Alchemy: Science or magic?


One of the characters in a current work in progress is an alchemist, which is a shame, as I know next to nothing about alchemy. I have been doing some reading, however, and it is, as you would expect, a fascinating, if complicated, subject.

Until the eighteenth century only seven substances were recognised as metals: gold and silver (the noble metals) and copper, iron, tin, lead and mercury (the base metals). Gold and silver were noble because they resisted corrosion, whereas the other metals changed, for the worse, over time. Much of the theory of alchemy was about ‘healing’ the base metals from their corrosive bodies.

There were various thoughts about how this might be achieved. Some thought that each metal had a body and a spirit and, if the sprits of two metals could be drawn off and the spirit of one added to the body of the other, the other would take on the substance of the original. Other alchemists adapted the ideas of Aristotle. He had identified four primary qualities: hot, cold, wet and dry. There were also four elements; fire, air, water and earth. Aristotle thought of them as abstract principles, but an alchemist called Jabir thought they might have physical existence. One of his theories was that gold is hot and wet, and lead is cold and dry, therefore turning lead into gold should just be a matter of introducing more hot and wet or reducing the cold and dry. Others again thought that combining mercury and sulphur in some special way would produce the Philosophers’ Stone, which would achieve the transmutation.

Alchemy can be traced back to Hellenistic Egypt in the third century AD.  The first great practitioner was Zosimos of Panopolis. He was one among many, but some of his work has survived, whereas that of his rivals, or colleagues, has not. He was a methodical researcher and was particularly interested in the action of vapours on solids. Theory was important to him, as well as practical research.

The first references to the Philosophers’ Stone, a substance which could turn base metals to gold, occurred in the seventh century.

From around 750 to 1400 alchemy developed in the Islamic world. Here the premise was developed that the Philosophers’ Stone was made up of two parts: a white agent for making silver and a red one for gold.

Somewhere between the sixth and eighth centuries the best known text relating to alchemy appeared. Although is attributed to Hermes or Trismagestus, the Emerald Tablet was probably an Arab work.

In the twelfth century alchemy came to Europe when Arab works, including the Emerald Tablet, began to be translated into Latin, but this declined in the twelfth century and more original works were written in Latin. A surprisingly large number of writers about alchemy in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries were Franciscan friars. These included Paul of Taranto, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon and John of Rupescissa. Not all of them thought it was a good idea, or even believed that it was acceptable to try to change metals into gold.

John of Rupescissa was influenced by the Spirituals in the Franciscan Order and was expecting the Antichrist to appear at any moment. He thought that any weapon that could be used against him should be investigated. Gold would be useful, he thought, and so would something that could prolong people’s lives. He was probably the first alchemist to consider using the healing properties of the Philosophers’ Stone on people, not, as popularly believed, to bestow immortality, but to extend life for a time. He was imprisoned in 1344 and spent the rest of his life in captivity, but he was permitted to carry out his experiments and to write. It was not his alchemy which worried the authorities, but his prophetic activities and his denunciation of clerical abuses.  In 1351 he learned how to distil alcohol from wine when he was imprisoned in Avignon, where they had been doing this for medicinal purposes since the 1320s.  He made tinctures by adding herbs to the alcohol and these tended to be more effective than those made using water. When he noticed that alcohol did not decay and that meat immersed in alcohol was preserved indefinitely, he thought he had discovered the elixir that would preserve life.

Alchemists became associated with counterfeiters and Pope John XXII condemned them in 1317. Edward II banned their efforts in England, but his son, Edward III, ever short of money, encouraged them.

Apart from its connection with counterfeiters and tricksters in general, alchemy was serious science.  Its practitioners were not usually inspired by greed, but by curiosity. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that chemistry began to be seen as separate from alchemy.




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The influence of the mendicant orders in the fourteenth century


Towards the end of the eleventh century there was an increasing desire in many monks to return to the life of the hermit. There was also a desire to emulate the apostles by owning nothing and sharing everything. This was known as the apostolic life. Religious fervour swept through parts of Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and more and more people came to live together in religious communities. They were usually lay people, rather than ordained monks. Frequently their beliefs tended towards the heretical – the Cathars and the Albigensians for example. All their beliefs were based on interpretations of the apostolic life and a desire to embrace poverty as Christ had done.

