a quest for realism had begun in one artistic element, artists quickly began to apply it to others, such as light and shadow. Inspired by the Humanist fascination with beauty and nature, they sought to more carefully render natural elements, most specifically, the human form, and this was expressed in the peerless works of da Vinci and Raphael that appeared in the last decades of the century.
But the Italians had not cornered the market on artistic innovation, and under the patronage of the wealthy Burgundian Dukes, a new “natural” school developed in the Netherlands, building around the work of Jan van Eyck (1385 -1441), who is also credited with the introduction of oil paint and canvas.
Jan van Eyk’s famous “The Arnolfini Portrait” (1434)
Brunelleschi’s dome atop the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (1419 – 36)
The fusion of art and science was perhaps most felt in the world of architecture, which became influences by a rediscovery of the writings of the 1st century mathematician Vitruvius. The architectural revolution of the 15th century began when Filippo Brunelleschi built the dome of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence (1419-1436). Based upon the famed Pantheon in Rome, it would be the first free-standing dome of any significant size built in Western Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire.
Throughout the century a vast array of other innovations and inventions, such as the printing press (1455), the woodcut (1400 – 1450), the harpsichord (c.1460), canal locks (1481), the distillation of malt into whiskey (c.1460). Yet the most significant development of the era was probably not any one discovery, but rather a process for discovery, based on empirical evidence. This method was the “scientific method” that has driven western science ever since.
The fashion trends of the 1400s followed the same trend towards exuberant extremes reflected in the rest of society during this period. As the worst of the Black Death (1348 – 1350) lay long in the past, the changes in European society it had created included a tend towards greatly empowered, urban “middle classes”. These tradesmen, guildsmen and merchant-princes were nowhere as powerful or influential as the Italian city-states, or the Flemish cities under the rule of the Dukes of Burgundy.
With England and France mired in the Hundred Years War and its aftermath and then the English Wars of the Roses through most of the century, the glittering, the fashion-conscious, and sharp-witted Duke Philip the Good (ruled 1419-1469) had turned Burgundy into an autonomous kingdom in all but name, and had used his control of the trading cities Holland and Flanders to the acquire the finest English wool, eastern silks and Italian fashions.
Meanwhile, in Italy the old nobility had long fallen to mercantile republics or military despots. In many cases, the latter simply assumed the old hereditary titles of marchese, count or duke, whether they came from old noble families or were upstarts raising themselves up as the new nobility. Desiring to establish their legitimacy, these despots sought to make their courts the envy of Europe. Those who embraced the new ideals of Humanism became great patrons of art, science and learning. The lord acquired renown as a man of culture, learning and wealth, gaining additional civil or military service from the courtier, while the courtier gained far more: stable financial support, prestige, and a chance to develop his work without having to fight against the pressure of daily life.
The end result was that, there was a class of wealthy commoners in the midst of these extravagant courts who had the wealth and connections to successfully mimic, and sometimes exceed, the fashions of the nobility, regardless of any sumptuary laws. This thereby prompted the nobility towards ever more elaborate and extravagant fashions themselves. It also led to the first real trend towards clear “national” variances in European fashions.
At end of the previous century, the voluminous houppelande had become a popular fashion for both men and women. The houppelande continued to be popular in Burgundian, French and English circles until well into the 1470s. Although it could be worn anywhere from floor to knee length, in all cases it became progressively more pleated, fitted with a high collar and tall, stuffed shoulders. At the same time, a counter-fashion was evolving in Italy and the south, as the old men’s cotehardie became shorter and tighter, until it evolved into the revealing doublets and hose associated with the Italian Renaissance. Both houppelande and doublet would become popular throughout Europe, but with unique regional styles, such as the Italian fashion of wearing the doublet with a short, pleated tabard called the giornea, or the Burgundian fashion of the mid-century for the wealthiest of men to dress in solid black.
Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy and his court, in a miniature by Rogier van der Weyden (1477).
The elegant houppelande, first appearing in the late 14th century, would dominate the fashions of the nobility throughout the first half of the 15th century.
Women’s headwear was nothing if not dramatic!
Feminine fashion went through its own evolution as well. The old cotehardie and sideless surcoat persisted through the early decades of the century, with the cutouts of the surcoat becoming progressively wider. However, it was again the late 14th century houppelande, fitted with a high collar and wide sleeves that was to influence feminine fashion throughout most of the century. By 1450, the northern Europe fashion had developed a low V-neck that revealed glimpses of the undergown below. The full, long sleeves continued to be worn, although they were increasingly more fitted with wide, turned-back cuffs. Meanwhile, in Italy, the low V-neck and scoop-neck of the early decades gave way to a neckline that was worn high in front with a lower V-neck at the back, often worn with a sleeveless tabard, or giornea. This evolution would lead towards a series of new fashions in the final decades of the century, including the first appearance of puffed and slashed sleeves that would last for two centuries.
Meanwhile, accessories assumed a new level of importance, particularly headwear. The old 14th century rolled chaperone evolved from a rolled-up hood into a unique, padded hat, hoods and turbans assumed new forms, and men’s hats took on a variety of shapes, including some oddly familiar to modern eyes (one example looking much like the offspring of a derby and a ten-gallon hat!). But for the lady of means, the height of distinction was in multitude of headdresses that came in and out of fashion during the 1400s, many of which can only be best described as a Gothic arch on your head!
Throughout the High Middle Ages, Europeans had been looking for more effective trade routes into Asia. Ironically, the same Mongol invasions that had destabilized much of Eastern Europe in the 13th century also united great swathes of Asia under a single rule, allowing Europeans merchants, mostly Italians, to more easily travel into the Far East. The most famous voyager was of course Marco Polo, who traveled throughout the Asia from 1271 to 1295, and became a guest at the court of Kublai Khan. His journey recorded a Travels was read throughout Europe. Yet Polo’s voyage had little immediate effect, for the collapse of the Mongol Empire, the devastation of the Black Death and the rise of the aggressive Ottoman Empire effectively destroyed any chance at Europeans increasing overland exploration or trade.
But Marco Polo was not forgotten, and entered a new period of fame in the 15th century Niccolo da Conti published an account of his travels to India and Southeast Asia in 1439. There was again an interest in new trade routes East, and this interest came none too soon, for with the fall of Constantinope in 1453, the old routes were now firmly under Ottoman control, and barred to Europeans. Fortunately, at the same time that a way around the Muslim lands of Asia Minor and North Africa were becoming viewed as crucial to European businessmen, the people of the Iberian peninsula had already begun developing the key to unlock the road East. This was the invention of new ships, the carrack and the caravel, “round ships” developed and influenced by North African models and better suited to open ocean voyage. At the same time, Humanist authors continued to rediscover classical accounts of geography and exploration, and became convinced that there was a way around Africa.
The 15th century saw the first swell of expeditions that would launch the “Age of Exploration”, and it was the Portuguese who led the way. The first of these voyages was launched by the Prince Henry the Navigator (1394 – 1460). Sailing out into the open Atlantic, Henry discovered first the Madeira Islands in 1419 and the Azores in 1427, and quickly established colonies on both. From here he turned to West Africa, seeking a way to bypass the trans-Saharan trade routes in the hope of finding gold, slaves and the fabled Christian kingdom of Prester John. By the 1440s the Portuguese had pushed south of the desert and into the interior, and although they did not find Prester John, they found a vigorous trade in gold and slaves. But the crucial breakthrough came in 1487, when Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope and proved that access to the Indian Ocean was possible. Eleven years later, Vasco da Gama (1460 – 1524) successfully reached India.
