Paris, BnF, français 5054. Martial d'Auvergne. Vigiles de la mort de Charles VII. Jeanne d'Arc. Charles VII. Joan of Arc. Troyes. Illuminated manuscript.
Fun Fact

A Cold Case of Counterfeit History: Joan of Arc, the Secret Royal Princess.

AskHistorians: Tuesday Trivia #2

This week again I was invited by the AskHistorians subreddit to contribute to their Tuesday Trivia event and this week’s theme was ROYALTY!

In 1440, the queen of Hungary and one of her ladies-in-waiting stole the Hungarian crown—the actual, physical crown—to save the throne for her son. Helene Kottanner broke into the vault, snatched the crown, and escaped across the frozen Danube with a sled. Let’s talk about ROYALTY!

I proudly answered the call of duty and found it as another occasion to talk about my favourite non-Disney princess: Joan of Arc.

My Personal Contribution

Again, I’m late. Yet again, it’s still Tuesday somewhere!

Last time I talked about Joan of Arc. This week’s theme is royalty. There’d be no reason for me to talk again about her, right?

Hahaha. Buckle up, girls and boys. We’re about to dive into counterfeit history. When historians don’t find authentic documents to prove their hypotheses, what do they do? The honest ones acknowledge their ignorance. There’s nothing glamour about it. That’s why the others fabricate the documents they need to prove their point—when they even bother to fabricate them…

The Truth about Joan. Was Joan of Arc a Royal Bastard Princess?

Paris, BnF, français 5054. Martial d'Auvergne. Vigiles de la mort de Charles VII. Jeanne d'Arc. Charles VII. Joan of Arc. Troyes. Illuminated manuscript.
Joan of Arc and Charles VII are given the keys of the city of Troyes – Paris, BnF, fr. 5054, f. 62r

You didn’t think that conspiracy theories would be limited to our contemporary era, did you.

You know how to square the circle: the Earth is flat, climate change is a lie, vaccines don’t work and the illuminati rule the world. If you go back and forth from one to another long enough, it all starts to make sense, but that’s only when you start to seriously question your mental sanity.

The problem is that conspiracy theorists are also trying to colonize the past with the most heretic holy trinity: the holocaust never happened, medieval Europe only had white people and Michael Jackson never died. He’s chilling on some Pacific Island with his buddy Elvis. Someone could swear his sister saw a picture or something, you know, tangible proof.

Among the many conspiracy theories about history the one I’ll tackle down here states that Joan of Arc was actually Charles VII’s sister.

Charles VII of France, an Alleged Bastard Himself?

Philippe Contamine, who knows more than anyone about the 15th century, medieval France, briefly addressed the rumors according to which Charles VII of France was a bastard himself, in his latest biography of the French king (published in 2017; not to brag, but I own a dedicated copy).

See, his father had lost his mind and couldn’t recognize his friends from his enemies. That’s why some people suggested that the queen couldn’t have conceived a child with him. Charles VII couldn’t be Charles VI’s legitimate son! According to Pope Pie II, the king of England advanced that very theory himself to end up seducing the duke of Burgundy. It’d served his political purpose a great deal. He wished to inherit the kingdom of France through his wife, something the Valois dynasty opposed fiercely since the start of the Hundred Years’ War.

Illuminated manuscript. Jean Froissart. Charles VI.
Charles VI, falling to paraonoia, attacks his own guards during a military expedition. (Paris, BnF, fr. 2646, f. 153v.)

“But, what about your wife, my liege? Isn’t she also born from the mad king?”

“Nonsense! He was still sane of mind when he conceived her.”

As a matter of fact, Catherine of France, Henry V of England’s wife, was born on October 27, 1401, a year and a half before Charles VII, and Charles VI (it is heavily documented) lost his mind in the year 1392 during a military expedition where he attacked his own men. Meaning, according to Henry V’s logic, that his dear wife was also an illegitimate child, but hell with the details, right?

Upon closer inspection, accusing the queen of adultery served no real political purpose to the Anglo-Burgundian alliance since she was on their side and that her signature is what made the Treaty of Troyes (1420) valid because of the dementia of her husband. The Treaty of Troyes acknowledged Henry V of England as sole heir to Charles VI of France. Fun fact, Henry V died of dysentery a few months ahead of Charles VI. He never was crowned king of France and he only left behind him a one-year-old child and a wife who quickly consoled herself with a handsome knight.

One question remains: who would have been Charles VII’s father, if it weren’t Charles VI? Well, who else but Louis of Orléans, Charles VI’s brother! After all, the duke of Orléans almost killed the king by burning him alive with a torch, then he attempted to rape the duchess of Burgundy—which explains why John the Fearless hated his guts*.

Illuminated manuscript. Jean Froissart. Charles VI.
Charles VI of France, desguised as a ‘savage man’, is almost burned to death by his own brother and saved in extremis by the duchess of Berry, who covers him with her mantle. (Paris, BnF, fr. 2646, f. 176r.)

Total. Legend.

And you thought Game of Thrones was full of suspense!

*This latter allegation is solely reported by Thomas Basin (d. 1491) in his biography of Charles VII.

Who really was Joan of Arc’s Father? A Shakespearian Tale

A 19th-century pseudo-historian, Pierre Cazet, bragged that he discovered the truth behind Joan’s true social status. How come a young maid from the countryside was ever received by the king? Saint Louis himself, the holiest French king of all, met his subjects regularly in the open air to render justice, according to Jean of Joinville (d. 1317). Therefore it should be totally inconceivable that Charles VII would ever meet an intriguing would-be prophetess that had such a notoriety that the duke of Lorraine personally invited her over and that the bastard of Orléans, while she was in Gien, sent people to meet and inquire about her and her journey to Chinon.

She had to be a secret Disney princess!

Actually, it all comes from a play written by Shakespeare. I mean, this could only be the stuff of great literature. How could a poor and deficient mind come up with such a brilliant twist? Henry VI, act 5, scene 4. A shepherd, Joan’s father, comes up to her as she’s tied at the stake. Since she left, he’s been searching for her everywhere.

Ah, Joan! this kills thy father’s heart outright.

Have I sought every country far an near,

And, now it is my chance to find thee out,

Must I behold thy timeless cruel death?

Ah, Joan! sweet daughter Joan, I’ll die with thee.

Joan, however, doesn’t break into tears. She gets all riled up!

