Charity is in the definition of the donor

If proverbially beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then apparently charity is in the definition of the donor …. The Europe-wide horsemeat scandal that surfaced in February 2013 invited some rather cynical attitudes toward charitable provision that had equally unpleasant antecedents in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

First the modern story: as readers will recall, in the early months of 2013 traces of horsemeat were being found in all sorts of processed and pre-packaged meat, mainly stocked by supermarkets, and thus with a complicated supply chain that made it all the more difficult to know where the meat originated from. As was pointed out at the time, correctly I think, this was more about fraud and less about food safety. As far as meat goes, the horsemeat was perfectly fit for human consumption, it’s just that consumers had paid for beef, lamb or pork, and not horsemeat. Suppliers therefore removed the contaminated products from their shelves. The result was tonnes of foodstuffs going to waste. Where the cynicism set in was when aid organisations in France suggested to redistribute some of these products to poor people, providing the meat was deemed edible. The French Red Cross, however, argued that such a gesture would be an affront to human dignity: “If one does not have enough to eat, then that does not mean one has to eat what others reject”, a spokesperson said.

In Germany, too, first a parliamentary member of the CDU, Hartwig Fischer, and then the development minister, Dirk Niebel, echoed the call to redistribute contaminated meat to the poor. German aid organisations and the opposition parties equally condemned this suggestion as respectless and insulting toward the needy. Just because someone had less income did not mean they were second-class citizens. However, the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) maintained an ambiguous attitude. “We as a Church find the throw-away mentality in our society concerning. How and whether to distribute the products in question would have to be examined,” Prelate Bernhard Felmberg said. “But to throw away food that could be consumed without risk is equally bad as false labelling and cannot be a solution.”

The moral quandary is a valid one, for in a hungry world it is reprehensible to waste edible food, yet at the same time it is demeaning to our contemporary poor. The later Middle Ages had no such moral qualms.

Correct guidance on charitable discrimination was provided in the account-book of the Cistercian monastery of Beaulieu abbey, compiled 1269-70. This discrimination went so far that the poor sick people in the abbey’s infirmary were to be fed the meat of animals that had died of disease. One may also note that in 1506 the household records of the bishop of Lincoln contain a note that charity given to the poor consisted of fish that had become “corrupt and defective” (Christopher Dyer, Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages, Cambridge, 1989, p. 241). Prof. Dyer (op. cit. p. 237) comments that this attitude of “attention to economy, the discrimination and the distrust of the poor would not have been out of place among the zealous administrators of the new Poor Law in the nineteenth century.”

One can find further medieval examples of such a cynical definition of charity. The guild of butchers of Toulouse exercised similar charitable discrimination, in that the 1394 redaction of their statutes specified certain kinds of dubious meat (including “flesh from pigs with leprous tongues and dead animals not properly slaughtered by butchers”) to be confiscated by guild officials and if deemed still edible to be given to the poor, otherwise to be disposed of in the river; hence “at least one guild passed off its refuse as a charitable donation” (Steven Epstein, Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe, Chapel Hill, 1991, p. 168). And in 1356 St John’s hospital, Oxford which accommodated poor and sick people, was assigned “all flesh or fish that shall be putrid, unclean, vicious or otherwise unfit”, while St Giles’s hospital, Maldon, received all confiscated “bread, ale, flesh and unsound fish” deemed commercially non-viable (Carole Rawcliffe, Leprosy in Medieval England, Woodbridge, 2006, p. 79). According to Rawcliffe, the medieval rationale behind redistributing contaminated foodstuffs to, in the main, the inmates of leper houses was that such people were already affected by disease, and eating foodstuffs condemned as unfit for human consumption couldn’t make them any worse. Perhaps our present day political leaders think of the poor as lepers in this respect.