The Spanish kingdoms had been slower to respond and now anxiously needed their own check on Portuguese domination of the African entire. With the union of Castille and Aragon, the newly united Spain suddenly had the resources to launch an expedition of its own, with the hope that a Genoese sailor was right that the African route to India could be by-passed entirely by sailing straight west across the Pacific Ocean. When Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506) returned with claims of having reached “the Indies” it was unclear precisely where he had been and what he had found, but it was clear that he had been somewhere.
At the dawn of the 16th century, while the old maritime powers of Genoa and Venice continued to war with the Ottomans for control of the eastern Mediterranean, the Italian city-states braced themselves for foreign invasion, and the glory of the Burgundian court became the memory of the previous generation, a New World loomed and the balance of European power began to shift to the children of Iberia.
©2007 Revival Clothing
Gaston Phebus and the Book of Hunting
We are proud to inaugurate this periodic column with a short biography of Gaston Phebus, Count of Foix, knight, adventurer, huntsman, and author.
After calling on the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, and all the saints, Gaston Phebus admits that his life was dominated by three passions: weapons, love and hunting. This he wrote in the year of grace 1387, aged over 50 and owning that the time for fighting and courting ladies is passed, so that it is now the time for him to recover his well-being amongst his huntsmen and to gallop off on long rides after the game described in his work “The Book of Hunting”; a masterpiece that was intensely lived before it was written.
The 14th century saw a renewed interest in instructional books devoted entirely to secular topics. Hunting was one the most popular topics for these handbooks, and none was more famous than the Livre de Chasse de Gaston Phebus.
Gaston III, Count of Foix and viscount of Béarn, was one of the great lords of 14th century France. Born in 1331, he became known as “Phebus”, after the Greek sun god, Phoebus Apollo, because of his fair hair and handsome features. Gaston succeeded his father in 1343, and although still a boy, even by medieval standards, immediately leapt into the turbulent, dangerous world of France in the midst of the first phase of the Hundred Years War, winning his spurs in battle against the English two years later at the tender age of 14.
At this time, Foix and Béarn were not in direct vassalage to the French crown. Despite his early support of the French crown, the relationship quickly became strained because of King Jean’s support of the Count of Armagnac, Gaston’s sworn enemy. Beginning in 1350, the young count set out upon a course of adventures worthy of the knights-errant of Arthurian romance, leading bands of equally ambitious men on forays into the Pyrenees, the Low Countries, Denmark, even into Prussia to fight in the ranks of the Teutonic Knights. On his return from Prussia, Gaston again threw his gauntlet into the ring of the perpetual struggle for the French throne, easily slipping his alliances from one side to the other as fortune, and the chance at further advancement and profit, led him.
During this phase of Gaston’s career, he launched a private war against his old enemy, the Count of Armagnac, capturing him and extorting an enormous ransom. Between this ransom and the wealth acquired along his military adventures, Gaston set to turning his estates at Orthez into a sumptuous court. It was at Orthez that Phebus entertained the famous historian Jean Froissart, whose quill immortalized both the splendor and sophistication of the Count’s court, and the chivalric virtue of its lord. Surrounded by his old companions, his mistresses, his huntsmen and his beloved alan hounds, it was also at Orthez that Gaston was inspired to write the Livre de Chasse, the lavish hunting book that would survive the centuries and become synonymous with his name.
In many ways, the Book of the Hunt was destined to be the final glorious flowering of a very dramatic life. The last decade of Gaston’s life saw a slow, but notable decline in his fortunes, beginning with the murder of his sole legitimate son, by his own hand, in 1382. His own estates insufficient to support his lavish lifestyle, and no longer capable of leading young men on wild adventures to make their fortunes, Gaston slowly mortgaged away all that he had acquired, at last signing away all of his property in a secret treaty with Charles VI, making the French king his heir. Now in reality a tenant on his own lands, Gaston III, Count of Foix and viscount of Béarn, died soon after, in 1391; yet his magnificent hunting book, one part bestiary, one part hunting and huntsman manual not only survived, but thrived. Laboriously copied and recopied during the 15th century, thirty-seven manuscripts of his magnificent work still survive, preserving Gaston, his companions, his hard-working huntsman and beloved hounds, at least as he wished them to be seen, for all time.
Andreas Capellanus ("e;Andre the Chaplain"e;) is a 12th century author, presumed to have been a cleric of the Countess Marie of Champagne, daughter of King Louis VII of France and the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the patroness of Chretien de Troyes. He is known solely through his treatiseDe amore("e;On Love"e;), or in English asThe Art of Courtly Love.
De Amorewas supposedly written at Marie’s request sometime between 1184 – 1186, and was a subject of poetic debate among late 12th and early 13th century troubadours. Long considered a serious description of the "e;rules"e; of courtly love, many scholars now see it as a satiremocking the conventions of courtly love and court literature, and the name "e;Andreas Capellanus"e; may itself be anome de plumefor a clerical or university-based author. The idea of Capellanus’ treatise as an ironic satire would be particularly fitting, since the troubadours drew a great deal of inspiration from Ovid, and his three satirical works on love,Ars amatoria(Art of Love),Remedia amoris(The Cure for Love), andAmores(Amours). Yet whether viewed as an instructional treatise, satire of the same or merely a piece of High Medieval court literature, it provides a window into the romantic beliefs, if not the actual practices, that were the foundation of the romantic tradition in Western literature.
DE ARTE HONESTE AMANDI
[The Art of Courtly Love], Book Two: On the Rules of Love
i. Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.
ii. He who is not jealous cannot love.
iii. No one can be bound by a double love.
iv. It is well known that love is always increasing or decreasing.
v. That which a lover takes against his will of his beloved has no relish.
vi. Boys do not love until they arrive at the age of maturity.
vii. When one lover dies, a widowhood of two years is required of the survivor.
viii. No one should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons.
ix. No one can love unless he is impelled by the persuasion of love.
x. Love is always a stranger in the home of avarice.
xi. It is not proper to love any woman whom one should be ashamed to seek to marry.
xii. A true lover does not desire to embrace in love anyone except his beloved.
xiii. When made public love rarely endures.
xiv. The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.
xv. Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.
xvi. When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates.
xvii. A new love puts to flight an old one.
xviii. Good character alone makes any man worthy of love.
xix. If love diminishes, it quickly fails and rarely revives.
xx. A man in love is always apprehensive.
xxi. Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love.
xxii. Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved.
xxiii. He whom the thought of love vexes, eats and sleeps very little.
xxiv. Every act of a lover ends with in the thought of his beloved.
xxv. A true lover considers nothing good except what he thinks will please his beloved.
xxvi. Love can deny nothing to love.
xxvii. A lover can never have enough of the solaces of his beloved.
xxviii. A slight presumption causes a lover to suspect his beloved.
xxix. A man who is vexed by too much passion usually does not love.
xxx. A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the thought of his beloved.
xxxi. Nothing forbids one woman being loved by two men or one man by two women.
- Andreas Capellanus: The Art of Courtly Love, trans. John Jay Parry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941. (Reprinted: New York: Norton, 1969.)