Descrepit miser! base ignoble wretch!

I am descended of a gentler blood:

Thou art no father nor no friend of mine.

Then she turns to the men who’ve put her at the stakes.

Let me tell you whom you have condemn’d:

Not me begotten of a shepherd swain,

But issu’d from the progeny of kings;

Virtuous and holy; chosen from above,

By inspiration of celestial grace,

To work exceeding miracles on earth.

Henry VI. Part 1. Joan of Arc. Royal Shakespeare Company.
Henry VI, part 1. A play by William Shakespeare featuring Joan of Arc.

The brilliant literary idea of a royal Joan (I mean, what a twist!*) then inseminated the rotten minds of ill-informed money-grabbing pseudo-historians, who pandered ‘sensational’ books only to fill their purse. Hence Joan was Charles VII’s secret sister. However, who was her father then do you ask? No other than Louis ‘the Legend’ of Orléans.

Joan stated at her trial that she was nineteen, meaning she was born in 1412. How could that be a problem? On November 23, 1407, Louis of Orléans was assassinated in the streets of Paris by John the Fearless (GoT quality, I tell you!). Therefore, Joan lied. She must have been twenty-four and was actually born in 1407.

Oh. And by the way, her mother was Queen Isabeau herself. Why not? It’s not like she gave birth to a child on November 10, 1407. Wait? Is my math right? Do I remember anything from my biology class? It must be right. Right?

More audacious conspiracy theorists, whom websites I won’t link here to deny them the pride of free views to their counter, have now passed the idea that Joan was Queen Isabeau’s daughter. They see as a better fit than her actual mother, Isabelle Romée, was the descendant of Charlemagne. Also, they don’t need any document to prove it to you. You should trust them on their words for it. Jacques d’Arc, who, according to them, is not even Joan’s biological father, is also of noble birth too. Cherry. On. Top.

This is all a bunch of undocumented nonsense.

*Shakespeare was depicting Joan of Arc as an utterly crazy woman. This was not a twist but a foregone conclusion. Upon meeting death, she shows her true ugly colors.

Joan’s Coat of Arms: the Ultimate Evidence?

Joan of Arc's coat of arms.
Joan of Arc’s coat of arms.

Before the battle of Patay and right after the liberation of Orléans, Charles VII granted a coat of arms to Joan of Arc. On a blue background stands a sword under a crown, flanked by two heraldic lilies. Joan’s judge at her trial at Rouen blamed her for arrogance. Who was she to dare display the ‘fleur-de-lis’, the official emblem of the French crown?

According to our dear conspiracy theorists, Joan’s coat of arms was a clever acknowledgment of her true origin. An acknowledgment so clever, in fact, that Charles VII publicly recognized Joan as his sister but in a way that no one could uncover it. A secret hiding in plain sight!

I … can’t … even.

Heraldry seems only obscure to us because we don’t understand its language. We look at coat of arms the same way Napoleon looked at the pyramid. He knew they meant something. He knew they were the stuff of legends. But he had yet no solid archeological knowledge of their history and meaning.

It so happened that Charles VII granted to other people the right to display the fleur-de-lis on their coat of arms. He especially granted it to the city of Tournai, which so far up north, deep into Burgundian territory, remained unyieldingly loyal to his cause. The fleur-de-lis was a royal honor, a symbolic and powerful mark of recognition for exceptional services and also a way to tie people to the royal house.

What about the crown? Well, what about it? Joan kept saying she was only serving one lord, the Lord. That crown is probably God’s own crown, for Christ’s sake (that is my personal hypothesis). All in all, the coat of arms translates into: “I fight under God’s command for the good of France.” How could that ever be conceived as a secret acknowledgement of common parenthood?

Final Words

Joan of Arc was not Charles VII’s secret sister (and he was not Louis of Orléans’s bastard) but her story is only more beautiful because of it. I understand that some limited minds would only grant great deeds to people of noble breed, I do, but they’re utterly wrong. She was a commoner from the country side with nothing to her name but her faith, her sass and her cold-blooded bravery.

I know Joan of Arc didn’t actually change the course of history. The victory of Orléans was almost a given when we take everything into account beyond her legend. Plus, it took more than a decade to finally boot the English out of France after she passed. However, she stood high and tall on a crucial turning crossroad in medieval history. It all looked gloom then she suddenly shined bright in the middle of the dark. She shocked her contemporaries like a comet burning the sky.

Personally, I find it very comforting that any young woman could achieve such a thing. However, fair warning, anyone tries to imprison and sentence Greta Thunberg to death, I might personally lead the commando to rescue her.

La Hire. Peter Strauss. Joan of Arc. 1999
Fun Fact

How Joan of Arc Died

AskHistorians: Tuesday Trivia!

The AskHistorians Subreddit invited me to pitch in on their latest Tuesday Trivia event. This week theme was FIRE.

Fire in the hole! …and in the house, castle courtyard, barn loft, cave, wiping out entire cities. What are some of the major flame-related disasters in your era? How did people fight fires?

I could just not pass on such an honor and I did my best to come up with a good story to share.

My Personal Contribution

If you know me you guess by then what I decided to talk about. Again. Joan of Arc.

This is the story of how she died and how she burned.

The Relapse

Illuminated Manuscript. Dante. Divine Comedy. Forest of Suicide. Bodleian Library. Holkham Misc. 48.
Oxford, Bodleian Library, Holkham Misc. MS 48, f. 19r – Dante visits the Forest of Suicide.

Joan’s judges had found her guilty on twelve accounts. Chief among them was the charge that her visions were nothing but superstitious delusions that proceeded from evil and diabolical spirits. Joan was also found guilty of attempted suicide because she jumped from the tower of the Beaurevoir castle when she tried to escape from her Burgundian ward, Jean de Luxembourg (a tale that I already briefly mentioned in a former post).

I will be lazy for a minute and briefly remind that suicide was deemed as a very serious crime in the 15th century, France. If you committed suicide, your belongings were confiscated—meaning you could leave no inheritance to your relatives—and your body would have to suffer a degrading sentence. We have actually found pardon letters addressed to people who committed suicide, blaming their death on insanity or something else, meaning they were eventually not responsible of their own demise.

Neat.