The Franciscans

Founded by St Francis in 1209, the Franciscans were the Grey Friars or Friars Minor. ‘Friar’ is a corruption of the Norman French ‘frere’ which in turn came from the Latin ‘frater’ or ‘brother’. The Franciscans were the least intellectual of the mendicant orders, which may explain why they seemed to be rather prone to heresy. They took a vow of poverty and preached with great emotion about the sufferings of Christ.

Francis wanted to return to the simplicity of the early church. He embraced poverty and aspired to preach in the streets as the apostles had. He lived in caves, begging for food and wearing cast-off clothes.

Francis’ aim was to reform the church from within by example. He did not criticise the church, although its faults were very clear to him. His early followers were members of the aristocracy and the merchant class, who had wealth to give up. The call to poverty did not appeal to those who already had next to nothing.

The Franciscans realised that, if they were to evangelise, which was an important element of their interpretation of the apostolic life, they could not live in monasteries, but would have to be in the world. They had houses, between which individuals moved in small groups as directed by their superiors, but the friars did not have permanent homes.

As people living in towns began more frequently to receive an education and there was greater access to books, occasionally even a New Testament in their own language, they began to realise that their parish priests were not well-educated and knew little more than they did themselves, sometimes less. They became critical of their priests and open to the various heresies that arose when people were able to study the New Testament for themselves. By the time the Franciscans started travelling from town to town, town dwellers were used to seeing laymen preach the gospel. The only difficulty was telling the difference between a preacher approved by the church and a heretic.

The Franciscans first arrived in England in 1224, when they established themselves in Canterbury, London and Oxford.

There were constant arguments in the order about whether or not they should become university-trained theologians, or whether they should have servants, or whether they should own property. Within twenty-five years of Francis’ death the minority who insisted on simplicity and poverty became known as the ‘Spirituals’; their opponents were the ‘Conventuals’. At the end of the thirteenth century the Spirituals were accused of heresy and their leaders were burned to death. They had developed extreme views, believing that St Francis had replaced Jesus. They did not accept the authority of the pope.

Early Franciscans had been lay men and this was a great problem for the medieval church, as they could neither hear confessions nor dispense the sacraments. Not long after Francis’ death control of the order passed from lay brothers to ordained brothers, which made the order more acceptable to the rest of the church.

The Franciscans eventually moved into the universities and the intellectual world of the later Middle Ages was dominated by Franciscans like Alexander of Hales (1185 – 1245), Bonaventure (1221 – 1274), Duns Scotus (c. 1266- 1308) and William of Occam (1285-1349).

The Dominicans

The Dominicans were the Black Friars who gave their name to the area of London between the Thames and St Paul’s. They were founded in 1215 by St Dominic. Their full name was the Order of Friars Preachers, which indicates their rôle. They were mendicants who went from place to place preaching against heresy. They were used to combat the heresies that were rife in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, particularly in southern France. By the middle of the thirteenth century most of the members of the recently formed Inquisition were Dominicans. They encouraged leaning and rational theological debate, as they believed this was the most effective way to combat heresy.

The Dominicans were an ordained order from their inception. They were well-educated and dedicated to preaching. Dominic had been involved in preaching against the Cathar heresy in Languedoc. Very quickly they decided to focus their activity around the universities, initially in Paris and Bologna. When they came to England in 1221 they went to Oxford.

The rule they followed was Augustine’s. This was based on an annotated version of St Augustine of Hippo’s letter number 211, which he wrote for his sister when she entered a religious community. It contained instructions for liturgical prayer, poverty, reading and silence. In this rule study was more important than manual labour.

The Dominicans were the first compilers of Biblical concordances, as they were an aid to preaching. They also collected anecdotes from the lives of the saints as examples for their sermons. By the thirteenth century few parish priests were capable of preaching a sermon, and the situation worsened after the Black Death. The friars stepped into the gap.

A friar had to study for three years before he was permitted to preach. There was a teacher of theology in each house, as well as special schools for friars who were going to teach. From these a few would go on to teach at the universities. Some of the greatest minds of the thirteenth century were Dominicans – Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), Albertus Magnus (d. 1280) and Robert Kilwardby (1215 – 1279).