- Duby, Georges. The Knight, the Lady, and the Priest: the Making of Modern Marriage in Medieval France. Translated by Barbara Bray. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983. (ISBN 0-226-16768-2)
- The Medieval Sourcebookhttp://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/capellanus.html
Before there was a Santa: the Medieval Veneration of Saint Nicholas
No other saint has become as universally known and loved as “jolly old St. Nicholas”. A fourth century bishop in Asia Minor, by the sixth century, the Emperor Justinian I was building churches in his honor in Constantinople, and ranking him second only to St. Paul and the Apostles. Today, he is still honored as a saint by Roman Catholicism, Greek and Russian Orthodoxy, Anglicanism and is even venerated in several Protestant denominations. As one of the great saints of the medieval church, Nicholas was patron of children, unwed women, sailors, fisherman, bakers, brewers, pawnbrokers, paupers and travelers. He is the protector of Sicily, Greece and Russia and was the particular patron of the famed Varangian Guard of Byzantium, who were charged with guarding his relics. Credited by medieval writers with the destruction of the great Temple of Artemis on Myra, ironically, as the Christian “Patron of the Sea”, he posthumously assumed many of the powers, responsibilities and shrines of the pagan god Poseidon. Yet for all of these different legends and associations, and although the Feast of St. Nicholas is December 6, it is his association with “Santa Claus” and Christmas that keeps him alive in the hearts and minds of most people.
So who was Nicholas, and how did he come to be associated with the giving of Christmas presents?
The Historical Nicholas
The first question has no easy answer, since the earliest written accounts of St. Nicholas date from nearly 500 years after his life, and his “official” biography coalesced in the 13th century. The historical and mythological figures have become inextricably blurred together. As the story has been recorded, the saint was born before the year 300 in the Greek colony of Patara, Lycia – a part of the Roman province of Asia Minor. His family were Hellenistic Christians of great wealth, but died young, leaving Nicholas an orphan. The family’s wealth was somehow connected to the fishing industry – accounts differ – and Nicholas is said to have been virtually raised at sea. Whatever the case, after his parent’s death, young Nicholas determined to enter the priesthood, and gave away his fortune to the poor.
His early activities as a priest are said to have occurred during the persecution of Christians under the reign of the co-emperors Diocletian and Maximian. Although some popular medieval accounts of his life claimed that Nicholas was martyred under Diocletian, this was clearly not the case, although he likely was jailed and tortured with the Christian community of Lycia during this time. In either case, Nicholas survived and was released when Emperor Galerius issued a general edict of toleration for Christians from his deathbed (311). Galerius’ co-ruler Licinius continued this policy of tolerance, and the Christian community of the Eastern Empire began to wield great religious, social, and political influence. It was during this period that Nicholas rose to become bishop of Myra, and it is during his time as bishop that the earliest listing of his deeds is recorded. Besides charitable acts and a fierce opposition to both paganism and heresy, Nicholas seems to have used his bishopric to intercede on behalf of debtors, the falsely accused, foreigners and prostitutes, and many of the medieval legends about him are built around these incidents.
Nicholas lived to an old age and is said to have died peacefully in his own bed, sometime around 342 AD. He was buried in Myra, and it was claimed his bones sweated out a clear watery liquid each year, called manna, which of course was said to possess curative powers. After the Byzantine defeat in the disastrous Battle of Manzikert (1071), the bones were stolen and moved to Bari, Italy, but their miraculous powers were said to continue. Even today, a flask of manna is extracted from the tomb of Saint Nicholas every year on December 6th. In the 1950s, the Catholic Church allowed the remains to be examined by scientists. The forensics team determined the remains to belong to an elderly man, little more than five feet tall, whose body showed signs of healed trauma, including a badly broken nose.
Deeds and Miracles
If the historical data of Nicholas is unclear, the legendary account is quite rich, although some of the most celebrated of the bishop’s acts seems rather incongruous to modern eyes with the idea of “jolly old St. Nick”. The first of these was the destruction of the great Lycian temple of Artemis, which he had raised to the ground, its altar and statues cast into the sea, and its faithful driven out with scourges. (Many scholars believe that Nicholas’ feast on December 6 was chosen to commemorate this event, as it was also the traditional Roman celebration of Diana-Artemis’ birth.)
Nicholas had little more tolerance for “heretics” than he did pagans. The bishop of Myra is listed as a participant in the First Council of Nicaea, where legend records that he became so angry upon hearing the views of Arius (the founder of Arianism, a Christian heresy that denied the divinity of Christ), that he leapt from his seat, and battered the heretic down to ground with his fists. While a wonderful story, this account also shows the blurring of fact and legend in the life of Nicholas – there are many accounts of the Council of Nicaea, and only those that specifically deal with Nicholas himself record his even having been present. What is clear is that he was a fierce opponent of Arianism (which denied the divinity of Christ), as one biographer records: “Thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas, the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as a death-dealing poison.”
The other tales of Nicholas’ deeds are more in keeping with what we might expect of a saint and proto-Santa Claus. The first of these concerns the giving of gifts, particularly to the abject poor and children. When he gave away his wealth, Nicholas is said to have allotted much of it to orphaned children, travelers who had fallen upon hard times, and prostitutes. In his most famous exploit a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment would have to become prostitutes. Nicholas heard of his plight, but knowing that the man would not accept charity, he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses filled with gold coins through the window opening onto the man’s floor. There are different versions of this story; most having the Saint make three separate visits to bring the gold. On the third night, the window was barred against the chill, so he climbed the roof and dropped the gold down the chimney. One of the daughters had washed her stockings and hung them to dry over the embers of the fire, and….you know the rest!
It was from this help to the poor that Nicholas became the patron saint of pawnbrokers; and the three gold balls traditionally hung outside a pawnshop symbolize the three sacks of gold. People then began to suspect that he was behind a large number of other anonymous gifts to the poor, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents. After he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to St. Nicholas.
The other famous, oft repeated legend of Nicholas tells of how a terrible famine struck Myra, killing most of the livestock, so that there was no fresh meat. An evil butcher lured three little children into his house, killed and slaughtered them, and put their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them as ham. Saint Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, not only saw through the butcher’s horrific crime but also managed to resurrect the three boys from the barrel.
The Veneration of St. Nicholas
Devotion to Nicholas memory was widespread and his formal veneration had begun within a century after his death. While Justinian’s church cemented his place in Eastern Christendom, by the mid-seventh century, shrines to St. Nicholas also began to appear in Western Europe. By the 900s, a Greek author wrote, “The West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there are people, his name is revered and churches are built in his honor. All Christians reverence his memory and call upon his protection.” But it was the seizure and removal of the saint’s remains from Myra to Bari that really caused his cult to grow in the west, and his veneration became particularly strong in seafaring places, such as Sicily, Normandy, the Flemish ports, England and the German river towns. Only Mary is said to have been portrayed more consistently by medieval artists. In typical medieval syncretism, just as the people of Asia Minor and Greece had blurred Nicholas with Poseidon, German legends of the saint as a wandering traveler and a dispenser of both blessings and banes owe their origin to the myth of Wotan.
The “official” story of Nicholas was recorded in The Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea), by Jacobus de Voragine (1228-1298), a large and pious compilation of the lives and miracles of Jesus, Mary, and countless saints. Although it was not officially commissioned by the papacy, the work attracted an enormous medieval readership and was translated into many European languages. Thus it came to provide the definitive version of the miracle tales so beloved of Medieval Christendom. A 1483 English version by William Caxton became one of the first books printed in English.
From Saint to Santa
As Nicholas’ cult spread, a tradition of celebration, giving of gifts (to commemorate his charity), and the making of special “St. Nicholas Cookies” grew up around his feast. As Nicholas was the patron of children, the feast was also considered to be a time for giving gifts to children and tending to the orphaned. Although the Reformation and Counter-Reformation led to a waning in the veneration of Saints, the reverence of St. Nicholas survived in Europe as people continued to place nuts, apples, and sweets in shoes left beside beds, on windowsills, or before the hearth.