On a less judicial and more spiritual level, let me quote Benjamin Zweig on that one (and be a doll, check out his thesis on the Images of Suicide in Medieval Art):

As the German nun and mystic Hildegard of Bingen tells us, suicide is unforgivable because it is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But, then, what makes suicide blasphemous? Because, she and other medieval theologians might respond, suicide denies the possibility of God’s forgiveness. By flinging one’s own body into death, one doubts God’s mercy. When one denies God’s grace, one repudiates God’s very essence—that is, the Holy Spirit. To kill oneself is to proclaim one’s disbelief in God. But unlike blasphemous words, for which one can plead mercy, suicide cannot be undone. One cannot repent after death.

I’ll just conclude in reminding that in his touring of the circles of Hell, Dante visits the Forest of Suicide. It should serve as a final proof that attempted suicide was a good reason to find anyone guilty of something immoral. Of course, Joan tried to escape, and ultimately to live, but it didn’t bother her judges. She jumped and it was constructed as a guilty charge against her.

The fact that Joan sided against the Burgundians also played against her. It was seen as a transgression against God’s commandment to “love thy neighbor”. No one bothered to mention her quarrel against the English, which indicates the political ties of her judges and who might have really been pissed at her. She’d sent a letter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. I bet that letter was very ill received. She also met him, and Monstrelet records it. He reports that he was there himself, but that he forgot what the Duke said to the Maid. How convenient… Let’s not forget that he later offered his chronicles to Philip the Good.

Last, but not least, Joan’s unwillingness to answer her judges on certain matters—like her personal exchanges with Charles VII—were constructed as a rebellion against the church. She was therefore charged as schismatic.

On May 24, 1431, Joan was put in front of a stake and her charges were read to her. Everything was ready for her to burn alive and be done with like Jean Hus and many others before her. However, before the end of the sentencing, Joan finally cracked under the pressure, pleaded guilty and asked for a pardon, which was granted to her. She was brought back to her cell and probably raped by her English wards.

Among the twelve charges, Joan had also been found guilty of wearing men’s clothes. It was deemed as blasphemous. Therefore when she was seen wearing them again after her “confession”, maybe as a way to repel her wards, she was deemed relapse. It meant that the church couldn’t do anything for her anymore. Her soul was beyond saving. She had to burn at the stake…

Burning at the Stake

Paris, BnF, français 5054. Martial d'Auvergne. Vigiles de la mort de Charles VII. Joan of Arc. Jeanne d'Arc. Rouen. Illuminated manuscript.
Joan of Arc being burned as a heretic at Rouen – Paris, BnF, fr. 5054, f. 71r

It was a Wednesday. Joan was brought out of her cell for the very last time on May 30, 1431, at the sweet age of nineteen.

We think indeed that she was born in 1412, which is why her biography and dictionary written by Philippe Contamine, Xavier Hélary and Olivier Bouzy was published in 2012, six hundred years after she was born.

Martin Ladvenu, who heard Joan’s last confession and escorted her to the stake, reported that until the bitter end, she maintained that her visions were sent to her by God and that she didn’t believe that she’d been fooled by any evil spirit.

By ten o’clock in the morning, Joan was already where she would die, on a scaffold where everyone could see her. The good people of Rouen didn’t dare to move to help her. They were still under the shock of the 1418-1419 siege that cost them so many lives. However, we can guess that they didn’t really like what they saw. One very sarcastic Norman chronicler, Pierre Cochon—not to be mistaken with Pierre Cauchon, Joan’s chief judge—stopped his chronicle at the very moment Joan entered Rouen. He never mentioned her in his work. Yet he was a close friend to several of the clerks who attended her trials and who, for the most part, pleaded heavily in favor of Joan on her second trial.

Silence, in some case, is more meaningful than any formulated opinion…

Clément de Fauquembergue, clerks for the Parliament in Paris, wrote that Joan wore a miter which displayed four words: “Heretic. Relapse. Apostate. Idolatrous.” There was also a board that described Joan as the wickedest witch of the West.

The executioner put the stake on fire and Joan burned alive. However, the fire was extinguished halfway to show that under her men’s clothes she was indeed a woman. Eventually, her ashes were spilled in the Seine to make sure no one could turn any of her remnant into a relic.

How She Was Replaced

La Hire. Peter Strauss. Joan of Arc. 1999
La Hire (Peter Strauss) cries as he arrives to late to save Joan of Arc. | Joan of Arc (TV Mini-Series), 1999

The 1999 telefilm that cast Neil Patrick Harris as Charles VII shows how La Hire and Jean de Metz arrived too late to save Joan at Rouen. They see the flames from beyond the city walls. They know she is dead… However, historically, the French captains and the French court remained quite indifferent to Joan’s passing.

La Hire was otherwise busy at the time. Earlier that year he’d taken the city of Louviers in a successful commando mission that freed the most skilled and wisest French captain of the time, a man so dangerous that the English had always refused to discuss any ransom and kept his location secret, Arnaud-Guilhem de Barbazan, the man who singlehandedly defended Melun nine months in 1420 against Henry V and all of his army.

The English were in the business to retake Louviers and La Hire swooped back in the city in April to manage its defense. As he sneaked out of town to fetch for reinforcements at La Ferté he was captured, taken to Dourdan and released in exchange for several hostages. He still had yet to pay for his ransom and La Hire therefore went to Chinon to ask the king for help. Charles VII, who couldn’t pull out money the way his grandfather did to help out Du Guesclin, allowed La Hire to write to the good cities of France to raise money for his ransom. We know that La Hire wrote at least to Lyon and Tours.

In the end, he was nowhere near Rouen when Joan died and not the least concerned with her passing. Jean de Metz? We don’t know where he was at the time…

On August 12, 1431, La Hire had forgotten Joan of Arc altogether. According to the chronicler Jean Lefèvre de Saint-Rémy, La Hire and several captains put a young shepherd at the front of their army to lead them to victory but the poor boy didn’t have Joan’s nerves. He was captured, brought back to Rouen and probably thrown in the Seine to drown. No one bothered with a “proper trial” on that one.

