Medieval Food

Reading Food and Drink in Medieval Poland (by Maria Dembińska) has given me some more grist for the mill of dispelling anti-medieval myths. "Popular" histories would have us believe that medieval peasants lived lives of unmitigated misery. The people of that time lived a hard life compared to ours, to be sure. But before getting into the foot, it's worth remembering that between a.D. 1000 and 1340, the population of Europe grew from 38.5 million to about 73.5 million people[i] -- something which would have been impossible if the average person were half-starved and worked into the ground by his aristocratic taskmaster.

Now, as for food, it's commonly believed that Medieval people scarcely had any access to meat and, again, it was their evil noble masters who were the only ones with such food on their table. Meat was relatively expensive -- it still is, especially if you're trying to maintain an all-organic diet like we do! -- but all the same, in medieval Polish society meat was considered essential to a healthy diet and to be consumed daily. Historian Andrzej Wyczanski calculated that manorial work hands (serfs) of the late 1500s consumed a little better than half a pound of meat daily -- and Ms Dembińska stresses that this is a "pauperized" state as compared to the High Middle Ages (I restrain myself from embarking on an anti-Renaissance rant at this juncture).[ii]

Further, according to Regine Pernoud, part of the reason it's been believed that Medieval peasants were constantly starving, is due to the fact that the word "famine" held a much different import in those days than it does now. "Famine" to them was not the total absence of food, as we consider it today, but the lack of wheat bread. Therefore, when the people of a certain area were instead eating rye bread, they would say that they suffered famine. Even then, such "famines" tended to be localized and of short duration.[iii]

P.S. If readers are wondering why my Middle Ages posts are all academic-style with footnotes and such, it's because I want to show that I'm telling the truth on this stuff since my "claims" in such posts go completely contrary to what prevailing wisdom holds.

 "History of Europe: Demographic and agricultural growth" Encyclopædia Britannica 2008 ed.
[ii]Dembińska, Maria. Food and Drink in Medieval Poland: Rediscovering a Cuisine of the Past. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. p. 62
[iii]O'Reilly, Hugh. "Medieval Famines, Bread & Wine. Tradition in Actionhttp://www.traditioninaction.org/History/A_023_Famine.htm


Book Review: Ivanhoe

Review by Godfrey Blackwell

Title: Ivanhoe 
Author: Sir Walter Scott
Publisher:  Tor Classics
Godfrey's Rating: 1 star
Summary in a Sentence: A supposed "classic" -- a classic example of anti-Medieval, anti-Catholic nonsense that started the tradition that spawned many foolish notions about that period in history.

Some years ago, having read very few of “the classics” in my youth, I decided to read the well-known Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. Being someone who fancies himself an aficionado of the Middle Ages, I thought that I really ought to read it. Then, just recently, while perusing the offerings of various homeschool programmes, I discovered that a popular traditionalist homeschool (which I won’t name here) includes Ivanhoe as required reading in their Twelfth Grade Literature course. I therefore felt it necessary to take a detour from my original plan for the series and “defend Christendom” by dispelling the myth that this novel gives an accurate portrayal of life in twelfth century England. I do not intend this article as an attack on the homeschooling programme as they do a wonderful service to Catholic families, but I am concerned by the fact that such a work is included as required reading in their programme.

Sir Walter Scott is considered the “grandfather of the historical novel”, even the pre-eminent master of the genre. I am left wondering how this can be so. He clearly did about as much historical research for Ivanhoe as Dan Brown did for The Da Vinci Code. To the person that's done any serious research into life in the Middle Ages, it becomes obvious within a few pages that most of Sir Walter's perceptions of that time are products of his own imagination rather than any scholarly investigation.

Interestingly (and likely not coincidentally given the novel’s popularity), most of the myths/misrepresentations present in Ivanhoe are the very same time-honoured fables held by the average western educator of today. There are many, but in this article I shall look at the myths perpetuated as regards equating serfdom with slavery, the corruption of the clergy, and persecution of the Jews.

