Thursday, September 6, 2012

Screaming toddlers and comforting fathers

One of the biggest challenges of looking at the past is the act of relating ourselves, coming out of a certain culture and way of looking at the world, to one that's full of people who did not necessarily share the assumptions that we do. We need to recognize that their thoughts were not ours, that they didn't understand the world as we did, and therefore actions didn't carry the same meanings. Think about the case of the gift that I discussed a couple weeks ago–as the basic assumptions about exchange shifted, a new bishop giving a king money went from being understood as an exchange of gifts to the payment of a bribe. Same action, different meaning.

But we can't go too far in the direction of assuming that the people of the past were nothing like us, either. That way gets us to the assumption that medieval and early modern parents didn't love their children, for example.

This brings us to two images that are worth exploring. They come from the seventeenth-century Netherlands, from a book in a now-vanished genre called the book of emblems. Emblem books offered images, sometimes familiar scenes, sometimes allegorical figures. In many, though not all cases, they were accompanied by mottoes, poems and other writings that explained the moral lessons hidden inside. Others left the interpretation up to the reader, but in all cases, these images were meant to carry a specific message.

In this case, the book is Johan de Brune's Emblemata, published in Amsterdam in 1661. You can look at an electronic version of the whole thing here–it's all in Dutch, but the pictures are fascinating on their own. They're also an interesting challenge to our ability to read and interpret these images.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Eh...just rub some dirt on them I guess

If you enjoy this blog and you're not familiar with Kate Beaton's webcomic Hark, a vagrant you need to go check it out, like, right now. My blog will still be here tomorrow or the next day, once you've made your way through her archives.

I bring her up because she has a really great new comic up right now, about movies set in the Middle Ages. Go read it.

The comic is wonderful, but I particularly like her commentary on it, which is always worth reading. She gets at the issue of policing a historically-set movie for authenticity, and says:
I think most people who like to nit-pick historical inaccuracy in films do it for a few reasons:
- it's fun
- it's silly to think that movies aren't "important" because they're entertainment, movies are the way most people come across with representations of histories they don't know much about! So I can't blame anyone for caring that they get the details right.
-it's... fun.
 And, right there, she's stated my opinion pretty clearly.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The three-year old's favorite wine

In the 1520s and 30s, a prominent lawyer and diplomat from Nuremburg, Dr. Christoph Schuerl, kept a journal recording the growth and development of his two young sons, Georg and Christoph. He was a proud and loving father, and eagerly recorded all kinds of things that both boys did as they grew older. Reading them (I'm drawing from an essay in Steven Ozment's Flesh and Spirit, here) is a very charming experience, and a lot of it feels like it could come from the baby book of a modern parent.

And then you hit a reminder that the sixteenth century was a very different place. For example, Schuerl felt very concerned that his younger son, Christoph, was still only drinking breast milk at age two. His older brother had started drinking wine and beer in addition to breast milk at four months old, and by age three had a decided preference for red wine (his favorite foods were fish, crayfish and calf brains). And suddenly the resemblance to the twenty-first century ceases.

There are a lot of details about the past that it's really easy not to think about. A lot of the basic texture of everyday life is easy to overlook when you're thinking about wars or ideas or religious debates. And one of the things we often don't think about is the basic question of what people were drinking. And the answer, in Christian Europe at any rate, was usually alcohol.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Simony Says

Continuing my discussion of the gift economy from Wednesday.

There are ways in which the gift hasn't gone away. We still give gifts on certain occasions, and the idea that gifts must be reciprocated is still part of our culture. At this point, gift exchange is very much about the cementing of social relationships. Think about the calculus of whether someone should get a large gift, a small gift, a card, or nothing at Christmas (and then the question of how to respond if that person gives you more than you were planning to give him or her), a decision based closely on how close you are or wish to be to that person.

The idea of the gift can cross over to business in interesting ways: part of the reason those charities keep giving out free address labels or calendars is that for many of us, getting a gift makes us feel obligated to reciprocate in some way. My wife and I once went to a yarn store where they gave us a free glass of (cheap) champagne. Both of us felt kind of obligated to buy something, though I suspect we would have anyway–there were some very nice yarns there. But I also felt kind of manipulated, that a kind of exchange that is largely personal shouldn't intrude on a commercial relationship (I certainly don't feel obligated to give to a charity just because it printed out some address labels for me).

That distinction, between impersonal commercial transactions and personal gift exchanges, is one that became much sharper in the later Middle Ages. At least, that's what Lester Little argues in his book Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe. Little implies that the early Medieval economy was essentially gift-based, which is rather unlikely. But he does point out that Medieval Europe went through a profound transformation beginning in the tenth century or so. Population grew, cities got much bigger and commerce became more and more prominent. One of the big results of this transformation is that economic relationships changed. More people were engaged with the market, more goods were traveling around, more people were working for wages. Relationships that used to be based on exchanging goods or services, particularly those between king and nobles or landlord and peasant, were increasingly based on money payments. What had once been the requirement to fight for one's lord now became a cash payment.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Gift or Bribe?