More about Joan:

Paris, BnF, français 134. Enluminure. Illuminated manuscript. Bartholomeus Anglicus. De proprietate rerum. Jean Corbechon. Propriété des choses.
Fun Fact

Medieval Gender Roles: Boys & War

The Hague, MMW, 10 A 11, f. 235r.
Augustine, City of God. Raoul de Presles
Gender Roles. Falconer. Weaver
Photo montage of the Gender roles as defined in the City of God, translated and edited from Latin into French by Raoul de Presles in the 14th century. (The Hague, MMW, 10 A 11, f. 235r)

Happenstance

If you follow me on Twitter you’d know that I’ve been on a little book shopping spree. I went to the second hand bookshop to sell youth novels that my fiancé had lying around. I came back home having sold almost none of them… plus carrying in a bag some history books that caught my eye. I mean, I just can’t help myself.

One thing lead to another. I showed my new findings on Twitter. One book was about the earl of Warwick. Not Richard Beauchamp as I first expected, but his son-in-law, another Richard, son of a third Richard who’d been earl of Salisbury after Thomas Montagu passed away at the siege of Orléans, in 1428. How can you not be easily confused when shopping compulsively?

My sickness followed me home. Once on my computer and looking for a manuscript that I knew had been made for Richard Warwick Jr. by his mother and displayed the story of Richard Warwick Sr., I found out that it hadn’t been digitized yet by the British Library. At which point my heart almost broke. I looked online for the Cotton MS Julius E IV, or the “Warwick Manuscript” as it is also called, and found out that some of its illuminations were reproduced in a 2017 monography on male education in the Middle Ages: From Childhood to Chivalry, by Nicolas Orme. Some extracts were available on Google Books and, since I was still hazy from my shopping spree, I freaking bought the damn book. You’re right I did!

As a matter of fact I’m annoyed with a statement found in the Age of Empires 2 in-game encyclopedia about Chivalry. It reads as follows:

Becoming a Knight

At the age of 7 or 8, boys of the noble class were sent to live with a great lord as a page. Pages learned basic social skills from the women of the lord’s household and began basic training in the use of weapons and horsemanship. Around the age of 14 the youth became a squire, a knight in training. Squires were assigned to a knight who continued the youth’s education. The squire was a general companion and servant to the knight. The duties of the squire included polishing armor and weapons (prone to rust), helping his knight dress and undress, looking after his belongings, and even sleeping across his doorway as a guard.

At tournaments and in battle, the squire assisted his knight as needed. He brought up replacement weapons and horses, treated wounds, brought a wounded knight out of danger, or made sure of a decent burial if needed. In many cases the squire went into battle with his knight and fought at his side. A knight avoided fighting a squire on the other side, if possible, seeking instead a knight of rank similar to or higher than his own. Squires, on the other hand, sought to engage enemy knights, seeking to gain glory by killing or capturing an enemy knight of high rank.

In addition to martial training, squires built up their strength through games, learned to at least read, if not write, and studied music, dancing, and singing.

By the age of 21, a squire was eligible to become a knight. Suitable candidates were “knighted” by a lord or other knight of high standing. The ceremony for becoming a knight was simple at first, usually being “dubbed” on the shoulder with a sword and then buckling on a sword belt. The ceremony grew more elaborate and the Church added to the rite. Candidates bathed, cut their hair close, and stayed up all night in a vigil of prayer. In the morning the candidate received the sword and spurs of a knight.

Paris, BnF, fr. 134, f. 92v.
Bartholomeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus rerum. Jean Corbechon
Childhood. Teenage years. Adulthood.
The four steps of a man’s life, illustrated in the De proprietatibus rerum of Bartholomeus Anglicus, translated from Latin into French by Jean Corbechon in the 14th century. (Paris, BnF, fr. 134, f. 92v)

I have yet to break down that statement and I will surely do it in another in-depth blog post. But this is a fun fact. Let’s only scratch the surface on this one.

What bothers me with this statement is that it displays a very linear step-by-step narrative of how young aristocrats became knights. It’s much too easy. History is messy. Medieval History especially. Knighthood is a concept that evolved over time. It wasn’t even a thing before the 12th century. It became a heavily ritualized process by the end of the 15th century. It was loaded with religious meaning. Plus, I’m really not sure about that classic 7-14-21 years old progression. I know that I’ve read about it myself when I was a kid, and not only on the Age of Empires 2 in-game encyclopedia.

To keep it short here I’ll simply quote Nicolas Orme on the matter, to bring more perspective and nuance:

[Giles of Rome] reproduces the outlines of Aristotle’s threefold scheme of movement for babies, light exercises for boys and strenuous training for adolescents. But he has little to say about boys, except that they should play at ball, and centres his treatment of physical education almost wholly on military training in adolescence. This begins at 14, earlier than Aristotle had recommended for strenuous exercises. It lasts for four years and involves learning the kind of riding and fighting required for a knightly career, before embarking on the career itself at 18.

To keep quoting Nicolas Orme, he wrote down a little further something that really grabbed the attention of my 2019 post-gender studies and LGTBQ+ rights mind.

Medieval writers criticized children for indolence, oaths and insubordination, but not for aggression.

This… used to be funny? I laughed at this piece for what seems to be a lifetime ago…

He carries on to tell us a few stories that exemplify that statement. Those stories are the purpose of this blog post. Enjoy!

History

Charles the Bold

First of all, I cannot not remind my dear and attentive reader of a former blog post of mine, in which I explain how Philip the Good wished for his son, Charles, to prove his manhood by risking his life jousting against the most renowned knight of their time: Jacques de Lalaing. I thought it was “funny” because whilst Philip the Good was pushing his son to take deadly risks, Isabella of Portugal, Charles’ mother, heavily frowned upon it and argued with her husband. It looked like a typical “boys will be boys” story.

William Marshal

The story that Nicolas Orme tells is another one yet. And a pretty much enlightening one!

Fast track back to the 12th century and meet William Marshal, the best knight of his own time, because there is a Jacques de Lalaing for every new generation of knight. Just as a book was written to narrate the life and deeds of Jacques de Lalaing, William Marshal saw his life turned into an epic poem. This biographical poem starts with William’s childhood and tells how he became King Stephen’s hostage while his father, John FitzGilbert, lead a rebellious life. King Stephen was ready to kill the young boy, who was only 5 or 6 years old, in order to teach his treacherous vassal a lesson. John answered that he could forge a better son if needed with an anvil and a hammer. Talk about toxic masculinity!

How boys became men, in a galaxy far… far away.

Yet, as he was unknowingly lead to his most certain death, a weapon caught the eye of young William Marshal. It was a javelin that the earl of Arundel was toying with. “Sir! Give me that arrow!” pleaded William.