The Carmelites

The Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was founded at Mount Carmel in the early thirteenth century. It was approved by the pope in 1226. These were the White Friars.  The order’s early members were hermits in the deserts of the Holy Land. The first Carmelite house in England was founded in Aylesford after 1240 when many monks left the East after the failure of the Crusades. The twelfth century Pilgrim’s Hall at Aylesford is pictured above. Aylesford was on the pilgrim route from London to Canterbury and pilgrims were offered hospitality there. The monks were removed from Aylesford in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but returned in 1949, and this photograph shows the modern open air shrine area.


The Carmelites were the most contemplative of the mendicant orders. From the middle of the thirteenth century the emphasis of the order changed to the Franciscan model of mendicant preachers.

The Fourteenth Century

Most parish priests were not well-educated and their parishioners flocked to hear the friars preach, particularly the Dominicans. The friars gave the laity a way of living the Christian life whilst living in the world. Ordinary people saw that they did not have to become monks or priests in order to follow Christ fully.

It was easy for people in general to identify with the poverty of the friars, since that was their own lot in life. Monks in wealthy monasteries seemed very remote from their lives and increasingly irrelevant.

By the mid thirteenth century there were many mendicant orders as well as splinter groups, and the Second Council of Lyons abolished the smaller orders in 1274. Only orders created before 1215 were allowed to continue, save where they had received papal authority. This meant that only the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Carmelites and the Austin Friars survived into the fourteenth century.


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The Monastic Orders

Wenlock Priory

By the fourteenth century there were four major monastic orders: the Benedictines, the Cluniacs, the Carthusians and the Cistercians.  The three later orders began as reform movements. Most monastic movements began with the intention of reflecting the austere life of the desert monks of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, but over time they became increasingly remote from their origins and there would come a point when someone would think that things needed to change.

The Benedictines

The Benedictines dated from the sixth century and they were the dominant order from the ninth century on. Their way of life was based around the Rule of St Benedict. They lived in community, slept in dormitories and ate together in a refectory. Each monastery was an independent entity under the control of its abbot. The monks wore black habits.

Throughout the Dark Ages the Benedictines managed to keep scholarship and liturgical worship going. Their abbeys were centres of learning throughout the Middle Ages.

In England they became rich and powerful, owning vast swathes of land.

The Rule was very flexible and its practitioners eventually came to be seen as lax, both by monks and by people outside the monasteries.

The Cluniacs

The first reform movement began with the abbey at Cluny in 910. It was founded by William the Pious, duke of Aquitaine. One of the major differences from the Benedictines was that the abbot of Cluny controlled all the daughter houses. Everything was centralised, and English or French monks owed their allegiance to Cluny rather than to church authorities in their own countries.

The Cluniacs had an elaborate liturgy and the architecture of their buildings was extravagant. They also wore more expensive clothing than that worn by other monks. Their focus was on prayer and they did little manual labour.

Their first English house was founded in 1077 at Lewes. Wenlock Priory, pictured above, was a Cluniac house.

The Carthusians

The Poor Brothers of God of the Charterhouse were founded in 1085 by St Bruno of Cologne. They did not have their own rule, but followed the Benedictine Rule in a different way. Their way was austere. These monks were silent and they fasted for much of the time. They took vows of austerity, humility and silence.

The monks slept in cells rather than in dormitories, reflecting a desire to return to the roots of the desert hermits. Each cell had its own garden and each monk had a patch of land to cultivate. For three days a week they were allowed only bread and water. On other days they had fish, eggs and vegetables. They usually ate alone, but ate together on feast days.

The monks met together only for Mattins, Lauds and Vespers. They celebrated the other liturgical hours alone in their cells.

Each house contained a prior and twelve monks with eighteen lay brothers. These last looked after the crops and animals belonging to the house. The Carthusians wanted to avoid a priory growing too large or becoming too well endowed.

Their monasteries were called charterhouses and the first one in England was built in 1178.