Disability History series on BBC Radio 4

Exceptions ratify the rules, as they say. The intention of this sporadic blog was to remain publicity-free and to be an outlet for more ‘serious’ academic pursuits, with mini-articles on various topics of interest to me. However, since everyone these days seems to be using their blog for publicity purposes, it would be counterproductive to stick too assiduously to self-imposed rules, even more so since it brings my main topic, disability in the medieval period, to the fore. The BBC’s decision to broadcast a series on Disability: A New History on Radio 4 cannot be praised enough, not just because I was interviewed for the programme, but because it is great news for anyone interested in advancing the study of disability in the pre-modern era. Historians are beginning, albeit belatedly, to discover the stories of disability in the past. “It is a hugely exciting area of research”, as Loftus, the production company for the radio series, rightly claims, and “the story is more nuanced and complex than we previously thought: there is sympathy and real empathy towards disability as well as fear and rejection.”

This ten-part series is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 27th-31st May and 3rd-7th June 2013 at 12.45pm GMT, plus it should be available to listeners outside of the UK on iPlayer, the BBC’s internet streaming facility. Disability in the Middle Ages is covered in episode 2 (Tue 28th May), with my interview. I was also asked to record the trailer for the entire series. This is a real milestone in terms of bringing disability history to a wider audience.

Skeletons in the car park

My congratulations to the team of archaeologists and other researchers at the University of Leicester who searched for, excavated and confirmed the bones of Richard III in what is now a car park on the site of a Franciscan friary. It is surely an archaeologist’s dream to dig up not just any old bones, but the bones of a named and, better still, famous individual. Since this event has proved newsworthy enough to be plastered all over national and international webpages, I do not wish to add to the inflationary response of comments and popular questions in terms of what should be done with the skeletal remains, are they really Richard’s, did he or didn’t he murder the princes in the tower and more along these lines. But because disability in the Middle Ages has been and still is my main research interest, I feel compelled to add my tuppence worth with regard to Richard III and disability. Keeping it as short and sweet as possible, my comments boil down to three points:

1. I have previously criticised the tendency among writings of disability history to trot out the figure of Richard III time and again as an example of a ‘disabled’ individual (in my book Disability in Medieval Europe, p. 11). Not only has much of disability history been rather restricted, in that the myopic focus on well-known, generally famous, powerful or influential, individual characters perforce distorts the picture (where in such narratives are the untold masses of mundane, unknown, and perhaps rather boring disabled peasants, artisans and other historical bit-part players?). A classic example of disability history as a history of famous people was produced in 1932 by Hans Würtz, a German medical specialist and founder of a famous orthopedic clinic (Oskar-Helene-Heim in Berlin-Zehlendorf), whose pioneering (for the time!) work Zerbrecht die Krücken (“Smash the Crutches”, published Leipzig: Leopold Voss) presented some 500 examples of famous ‘supercrips’ from throughout history. Würtz hoped to provide encouraging examples of people who ‘despite of’ their physical conditions achieved great things as political or military leaders, artists, or scientists. He derived from Nietzsche his emphasis on using personal willpower to overcome one’s impairment and hence to transcend disability. While considered rather patronising and even derogatory nowadays, such works of achievement narrative nevertheless subscribe to our cult of individuality. Focusing on individual biographies, such as the story of Richard, perforce focuses our gaze on elite ‘disabled’ figures, since in the days before Facebook only such figures merited the attentions of written history. (In case someone raises this point: the protagonists of miracle healings, though probably numbering in their thousands during the medieval period, are rarely, before the advent of protocolised canonisation proceedings in the early 13th century, given the kind of biographical detail we like to hear.)