Nicolas Orme concludes:

The kindly Stephen was so touched by this that he changed his mind, and led William back to his camp where they played ‘knights’, each holding a plantain and trying to knock off the head of the other’s.

I can’t resist the urge to share you the poem itself (I don’t really care if you don’t understand a word of it—maybe you do!—it’s just too damn pretty):

E li emfes ke l’on portout,
Ki de sa mort ne se dotout,
Si vit le cunte d'Arundel
Qui teneit un bozon molt bel;
Si li dist o simple reison:
"Sire, donez mei cel bozon."
Quant li reis oï ceste enfance,
Por trestot l'or qui est en France
Nel laisse[s]t il pendre cel jor.-,
Mais par simplesce e par doçor,
De quei sis cu[e]rs esteit toz pleins,
A pris l'enfant entre ses meins.

We cringe today when we see young boys playing with make-believe fire-weapons in kaki suits right in the middle of the school yard. It was already the case when I was a kid in the 90’s, here in good old Belgium. It must most certainly be the case in many U.S. schools! However, boys and young men were more than heavily encouraged to play with weapons in the Middle Ages. Royal rolls actually testify that my all-time favorite medieval figure, the bad-ass-poleaxe-berserk-gallant-husband-and-patron-of-the-arts-founder-of-the-university-of-Caen John Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, Regent of France, was given swords at the prime age of 11 years old in 1400-1401. His elder brother, Henry V of England, received his at 9 years old, in 1397. No wonder they beat the shit out of the French from 1415 to 1435.

Louis de Saint-Pol

I will conclude this fun fact with another 15th century figure: the most infamous Louis of Saint-Pol, who became no less than ‘Connétable de France’ and yet was beheaded for high treason.

Louis learned the art of war from his uncle, John of Luxembourg. This one was not blind, we shouldn’t mix him up with the King of Bohemia, yet he lost an eye in battle and we could call him “One-Eyed John”. He’d been La Hire’s fiercest foe if we don’t take John Talbot into account. I like to call them the Three Hounds of War. I swear I’ll write about them one day. They were just too epic to be overlooked.

Here is one of the most shocking sentence I read in Monstrelet’s chronicle:

That day the young count of Saint-Pol was introduced to warfare for his uncle, the count of Ligny, had him kill a few men. The young count took great pleasure in it.

When I first read this line in 2015, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Monstrelet was not even the kind of chronicler to promote violence. He laments several times about the state of the kingdom and the misery of the little people. He brazenly blames the Flemish urban militias to be too hasty in matters of war. What the hell? A few years later down the way, though, I understand Monstrelet better.

London, BL, Add. 18850, f. 5r.
Bedford Hours. 
Month of May. Gemini. Falconer
Another gender scene? A falconer on the right, two naked women bathing on the right. This illumination illustrates the month of May in the Bedford Hours: the two women are a representation of the Gemini. (London, BL, Add. 18850, f. 5r)

Last Words

I will conclude this fun fact on the following oversimplified statement.

Young men were encouraged in the Middle Ages to develop a taste for war from a very young age, but only as long as they were aristocrats (and there was such a thing as going too far).

Next time I should also present you a few anecdotes about noblemen that turned away from violence and embraced more peaceful or spiritual ways of life, much like Henry VI of England or Charles IV of the Holy Roman Empire, who were both sons to great warriors, respectively Henry V and John the Blind. Because as always, with History… it’s messy!

Fun Fact

Rated R Military Tactic

“I’m just trolling” is a somewhat polite and cute way to say that you’re just being a dick on the internet. Even though this term, troll, tends to diminish or devalue the harm done by so-called and self-proclaimed trolls, trolls today holds nothing on the ultimate troll master from 1098, Bohemond of Taranto. Only 90’s kids can remember.

The Byzantine princess, Anna Comnena, had already observed that Bohemond was one of a kind when she stated that “a certain charm hung about this man but is partly marred by a general air of the horrible.” However, what he did to insure the capture of Antioch really puts him on another level amongst the great military minds of history.

The rumor spread that Turks had infiltrated the camp and where reporting on the crusaders’ every moves. When it was brought to the kind attention of Bohemond, he said, and I’m making this up for the good of the story: “Fear not, my friends, for there shall be spies no more once I’m done with them.” As a matter of fact, or so the legend goes, they all fled overnight!

What follows is rated R. So hide your kids, you will not find this on Wikipidia.

How did Bohemond manage to get rid of the Turk spies so quickly and effectively? First, he gathered a few of them like sheep you herd for slaughter. Then, he introduced them to his cook. The cook cut down their jaws then proceeded to slide them onto a massive skewer, just like pigs. The Turk spies were roasted over a fire, barbecue style.

Bohemond likes the Happy Tree Friends

People came to look from all over camp at that macabre spectacle and see for themselves if what they said was true. Bohemond had turned cannibal! Horrified at the idea to end the same way, all the spies left in camp ran away once dusk settled into night. That was one less problem for the Crusaders. Bohemond had then no problem to secure his secret commando operation to capture the tower of mount Silpius with the help of an inside man, which lead him to conquer the city of Antioch eventually.

Where did I find this fun fact?
René Grousset, L’épopée des coisades. Paris: Perrin, 2002, p. 35.
Not the best book on the topic, but it’s very well written and therefore quite entertaining while remaining fairly informative.

Fun Fact

The Devil’s Ten Commandments

Medieval Meme
Brussels, KBR, MS 10218-19, f. 51v.

We find in several manuscript an illumination of a devil sitting on a tree. Every branch of the tree reads one of his Ten Commandments. Additionally, a wild boar at the bottom of the tree looks up at the devil and his commandments.

1 ~ Here is my first Commandment: swear upon God’s name as often as you can.

2 ~ Grant your body with as much delights as possible; there isn’t any other heaven.

3 ~ Come by my house anytime: it is the pub and the brothel.

4 ~ If you wish me to remember you, cover yourself with vain glory.

5 ~ Despise all poor people and love nothing but gold and silver.

6 ~ If you have nothing for yourself, take it from another, and give nothing back.

7 ~ Should you father argue with you make him fear you.

8 ~ Use wine for gambling instead of holy mass.

9 ~ Believe and witchcraft and violence: your will shall be fulfilled.

10 ~ Would you be short of money you shall take if from the Church.

