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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.

St. Nicholas: Discovering the Truth About Santa Claus

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 Ostara to Easter, and what is with all the rabbits?

Easter, Pascha, Resurrection Sunday. The Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead has many names, but none as peculiar as the first, Easter. The word is never mentioned in the bible itself, nor are there any indications that the event was ever referred to anything other than “the resurrection”.  The story goes that after Jesus was betrayed by Judas on what we know today as “the last supper”, he was brought before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate under charges of making himself a king. Though Pilate ruled that Jesus was innocent and that there was no basis for his sentencing, he still authorized the flogging and ultimately the death by crucifixion of Jesus, to prevent a riot from breaking out. Jesus was made to carry his cross to the site of his own execution at Calvary, where he was crucified alongside two criminals. After six hours of being hung upon the cross, he died.

There are many mythoi that surround this particularly crucial moment in the Christian bible one of the most notable being that at the time of Jesus’ death, there was said to have been a massive earthquake. To quote the King James Bible:

Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, truly this was the Son of God.” (Matthew 27:50-54).

This little detail is particularly interesting, and rather crucial, as it has led to the discovery of the actual date on which the crucifixion could have likely occurred. This means there is an actual canonical date to be associated with Easter. We know that according to the bible Jesus was crucified on the 14th of Nisan, right before the start of Passover, and according to a 2012 geological survey of the Dead Sea, just 13 miles from Jerusalem, seismic evidence reveals that there had been an earthquake that occurred in that area around the time the crucifixion was to have taken place. The survey was even able to provide us with an exact date, April 3rd 33 CE.

Yet despite having a precise date on to attribute to the holiday, The Catholic Church still celebrates this holiday on a random Sunday in Spring. Why is that? And where did the name easter come from if not from the bible? And most importantly, how do rabbits and eggs fit in to all of this?

To answer all these questions and possibly more, the best place to start is in 8th Century Northumbria, an early Anglo-Saxon kingdom that existed in what today is now Northern England and South-East Scotland. It is here that we get our look into how the name Easter came about, as well as a detailed look into the precise calculations which went into deciding the date on which easter is to be celebrated each year.


The word Easter is derived from the name of the Saxon Goddess of spring, Ēostre or Ēastre, who is also known as Ostara. Not much is known about her, in fact, there is only one surviving source that makes any mention of her and her worship:  St. Bede the Venerable’s 725 CE work, The Reckoning of Time (De temporum ratione), where he writes of a feast held in her honor by the Saxons:


         “Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal Month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.” (The Reckoning of Time, Ch. 15, Pg. 54, c. 725 AD)


Let us break this down a little bit, Eosturmonath is an old English word which translates directly mean ‘Month of Eostre’, which is the equivalent to our month of April. This is further supported by Bede’s mention of it now being referred to as Paschal Month. Paschal is another word for Passover, which typically falls in March or April. It is from this particular passage in which we get the origins of the two names for the celebration of Resurrection Sunday: Easter and Pascha. Easter – derived from Eostre – was created in order to make the adoption of Cristian holidays more palatable to the Anglo-Saxons during the conversion.  By incorporating the name of one of their own goddesses well as the customary feast into the celebration, it made the conversion of the people of Northumbria go much more smoothly than it would have otherwise. A similar tactic was implemented for the tradition of Christmas as well, but that is a story for another time. Pascha, on the other hand, is rather easy to explain, as stated earlier, Jesus was canonically crucified at the beginning of Passover and according to some Christian interpretations, Jesus is often referred to as the Passover Lamb, making it a rather fitting name for the holiday.

We would like to take a moment to explain why Bede the only source we have on Anglo-Saxon religious practices before the catholic conversion, and how we know he is credible when it comes to Anglo-Saxon deities and their worship. During the 8th century conversion of England, all evidence of worship of “Heathen” Gods in Northumbria – temples, scriptures, art, the like – were destroyed during the catholic conversion, often by the Anglo-Saxons themselves at the urging of the catholic church. This is why there is such limited information of Anglo-Saxon pantheon and religious practices. St. Bede the Venerable was a historian, English monk, and scholar, and is known for his recordings of the growth of the Church in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in his 5-volume series An Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum) which accounts the history of the Church in Northumbria up to the 8th century in great detail. We should also no discount that even according to the World History Encyclopedia, “Bede is considered one of the most important sources of Anglo-Saxon history for modern-day scholarship.” It is because of Bede that we know what we do now about the Anglo-Saxons pre-conversion.

Calculating the Date of Easter

The naming of Easter is also not the only thing Bede contributed to the easter we know today,  in fact, the greatest source we have on how the date of easter was decided is also found in Bede’s “The Reckoning of Time”, as the main focus of this work, apart from recording the traditions of the Anglo-Saxons, was to calculate the exact date of Easter, and in doing so he described all the principal ancient calendars.  Bede of course notes that its date in the calendar finds its roots in the Jewish feast of Passover as Jesus was canonically crucified on the night before Passover. Bede wrote that the date of Easter should be determined by the Lunisolar calendar, and that Easter should occur on the first Sunday after the ecclesiastical full moon (also known as the Paschal full moon) that occurs on or soonest after March 21, which, during the creation of the calculations to settle on a date for Easter, was also date of the Spring Equinox. With these calculations in mind, Easter will always fall on a Sunday between 22 March and 25 April. Bede wrote this calculation rather concisely as “The Sunday following the full Moon which falls on or after the equinox will give the lawful Easter.”