2. But the figure of Richard III also highlights yet again the difference between disability and deformity, or rather, the problematic relationship between these two categories. Even if one momentarily disregards the recent findings from the excavations at Leicester, the previous historiographical accretions – via Holinshed and Shakespeare to modern disability history – had portrayed Richard as possibly deformed, yes, but hardly ‘disabled’. Whatever his physical condition, Richard was quite able. Able to walk, ride, fight and rule. No mention that his physical condition prevented him from doing any of these and other things. But what his physical state did do is affect his character, according to not just the older histories, but somewhat bizarrely a notion still very much alive and well today. Interviewed for a Channel 4 documentary in conjunction with the excavation and the subsequent craniofacial identification and facial reconstruction by forensic scientists, Richard III Society member Philippa Langley, originator of the search, said: “It doesn’t look like the face of a tyrant. […] He’s very handsome.” More than anything this throws us back to the age-old stereotype of the evil mind in an evil body. Richard can’t have been a Bad Guy, now that we can see what a handsome face he had, and can see that he wasn’t really a hunchbacked, crippled disabled person. Basically, this is physiognomics. Let me contextualise the descriptions of Richard’s appearance a little. It just so happens that the ‘science’ of physiognomy, derived from pseudo-Aristotelian antecedents (Physiognomonica), really took off in a big way during the humanist renaissance of the fifteenth and peaked during the sixteenth centuries when the first histories of Richard and his times were written. Although scholastics like Albertus Magnus and other learned folk such as Pietro d’Abano had already in the thirteenth century linked outer physical appearance with inner psychological characteristics, it was not until the popularisation of such notions in the fifteenth century that physiognomics became big business. The kind of ‘How To’ manuals for princes often included sections on using physiognomics to judge the character of one’s courtiers and rival princes. It is hardly surprising therefore that Richard’s appearance, whatever it may have been, was described in the language of physiognomy by the fifteenth and sixteenth century writers. To conclude this point, may I express how heartening it is to read this statement by Lin Foxhall, Head of the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester: “Our archaeological research does not tell us anything about the character of Richard III, and of course his physical condition and appearance were not a manifestation of his character.”

3. So now to the actual excavation findings. They raise equally interesting questions with regard to the severity or not of deformity/disability. As the BBC article put it: “Richard III was portrayed as deformed by some Tudor historians and indeed the skeleton’s spine is badly curved, a condition known as scoliosis. However, there was no trace of a withered arm or other abnormalities described in the more extreme characterisations of the king.” According to modern medical opinion, this type of scoliosis would have developed during teenage years, and one of the effects of spinal curvature is the shortening of an individual’s overall height. So Richard III is estimated to have stood about 5ft 8ins (1.7m) tall without the scoliosis, “but the curvature would have made him appear ‘considerably’ shorter.” Most shortened stature is not a disability, but the news report exaggerates the degree of this shortening, still pandering to the received popular stereotype of linking physical disability with character. There’s probably quite a grey area on the scale of stature, where people are not quite dwarf but not quite ‘normal’ height either, but even with the spinal curvature now evidenced in his skeletal remains, Richard would not have been classed as so short as to constitute physically impaired. What about the curvature itself? Richard’s twisted spine may look spectacular, but in fact may have had hardly any impact on his living person. Scoliosis need not be painful, nor affect motion. And one shoulder higher than the other does not a disability make – especially when the clothing of the times could easily have redressed any unbalanced symmetry. From which one may conclude that  – any – skeletal remains need interpreting with caution when it comes to making inferences about the lived experiences of an individual.