At one point in Gregory of Tours's History of the Franks, Gregory recounts the trial of a bishop name Praetextatus for treason, an accusation that Gregory believed was false. At one point a series of witnesses testified that Praetextatus had bribed them to support a rebel against King Chilperic, bringing forward the objects they claimed he had given them. His response was "'What you say is true,' answered Praetextatus, 'in that you have often received gifts from me, but this was not so that the King might be driven from his realm. You gave me fine horses and other gifts. What could I do except make similar presents to you in my turn?'"

Praetextatus was invoking a set of rules that would have been understood by anyone in sixth-century Francia. If someone gives you a gift, you were expected to give a gift of approximately equal or greater value in return. This was a basic rule of social bonding; an exchange of gifts was an expected part of a relationship. Indeed, that exchange was often a part of the formalization of that relationship.

Some historians have gone so far as to claim that early medieval Europe operated under a gift economy. According to these arguments, commerce had declined so precipitously and populations were small enough that exchanges of goods were primarily markers of interpersonal relationships. Money wasn't really a neutral bearer of value, but an object in and of itself, to be accumulated or given as gifts. Precious objects moved around as gifts that cemented relationships, not as objects of trade.

That view has been objected to more recently. Chris Wickham has recently argued that while trade certainly declined, it never disappeared, and commercial exchange remained a vital part of the functioning of society. Nevertheless, he stresses the importance of gift exchange as a social phenomenon. He points to the relationship between kings and dependents. Kings gave dependents rich gifts, including land; the recipients gave gifts in return, but they were much lower in value. But they were also expected to provide loyalty.

Even if the gift economy was not the only existing form of exchange, it clearly was very important and shaped the way that early medieval people understood many exchanges. And understanding that becomes very important for understanding a number of the conflicts over issues of wealth, poverty, and commerce that seem so prominent in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. I'll discuss those in the next couple of days.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How to avoid the cloister entirely

Last week, I did a couple of posts on the challenges women faced in trying to challenge the cloister as the primary mode of religious life. In particular, the experience of the French Ursulines showed that the more interested wealthy women got in an order, the more pressure was put on them to cloister itself.

There was, however, a new religious order, forming at the same time the Ursulines were being cloistered, that managed to avoid that fate: the Daughters of Charity.

Again, I am basing this account on the excellent book The Dévotes by Elizabeth Rapley.

The seventeenth century saw a tremendous boom in lay charitable activity in France, arising out of a combination of two factors: the tremendous poverty of the era and the energies awakened by Catholic Reform. Many pious laypeople, especially women, saw working with the poor as the highest expression of a religious life, and threw themselves into various charitable activities.

One of the most important figures for encouraging and organizing this movement was Vincent de Paul. He started working to awaken people, especially those of some means, to the desperate poverty all over France. But he came to realize that the resulting charitable efforts needed to be coordinated and organized, so that needy families were neither ignored nor overwhelmed with more aid than they could use at once. So he formed community organizations called charités, groups of laywomen who raised money, kept track of need, and provided food, nursing and funerals to the local poor. They were, apparently, phenomenally successful.

Vincent de Paul, 1581-1660; Canonized 1737
There was, inevitably for the time, a division of labor. Wealthy women provided the money, those of lesser means did most of the actual labor. And it was, primarily, women who were involved. In some cases, Monsieur Vincent tried to create mixed organizations, with men and women involved in different parts of the project. What he found was that "men and women do not get along together at all in matters of administration; the former want to take it over entirely and the latter will not allow it." So he chose to focus on the women, who he felt were doing the more important work and administering it just fine.

When the movement spread to Paris, it faced a problem. In the countryside, women of all classes knew each other and could work together. In Paris, this didn't happen. The wealthy women sent their servants to interact with the poor, and they often did a very poor job of it. What was Vincent de Paul's solution? Bring in young women from the countryside who wanted to serve; indeed, the idea came from a young peasant women named Marguerite Naseau.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Merovingian Mondays: Poor Rigunth

The continuing story of the Merovingian kings of Gaul, as recounted in Gregory of Tours's History of the Franks.

Chilperic and Fredegund had a daughter, Rigunth, who managed to survive the diseases and intrigues that killed her brothers. And in 584, he arranged a marriage for her with the son of the King of Spain.

He sent her to Spain with a very large pile of gifts. To begin with, there were serfs, taken from their homes, and placed, weeping, on wagons. Gregory reports that many chose to hang themselves rather than leave their homes.

He added a huge pile of silver and gold, and Fredegund provided even more from her own possessions. Subjects provided gifts as well. Gregory reports that "there was such a vast assemblage of objects that the gold, silver and other precious things filled fifty carts."  Of course, she had a large crowd of attendants and escorts, Gregory says there were over four thousand, to bring her the long distance from Paris to her new home.

The journey began with a bad omen: an axle on her carriage broke right at the city gate. Then the real problems began. The very first night, fifty escorts grabbed what they could and left, taking a hundred horses with them. As the journey proceeded, more and more people took what they could and left.