Traditions of St. Nicholas Day were brought with 17th-century Dutch settlers to New Amsterdam, which was destined to become New York. During the Revolutionary War, the New York colonists wanted to form a counterpart to the English “Saint George Societies” and looked to Nicholas, or in Dutch “Sinter Klaas”, as their inspiration. This was more a political statement than a religious one, but the St. Nicholas Society outlived the Revolution, and one member, the famed writer Washing Irving, penned his satirical Knickerbocker’s History of New York and published it on St. Nicholas’ Day, recounting the importance of the saint to Dutch immigrants, and freely embellishing their traditions, including the notion that Nicholas entered the homes of those he wished to aid by sliding down their chimney. This in turn inspired “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”, better known today as “The Night Before Christmas” in 1823 and the image of a roly-poly, elf-like bringer of gifts was formed. More importantly, “Sinter Klaas” and his gift giving were now also inextricably tied, not to a day in the Advent season, but to Christmas itself. Santa Claus was born.
So while our image today of Santa Claus or “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” is really a product of the last two-hundred years, the belief in a charitable, gift-giving, protector of children extends back into the earliest centuries of the Christian era, and was a central figure of medieval belief. While St. Nicholas himself may not have been linked to Christmas, it was perhaps inevitable that he would become so, as the resonance of his story with that of the Nativity, its proximity to Christmas itself, and the incredible popularity of the saint made him one of the most beloved figures of the medieval faithful.
Jackson, Sophie,The Medieval Christmas, Sutton Publishing, UK, 2005
Jones, Charltes,Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhatten: Biography of a Legend University of Chicago Press, 1978.
The story of St. Nicholas, as related in The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275 – webbed at the Medieval Sourcebook
The 13th century Greek Account of the Translation of St. Nicholas, also webbed at the Medieval Sourcebook
St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents from Decapitation
Chapel of St Nicholas, Lower Church, Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi, Italy
St. Nicholas Rescues a Ship at Sea
Tres Riche Houresof the Duke de Berry
Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
St. Nicholas with the Three Boys in a Pickling Tub
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
©2007 Revival Clothing
From the Pen of History – St. Valentine and St. Valentine’s Day
Any student of the Middle Ages, regardless of their own faith, is familiar with the Calendar of Saints, and the myriad of “Saint’s Days” that filled the lives of medieval man. This calendar evolved over the centuries, with some of the oldest saints no longer being formally venerated by the Catholic or Orthodox Churches, largely because their origins and histories cannot be verified. St. Christopher is one such saint, St. Brigid, another. But formally venerated or not, a number of these mysterious figures from the earliest centuries of the Christian era have had their feast days survive as holidays in modern, secular culture, such as those of St. Patrick or St. Valentine.
Every school child knows the story of St. Patrick “driving the snakes out of Ireland”. But the “personage” we associate with Valentine’s Day is Cupid, if it is anyone at all. So who exactly wasSt. Valentine, and how did February 14th become associated with romance and lovers? As it turns out, there is no quick and ready answer to these questions.
Will the Real St. Valentine Please Stand Up?
Valentinus (from valens, potent or worthy, so “the worthy one”) was a popular name in late Antiquity, and just within the Catholic Church there are seven saints of that name. Normally, this isn’t a problem; there are several Gregorys, Johns, James, etc., and each has their own feast day and history. Not so the man venerated on February 14th. Although the official Roman Martyrology (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09741a.htm) names only one man associated with this feast day, “the blessed martyr, buried in the Via Flaminia, north of Rome”, it tells us nothing else about him.
The name “Valentinus” itself does not appear in the list of saints until it was added by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD. Gelasius added Valentine amongst those “… whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God”. The implication here is that nothing was really known about this group of saints, but they had been informally venerated within the Church for some time. However, following Gelasius’ addition of Valentinus and his feast on February 14th, his name appears continuously on the roll of saints. Further, later martyrologies begin ascribing brief histories to his name, but the only time more than one early source agrees with another is when a later source was clearly drawing from an earlier. Some of the many origins for St. Valentine include a Roman priest martyred by Claudius Gothicus in the third century, a bishop of Termi, and a non-clerical, second century martyr from the province of Africa. With no clear source for any of these origin stories, any or none of them may be accurate. Certainly, Valentinus remained a shadowy figure in medieval sources until Jacobus de Voraigne, Archbishop of Genoa compiled his own lives of the saints, theLegenda Aurea (“Golden Legend”) around 1260. De Voraigne’s source was that of a priest martyred by Claudius II Gothicus for refusing to deny Christ. DeVoraigne adds a year -280 AD -and a means of execution – beheading – but little else. Since the Legenda Aurea was one of the most widely copied and read books of the High and Late Middle Ages, this became the “default” history of the man venerated on February 14th, with later writers adding their own flourishes to the legend (and routinely changing the year of the martyrdom). By the turn of the 16th century, there is a far more complete tale: Valentinus was a priest living in Rome, who was arrested and imprisoned for marrying Christian couples and helping them to flee Rome. He was brought before the Emperor, and because of his gift with words and his skills in debate, Claudius took a liking to him, right until Valentinus tried to convert the Emperor. The suddenly humorless Claudius ordered him beaten to death, and when that failed, his broken body was dragged outside the Flaminian Gate and he was beheaded and left in the street, whereupon he was quietly buried at night by Roman Christians.
It is a Day for Lovers…no, really!
So, whether by hagiography or fabrication, Valentinus had a complete, if brief, legend, and an association with young couples in love (although he was also the patron of bee keepers and epileptics) by the Renaissance. But what about all of the charming customs for young lovers associate with his feast day? When exactly did this begin?
Since the 18th century, historians and antiquarians have argued Valentine’s Day was yet another Christianization of an existing, pagan holiday. In this case, they argued that the Christian church may have decided to celebrate Valentine’s feast in the middle of February in an effort to Christianize the pagan celebrations of Lupercalia, a fertility ritual that took place on February 13 – 15. Further “evidence” of this was that Lupercalia was abolished by Pope Gelasius I, the same pontiff who formally added Valentinus to the list of saints, and who set his feast day as February 14. The evidence seems compelling – a saintly feast day honoring lovers, set in the middle of a pagan fertility holiday by the pope who sought to do away with that holiday in the first place.
The problem, of course, is that as we’ve seen, this “evidence” is not actually all contemporaneous. Gelasius did not assign an area of patronage to Valentinus, and indeed, suggested that he himself had no idea what his origins were, merely that he had been venerated for some time. The association with betrothed couples cannot be documented until the 13thcentury, and even if we assume that it had been the “commonly accepted” biography of St. Valentine for generations, we cannot credibly stretch this back to the 5thcentury. So while Gelasius certainly did away with Lupercallia and added feast days to replace it, it is most likely that he was thinking not of Valentine, but of feast days devoted to the Virgin Mary to replace those of Juno Februa , or “Pure Juno” (pure in the sense of “chaste”).
According to Alban Butler the author of the famous Butler’s Lives of the Saints, this ancient association between Lupercalia and St. Valentine’s Day as a celebration of romantic love was further established by no less a person that Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote in his Parlement of Foules (1382), also called the Parlement of Birds:
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
Chaucer goes on to describe many ancient romantic customs, as his narrator takes a journey into the celestial realm of Venus herself. Again, Butler’s evidence seems compelling; added to the story of Pope Gelasius and Lupercalia, we have one of the great medieval writers associating St. Valentine/Valentinus with the Roman goddess Venus and a number of ancient customs performed in her honor. Indeed, Butler’s conclusions seemed so sound that they went unquestioned for generations.