In Praise of Footnotes

Some of the books I have been reading or browsing recently fall into the crossover-category between academic tome and popular non-fiction – what German manages to distinguish so neatly between Fachbuch and Sachbuch. Examples include a book on medieval travel and exploration by the Venetian Zen[o] brothers, or a biography of Gerbert of Aurillac the ‘scientist pope’ (reviews perhaps another time). One of the most noticeable visual points, in terms of layout and hence development of argument, about this genre of book is that footnotes are eschewed in favour of a watered-down version of endnotes, whereby shorter or longer snippets of repetition and citation from the main text are repeated in the endnotes according to which page the reference was on, then elaborated with more or less scholarly bibliographical references. This system is supposedly easy on the eye of the ‘general’ reader, who has presumably been identified as the main readership of such a semi-academic non-fiction book, but whom the publisher does not want to confront with the full-blown scholarly apparatus, to whit: the footnote, for fear of ‘putting off’ such readers. Which is a real shame, since quite obviously a greater or lesser degree of scholarship and research has gone in to the writing of such a book in the first place, one of the reasons why I advocate reading such works, instead of sniffily turning one’s nose at them as sub-standard twaddle by amateurs. (It is purely the arrogance of the ‘professional’, in whatever field, that defines what is ‘twaddle’ and what is not. Plenty of novel, interesting and thought-provoking research has been conducted by so-called amateurs, and just because there are some badly researched and badly-written books out there – mainly those with a pet obsession and point to prove [but then, don’t bona fide academics have pet points and obsessions?] – one ought not consign all popular-style works to the lunatic fringe scrapheap of historical writing by cranks and crackpots.) So one criterion (of undoubtedly many factors that cannot be alluded to here) is the visual appearance, i.e. lack of readily identifiable scholarly apparatus, that defines a text as scholarly or amateur. A decent referencing system is the hallmark of historical writing, since references to sources and citations allow one’s peers to replicate the argument, much as in the natural sciences one’s experiments need to be replicable by one’s peers. Footnotes seem to be the ideal way of achieving such a reference system. (Note the technologically-imposed irony that I am writing this piece here without making use of footnotes.)

So why then has there been, even among academic publishers, a trend in recent years away from footnotes, not only towards the much more cumbersome endnotes but also towards the frustrating Harvard system? The problem with endnotes is readily explained: as you read the main text, come across something interesting, and want to follow this up, you are required to perform a kind of mental and digital gymnastics – digital here referring to the original meaning ‘finger’, not computers. First submit to memory where on the main page you were, then insert finger(s) to mark page, use spare hand to leaf through pages near the end to locate endnotes (an added obstacle will be if the endnotes are arranged by ‘Chapter X, Chapter Y, Chapter Z’ and you have not paid attention to which chapter it was you were reading, which requires insertion of finger to endnotes pages, flick back to main text, keep finger in main text while trying to find beginning of chapter to read main chapter title [since running header doesn’t mention this]), return to main page to review endnote number, return to endnotes, finally locate correct one and – breathing exhausted sigh of relief – peruse notes (only to discover it was not so interesting after all). Then backtrack to the main text, by which time you have almost forgotten where it was you had left off, so spend wasted time re-reading several sentences before hitting on the cause of your cognitive and dextrous exercise. Extra challenges are posed when the endnote system does not have full bibliographical details in each note, but instead requires you to somehow develop extras digits (presumably on a third hand) so that you can quickly flick to the bibliography where you can finally discover what treasured tome your reference is in. The Harvard system, theoretically, requires you only to locate items in a bibliography, hence you should be able to cope with the two hands that most of us possess, but adds a different dimension of frustration: as you are reading, deeply engrossed in the line of argument, you are yanked out of the finer points the author is trying to make by a sudden (Jones 1978a: 253) interpolation. Never mind the argument, who is Jones? What did s/he write in 1978 besides the item being referenced here, for if the date warrants a letter appended to it, Jones must have produced more than one publication that year? Thoroughly awoken by now from your musings on the argument, on what the author, backed up by the mysterious Jones, whoever s/he is, was trying to state in the first place, you turn to the bibliography, at last discover Jones’s brilliance, and return to the main text, again, like after the endnote fiasco mentioned above, spending valuable amounts of research time trying to re-read sentences to get back into the flow of things.