Equating Serfdom with Slavery

The swineherd Gurth is said to be his master's property and even wears “a brass ring, resembling a dog’s collar, but with no opening, and soldered fast” to underscore this[i] -- which is a calumnious misrepresentation of the relative freedom serfs in Mediaeval England enjoyed. Discussing those freedoms in detail is for another article, but suffice it to say for now that, while they no doubt lived a hard life, mediaeval serfs were not considered mere property, bereft of all rights. Rather, they could own property and sustained themselves through the gains of their own labour, rather than relying entirely on their “owner”. The serf’s lord was obliged (by custom) to protect him from external threats. And while he could not leave the land he was tied to, nor could he be evicted from it.[ii] Above all, there is not a shred of evidence anywhere that serfs were made to wear dog collars.

Corrupt Clergy

Every Churchman in the work is portrayed as both incredibly wealthy and incredibly immoral. The Benedictine Prior Aymer is the most obvious example of this, portrayed wearing a massive gold signet ring and other rings of precious gems, a silk habit with embroidered cope, and a scarlet cap.[iii] While it’s true that there were problems of corruption among abbots and priors in this time period, to suggest that they would dress this outrageously in public is quite incredible. Prior Aymer’s love of feast and women is played-up constantly as well. His depravity is only superseded by the Templar Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert who also, contrary to his vow of poverty, displays vast wealth in an ostentatious manner. He is also said by the author to be “accustomed to act upon his own immediate impulses of his own wishes”[iv] which he proves by many vile actions including the kidnapping of the Jewish character Rebecca. The only cleric with a shred of decency (because he helps rescue the kidnapped maidens) is the Franciscan Friar Tuck who doesn't honour any of his vows, but rather hoards wealth, feasts rather than fasts, is an alcoholic, is subject to no religious superior, and is the most impious individual of the whole novel.

Beyond these specifically bad characters, Sir Walter tells his readers that the only reason anyone entered religious life in the Middle Ages was for wealth and, in the case of women, goes to far as to claim that “it was then common for matrons and maidens of noble families to assume the veil, and take shelter in convents, not as called thither by the vocation of God, but solely to preserve their honour from the unbridled wickedness of man”, because of the “licentiousness of those times”.[v]

There is not one positive portrayal of clergy in the work and the lay characters for the most part constrain their religious references to profanity. The message of the novel is thus clear: no one in the Middle Ages actually took the faith seriously, they just “went along” with it as part of their culture and something they were “expected” to do (we may suppose this was because the Inquisition would burn them if they didn’t; Scott doesn’t say so explicitly, but suggests this via the show trial of Rebecca for witchcraft in Chapter XXXVII[vi]).

To disprove this particular myth expressed in Ivanhoe, would take an entire book describing the popular practice of religion in the mediæval period. But we can use our common sense to realise that it is totally absurd to imagine a society where religious faith is unanimously hypocritical. It is equally absurd to imagine that such a society could produce the quantity and quality of saints that it did. But to give one small, yet pointed example of how much the average mediæval person was willing to conform to Church law, we can consider that in the Middle Ages, Advent and Lent were “prohibited times” during which marriages were forbidden and continence strongly recommended. Historical evidence shows that a significantly reduced number of conceptions occurred during these “prohibited times”, at least among city people (the prime targets of preachers and missionaries), indicating that these injunctions were indeed heeded and practiced by many every-day Catholic.[vii] If people were willing to conform such a private aspect of their life to a mere recommendation of the Church we can be sure that the faith was taken seriously by most.

Persecution of the Jews

Sir Walter goes on ad nauseum about how horribly downtrodden, abused, and persecuted the Jewish characters are. He has no qualms about intruding into the work as omniscient narrator and judging the mediaevals for their treatment of Jews. Despite the melodrama, there is the internal contradiction to the work that the Jewish characters are the wealthiest people in the book and essentially move about as they please while all the Saxon characters are slaves. Scott contradicts what he tells us by what he shows us.

Yet the point remains that he would have us believe that the Middle Ages were a time when Jews suffered more than in any other period before or since. As with the preceding two myths of this novel, there is a kernel of truth here. Certainly, as people belonging to a religion that rejects Our Lord Jesus Christ, living in a nearly unanimously Catholic society, they had reason to be unenthusiastic about their surroundings. Occasionally, piety and religious zeal would “go overboard” among the Catholics leading to violence against Jews.[viii] However, the papacy and the kings of Europe gave special protection to the Jews, and Jews were in fact serfs of the Crown directly in many countries.[ix] They were not prevented from getting an education or pursuing careers in areas other than money lending, either, and the ranks of lawyers, physicians, and scientists contained many Jews.[x]


Some may try to defend this novel by saying that it's not meant to be historically accurate, it's just a fun read. As usual, this is considered a “just excuse” when Catholics and the Church are the victims of a work's inaccuracies. Beyond this, however, for many people, Ivanhoe may be their only exposure to the Middle Ages and will have their opinions formed accordingly.