The Cistercians

Robert of Molesme founded the abbey at Cîteax in 1098, clearly believing that the Carthusians were insufficiently austere. The Cistercians’ clothing was made of undyed wool, hence they were called white monks. They ate neither fish nor eggs. They lived in cells and slept on boards. They worked in the fields and did not study. They used lay brothers to do much of the manual labour so that they could devote themselves to prayer. Their churches were plain with white walls and had no stained glass, or towers.

The most famous Cistercian was Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). He arrived a Cîteaux a few years after it was founded. A former soldier, he had a difficult fight against the temptations of the flesh, but he preferred to fight on his own rather than with the assistance of his fellow monks. He believed in fasting and physical suffering, and was considered extreme even by the Cistercians. He was sent to Clairvaux to set up a monastery. He almost died in the early days, but Clairvaux became the most influential monastery in Europe. Under Bernard’s guidance all Cistercian abbeys became very similar in their layout. There were 343 Cistercian abbeys in Europe by Bernard’s death.

In 1132 the Cistercians founded Rievaulx in Yorkshire. It was remote and desolate. They were experts at transforming the landscape and exploiting mineral resources. By the end of the twelfth century they owned so much land and so many sheep that they were responsible for most of the wool exported from England. They chose sheep originally because they had so many uses. Their fleece became wool; their milk made cheese and butter; and their skins could be turned into vellum for books or sold to glovemakers.

The Cistercians were entrepreneurs, which went against the Rule. Benedict had prescribed that monks should not engage with the world. In another contravention of the Rule, each Cistercian house was subject to the house from which it had been founded, rather than ruled independently by its abbot.

Their first house in England was founded in 1128. They usually built in remote places and made them flourish by their labour.

The Fourteenth Century

There’s no denying that by the fourteenth century St Benedict would have recognised few monasteries as living in accordance with the Rule. Even though the Rule was flexible, many abbots and monks bent it until it broke. Monasteries were wealthy landowners; monks had servants; they ate meat and they were no longer respected by the people around them. The writing was on the wall in the thirteenth century and men like St Francis and St Dominic found a different route to reformation, as we shall see next week.


Filed under Church, Fourteenth Century

What is the Benedictine Rule?



In the early centuries of Christianity, those who wanted to concentrate on the spiritual life tended to go to remote places such as deserts, wild coasts or mountains, to live as hermits. They were often joined by disciples, and small communities developed. It was St Benedict of Nursia who had the greatest success in organising the way in which hermits and their followers could live in community and he developed the Rule by which they should live. He was not the first to have the idea of living in a community, or even the first to develop a rule, but it was his rule that was taken up most widely and lasted the longest.

Benedict lived from about 480 to about 550. He was a hermit at Subiaco, near Rome, living in a cave for about three years. He organised his disciples into groups of twelve and eventually founded a monastery at Monte Cassino, where he finished writing the Rule that he had been developing for several years. Moderation was important to Benedict and he created the Rule to provide an environment of authority, obedience, stability and community life for the monks. These had been missing for other groups of disciples who had gathered around other hermits, where excessive asceticism was the norm.

The aim of early monks was union with God through prayer, and the Rule was supposed to help them to achieve that aim. Little is known about origins of the Rule, but it seems to reflect some of the elements of many rules from the sixth century. The Rule was very straightforward and covered every hour of every day. Monks had to be doing something all the time, even if it was just sleeping.

The word ‘monk’ comes from the Greek ‘monos’, which means ‘alone’, reflecting their origins as hermits. When they joined a monastery, monks were to serve a novitiate of a year and then take binding vows to remain in the community until death. Each monastery was to be independent of the others and monks did not move from one monastery to another.

The monks were to occupy themselves with liturgical prayer accompanied by sacred reading. They were also to be involved in manual work. According to the Rule, monks could only speak when permitted to do so by a superior and were not allowed to have possessions.

The abbot of a monastery was to be a spiritual father of his community and its supreme authority, but even the abbots were not greater than the Rule. Everyone had to live according to its precepts.

Monks were to be obedient and humble. The prologue of the rule and the first seven chapters talk about the ascetic life. The next thirteen contain detailed instructions for the services including prayers, readings and psalmody. The rule set out that all 150 Psalms were to be recited every week.