Brussels, KBR, MS 10218-19, f. 26v

Those Ten Commandments are given as Queen Ratio provides a moral and allegorical commentary of the wild boar which is depicted as a devilish creature. Furthermore, all of this is found, believe it or not, in a medieval hunting treatise.

It is called the Books of King Modus and Queen Ratio and reads as a long dialogue. Whereas King Modus teaches the hunting apprentice how to hunt the deer and other animals, Queen Ratio provides an allegorical reading of nature and its creatures.

If the wild boar is a devilish beast, then the deer is a Christian one. Its noble antlers are actually a figure for God’s own Ten Commandments. The deer protects itself with its antlers as the good Christian shields himself with God’s Commandments.

Brussels, KBR, MS 10218-19, f. 29r

The wild boar used to be considered as a brave and mighty beast in Germanic culture. Henri de Ferrières, author of the Books of King Modus and Queen Ratio, however, turns it into the most despicable creature of the forest. Would you want to know more about that cultural shift, I’d recommend Michel Pastoureau’s book on the subject. It’s quite the page turner!

Brussels, KBR, MS 10218-19, f. 50r

Further readings:
~ Michel Pastoureau, Le Cochon. Histoire d’un cousin mal aimé (1999).
~ Les livres du roy Modus et de la royne Ratio, éd. Gunnar Tilander, Paris, Société des anciens textes français, 1932, 2 t.

Fun Fact

Relic Snagging: AoE2 vs. History

Not so long ago, on Age of Empires 2, my father and I were holding our ground against waves and waves of conquistadors. My halberdiers were butchered by the dozens and I noticed my father lacked gold to sustain his military production. Faithful son that I am, I tasked a monk with the perilous duty to deliver my relics to my father’s monastery despite enemy raids between both our bases.

Most of the time, however, we see players snagging relics from each other. On Arena maps, light cavalry and monks rush into the no man’s land as soon as players hit Castle Age and it leads to epic micro-fight. Those well versed into the arcane arts can even teleport their monks to snag relics in the blink of an eye. A blood pact with the Devil is required to gain this wizardly skill, though, since you need two of your monks to shag in a dark alley, which is not very Christian.

Now, I’d like to talk to you about some historic relic gifting and snagging. Since I introduced the early Christian Dukes of Bohemia in a former post, I’ll keep my focus on them for this one.

As you may have read, Václav was the first Christian Duke of Bohemia despite his mother’s Pagan faith. The Přemyslid family strife got to some Game of Thrones proportion, though, when Drahomira, the mother, allegedly had her son Václav murdered by his own brother when he dared to found a rotunda church in Prague. Boleslav, Drahomira’s younger son, was maybe every inch a dutiful son but foremost he was quite the power grabber. With or without his mother’s scheming, he killed his brother without a flinch and took the Duchy for himself. While doing so, however, he also embraced Christianity then he didn’t wait a second to elevate his murdered brother to sainthood.

Go figure.

All this seems weird and fairly unreasonable to us. Yet, there might be a sound political reasoning behind Boleslav’s actions. Not only did he promote Václav to sainthood, he also made him the patron of Bohemia. Every Duke would promote Václav’s cult after Boleslav’s reign and use it as a propaganda of power. However, guilt may not have been the only thing to move Boleslav. Though he abode to Christianity, and therefore had to bow to the Holy Roman Empire, he tried to make Bohemia an independent polity. Sneaky and shrewd as he was, when the Magyars came westwards, Boleslav let them pass through his lands and it took the Duke of Saxony some fierce convincing to bend Boleslav to his will and join him to the Battle of Lechfeld, in 955.

Why does any of this matter? Let’s look at the bigger picture. Capture Age is our friend.

The Holy Roman Empire in 962.

When Václav founded his rotunda church, he acquired a holy relic to dwell it from the Duke of Saxony. That relic was St Vitus’ arm and St Vitus had since become patron of the Ludolfings. What can I say? Two and two make four. The Ludolfings were the Dukes of Saxony themselves. It meant that Prague religious life was enfeoffed to Saxony’s holy patron! Add water to the burned area, the Duke of Saxony was well placed to sit on the vacant throne of the Emperor and that is exactly what Otto I did, eventually, when he was crowned in 962.

Before that fateful year, still in the absence of an emperor in power, and before the Ludolfings claimed and took over the title, Boleslav wished to sunder Bohemia from Saxony’s religious oversight. He murdered his brother to seize the duchy then he made him a local saint so that St Vitus’ cult would not obstruct his personal display of power. This was a very clever move! When Boleslav turned his brother’s cold corpse into holy relics, he insured Bohemia religious life wasn’t overshadowed by a foreign patron. The next step was to elevate Prague into a bishopric and make it as free as possible from Imperial supervision.  

Bohemia’s Christianization was first kicked off by missionaries sent from the bishopric of Passau. Nonetheless, as soon as 895, the bishopric of Regensburg took over the missionary agenda of Bohemia and all substantial religious matters regarding the Přemyslid duchy were settled in Bavaria, Bavaria being nothing but a friend to Saxony.

According to some dubious record in a 12th century chronicle, Boleslav managed to give Prague its own bishopric thanks to the good influence of his daughter, Mlada-Maria, as soon as 967. Nevertheless, it is certain that Prague had its own bishopric in 976 and was freed from Regensburg’s oversight. It was not yet an archbishopric, though, and still answered Mainz. Bohemia would have to wait the Luxembourg dynasty and John the Blind’s reign to see Prague become its own archbishopric. All the credit falls to John the Blind’s son, however, Charles IV.

St Václav (or Wenceslaus) in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 68r

It would be time now to talk about Boleslav II and his epic relic snagging skills. However, I’ll first gloss over the former sentence I wrote, ‘St Vitus had since become patron of the Ludolfings,’ because there are more relics gifting to deal with on that matter!

Little did I know when I started to write this post that St Vitus relics dwelled in ‘France’ before they made their way into Saxony and, from there, found a path to Bohemia’s capital. Even before that, St Vitus’ relics were in Rome! They were moved to St Denis abbey in the 8th century.

Then, what happened?

During the 9th century, the Vikings forced many monks to move out relics from their sanctuary. However, this is not what happened to St Vicus relics. Hilduin, the abbot of Saint-Denis, found himself exiled to the German abbey of Corvey, in Saxony, because he’d allied an enemy of the Emperor, Louis the Pious. Hilduin was quickly reinstated but he made a friend along the way: the abbot of Corvey, Warin. The bound of friendship that united the two abbots is what made the relics transfer possible and moved St Vitus remains from Saint-Denis to Saxony.