Ivanhoe is not completely void of merit, so I concede that my comparison to The Da Vinci Code are not really fair and more abuse than argument. This perhaps makes the myths it tells even more tragic. The characters tend to be complex and original (with a few exceptions like Prior Aymer who is nothing more than a platform to attack Catholicism) and from that point of view the book was enjoyable. Scott does a good job of describing the landscape and setting a tone, although this may make the work more insidious from a historical standpoint as it really draws the reader into the world. Moreover, the plot is quite good, and through it, Sir Walter does do a good job of paying homage to chivalry and self-sacrifice. There is certainly a theme that good things cannot be achieved without sacrifice apparent in the work, but in the end, if one wants historical fiction one can do a lot better.[xi]

[i] Scott, Sir Walter. Ivanhoe. London: Marcus Ward and Company, 1878. p. 20
[ii] “Serfs and Serfdom”. Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. Ed. Norman F. Cantor. London: Viking, 1999.
[iii] Scott, supra at note 2, p. 43
[iv] Ibid., p. 46
[v] Ibid., p. 202
[vi] Ibid., pp. 332 and following
[vii] Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane.“Women and Children”. The Middle Ages, Fifth Edition, Ed. Brian Tierney. New York: McGraw Hill, 1999. p. 186
[viii] And it should be noted that this was not always unprovoked or one-sided. For example, we can look to the ritual murder of St. Simon of Trent, a two year-old boy who was kidnapped and crucified upside-down by fundamentalist Ashkenazi Jews near Passover in 1475. Although the Vatican of today denies this event and forbids public devotion to St. Simon of Trent, recent scholarship by Dr. Toaff, a respected Jewish historian, indicates that it did happen because the confessions of the killers in the trial transcript contained details that the clergy and police could not have known. See: Horvat, Marian T. “Bloody Passovers Reported by a Jewish Scholar”. Tradition in Action. http://www.traditioninaction.org/History/A_010_BloodyPassovers.htm>
[ix] Hollister, C. Warren. Medieval Europe, Eighth Edition. Boston: McGraw Hill, 1998. p. 170
[x] Ibid., p. 172
[xi] The works of Sharon Kay Penman are quite good, but rather long. The Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters are not bad (with a warning about the seventh novel in the series, The Sanctuary Sparrow, wherein the title character condones fornication). Shakespeare is always to be recommended and his history is fairly good since he lived only a few generations after the Middle Ages. I highly recommend without reservation Crusader King by Susan Peek (published by TAN Books) although it is mean for a younger audience than grade twelve. The novels of P.C. Doherty should generally be avoided because of immoral content, although they are historically accurate.


Book Review: The Gripping Hand

Review by Godfrey Blackwell

Title: The Gripping Hand  
Author: Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle  
Publisher: Pocket  
Godfrey's Rating: 2 stars
Summary in a Sentence: The substandard sequel to the masterful Mote in God's Eye where the next generation of the Empire attempts to finally solve the "Motie Problem" when a new Alderson point creates newfound access to the Empire from the Mote.

Nota bene: Since I do not recommend anyone waste their time with this sequel to the masterful Mote in God's Eye, I provide a number of spoilers without qualm in this review. Do not read this review if you intend to read The Mote in God's Eye until after you have read it ... I still recommend you read this review when you get a chance, however, as it sheds some further light on the first work and on contemporary Catholicism.

While last  I had much praise for the first book of this series, it feels as if different authors wrote The Gripping Hand - or perhaps they just rushed through in slipshod manner a manuscript that the publisher was clamoring for, given the success of the first. The result was a substandard book; one that they should not have written. It only tarnishes the legacy of the first.

After 25 years of blockading the Alderson Point to the Mote, the Empire must again face a real threat from the Moties as the formation of a protostar in the vicinity moves the existing Alderson point -- allowing the Moties to bypass the blockade (which was near to collapse anyway). A tiny force is cobbled together and sent to the new point, arriving moments before the first Moties arrive. The group consists of Horace Bury (one of the few people who appreciates the threat the Moties pose), the children of Lord and Lady Blaine, as well as a small customs ship. The rest of the novel is a convoluted tale of alliances, diplomacy, trade, and space combat between the many, many factions of Motie civilization.