Call me academically conservative, but good old footnotes distract less, require less manual dexterity (or spine breaking ill-treatment of books!) and lead to instant gratification of scholarly desires. Those folk who argue that footnotes break up the text and are too demanding of the reader (even the legal profession, notorious for its incomprehensible language, is coming to that way of thinking) should try chasing up a reference in the endnote or Harvard system as described above. The footnote, in contrast, is to writing what multi-tasking is in the world of work: it is not just going off on a tangent, it is allowing you to simultaneously present thoughts about related but different topics, thereby broadening your intellectual and cognitive horizon, nudging you along avenues of argument, debate or consideration that you may never have discovered in a plain text. It was, unsurprisingly for those who like stereotypes, a French author who said that a decent footnote is like the cellar of a building: it is underpinning the whole structure, with dusty chambers, secret cellars, and hidden passages; so a footnote may be daunting, even potentially misleading but at the same time awakening the possibility of uncovering long-forgotten treasures. Embracing the footnote is setting off on a course of adventure, the literary equivalent of the aventure of the knight in medieval romances. As a medievalist, of course, I would go even farther, and advocate a return to the system of glossation introduced into scholastic manuscripts (as in this example from a glossed Aristotle) – the one where the main text is not so much propped up by the foundational structure of footnotes as it is structurally encased by supplementary text, an exoskeleton surrounding the main body, if you like to pursue the materialist analogy.

And last but not least, a few words about the extended meaning of the term ‘footnote’. Being a ‘footnote of history’ has been used as a derogation of events or people in the grand narrative of constructing mainstream history. Already Otto of Freising in the twelfth century, in his History of the Two Cities, had defined history as tragedy, a literary genre that deals with the great, the good and the powerful, thereby presenting an intellectual justification and exculpation for the writing out of history of the powerless, the marginalised, or those deemed ‘deviant’ – these being the very ones who have been consigned to the ‘footnotes of history’. The literary and historic metaphors converge, in that much as the textual footnote is the structural underpinning of the superstructured text above it, the approach of ‘history from below’ seeks to uncover those people relegated to the footnotes of history, namely those who, again in a medieval simile (John of Salisbury’s Policraticus, book V, chapter 2), formed the feet of the body politic. Discovering the stories hidden in the footnotes of history has for me been the most interesting part of historical research – after all, most of the medieval disabled people I have studied have been, literally, uncovered from the footnotes of history.

Public spaces

An area in the centre of Bristol now called College Green, a triangle of land bounded on one side by the cathedral, on another by the council house, and on the third by a row of buildings including the former hospital of St Mark (now Lord Mayor’s Chapel), has in recent days been in the news, as the site of Bristol’s local version of the ‘Occupy (WallSt/Stock Exchange/financial district)’ movement. Besides the wider issue of current protest, which it is not the aim or intent of this blog to delve into, the admittedly comparatively very small but strangely pertinent question of public, or open, spaces and their use has caused a medieval/modern intersection.

The debate over public space and how to use it is not new. Back in 1259 William, the abbot of St Augustine’s (now the cathedral, and Henry de Gaunt, master of St Mark’s hospital (now remnants in the Lord Mayor’s Chapel), fell out over the use of and rights to the open space (now College Green) separating the two establishments. In the 13th century, when the afterlife was of more concern than it is today, the space was primarily recognised as a burial ground for St Augustine’s, but the master and ‘staff’ of St Mark’s surreptitiously encroached on it to also dig graves.

Besides use as a cemetery, the open space or ‘the green’ (planicie) was also used for more worldly, and more public, activities such as grazing the animals owned by both St Augustine’s and St Mark’s, as well as being a point of access for people, horses and (goods)vehicles for both abbey and hospital – in other words it was a ‘public space’ in the modern sense of the word. As with current debates surrounding the public realm with regard to environmental quality, the question of the ‘amenity value’ (to give its modern term) cropped up in 1259: The master and his staff at the hospital of St Mark were ordered to level off the mounds of earth covering graves which they had dug before the gates of their establishment (i.e. on the green) in order that the pleasantness (literally: amenities) of the place should be preserved (propter amenitatem loci conseruandam) – again, in modern terms, so that people using the space no longer faced the trip hazard of uneven surfaces (stumbling over the graves) –  and the grazing of animals was prohibited. The document goes on to state that in future, the bodies of the dead should only be buried in that part of the cemetery used before 1259 “because of the pleasantness of the place”. And the public nature of the space, in that although technically owned by the abbey but ‘necessary’ for the hospital, is emphasised in the following:

“Those dwelling in the house of St. Mark may have access and egress in and out of the green, for the sake of walking, going, or wandering where they please, or of driving drays, carriages and carts (dreyes, carectas, bigas) along the ways useful and necessary to them, and accustomed.” (Cartulary of St. Mark’s Hospital, Bristol, ed. C. D. Ross, Bristol Record Society, 21, 1959, charter no. 35, dated 13 Sept. 1259, p. 38)

Which just goes to show that history can be contemporarily relevant in the tiniest of things, and the most innocuous of books (the publications of the Bristol Record Society are not exactly noted for their revolutionary appeal) hold undiscovered dissident potential.

Skeletons in the cupboard

Medieval skeletons have been in the news of late, or rather the results have of osteological research into medieval populations. While the BBC announced the findings of a major project looking at the genetics behind the “Black Death”, I had a rather more staid evening, but still on the topic of medieval health, population and causes of death. I attended a talk at a local archaeological society, given this week by Dr Heidi Dawson of Bristol university’s department of archaeology and anthropology. The topic was health, status and burial practices as reflected in medieval cemetery populations, based on an excavation at the priory of SS Peter and Paul, Taunton, Somerset. The cemetery was used by both the clergy and the lay population between possibly as early as the 1150s and no later than 1539, as the Dissolution wiped out burial practice at this site. The archaeologists only excavated the lay cemetery, which was situated to the west of the priory church, as the area east of the church (presumably containing the clerics) lies underneath a cluster of Victorian housing. So much for the general context. Three questions aroused my curiosity, and brought me back to thinking of my early academic pursuits, when I did some studies on disability in medieval palaeopathology of the literature-review type.

One: a lot ot the females buried in the lay cemetery appeared to be aged between 20 and 35 years of age, i.e. in their prime childbearing years. Was this mortality pattern, as several people, both the speaker and in the audience suggested, due to death in childbirth? That’s always the standard answer that tends to be given when confronted with young females dying in the past. Our stereotypical view, from the comfortable position of belief in the superiority in all aspects of our own times, is that medieval standards of hygiene and medical care were generally abysmal, so we simply take it as a given that large numbers of women died in childbirth. Where is the evidence? From my (albeit limited) knowledge of osteology and palaeopathology it transpires that there are ways of ascertaining whether a female skeleton is that of a woman who has given birth (or tried to give birth) to a child, in that every birth results in scarring of the pubic bones, particularly of the pelvis. If one were to examine the pelvises of the skeletons of those females who died in the 20 to 35 age range one might be able to figure out which of these women had given birth or tried to. These individuals might likely (but still not definitely) be the ones who could have died in childbirth. Those individuals with no evidence of scarring to the pelvis are then the ones that definitely died from causes other than childbirth. I raise these questions because in my simple mind, when it comes to statistics, I cannot fathom how most of us alive today would actually have got here if our putative ancestral mothers had all died in childbirth. To the argument that we are the descendants of those (few) women who survived childbirth I would counter that such a limited line of descent would contradict the genetic diversity we see today.

Two: Still related to female mortality was the observation made by the excavating archaeologists that many of the females in the 20 to 35 age range had lost teeth, and of those teeth still intact in the jaw bones of their skeletal remains quite a number had caries. Now there is some research that supports the old wives’ tale of “gain a child, lose a tooth”, meaning that for every baby a woman has she loses a tooth. Not for nothing do pregnant women nowadays, even in the cash-strapped and threatened NHS, get free dental treatment for the duration of their pregnancy and for the first year afterwards. Nourishing a fetus and lactating diverts nutrient resources that would otherwise go into the production/preservation of the soft tissue (gums) holding teeth in place, and possibly also affects tooth enamel.