It then describes how abbots are to be elected, what other senior members of the community are to do and then there are instructions for the monks’ daily lives. This included how many hours they were to sleep, how many hours they were to perform manual labour, how many hours reading, and how many hours eating. Within these chapters a penitential code laid out the penalties for breaches of monastic discipline. It also describes how new members are to be trained. The Rule is so wide that it encompasses the practicalities of communal life as well as the monks’ spiritual lives.

In comparison with other rules for monastic life that were being developed at the same time, Benedict’s Rule is humane and gentle. Most of the other rules were based on the desert origins of monastic life. Life in the desert was hard and these rules made life hard for the monks. For the hermits in the desert, the master (the original hermit around whom disciples had gathered) was the ruler and the disciples had to obey him and whatever rule he put in place.

The Rule always acknowledged that the life of the hermit was the ideal and, even in the fourteenth century, most Benedictine monasteries had two or three monks living as hermits away from the monastery.

The Rule insisted that a guest be received as if he were Christ himself and there were many who were prepared to abuse this principal, travelling from monastery to monastery.

The Rule was flexible enough to adapt and some monasteries became centres of learning, others excelled at agriculture and still others at medicine.

For Benedict communal prayer was the centre of monastic life. Vigils, or Nocturns, was sung at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., depending on the season. Lauds was sung at first light. The remaining offices were relatively short and sung at the first, third, sixth and ninth hours. Vespers was the evening office and the day ended with Compline, which was very short. Nocturns was the longest and most elaborate office. Sometimes it could take two hours. Prime was sung at sunrise, after which the monks went to carry out their manual labour. Not only did Benedict lay down the pattern for monastic life, but most Christian services in the western church today, whether Catholic or Protestant, still follow this structure.




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Monks and friars and how to tell them apart


I used to work in an area of London called Blackfriars. It took its name from the monks of the priory built there in 1276. The Black Friars were Dominicans and wore black habits. There were other monks who were white friars, as well as Benedictines and Cluniacs and others, and I have never been able to come to grips with the differences between the various monastical orders. I wasn’t even sure that there were differences.

Since a character in my work in progress is a monk, it seemed like a good idea to work out what kind of monk he was and, perhaps, get all the different varieties sorted out. There appeared to have been a huge number of different kinds of monks wandering around fourteenth century England, but it’s even more complicated than I thought.

There were essentially two types of monks – those who lived in monasteries and those who did not. The members of the monastical orders lived in monasteries and very rarely left them after they had entered them (although it might be more accurate to say that they were not supposed to leave them). The monasteries were often large and usually owned great swathes of land. Some monks were also friars, who did not live in a monastery. We’ve all heard of Friar Tuck roaming the countryside with Robin Hood; he was a member of one of these orders. Friars belonged to mendicant orders. In the fourteenth century there were four monastical orders and four mendicant orders. The mendicant orders had no great houses and the monks lived on the alms of people who wanted to help them. They were, essentially, beggars. These were the preaching orders, usually working to convince people to give up the various heresies that threatened to overwhelm the church in the Middle Ages. When the inquisition was formed, many of its members were Dominicans, from one of these preaching orders. Many parish priests resented the mendicant monks, because they took money that the priests thought could be better used by them in their parishes. Others found it hard to accept monks who did not live up to the monastic ideal of entering a community and not leaving it again. Despite their members living as beggars, these orders eventually became very wealthy.

Monasticism has its roots in the desert monks of the fourth century. Christians in North Africa left the towns to live as hermits in the desert so that they could pray and study. They became known as particularly holy men and people would visit them in the hope that they would learn something, or that the holiness would rub off on them. Some of these visitors would become disciples of the hermits and monastic communities were born.  One such community gathered around St Benedict in the sixth century and he formalised the way in which the members should live together in his Rule. Monks were to pray and work together. Over time it became accepted that the prayers of simple monks had value and the monasteries were given money so that their inhabitants would pray for the donors.

Monks in monastic orders generally followed some form of the Benedictine Rule. The Benedictines were the oldest order, but later monks thought they had become corrupt and there were a series of reformations, which brought about the other three orders. These were the Cistercians, Carthusians and Cluniacs.