First off, this relics transfer hastened the Christianization of Saxony. The German duchy had known very few martyrs: relics mostly had to be imported and St Vitus’ case set up a trend that would only grow stronger. Furthermore, the importation of relics into Saxony tethered its links to the Frankish Empire and helped its integration. Moreover, the chronicler Widukind interpreted the transfer from St Vitus’ relics to Saxony as a translation imperii: the Saxons symbolically inherited the imperial power that the Franks had held for so long when the holy remains entered the Corvey abbey.

A relic transfer was therefore much more than just a symbolic gesture. It could also have deep economic repercussion. Albeit I’ll discuss that in the next installment of this post series.

See you next time for some more relic trivia!

Attack of a monastery ~ Paris, BnF, fr. 2644, f. 142r

Further readings:
~ Nora Berend, Central Europe in the High Middle Ages. Bohemia, Hungary and Poland, c.900-c.1300. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
~ Anne Van Landschoot, “La translation des reliques de saint Vit de l’abbaye de Saint-Denis à celle de Corvey en 836”, in Revue belge de philology et d’histoire (1996), 74/3-4, p. 593-632.

Epic Arena Relic Swipe
Fun Fact

Short History of the Early Christian Dukes of Bohemia

St Václav (or Wenceslaus) in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 68r

As promised, here begins a very short history of the early Dukes of Bohemia, from Vratislav to Bretislav. Hang on to your hats, fasten your seatbelts, grab your popcorn and enjoy some Crusader King 2 worthy storyline.

Vratislav, living in the first half of the 10th century, hated the Franks. He married a pagan princess to upset their plan of world domination and she was a fine young woman, but she evolved into a bitter old mother. When Vratislav died, his son Václav became Duke of Bohemia. That’s only logical. However, the latter saw many political upsides to embrace Christianity and he founded a rotunda church, right there in Prague. In doing so, Václav also recognized the authority of the Holy Roman Empire over his Duchy and for many years, Christian matters in Bohemia were overseen by Imperial churchmen. This whole situation enraged Ludmilla, Václav’s mother. She plotted to get her first-born and she enlisted the best man for the job, Václav’s own little brother, her second son, Boleslav.

Boleslav was shrewd. Boleslav was smart. He agreed to murder his brother. He carried the deed. He became Duke of Bohemia, hurray! However, he was too smart to backtrack on his brother’s spiritual choices and he embraced Christianity so hard that he promoted his murdered brother to sainthood. #Paradox

The four Apostles in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 1v

From that point onward, St Václav, better known as St Wenceslaus West of the Rhine, became the spiritual patron of Bohemia. All Bohemian Dukes and Kings had to worship him dutifully to secure their dynastic propaganda of power.

Bretislav was quite the state builder. Beyond handing Bohemia a spiritual patron, he also insured his control of the land by building strongholds all over the country. He built the stronghold in Prague, too. He was nicknamed ‘the Cruel’ when people found out that he had quite an expedite way to deal with his political opponents. To be clear, he gifted them with the same fate that he’d offered his brother. Eventually, Boleslav also tried to free Bohemia from the Holy Roman Empire grasp by reaching to Bavaria and helping the Magyar migrate West. However, Otto I was a bit of a tough nut to crack. The Magyar were utterly crushed by the Imperial Army at Lechfeld in 955 and Bohemia was forced to provide troops. It was clear from that point onwards that Bohemia would be part of the Holy Roman Empire because of its Christianization. There was no escape from it.

Boleslav II succeeded to his father. He maintained friendly relationships with the Holy Roman Empire, but most of all, he secured access and control to the silver mines of Kutná Hora and it would greatly benefit to Bohemia in the centuries to come.

The Biblical Magi in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 13v

Boleslav III was the next Duke of Bohemia. Nicknamed ‘the Red’ because he had red hair—what do you want me to say?—Boleslav was a gentle fruitcake. He reigned only a year or two that he already tried to strangle his brother Ulrich and castrated his other brother, Jaromir. Both fled to Bavaria and the Bohemian nobility chose to overthrow their tyrant by inviting Vladyvoj to the throne. Vladyvoj took on the Duchy of Bohemia as an imperial fief from the German King, Henry II, but he died shortly after that. Jaromir and Ulrich still out of the picture, Bołeslaw the Brave, King of Poland, swooped in and took over. Bohemia was from now on into a personal union with the Kingdom of Poland, and free from the Empire. There was no way Bołeslaw would bow to the Emperor. It would be as if the King of England bowed to the King of France only because he holds a fief of the latter.

Wait…

That’s how the Hundred Years War started!

Bołeslaw’s story as Duke of Bohemia was much shorter. Jaromir was quickly put in charge of Bohemia and the Duchy reconciled with the Holy Roman Empire. Then Ulrich took over and ultimately his son, Bretislav I, inherited Bohemia, which he ruled for twenty years from 1034 to 1055.

Bretislav wished to steal a page from Bołeslaw’s book and refused to pay tribute to the Empire. It cost him dearly. He ended up walking barefoot through Regensburg, wearing a penitentiary sack, begging for pardon. The Emperor granted his pardon and Bretislav swore his total allegiance to his suzerain. Bohemia was definitely part of the Empire, it wouldn’t be contested anymore, yet all those wars forged the Duchy as a stable and powerful polity. It wouldn’t be long before it was elevated to Kingdom. Well, two centuries basically. But who keeps count?

The Crucifixion in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 42r

Note on the manuscript introduced in this post (thanks to Google Translate)

The Vyšehrad Codex (National Library of the Czech Republic, XIV A 13) is probably the most valuable manuscript preserved in the Czech Republic. Researchers believe that the manuscript is the coronation evangelist of the first Czech King Vratislav I (as Prince II), or that he has composed it to commemorate this event.

The Czech King Vratislav I (ruled as Prince Vratislav II from 1061) was crowned on June 15, 1086 at Prague Castle. The Evangelist contains excerpts from the Gospels that were read at the Mass during the church year. […] The Visegrad Code was originally created without a specific purpose, into stock. Later, approximately one third of the Code was hastily completed on order from Bohemia. It also contains a reading on the feast of Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia, who opens the initial D-ixit with a depiction of a throne prince who, as a gesture of his right, expresses his consent to the act of Vratislav’s coronation and symbolically passed it over to the government.