So one could quite simply do a study on this specific Taunton burial population that tries to correlate incidence of female pelvis scarring with incidence of female tooth loss and tooth decay. If my hypothesis is correct, those female skeletons with signs of pelvic scarring should be more likely to also present evidence of ante-mortem tooth loss. Conversely, since teeth can also be lost for loads of other reasons besides pregnancy and lactation, I would expect to find a number of female skeletons that show tooth loss/decay but no pelvic scarring. If you then were to look at the age range of the former group (the ones with both pelvic scarring and ante-mortem tooth loss), then you might be getting closer to finding a group of women who might perhaps have died in childbirth. That is, in other words, if the group affected by pelvic scarring and tooth loss were found to have perished in their 20s and 30s, then perhaps they may have died in childbirth. If, however, you find that women from the group affected by pelvic changes and lost teeth lived beyond their 30s, you are dealing with women who had at least one pregnancy (primae gravidae, for those who like jargon) and quite happily survived the apparent mortal peril of childbirth.

Three: A further interesting question raised by this presentation on the medieval Taunton cemetery population was: where are all the older women? It seems that once women reach menopausal age or even get past the menopause, the physiology of their skulls becomes similar to those of males. An archaeological paper on ‘Sexism in Sexing‘ (p. 36) highlighted the mis-readings and mis-interpretations reached by relying on cranial features alone. Hence there is a problem for osteologists in establishing the sex of more mature skeletons if they are either only relying on the cranium to ‘sex’ the individual, or the other bones, i.e. the pelvis, have not survived in the ground. Skeletal remains of older women have tended to be subsumed by the interpretative group of ‘mature males’. So a recent textbook notes: “An emphasis on the skull [as a means of sexing skeletal remains] probably contributed to an overabundance of males in earlier osteological reports” (Mary Anne Katzenberg & Shelley Rae Saunders, Biological Anthropology of the Human Skeleton, John Wiley & Sons, 2008, p. 576). Better sexing methods of mature skeletal remains might remove the paradigm of female mortality in childbirth in past populations, for if it turns out that far more women were becoming ‘old’ than previously assumed, far more women were living past their childbearing years and hence surviving childbirth.

Medieval Ships and Travel

Earlier this week I accompanied a class of primary school children on a day out to visit the replica Matthew, built to commemorate the 1497 voyage of John Cabot from Bristol to … well, where exactly is not known for certain, but Newfoundland, Nova Scotia or even the coast of Maine have all been suggested (there’s an excellent book by Peter E. Pope, The Many Landfalls of John Cabot, Uni. of Totonto P., 1997, looking at exactly this issue of mythmaking vs evidence). Let’s leave the academic debate on Cabot’s voyage(s) aside for another time. I was as fascinated by the reaction of the children as they were by the replica boat. “It’s tiny!”, “Did they really go to sea in this?”, “Where were the toilets?” were the common kinds of questions. Which made me think about our modern preconceptions of travel in the Middle Ages as something very few people did, something highly dangerous, and subject to the whims of fate. What a pity then that only today, in my regular ‘random reading’, did I stumble across a short little source that might have put the picture straight for those schoolkids.

On 25th March 1391 Richard II granted a licence to one Thomas Norton, that before Michaelmas he may ship in the George of Bristol as many pilgrims as he pleases, one voyage only, to Corunna, “whereof he may make proclamation in every part of the realm, but the pilgrims must be of the king’s allegiance and amity, and must not carry gold or silver, in bullion or money, contrary to statute” (Calendars of Patent Rolls, Richard II, 4, p. 387, cited by Diana Webb, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in the Medieval West, I.B.Tauris, pb 2001, p. 190).