Books were produced in monasteries and this was often the sole labour of the monks and the Rule said that they were supposed to work. They would spend their time when not in church sitting at desks in the cloisters of the monastery copying out books.

Monasteries were often pilgrimage sites, because they often held relics of saints. Pilgrims came to visit the shrine holding the relic expecting miracles and left gifts behind.

Due to the communal nature of their lives, almost two thirds of the members of monastic orders in England died during the Black Death. Some monasteries never recovered. Rievaulx in Yorkshire had once held over 400 monks, by 1381 there were only 18.

By the fourteenth century monks were increasingly treated with suspicion. They came to be seen more as wealthy landowners who behaved in the same way as other wealthy landowners than as men who prayed. During the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, monks and their churches were as much targets of attack as the property of wealthy and unpopular men like John of Gaunt. The Archbishop of Canterbury was killed.

By the sixteenth century the monasteries were easy prey for Henry VIII. Many monasteries were too small to continue effectively and others had departed so far from the rule that the monks were bad examples to the people around them. Most monasteries were dissolved,  with the Crown taking their land. The buildings themselves either fell into ruin or became the homes of wealthy middle class men. I can never read Emma without thinking that Donwell Abbey was once a place where monks prayed for their fellow men.




Filed under Fourteenth Century

Books about the Black Prince

Whilst this blog is primarily to record my own research, I acknowledge that some of its readers might be interested in the resources I use for that research. If you’re on Goodreads you can see my library, or at least as much of it as I’ve been able to record there, as well as what I’m reading at the moment.

Today my medieval shelf contains over 100 books, which rather explains why I’m running out of space for books in the house. I’ve read few of them from cover to cover, but I’ve dipped into most of them.

Since I’ve written a number of posts about the Black Prince, or Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales and Aquitaine, I thought I’d start with some of the books that I’ve read about him.



I reviewed this book here. It’s very useful, not just because it recounts as many of the details of the Prince’s life as are known, but because it also has some interesting details about the Hundred Years’ War.




Barber has collected source material including campaign diaries, letters and Chandos Herald’s Life of the Black Prince in one place. Only one of these is written by the Prince himself. It is a letter that he wrote to his wife after the battle of Nájera. This gives useful insights into what people of the time thought about events, even if much of it was written for propaganda purposes.



This book examines aspects of the Prince’s life in relation to events or ideas in the fourteenth century. These themes include politics, the Hundred Years’ War, the Black Death and religious heresy. It’s not a particularly useful book if you’re interested in the life of the Prince, but it does have some interesting things to say about the times in which he lived.



In death, as in life, Joan of Kent is always associated with the men in her life, in this case her third and last husband. This, together with the books listed above and a couple of others, was the main source of my recent series of posts about Joan of Kent.

This is a worthy attempt at a biography of a woman about whom very little is known. There is more information available about her three husbands and her sons than there is about her, so much of this book is speculation and you might not necessarily agree with the conclusions that Lawne comes to.


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Let The Sweet Smell Of Incense Rise Up


I was recently writing a scene in a novel in which the main character appears to become unwell during mass.  His worried friends cast around for reasons why he might not be himself and one of them suggests incense as the cause, as it’s some time since he has attended mass. Then I had the dreadful thought: would there have been incense during mass in Calais in 1367? A lot of my research  (and these posts) starts in this way.

Incense was in use long before the fourteenth century in the Middle East and is recorded in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments. It was used in the Temple in Jerusalem and was one of the gifts brought by the magi to Jesus in St Matthew’s Gospel. In the book of Numbers Aaron and Moses used it stop a plague, and people hoped that it would have the same effect during the Black Death and later plagues. It is a spice or gum that gives off a sweet smell when burned. This is usually achieved by placing it on burning charcoal.

The use of incense in the western church is recorded from the sixth century. The smoke as it rises up symbolises the prayers of the earthbound parishioners rising up to Heaven and the sweet smell represents the sweetness of those prayers to God.