Sadly, there are several problems with this. The first is that the Parlement of Foules was written to honor the anniversary of the betrothal between Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. The date of the betrothal is not February 14, but May 2, the Feast of St. Valentine of Genoa, a fourth century bishop, not our mysterious martyr buried in the Via Flaminia. The only element that the two Valentines share in common is an association with birds, which oddly enough may be a clue to our answer, as we will see below.
The second major problem is that, even had Chaucer been speaking of our Valentine, his ancient ceremonies and customs were nothing of the sort – they were created whole cloth for the Parlement, so they are no more a reflection of either Lupercalia or a Christianized survival of that festival than the Wife of Bath was a fictionalized Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Nevertheless, somewhere around this time the familiar association between Valentine and lovers has been established. Our earliest surviving “valentine” letter is from only a few decades later, and written by no less a personage than Charles, Duke or Orleans, himself, penned to his wife as he sat captive in the Tower of London following the Battle of Agincourt:
Je suis desja d’amour tanné,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée,
(I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine)
Car pour moi fustes trop tart née,
Et moy pour vous fus trop tost né.
Dieu lui pardoint qui estrené
M’a de vous, pour toute l’année.
(Since for me you were born too soon,
And I for you was born too late.
God forgives he who has estranged
Me from you for the whole year.)
Je suis desja d’amour tanné,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée,
(I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine)
Bien m’estoye suspeconné,
Qu’auroye telle destinée,
Ains que passast ceste journée,
Combien qu’Amours l’eust ordonné..
(Well might I have suspected,
That such a destiny,
Thus would have happened this day,
How much that Love would have commanded.)
Je suis desja d’amour tanné,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée,
(I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine)
We shall never be certain how a virtually unknown saint became associated with lovers, but our best guess is that it must be laid back at the feet ofJacobus de Voraigne and his Legenda Aurea.What seems likely is that, although the Church did not specifically use Valentinus’ feast as a Christianized fertility celebration, Lupercalian traditions survived in a vestigial form throughout the early Middle Ages. By the 13thcentury, there was still enough of an association to have either influenced de Voraigne, or his sources, so that Valentinus’ biography had slowly grown to center around his patronage of young lovers. Further, as Archbishop of Genoa, de Voraigne would have been familiar with the hagiography of that other St. Valentine, his 4thcentury predecessor, and either intentionally borrowed from his cult or conflated him with the martyr of the Via Flaminia. Whichever the case, the popularity of the Legenda Aurea, copied and recopied in scriptoriums and universities throughout the 14thcentury, meant that de Voraigne’s account and association, and its later additions, complete with lovers, birds and bees, became the “official” account in the Latin West. Whether Chaucer believed the saints venerated on February 14thand May 2ndto be one and the same person or not, his Parlement of Birds is simply the first surviving record of a transformation that seems to have been well established by 1400 – that of “being one’s valentine”. Certainly, this only took deeper root in the centuries that followed, so that there can be no doubt that the feast day had its modern meaning by 1600, when Shakespeare wrote:
To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
(Hamlet, Act IV, Scene V)
Whatever Valentine’s Day’s precise origin or evolution, if our mysterious martyr’s true history and acts remain “known only to God”, perhaps there are worse ways to be “reverenced amongst men”, than in an ancient feast day, harkening back to even older celebrations of love that have long been entrenched in Western culture.
Anyone with an interest in the Middle Ages has heard of “Chivalric” or “Courtly Love.” Best known in the stories of Sir Lancelot’s forbidden love for Queen Guinevere,l’amour courtois refers to a highly idealized, romanticized and usually adulterous relationship, both one part erotic fantasy and one part quest for spiritual perfection.
Built around the notion of a forbidden and passionate affair of the heart, this idealized affair then intertwined with the ideas of chivalry to become a path of ennoblement through the knight’s idolization of his Love. By accepting the independence and sovereignty of his mistress, the lover’s deeds of bravery and honor elevate him as he seeks to make himself worthy of her. In turn, the lady must make herself worthy of such attention, and should be neither capricious nor frivolous in the tasks she sets her lover. Although the affair was forged out of sexual attraction, actual sexual satisfaction was neither the goal, nor often the end result; the tragic conclusion of the affairs of Lancelot and Guinevere or Tristan and Isolde served as powerful reminders of the destruction Love’s consummation could wreak.
Origin: Provençal and the Troubadours
The actual term “Courtly Love” is not a medieval one, but is rather a product of the late Gothic Revival. Gaston Paris coined the term in 1883, in an article that analyzed Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart(1177). The term and its definition as “a path of ennoblement through the idolization of an unavailable lover” was soon widely accepted and adopted. In 1936 C.S. Lewis wrote the influential The Allegory of Love further solidifying the concept of courtly love as “love of a highly specialized sort, whose characteristics may be enumerated as Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love”.
Chivalric or Courtly Love had its origins in the late 11th century amongst the nobility of the four most artistically inclined regions of France: Aquitaine, Provence, Champagne and Burgundy. Its arose as a direct outgrowth of the lyric poems of the troubadours, such as those of William IX, Duke of Aquitaine (1071-1126), one of the first troubadour poets. Southern France was a wealthy, refined, cultural melting-pot, and the new poetic form reflected this. Welding together a mixture of the old chanson de geste (epic poem), Andalusian Arabic love poetry, and older, Classical pagan and Gnostic Christian, poetic elements, the troubadours promoted a philosophy known as Gai Saber(“the happy wisdom”), that redefined traditional Christian ideals of love, marriage and the role and interrelation of the sexes. Although the Church would not formally recognize marriage as a sacrament until the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, it had long since established that celibacy was the preferred, “pure” state of all people. Sex served one purpose – procreation. Consequently, relations between the sexes should be fraternal, restrained and carefully controlled.
The troubadour’s philosophy turned these ideas on their ear. Women were seen as an ennobling spiritual and moral force, a divine muse rather than a “daughter of Eve”. Romantic and sexual love became emblems of the greatest good; the union of the inspired with his inspirer.
Under the sponsorship of powerful nobles the troubadours influence gradually spread throughout France and eventually into England and Germany. By the middle of the 13th century, the troubadour philosophy had become interwoven with the evolving notions of chivalry and the growing corpus of Arthurian romances, creating an idealized model for a new, exciting and refined model of court life.
The Qualities of Courtly Love
David Simpson of DePaul University School of New Learning shows that this movement had five main characteristics:
- Aristocratic: As its name implies,courtly love was practiced by noble lords and ladies; its proper milieu was the royal palace or court.
- Ritualistic: Couples engaged in a courtly relationship conventionally exchanged gifts and tokens of their affair. The lady was wooed according to elaborate conventions of etiquette (cf. “courtship” and “courtesy”) and was the constant recipient of songs, poems, bouquets, sweet favors, and ceremonial gestures. For all these gentle and painstaking attentions on the part of her lover, she need only return a short hint of approval, a mere shadow of affection. After all, she was the exalted domina–the commanding “mistress” of the affair; he was but her servus–a lowly but faithful servant.
- Secret: Courtly lovers were pledged to strict secrecy. The foundation for their affair–indeed the source of its special aura and electricity–was that the rest of the world (except for a few confidantes or go-betweens) was excluded. In effect, the lovers composed a universe unto themselves–a special world with its own places (e.g., the secret rendezvous), rules, codes, and commandments.