The Empire of Man is far less interesting than it was in the first book, save for the comparisons that may be made between the changes in the real-world Catholic Church and those of this fictional empire over a 25-year period. More importantly, the novel lacks the suspense that The Mote in God's Eye had, and the characters are not nearly as loveable. The recurring characters from the first novel have lost the grittiness they had - rather than being real people, they now feel more like cutouts embodying liberal ideals. The new characters, most of them being spoilt rich teenagers, are "rebels without a cause". Far less interesting than the dutiful but scared sailors of the first novel.

Also, most of this book takes place among the Moties. The alienness of the Moties was interesting when we viewed them from the imperial cruiser MacArthur and through her crew. It makes for a less interesting novel to be living among these totally alien and totally amoral creatures. Finally, the book doesn't seem to flow the way The Mote in God's Eye did, and as a result it felt a chore to get through some sections.

Catholicism in the Sequel

Perhaps more than the first novel, The Gripping Hand gives us a lot of insight into how non-Catholics perceived the changes in the Catholic Church after Vatican II. This sequel was published in 1994 and was therefore written in the early '90s most likely. At this point in time the Timebombs of the Vatican II Council had all been deployed. The Novus Ordo Missae was thoroughly entrenched, Assisi I had been perpetrated, vocations were then a shadow of what they were in the late 60s, &c. Even to outsiders, the Church had clearly changed at this point in both appearance, approach to the world and worship, and even in teachings (perceived).

I don't think it is mere coincidence, then, that the Empire of Man that we see in this sequel novel that takes place 25 years after The Mote in God's Eye, is also greatly changed. Overall, it is much more touchy-feely, not the virile military machine that it was before. We also see that:
  • First and foremost, the big solution to the Moties' problems is contraception. The humans develop a method of helping them contracept in order to control their explosive population growth. There is no mention of contraceptives still being frowned upon, and in fact Rod Blaine and Lady Fowler (now Sallie Blaine) have only two children in 25 years of marriage (one is ~24, the other 18).
  • Sexual liberation: Glenda-Ruth Blaine, 18-year-old daughter of Captain Blaine and Lady Fowler, travels unsupervised with her boyfriend in his yaght. It is explicitly stated that they fornicate and she uses some futuristic version of the Pill to avoid pregnancy. They have some inane fight at one point in the novel about her not giving him sex or him not being very good in bed, I forget which ... in any event, it's a far cry from Rod Blaine's solicitousness for Lady Fowler's reputation in The Mote in God's Eye.
  • The Empire is now "flabby and bureaucratized", as one reviewer put it, not the strong monarchy that it was before. There are hints that the Emperor is more of a British-style figurehead now, rather than the sole ruler of before. They are unable to respond to the Motie threat as a result, whereas before they had a heavy battlecruiser and a cruiser heading into the Mote within weeks in the first book after a small probe arrives, they can barely muster a few small customs vessels in response to a potential full-scale invasion.
  • There is no mention of any clergy playing any role whatsoever, versus the clear influence that "the Church" held in the first novel.
  • There are hints that there is now religious freedom as we are introduced to a Mormon planet and it is mentioned that things are better for Levant (Bury's Moslem homeworld). In fact, if one read The Gripping Hand without having read The Mote In God's Eye, first, you would have no clue that there was a state religion.
Interestingly, one of the prominent complaints in the Amazon.com reviews, is how different (and inexplicably so) the Empire of Man is a mere 25 years after the first novel. I think people liked the old-style confessional stat.

It seems to me that "The Empire of Man" in the second novel is basically a Novus Ordo version of its former self. Most of the differences to be found in a comparison of Catholic states pre- and post-Vatican II can be found in the Empire between the two books. Maybe they had another pastoral council in the 31st century that The Gripping Hand doesn't mention? It probably wasn't mentioned because the non-Catholics Niven and Pournelle did not understand why the real-world Catholic Church underwent such cataclysmic changes ... or maybe they didn't consciously notice the changes but just subconsciously wrote them into their novel.

Overall, this just isn't that good of a book. It's okay, and better than a lot of what passes for "great" science fiction today, but still not worth the effort. Enjoy the original, skip the sequel.
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