Chastity of Monks

‘Unlike other monks, Cistercians wore plain, undyed wool – for which reason they were known as the ‘White Monks’. The return to heroic monasticism meant that they ate only the coarsest wheat bread, and were ordered to avoid coloured glass in the chapel, and gold and silver on the altar.

And they were not allowed to wear underpants. St Benedict had not mentioned them in his list of permitted clothing for monks, so the Cistercians would have no truck with the evil things – much to the amusement of a number of their contemporaries. Some called it ‘bare-bottomed piety’ and Walter Map, the twelfth-century author, wit and foe of Cistercians, suggested they shunned underpants ‘to preserve coolness in that part of the body lest sudden heats provoke unchastity’.’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2004. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2005) p. 99

Enterprising Monasteries

‘This brings us back to Bury St Edmunds and its war between the monks and the townspeople. The town belonged to the abbey, which had benefited so much from various kings that it also owned the entire county of West Suffolk. The abbots built or expanded the town of Bury St Edmunds, and controlled its commercial life. Everyday business transaction involved a cut for the monks – whether a tradesman ran a barge on the river, a stall in the market, sold fish or supplied building materials. The abbey administered justice, and pocketed the fines it took. It ran the royal mint – being abbot of Bury St Edmunds was literally a licence to print money. The abbey even owned the horse droppings on the street – and of course the monks took their cut.
Whether it was collecting manure or grinding corn, every abbot guarded his monopoly jealously.’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2004. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2005) p. 106

Medieval Sanctuary

‘But for much of the Middle Ages, sanctuary was a hotly debated subject. In some places the area of sanctuary around a given religious building was enormous – the boundaries being clearly marked by special ‘sanctuary posts’. […]

Most sanctuaries, however, could only offer a short-term solution to the average criminal’s woes. If he refused to leave at the end of the forty days, he was as good as dead. Any layman who even communicated with him after the forty days were up would be hanged. When he finally emerged, he would be immediately executed on the spot, unless he swore on the Gospels to ‘abjure the realm’. In which case he would be issued with a crude sackcloth garment, without a belt, and a wooden cross to carry and he would have to make for the nearest port. There he would have to take the first ship out of England, and for every day he failed to find a passage, he would have to wade into the sea up to his knees. […]

The majority of them just threw away their wooden crosses on a lonely stretch of road and melted away into the woods to take up a new identity or join the many bands of outlaws that plagued the country.’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2004. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2005) p. 79-80

Medieval Haggling

‘The borough courts, though, were busy with much more specific matters. Certainly, from the time of the Black Death between 1348 and 1349 and the Statute of Labourers in 1351, which attempted to control wages, local authorities regulated the price of all bread and ale that was sold. The courts used the law to enforce these regulations, and imposed their own systems of punishment (town courts could not outlaw criminals), which ranged from mutilation to forcing traders in bad goods to eat their produce in public, or have their bad drink poured over them. As with rural juries, maintaining the law was a matter of shame and reputation.

Haggling over basic commodities was illegal, and in most food markets bargaining was punishable by a fine and holding an auction was seen as a criminal act, held in secret. The ‘law of supply and demand’, that insists on higher prices when goods are in short supply, was regarded as anathema and therefore not allowed to operate in these medieval markets.

It can be argued that the true end of the Middle Ages came in the seventeenth century, when prices were allowed to rise in times of dearth, and the laws of supply and demand took over.’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2004. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2005) p. 76

The Medieval Man Price

‘There was no distinction between civil and criminal law. All legal processes came down to one man making an accusation against another and demanding retribution. Criminal law, in which the state detects the offense, takes the accused to court and demands and imposes punishment, simply did not exist in early medieval society. Every householder had his own ‘peace’, and a breach of this (a theft or act of violence) was followed to an appeal to the local court, demanding cash payment in recompense.

[…] Every life had a cash value (the wergild, or ‘man price’). An aristocrat’s (thegn’s) life, and his oath, were worth six times that of a common man (1200 shillings as against 200).

Anglo-Saxon law codes read like modern insurance policies. For example, the list of compensation payments set out in the laws of Ethelbert, King of Kent from 560 to 616, include:

If an ear be struck off, twelve shillings.
If the other ear hear not, twenty-five shillings.
If an ear be pierced, three shillings.
If an ear be mutilated, six shillings.
If an eye be (struck) out, fifty shillings.
If the mouth or an eye be injured, twelve shillings.
If the nose be pierced, nine shillings.
If the nose otherwise be mutilated, for each six shillings.
For each of the four front teeth, six shillings; for the tooth which stands next to them four shillings; for that which stands next to that, three shillings; and then afterwards, for each a shilling.

And so the list went on, painstakingly costing fingers and toes, nails and skin, bruises and bones. This, naturally, gave everyone a great interest in the law. If the offender refused to pay up the victim was entitled to conduct a private war, with the support of his hundred (local district).’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2004. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2005) p. 67-68

Duke William IX of Aquitaine

‘Duke William was without a doubt a true original. He was excommunicated twice. On the first occasion, in 1114, when the bishop of Poitiers imposed the penalty for some unknown offence, he held the bishop at sword point in the cathedral and demanded absolution. He didn’t get it, which says something for the bishop’s courage and possibly explains why the duke’s crusade hadn’t achieved anything. The second excommunication was caused by William’s affair with the Viscountess of Chatellernault, alarmingly known as Dangerosa. It was said he kidnapped this mother of three and installed her in a tower in his palace at Poitiers. William of Malmesbury says he even had her portrait painted on his shield, so ‘I could bear her into battle as she had borne me into bed’. The duke’s wife was not at all happy about this.

William also fantasized about establishing a convent of prostitutes, and his verse includes a great deal of crude sexual joking, with women portrayed as fine horses to be mounted, or as captives, and he jokingly records his seduction by two ladies whose only concern was to avoid disclosure.’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2004. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2005) p. 48

How To Be a Medieval Minstrel

‘One thirteenth-century poem defines a true minstrel as one  who can ‘speak and rhyme well, be witty, know the story of Troy, balance apples on the point of knives, juggle, jump through hoops, play the citole, mandora, harp, fiddle, and psaltery.’ He is further advised, for good measure, to learn the arts of imitating birds, putting performing asses and dogs through their paces and operating marionettes. […]

And the entertainment demanded by the early medieval monarchs was reassuringly downmarket. For example, Henry II’s favourite minstrel was Roland Le Pettour. The king rewarded him with 30 acres of land for his masterwork, described as a leap, a whistle and a fart’. Roland’s great musical talent, it seems, was that he could fart tunes. The land was solemnly passed down from father to son for many generations, on the condition that the incumbent turn up at court each Christmas Day to perform the leap, the whistle and the fart!

Another act that was apparently popular with English royalty was a version of putting your head in a lion’s mouth, although this one involved a minstrel who spread honey on his member and then brought in a performing bear. What happened next isn’t actually explained, but whatever it was probably doesn’t figure in Winnie-the-Pooh.’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2004. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2005) p. 42-43

See other: Hall of Fame Posts

On Medieval Etiquette

‘A certain robustness was needed in an environment where good manners was often just a question of not picking your nose in public. A medieval guide to etiquette warns: don’t scratch yourself or look for fleas in your breaches or on your chest; don’t snap your fingers; don’t comb your hair, clean your fingers or take your shoes off in the presence of lords or ladies. Messengers arriving at a house removed their weapons, gloves and caps before entering – though they were permitted to keep their caps on if they were bald. The guide also recommends not urinating in the hall – unless you happen to be the head of the household.’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2004. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2005) p. 42

See other: Hall of Fame Posts