- Adulterous: “Fine love”–almost by definition–was extramarital. Indeed one of its principle attractions was that it offered an escape from the dull routines and boring confinements of noble marriage (which was typically little more than a political or economic alliance for the purpose of producing royal offspring). The troubadours themselves scoffed at marriage, regarding it as a glorified religious swindle. In its place they exalted their own ideal of a disciplined and decorous carnal relationship whose ultimate objective was not crude physical satisfaction, but a sublime and sensual intimacy.
- Literary: Before it established itself as a popular real-life activity, courtly love first gained attention as a subject and theme in imaginative literature. Ardent knights, that is to say, and their passionately adored ladies were already popular figures in song and fable before they began spawning a host of real-life imitators in the palace halls and boudoirs of medieval Europe. (Note: Even the word “romance”–from Old Frenchromanz–began life as the name for a narrative poem about chivalric heroes. Only later was the term applied to the distinctive love relationship commonly featured in such poems.) “(from http://condor.depaul.edu/~dsimpson/tlove/courtlylove.html)
The Language of Love
First and foremost, courtly love was a literary invention. The form of courtly love with which we are most familiar is that associated with the famed Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor was the daughter of the troubadour-knight, Duke William IX of Aquitaine, and brought these new ideas with her to first the French, and then the English courts. These ideas were continued and refined at the courts of her daughter, Countess Marie de Champagne, and her granddaughter, Queen Blanche of Castile.
Poets cleverly adopted the language of feudalism and many of the devices of the old heroic epic and recast them in a new form. In this recasting, the hero, now known as the Lover, performs deeds not for his own glory, but to make himself worthy for his True Love. In turn, that True Love, embodied by the Lady, usurped the role that would have formally been resolved for the hero’s king as the focus of the Lover’s loyalties and devotion. Instead, the Lover now declared himself the vassal of “his” lady, often addressing her as “my Lord”; in this way he might publicly declare his allegiance and servitude without revealing the lady’s identity, or even her gender. The Lady was in complete control of the relationship, while the Lover owes her obedience and submission (and here, the most cursory contrast of real medieval life vs. the depictions of the romances shows why Courtly Love was first and foremost a literary movement!). The anonymity of the Lady was particularly important, since, just as with that ultimate example of Love, Guinevere, the troubadour’s ideal lady was a lady of higher status, usually his lord’s wife.
In her monumental A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, Barbara Tuchman gives the process by which the Art of Love was supposed to progress:
- Attraction to the lady, usually via eyes/glance
- Worship of the lady from afar
- Declaration of passionate devotion
- Virtuous rejection by the lady
- Renewed wooing with oaths of virtue and eternal fealty
- Moans of approaching death from unsatisfied desire (and other physical manifestations of love sickness)
- Heroic deeds of valor which win the lady’s heart
- Consummation of the secret love
- Endless adventures and subterfuges avoiding detection
This erotic desire for a rich, powerful and dangerously unattainable lady served as both a muse and a counterpoint to the sterile, politically and dynastically motivated, marriages approved of by the Church. It also served the political agenda of the growing “knightly” or courtier class. The Art of Love was only for those who were noble, but this new kind of love based that nobility not on wealth and family lineage but on the high deeds and character performed by the lover. Thus, through the grace of Love, a lowly knight or troubadour might make himself the equal of any count, duke or prince.
The corpus of troubadour poems displays a wide range of attitudes towards infidelity and actual consummation of the affair. Some are overtly sensual, even sexually explicit, while others clearly view Love as a spiritual, nearly Platonic relationship. But nearly all share this idea of ennoblement and self-perfection, which becomes the central tenet of l’amour courtois; the adulterous love-affairs that often shock modern readers were somewhat irrelevant. True Love did not typically exist between husband and wife simply because the realities of aristocratic marriages made it impractical, not because the audiences were immoral. In the 12th century, the idea that a marriage could be based on love would have been considered idealistically fanciful, if not radical.
The Literature of Love
The rules of courtly love were allegedly codified in the late 12th century in a highly influential treatise, De Amore, written by Adreas Capellanus, a cleric in the service of Marie de Champagne, to whom his work is dedicated. In this work, Andreas addresses a young protégé, Walter, instructing him in how to woo a lady, while winding through the complex laws required to allow Love to flourish, particularly in the mixed society of a great lady and her courtier.
De Amore is broken into three books, each discussing a particular aspect of Love, the rules of behavior required of the lover and the punishments to be meted out to transgressors. Within the second book, he details twelve virtues for a good lover, and in the third, we sets out a further thirty-two laws to which these virtues give rise. Capellanus also affirms that, because a lover learns modesty, discretion, generosity, bravery, fidelity, and honesty, Love is not only praiseworthy, but is an ideal path to moral refinement.
While the book focuses on instructing Walter in the pursuit of women, Capellanus is also clear that a woman who abuses her Lover, or indeed, simply fails to take a lover, destroys Love, and become a cruel, cold creature, unworthy of praise. Yet, after carefully building his case for the virtue of Love, and the particular worthiness of women who inspire men to greater endeavor, Capellanus reverses himself in the final chapter with a denouncement of women as sinful, wicked creatures who spur men to madness, and of those men foolish enough to allow these women to tempt and demean them. This sudden reversal of opinion is one of the key reasons that Capellanus is now often viewed by modern scholars as a satirist condemning courtly love, rather than a champion of it.
The Courts of Love
Another point of controversy is the existence of the “Courts of Love” first mentioned by Capellanus. Supposedly, these courts arose as an idle entertainment, but grew into formal tribunals in which the noble ladies of a particular court would hear a case, publicly debate it, and then hand down a judgment based on the Rules of Love. However, the entangling complications of these extramarital “affairs” meant that the cases were to be presented anonymously, with each side bringing forth an advocate to represent them. The lovers would not be named, and fictitious names were applied to both locales and third parties, often drawn from the romances, to further disguise the identities of those involved.
According to Capellanus, Marie de Champagne presided over a number of these courts and he cites the judgments handed-down a several of the cases. Almost universally, the ladies sided in favor of the affair, and encouraged the lover to purse it to its conclusion, so long as the (male) lover was becoming ennobled and refined in the process. The judgments for failure in love were varied, usually trivial “quests”, but the most extreme penalty was for the offender to be exiled from the court and all of polite society. Of course, in an anonymous court case, this means that the offenders would have to exile themselves, which, even where they so inclined, would immediately reveal their identities.
The truth is that, while the Court of Love creates a beautiful image, there is not a shred of evidence that one ever occurred. Certainly, women as worldly as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie de Champagne knew how a cuckolded baron or duke would respond, should he learn his wife had taken a young lover. Outside of the romances themselves, the only “authority” to verify the existence of the Courts is Capellanus himself, and as his work is generally regarded as a satire (see our related article here), anything within De Amore must be regarded with at least a raised eyebrow.
Courtly Love in Real Practice
If the Courts of Love did exist in any real form, they may in reality have been little more than an amusing diversion for noble ladies, much like a drawing-room social-circle for idle ladies of the 18th and 19th centuries, in which male courtiers may have played little, if any, role.
Indeed, it remains unclear if Courtly Love itself ever truly moved beyond the barriers of the literary world. In a complete absence of court cases, law codes or historians chronicles, the evidence is scant. There are only two points of real proof that the Cult of Love was slowly moving off the page and song-sheet and into real courts. The first are tournaments, specifically the carefully scripted, “round table” tournaments of the 13th century, were participants took on the roles of Arthurian characters, and the better known, elaborate 15th century feats of arms, where “Courts of Love”, “Queens of Love and Beauty” and complex story-lines often figured prominently. The second piece of evidence comes in the form of criticism, but ecclesiastical and courtly. The best example of the latter comes from the poet and authoress of books of courtesy and chivalry, Christine de Pizan, who claimed that courtly love had become degenerate and was being used as a means to justify affairs driven by nothing more refined than simple lust.