These days, if we’re used to the idea of incense in church at all, it’s usually as dispensed via a small hand-held thurible, or censer. These are usually shaped like a ball and made of metal, with perforations to allow the smoke to escape. There is a lid through which the charcoal and incense can be inserted. Thuribles hang on chains which the thurifer holds. The thurifer is the name of the acolyte or altar server who holds the thurible. When the thurifer swings the thurible the smoke, with its attendant smell, is released. Fourteenth century thuribles were very similar, although some were much more elaborate. Rather than being spherical some were representations of churches and the perforations were in the shape of windows.

Perhaps the best-known thurible in the world is the huge one in Santiago de Compostela cathedral – the Botafumeiro. Botafumeiro is Galician for thurible. These days the Botafumeiro is 1.6m tall and looks like a very large urn. It’s suspended on ropes from the ceiling of the cathedral and it takes 8 men to set it in motion. You can see a video of it here. The current censer dates from the nineteenth century, but (smaller) censers have been swung from the ceiling here since the eleventh century, according to tradition. Millions of pilgrims must have been awed by the sight over the years, but that’s a story for another post.

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You Can’t Take It With You

Medieval coin

Recently, on the recommendation of a fellow history blogger, Toutparmoi, I read The White Company by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s about a group of mercenaries (the eponymous White Company) who, in 1367, go to fight in Spain with the Black Prince under the command of Sir Nigel Loring, who had whole book by Doyle to himself. In reality in 1367 the White Company was led by Sir John Hawkwood and was fighting in Italy, but why should facts spoil a good story.

Long before the hero gets to Spain, something occurred in the novel that gave me pause. One of the mercenaries had come to England to recruit new soldiers and he stayed at an inn in the New Forest.  When he went on his way the next day, he left all his worldly goods, which were quite substantial, in the care of the innkeeper. What a daft thing to do, I thought. They won’t be there when he gets back. But they were.

A couple of weeks after I finished the book I was reading about inns in the Middle Ages and it seemed that Doyle had done his research. Travellers did indeed leave things at inns to be retrieved later. Inns were also used by merchants to store their goods as they were transported from one place to another.

Some towns had public warehouses, where goods could be stored while their owners were elsewhere or while they were waiting for transport. Where these warehouses were not available, goods could be left in certain inns. Innkeepers would not only store goods, but could be trusted to act as part of the supply chain, sending goods on the next part of their journey.

Obviously this did not apply to all innkeepers. Some could not be trusted as far as they could be thrown, but merchants built up a network of inns all across Europe, whose owners could be trusted not to steal or cheat or collude with local officials.

These were wealthy innkeepers. They might have to hold onto the goods for some time, waiting for ships, boats, carts or horses to come through to take the goods on the next stage of the journey, and they needed capital in order to do all this. Storing and sending the goods on could involve them paying tolls and taxes, dealing with officials, and organising and paying carriers. These were often innkeepers who had either become wealthy initially in other trades or were inherently trustworthy, such as priests or notaries.

Some innkeepers acted as brokers, introducing parties who had need of one another. Others helped foreigners change money into the local currency, or other currencies if they had the means. In some towns, the inns were owned by moneychangers and coins were constantly being carried back and forth to make sure that merchants and other visitors could change currencies. Where they were not owned by moneychangers these inns would have close relationships with bankers, so that they could have available the range of currencies required.

In some places the inns were also near other ‘facilities’ required by travellers and merchants. Southwark, a town on the other side of the Thames to London, was where the roads from the Channel ports and Canterbury met before crossing the river. It was renowned for its brothels and bathhouses for centuries.

Travelling in the Middle Ages might have been more complicated than I thought.



Filed under Fourteenth Century

When is a clandestine wedding not a secret wedding?


As demonstrated by the life of Joan of Kent, clandestine marriages were not always invalid marriages, nor were they solely the province of the lower classes. Joan had two clandestine marriages: one to Thomas Holland and the other to Edward of Woodstock, the Prince of Wales. Joan’s difficulty with establishing the validity of the first shows in part why the church frowned on them and tried to stamp them out.

The church had been trying for centuries to control marriages, but all that was needed for a valid marriage was for the two people concerned to say to one another that they were married. There were other conditions, of course. They could not be too closely related, as in the case of Joan and the Prince, and they could not already be married to someone else. They did not need to be married inside a church or by a priest, nor did the marriage need to be recorded officially.