So putting it in terms primary school kids might understand this short note tells us: that just over a hundred years before Cabot sailed from Bristol other people were organising trips abroad for lots of passengers; the boat was to sail to northern Spain [La Coruña], which involves some exposure to the Atlantic (in fact, to the notorious Bay of Biscay), and Mr Norton expected he would get a full contingent of fare-paying passengers; the trip was advertised nationwide, like a package holiday might be today by a tour operator with offices in major towns; and then there’s the political bit that might be harder to explain to eight-year-olds but has less to do with people being afraid of travelling by boat and more to do with the medieval equivalent of national security. In short, if people were taking boat trips as part of a ‘package holiday’ 100 years before Cabot, that kind of puts medieval ships in general and Bristol boats in particular in better perspective.

Addendum (30 October 2011): A little more random reading in economic history (E. M. Carus-Wilson (ed.), The Overseas Trade of Bristol in the Later Middle Ages, Bristol Record Society 7, 1936, pp. 60-63) further illustrates the “package tour” nature of pilgrim transport from Bristol: between 16 March and 12 July 1428 five licences were granted to different merchants and shipping-agents to take respectively 80, 100, 100, 100 and 80 pilgrims to St James of Compostella – a total of 460 people embarking from the port of Bristol in one season alone; the next flurry of organised tours came between 25 February and 22 June 1434, when this time six licences were granted for 80, 60, 80, 30, 50 and 30 pilgrims to Compostella – smaller ships but still a respectable total of 330 people. Beyond the scope of this blog, but simply raised here as points to ponder, is the answer to the questions: what had changed in the intervening six years, why were smaller ships used, was it because of less demand from pilgrims wishing to embark for Compostella, in which case what political, economic or even cultural factors made less people want to do the “tour” in the later year?

The Sporadic Blog


… is slowly creeping its way onto these pages …

Let’s start with a word or two about the images in the header.

The feline is a rather unusual use of a cat in art, namely as heraldic emblem on the tombstone of a minor German noblememan, one Ritter Erasmus II von Laiming (†1406). On this kind of upright grave slab, a tumba, the cat is sitting on top of a cushion resting on an armorial helmet which is in turn worn by a lion. The cat, generally silver or white, appeared frequently in the early heraldry of the Laiming family, until this domestic feline was augmented by a captive or caged lion – interestingly enough, the cat is here on the tumba superior to the royal lion. The tumba was made by Hans Heider of Salzburg, and is now located in the cloisters of Kloster Seeon on the Chiemsee, Bavaria.

The castle is, of course, there to represent one of the main stereotypical views of the Middle Ages. Ask any small child about the Middle Ages, and castles will be up there with knights and dragons, so strongly embedded in contemporary culture is this ‘romantic’ idea of the Middle Ages (derived, via 18th and 19th century revivals, from the not just etymologically similar romances of the medieval period itself). This one shows the alcazar of Segovia, a building with a few medieval remnants embedded in its fabric, but essentially a nineteenth-century (re)creation in the spirit of Viollet le Duc. As a building it literally screams ‘castle’ at you, the same way that Ludwig II’ of Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein does, or Walt Disney’s fairytale one. Such hyper-castles may stand visually for the debate around what actually is deemed to be ‘heritage’ (see the Research pages here on this site for more on this topic), and then additionally the question of whose heritage do we mean.

The image on the right is just one among hundreds depicting medieval disabled people. This one was chosen pretty much at random from my collection. Here St James is shown leading a group of pilgrims towards an otherwise unidentified Franciscan saint. The painting is Sienese school, from a predella made by Giovanni di Paolo in the 1430s, and now in a private collection (but you can find out more about it in the exhibition catalogue Paintings in Renaissance Siena 1420-1500, by Christiansen, Kanter and Strehlke, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988). Precisely because in terms of depicting the disabled there is nothing extraordinary about it I have selected this one – more on the mundaneity of such imagery at a later date.