While there must certainly have been those swept up and carried away by the romances, by and large, the troubadours’ audiences were quite aware that these romances were just that – fiction. Nevertheless, through the new ideas promoted by the troubadours the rough and tumble knight of the early Middle Ages began his social education towards “le parfait gentile chevalier” of the 15th century and the courtier of the Renaissance.
- Duby, Georges. The Knight, the Lady, and the Priest: the Making of Modern Marriage in Medieval France. Translated by Barbara Bray. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.
- Gaunt, Simon. “Marginal Men, Marcabru, and Orthodoxy: The Early Troubadours and Adultery.” Medium Aevum 59 (1990): 55-71.
- Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1936.
- Newman, Francis X. The Meaning of Courtly Love. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1968.
- Capellanus, Andreas. The Art of Courtly Love. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.
- Schultz, James A. Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality’. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006.
- The Medieval Sourcebookhttp://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/capellanus.html
- Simpson, David, Courtly Lovehttp://condor.depaul.edu/~dsimpson/tlove/courtlylove.html
- Tuchman, Barbara Wertheim. A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century. New York: Knopf, 1978.
Wassail and Good Yule!
This old, Christmas-tide greeting rings with the sound of ancient days and half-forgotten mythologies of old, Germanic solstice celebrations. Today, few truly know what wassailing means, or where traditions such as the Yule log arise; they are quaint terms in old carols, Dickensian Christmas stories, and adaptations in neopagan solstice ceremonies.
But are these truly ancient customs from the days of the yore, or do they merely seem like “ye olde traditions” to our modern sensibilities? The answer is decidedly yes.
Wassail is a salute, a blessing and a beverage – all interestingly interconnected.
As a salute, the term is a Middle English contraction of the Old English waes hael, or “be in good health”, the equivalent to our modern toast “to your health”.
The other two wassail traditions – as both a fall and Christmas beverage and a ceremony to ensure a good crop of cider apples – are closely interwoven to one another, and both are also certainly medieval in origin. Wassail the beverage is a hot, mulled punch, traditionally made of cider mulled with sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg and topped with slices of toast. Some counties use a base of mulled cider and ale. In many local traditions, the toast is itself made from an apple bread.
Modern recipes often replace cider with a base of wine, fruit juice, or mulled ale, sometimes with brandy or sherry added. As we are about to see, however, without cider, the actual purpose of drinking wassail is essentially lost.
The tradition of wassailing originates in the cider-producing region of south-western England (primarily Devon, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Somerset) and involves singing and drinking to the health of the apple trees, with the purpose to “awaken” the slumbering spirits of the cider apple trees, to drive off malevolent spirits and to ensure a good apple harvest the following year. Although he exact origin of wassailing is unclear – there are no clear references before the High Middle Ages – it is one more of many folk traditions that long predate both the Conquest, and likely Christianity.
As a folk festival, the exact particulars differ from county to county, even village to village, but “going a wassailing” has the same basic elements. A King and Queen are chosen from the village to lead a procession from orchard to orchard. The procession plays music, sings songs and dances. When they read an orchard, the “Wassail Queen” is lifted into the boughs of the tree where she places a piece of toasted apple bread, soaked in wassail as a gift to the tree spirits. As she does this, the gathering sings an incantation to the spirits, often reminiscent of a children’s rhyme. Then the band is off, singing and dancing to the next orchard.
Both elements of fertility worship and the evolution and blending of wassailing into that of caroling are quite obvious, as seen in the traditional, medieval carol the Gloucestershire Wassail:
Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.
Yuletide originated as a three day, Germanic pagan mid-winter festival, first documented in a Gothic document from the 4th century AD. It is referenced by the Norse Prose Edda, which clearly establishes a religious link, using the kenning of “Yule-beings” for the gods and goddesses.
Precisely how and when Yule “migrated” to coincide with the 12 days of Christmas is a bit unclear. The festival was originally celebrated from late December to early January on a date determined by the lunar Germanic calendar. The festival was placed on December 25 when the Christian calendar (Julian calendar) was adopted. About AD 730, the English historian Bede wrote that the Anglo-Saxon calendar included the months geola or giuli corresponding with either modern December or December and January. He gave December 25 as the first day of the heathen year and wrote that the Anglo-Saxons celebrated all night long to honor the Germanic divine “mothers”:
“They began the year with December 25, the day some now celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special sanctity they designated by the heathen term Mōdraniht, that is, the mothers’ night — a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies they performed while watching this night through.”
The Heimskringla, or Chronicle of the Norse Kings, credits King Haakon the Good with both Christianizing Norway and moving Yule to coincide with Christmas. Whatever the case, “Yule” is still used as a term in the Nordic and English-speaking countries for the Christian Christmas, but also for other religious holidays of the season. In modern times, Yule has gradually come to be used as a secular name for the same traditions as Christmas. Yule is also used to a lesser extent in English-speaking countries to refer to Christmas, as well as a winter-solstice ceremony celebrated by neopagans.
So the holiday of Yule is indeed a part of antiquity, but what is surprising is that some of the customs most associated with it, such as the Yule log, may not be.
A Yule log is a large wooden log which is burned in the hearth as a part of traditional Yule or Christmas celebrations in several European cultures, usually associated with Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Twelfth Night. It features prominently in many old, English traditions, and because of its relationship to Yule and wassailing traditions, has long been assumed to come from the Anglo-Saxons. One of the first people to do so was the English historian Henry Bourne, who, writing in the 1720s, described the practice occurring in the Tyne valley. Bourne theorized that the practice derives from customs in 6th to 7th century Anglo-Saxon paganism.
Bourne’s theory was supported by Robert Chambers, in his 1832 work, Book of Days, who notes that “two popular observances belonging to Christmas are more especially derived from the worship of our pagan ancestors—the hanging up of the mistletoe and the burning of the Yule log.” The theory was cemented into popular culture and “accepted wisdom” when embraced by James George Frazer in his monumental work The Golden Bough. Frazer asserted that “the ancient fire-festival of the winter solstice appears to survive” in the Yule log custom. Frazer records traditions from England, France, among the South Slavs, in Central Germany (Meiningen) and western Switzerland.
While Frazer was certainly correct that a ceremonial cutting of a particularly large tree around mid-winter reoccurred throughout Europe, particularly north of the Alps, he seems to have ignored that the details of these customs often have little in common, and far less of a “folk religion” component than, for example, wassailing. Most importantly, from a Anglo-Saxon or Norse point of view, there is not a single account of the Yule log in Great Britain prior to the late 17th century, nor any reliable evidence of any formal tradition of a “Yule log” throughout Scandinavia or northern Germany until the late Renaissance, in stark contrast to Yule, wassail, Christmas trees or winter candle-lighting ceremonies, all of which can be easily traced back through the Middle Ages, and often well beyond.
Instead, the strongest traditions of a “Yule log” come from Slavic lands, particularly Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria. Although the specifics differ in each country, the general tradition is that a log is cut at dawn on Christmas Eve, usually while the Lord’s Prayer is recited. Sometimes a cross is cut into one end of the log, sometimes it is blessed with holy water. The log is then placed in the hearth at sundown on Christmas Eve and the family prays for good fortune in the next year. The log has to burn all night and it is believed that its warmth and light symbolize the coming of Christ. Sometimes the fire is put off using wine in the morning. Remains of the log are cherished and sometimes ashes are spread over a field or vineyard for good luck.