Clandestine marriages were not necessarily secret, although that was so in Joan’s case. The marriage vows themselves were often made publicly. Clandestine simply meant that there was no public betrothal and no solemnisation. The public betrothal allowed anyone who had an objection to the marriage to make it before the wedding itself took place. The church wanted couples to be married with a priest in attendance. The idea was not that the priest married them, for the couple did that themselves when they made their vows to one another. They were not even married inside the church. If the couple were having a ‘church wedding’ it took place in the church porch, with the couple only going inside if a nuptial mass was to be celebrated. If they were not getting married in front of a priest, they could be married anywhere they chose.

Clandestine marriages had the disadvantage that, most often, only the couple themselves knew that it had taken place and either of them could say that there had been no marriage (or claim that they were married to someone when they were not). It happened frequently that a woman would have sexual intercourse with a man she believed to be her husband, only to have him repudiate the marriage later, usually if she became pregnant. This was the course that Joan of Kent’s relatives urged her to take when she told them that she was married to Thomas Holland. She had been young, only twelve at the time, and impressed by an older man (he was probably about twenty-four), but Joan insisted that, not only had the marriage taken place, but that it had also been consummated. It was also not unknown for a woman whose marriage prospects were slim to claim that she was married to a man who had made no such promises.

There were many discussions in the medieval church, as well as in legal circles, about what constituted marriage. Was it the promising to one another of the two people concerned? Was it the consummation? Was it the living together after both of these? In the end it came down to the promising to one another of two people able to do so, which was why it was so difficult to eradicate clandestine marriages.






Filed under Fourteenth Century

The Medieval Hall



Save for the lowliest, all fourteenth century houses and castles had a hall. This was the largest space in the house and, in larger houses and castles, was built to impress. They were high and long. The walls would often be painted with secular or religious images. In richer buildings they would be covered in tapestries, which served to decorate the room, to keep it warm and to demonstrate the owner’s wealth. Although built much later, Henry VIII’s Great Hall at Hampton Court is a wonderful example of this. Amazingly, Henry’s hall was for his household, not for him.

The hall was the heart of the house and served many purposes. Meals were eaten there. In great houses the lord, his family and the most important members of his household would sit at table on a raised platform with everyone else arranged on lower tables in order of precedence.

Meals were taken at what were essentially trestle tables and the household sat on benches. These were easily put away after meals and the servants slept on the floor of the hall. Most fourteenth century furniture was capable of being taken apart and moved.

In many houses the floors were made of beaten earth covered in rushes. Much thought has been given by historians and archaeologists to how the rushes were arranged, since they were probably not just strewn about on the floor. There is an interesting discussion about it in the Secrets of the Castle DVD which I reviewed here. I’m not sure how the solution posited by Ruth Goodman would work in a large hall, though. She tied the rushes together in bundles, which seemed to work well in a tiny, single-roomed dwelling. It’s difficult to see how effective it would have been when people were walking over them every day. Another theory is that the rushes were woven into mats and placed on the floor. In the homes of the wealthy, the floors would be made of stone or tiles, depending on which materials were available locally. The Secrets of the Castle DVD also has an informative section about making tiles.

The hall was also the place where the evening’s entertainment took place. Once it was dark, very little work could take place outside, so everyone was more or less confined to the house. Tales would be told, usually well-remembered stories or tales of people’s own experiences from wars, travels and pilgrimages. In wealthier houses the stories would be read aloud from books. Other forms of entertainment were singing, music, dancing, table-top games and gambling, depending on the season of the year.

In houses where there was no solar, the family would use the hall for their daytime occupations. For women this would mean sewing, spinning or weaving. The men were more likely to be outside during the day, training to fight, hunting or attending to their business.

The photograph at the top of the post is the Medieval Merchant’s House in Southampton. It’s a fairly modest house and includes a shop, but at its centre it has a hall. The hall takes up both stories of the house and a gallery runs between the front and back bedrooms on the first floor. Halls were high because, in the days before fireplaces became common, there would be an open fire in the middle of the room, and the height allowed the smoke to rise away from the occupants.

The owner’s wealth would be on display in the hall. This could take the form of expensive furniture or furnishings, but was usually made up of plate.


Filed under Fourteenth Century