Origin of the Easter Hare, and all its Eggs

Now that we know how easter got its name and how the date was determined, it’s time to figure out how rabbits and eggs fit into the whole equation. The Earliest evidence of the Easter hare was recorded in south-west Germany around 1682 by Georg Franck Von Franckenau in his Essay titled De ovis paschalibus (About Easter eggs) where he wrote of children searching for eggs laid by the mythical Easter bunny in the garden, much to the delight of the adults. In its earliest iterations, Oschter Haws or the “Easter Hare” and played a similar role to that of Santa Clause, in that the Easter Hare would leave little treats, toys and colored eggs for the good children, and leave little pellets for the disobedient children. There is some debate as to the origin of the easter bunny myth, however the most widely agreed upon story claims to be of Anglo-Saxon origin, and goes something like this: Eostre, when traveling in the winter, found a bird with frozen wings. To save its life, she transformed it into a rabbit with a thick furry coat. in gratitude to Eostre, the hare exercises its original bird function to lay eggs for the goddess on her festal day. This story however can only be traced back to the late 19th century, and only by word of mouth alone, Bede never made mention of any rabbits or eggs when he wrote of Eostre’s feast, and though the area of origin of this myth coincides with that of the Anglo-Saxon homeland, many are skeptical about the myths origins as there is no physical source to corroborate the claims.

Eggs, unlike the easter bunny, are much more rooted in the catholic tradition. We know from as far back as the 1st century AD that eggs were associated with rebirth, fertility, and new life, the symbolism often being linked or contributed to that of the Phoenix. They became specifically associated with Easter in medieval Europe, when the church used to prohibit the consumption of eggs during “Holy Week”. The symbol of the egg evolved to represent Jesus’ resurrection, “for Just as Jesus rose from the tomb, the egg symbolized new life emerging from the eggshell”. The painting of the eggs can be attributed to Many Christians of the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day typically dye their Easter eggs red to symbolize the blood that Jesus shed as he hung on the cross. Red is also associate with new life and rebirth, rather appropriate for a holiday that marks new beginnings.

Whatever the precise origins of these traditions may be, it does not change the fact that they are beloved additions to a holiday that would otherwise be a rather somber affair. Just like with Christmas, some of Easter’s best and most recognizable features had their start in pagan celebrations, or were created to entertain children. Regardless of origin, Easter has now come to be known as the true start of spring, a time of rebirth and renewal, when we all finally emerge from our own tombs to embrace a new beginning.


Bede the Venerable. The Reckoning of Time (De Temporum Ratione), 725AD, Ch. 15 p. 54.

Bede the Venerable. “Bede: Conversion of England.” Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University, 26 Jan. 1996,

Fiorentino, Wesley. “Bede.” World History Encyclopedia, 10 May 2017,

Winick, Stephen. “Ostara and the Hare: Not Ancient, but Not as Modern as Some Skeptics Think.” Library of Congress, 28 Apr. 2016,

Vegas, Jennifer. “Quake Reveals Day of Jesus’ Crucifixion.” Live Science, 27 May 2012,

Kaldera, Raven. “Who Is Ostara.” Northern Paganism, 2014,



The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ (586) Syriac Rabbula Gospels

Ostara (1884) by Johannes Gehrts.

Portrait of Bede writing, from a 12th-century copy of his Life of St Cuthbert (British Library, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r)

Easter rabbit and colored eggs (1810) by Johann Conrad Gilbert, likely made as a gift for one of his students

©2022 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 ( 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.

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
Ground cinnamon

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
20 sultanas
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.

Medieval Life

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 &quote;humanist&quote; 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 (&quote;Andre the Chaplain&quote;) 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(&quote;On Love&quote;), 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 &quote;rules&quote; of courtly love, many scholars now see it as a satiremocking the conventions of courtly love and court literature, and the name &quote;Andreas Capellanus&quote; 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.

[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 Sourcebook

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

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 Sourcebook
  • Simpson, David, Courtly Love
  • Tuchman, Barbara Wertheim. A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century. New York: Knopf, 1978.

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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, braieschausses 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.

You can find all the clothes shown in this essay offered as separates, or as part of our Arming Clothes, or Arming Clothes with Underwear specials.

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.

Closing Remarks 

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 &quote;St. Crispin’s Day Speech&quote; 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.)

The Battle 

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 &quote;Bouccicaut&quote;, 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 &quote;royal fellowship of death&quote;.

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.

Unanswered Questions 

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 &quote;myth constructed around Henry to build up his reputation as a king&quote;. 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 &quote;equally great, but fled without ever joining battle.&quote; 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 &quote;St. Crispin’s Day&quote; 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 &quote;two-fingers salute&quote; 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 &quote;journalistic history&quote; 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 &quote;V sign&quote; 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

Account of the Battle c.1453 by Enguerrand de Monstrelet

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 &quote;Frankish&quote; 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 &quote;monkish knights&quote; 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 &quote;new knighthood of Christ&quote;, 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 &quote;irregular&quote; 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 &quote;Rule&quote; 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 &quote;new knighthood&quote;. 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 &quote;confrere&quote; – 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 &quote;in uniform&quote; 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 &quote;Reconquista&quote;.

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, &quote;Have no fear. It is not the custom of kings to kill kings.&quote; 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 &quote;Outremer&quote;. 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 &quote;state within a state,&quote; 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 &quote;monastic state&quote;, 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 &quote;Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy&quote; 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 (&quote;the Fair&quote;). 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 &quote;mystique&quote; 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). &quote;The Chinon charter – Papal absolution of the last Templar, Master Jacques de Molay&quote;, 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