While these Slavic customs may themselves be part of pre-Christian tradition, they have nothing to do with the Nordic Yuletide. Whatever the true source, however, wassail, Yule, the Yule log, caroling and all of these other traditions, ancient, medieval and modern, show the enduring and adaptable power of Christmas to weave old and new, pagan and Christian, Nordic and Mediterranean into a single, enduring celebration of the coming of the Light in the heart of winter’s darkness.
Recipes for a Medieval Christmas Dinner
Holidays (“holy days”) were times of great celebration and freedom from work in the Middle Ages. Although our forefathers often celebrated in ways very different from our modern traditions, the Feast of the Nativity, or Christmas, was second only to Easter in importance in the Church calendar.
As a thank you to all of the support and enthusiasm our patrons have shown us this year, we at Revival wanted to put together something fun and a little different for the holidays. And although an essay on medieval Christmas traditions would * no doubt * have been fascinating, it didn’t really seem terribly festive. Since, our business is about relating to history through re-living it we decided that we could best relate the seasonal merriment of medieval people to ourselves through a medium that has always been mankind’s way of celebrating good time – through his stomach!
With a little help from our resident medieval cookery maven, Jorg Bellinghausen, we are pleased to offer the following recipes for a medieval-style Christmas dinner. If your tired of turkey, ham or that same old roast, why not try a meal that would have brought a smile to the face of your Christmas guest six hundred years ago. Actually, if you and your guests are fans of good food and just a titch adventurous, we’re pretty sure it will bring a smile to your faces today!
A very Merry Christmas to all and bon apetit!
Warm hypocras (medieval spiced wine)
1 bottle of really good quality red wine (Burgundy preferred; or use dry white wine, such as sauvignon blanc)
3/4 cup sugar (brown cane sugar preferred)
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh or dried ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh or dried ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons round fresh or dried ground galangal (or, if you can’t get galangal, an additional equal amount of ginger)
2 tablespoons of rose water (made from 1 drop purified essence of Roses on a cup of water)
Mix wine with sugar in a glass or stainless steel bowl, and add the spices. Let stand for at least two hours (over night is even better). Strain the wine through a double layer of cheesecloth; repeat several times until clear (However, if the hypocras remains opaque, this will not affect the taste) and rebottle the wine. Keep the hypocras in the refrigerator, and wait a couple of days before pouring.
Before serving, warm gently (be careful, do not allow it to boil)
I. Eggs in yellow sauce
8 large eggs, hard-boiled
8 tablespoons marmalade (get an English style bitter orange marmalade)
6 tablespoons hot Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons red wine
1 small shallot, peeled and finely chopped
Combine all ingredients except the eggs in a sauce pan, mix well and let simmer gently over low heat for about 10 minutes. If it gets too thick, add a tablespoon of water.
Peel and halve the eggs, put them on small plates and douse them with the sauce and serve.
II. Fish soup
1 whole pike or walleye (ca. 2.2 lbs), gutted, scaled and filleted (reserve head and bones)
1 quart of water
1 onion, peeled, halved and sliced
2 bay leaves
1 bunch of greens, coarsely chopped
2-3 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup of tart white wine
1/2 cup cream
1 egg yolk
Sea salt and whole black peppercorns
Parsley for garnishing
In a pot, combine water, the fish’s head and bones, onion, bay leaves, the chopped greens, salt and peppercorns. Bring to a boil and let it boil down for about 30 minutes until reduced to ca. 50% of its original volume. Strain broth through a fine sieve into a bowl, discard the rest.
In a large saucepan, melt butter over medium heat; add flour and cook for a 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly, until the roux is just starting to take up some light color. Add the fish broth; stir well to dissolve any clots. Bring to a boil, turn heat down immediately and let simmer on low heat for about 10 minutes. Cut the fillets into bite-sized chunks and add them to the soup together with the wine. Simmer for another 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Whisk the egg yolk and the cream thoroughly and stir into the soup.
Adjust seasoning and serve immediately garnished with some freshly chopped parsley.
III. Venison pie with spicy morello cherry sauce
For the dough:
2 cups flour
2-3 eggs, depending on size
2 oz lard
2 tablespoons water
For the filling:
1 lbs venison
1/2 lbs veal
1/2 lbs bacon
1/4 lbs calf’s liver
1 oz butter
3-4 tablespoons Armagnac or Cognac
4-5 tablespoons red wine
2 onions, chopped
2 oz unsalted pistachios, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Butter for greasing
1 egg yolk
For the dough, combine all ingredients in a bowl and knead until you have a rather dry dough (It’s important that the lard is *very* soft, almost liquid.) Cover the bowl and place the dough in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
Meanwhile, put half of the venison, the veal and the bacon through a meat-grinder set on medium-fine. Set aside. Cut the remaining venison into rather fine stripes.
Preheat oven to 390 F to 430 F.
In a pan, sauté the liver in the butter until slightly browned. Deglaze the pan with Armagnac and remove the liver (reserving the jus in the pan)and set aside. In the same pan, sauté the venison stripes, deglaze with red wine, remove the venison (reserving the jus in the pan) and set aside. In the same pan, sauté the onions until they are colored. Remove from the pan, reserving the jus.
Cut venison stripes and liver into small cubes and season with salt and pepper.
In a bowl, combine all the ingredients for the filling and the jus, mix well and generously season with salt, pepper and marjoram.
On a surface dusted with flour, roll out the dough and place into a buttered pastry pan, reserving some dough for the lid. Add filling and spread evenly. Moisten the rim of the dough with water, put on the lid and press the rims together well.
Pierce the lid several times with a fork and brush it with the whisked egg yolk.
Bake on the middle rail of the oven for about 90 minutes. Check whether it’s done by sticking a wooden toothpick through the lid; if it comes out dry the pastry is done. Remove from the oven and let cool over night. Remove the pastry from the pan, cut into slices and serve with the sauce listed below.
Morello cherry sauce
1 glass of sour cherries (about 7 oz), drained (reserving the juice) and pitted
1 oz butter
1 tablespoon mild mustard
1 cup cherry juice
1 teaspoon cornstarch
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a saucepan heat the butter, add the cherries and stew for five minutes. Strain through a sieve into another saucepan, add cherry juice and mustard and let it boil up briefly while stirring constantly. Thicken with the cornstarch mixed with a bit of water, season with salt, a generous amount of pepper and a whiff of cinnamon. Serve hot or cold.
Dessert – Baked apples in wine:
4 large, sour cooking apples (if you can get Boskoop,
that’s the way to go, Granny Smith is a no-no)
4 tablespoons red currant jelly
10 whole almonds, skinned and cut into slivers
4 teaspoons unsalted butter
1 cup white wine
4 teaspoons sugar thoroughly mixed with
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Wash apples thoroughly, don’t peel them. Remove the core so that the bottom of the apples remains intact. Mix the jelly, sultanas and the almonds and stuff the apples with the mixture. Place a tablespoon of butter on each apple. Pour the wine into a casserole just large enough for all four apples, place the apples into the casserole and bake in the oven (pre-heated to 390 F/ 200 C) for about 20 minutes until the peel burst.
Remove from the oven, place each apple on a plate, sprinkle with the sugar-cinnamon mix and serve while still steaming hot.
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