Further Readings:
~ Nora Berend, Central Europe in the High Middle Ages. Bohemia, Hungary and Poland, c.900-c.1300. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
~ Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe. A History of the Holy Roman Empire. Cambridge [MA]: Belknap Press, 2016.

Fun Fact

The Game of the Blind and the Pig

Early depiction of the game of the blind and the pig ~ Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 264, f. 74v

You’re a nice and kind person, are you not? I mean, not to everybody, of course, you’d kill your noisy neighbour in a heartbeat like anybody else, but let’s say you see a blind person in the street trying to board on a bus by himself. You’ll help him—right?—because that’s the right thing to do.

You’ll even be what we can call a “good Christian.” Indeed, we read in the Leviticus (9, 17)—among many nonsensical and very outdated prescriptions—: “Do not put a stumbling block in front the blind.” Jesus himself reminds us about the blind (John 9, 3): “Neither this man nor his parent sinned.” Meaning that blindness is not some kind of divine retribution. It’s just… Shit happens bro. *Shrugs.* I’m sorry it happened to you.

You’ll forgive me being preachy there a minute, quoting the Bible and all, but we’re talking about the Middle Ages in this post and we know how important religion was during the Middle Ages. Right?

I mean, there was no way people would go against the moral prescriptions of the Church back then. Right?

It’s not like you’d gather blind people, hand them weapons and ask them to hit a dangerous moving target at the risk of hitting themselves. Right?

Right?!

Well… *Sighs.* Nope.

I found some cheese!

When you see how Dukes and Kings embraced adultery, if not debauchery, and broke their wedding vows on a daily basis—I’m looking right at you, Philip the Good!—, you can’t be too surprised when you read about blind people being pitted against a pig. In a fenced square. For the merriment of an urban crowd. Despite Jesus’ teachings.

~That last sentence was too long so I added a few periods for dramatic effect.~

This is exactly what happened on August 29th, 1425, in Paris. The Moon entered Libra that morning and it would have called for a peaceful and well ordained day, yet the people of Paris didn’t hear it that way.

The whole “Paris: City of Light” turned out to be fake news and they were totally fed up with natural disasters, unruly companies of bandits, a desultory nobility, conniving merchants and corrupt churchmen. Children were being snatched from their homes to be allegedly eaten by wolves or actually dismembered by vagrants that turned them into beggars. Young women prostitute themselves not to starve. The Seine would flood Notre-Dame and drown horses every year or so. Whenever a new army would take control of Paris the city was brutally sacked. Those were not the good old times. Just ask the anonymous author of the “Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris” how pissed he was. I mean, there’s a good reason that the people of Paris still behave like total dicks on a sunny day. They’ve endured a lot. Their streets, houses and bridges still carry the memory of those long awful years and it poisons their minds! It’s the only logical explanation for them being so disparaging all the time. It’s rooted deep down in their “stadtgeist” or city spirit DNA.

But I digress.

On August 29th, 1425, a few blind people were herded, given weapons and asked to kill a pig. The one who would kill it would win its meat. It turned into a ghastly spectacle. The blind started to hit each other, thinking they were hitting the pig. The pig would run them over and trample them. They’d have killed one another if they’d been armed with actual weapons.

It all sounds like a random anecdote but it turns out to be a very famous game from the Late Middle Ages, especially in Northern Germany, the Low Countries and in Northern France. The first actual record of such a game is dated from 1386, in Lubeck, though medieval scholars mention such events already in the 13th century.

Well, believe me, the people of Lubeck knew what they were doing.

During Carnival, the young lords of Lubeck picked out twelve healthy blinds. They made them drink to heighten their joy and spirit, then they plastered their bodies with cuirasses, equipped them with mismatched pieces of armour and put helmets on their heads but backwards to insure that they really couldn’t see anything.

[Translated from Richard (2015), p. 525]

Followed the same scene that happened in Paris, on August 29th, 1425. It turned into a bloody mess. For one thing. Pigs back then were not cute hairless pink babes. No. They were still pretty much fearless wild boars. Hoink! Hoink! They really took a page from Pumba’s book and charged head on yelling “They call me MISTER PIG. Yaaah!” Many a mighty lord faced with such a terrible foe died in the process of fighting the ungulate beast. I’ll write about it in a later post.

To even the odds, the pig would sometimes be tethered to a post or readied with a little bell. Ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling! This is the sound of death. Ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling! You’re dead. Ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling! And the brave folks of the market place are laughing at your corpse! Ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling! Isn’t it a shame that you were born blind just to die that way?

One thing is sure, John the Blind experienced a more epic and respectable outcome.

Olivier Richard gives many interpretations of this “urban ritual.” The one that really struck me though is how this parody of a fight is, actually, the parody of a fight! More especially the parody of a knightly tournament. It is not a coincidence that this game happened during Carnival in Lubeck, in 1386. Then in Paris, in 1425, it was held near the Hotel d’Armagnac, the mansion of most hated lord that the people of Paris were more than happy to deride.

Most of the time, the game of the blind and the pig was held within a series of events that would constitute a festival of some sort. When the Emperor, Maximilian of Hapsburg, came to Bruges in January 1481 with his wife, Mary, Duchess of Burgundy and Countess of Flanders, the dutiful people of Flanders organized several days of festivity. It started with a knightly tournament of the outmost noble fashion. It ended up with blind people pitted against their worst enemy: the pig.

This game would be played up until the 20th century in Flanders! However, from the 16th century onwards, the participants were not actual blinds anymore, but regular people with covered eyes. Some chroniclers share some doubts though, like Alphonse Vandenpeereboom, writing in the 17th century. He rules out the possibility that actual blinds were pitted against the pig but only because he thinks it would be too cruel. Was he right, though? Were people actually nicer in his times than they were two to five centuries ago? What would it teach us about our society as a whole?

Well… it’s all a prank and fake news anyway. #Trololo We all know blinds are actually secret Kung Fu masters that would eat you for breakfast. Isn’t that right, Hundred Eyes?

Further readings:
~ Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris de 1405 à 1449. Edited by Colette Beaune. Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1990 (Lettres Gothiques).
~ Olivier Richard, “Le jeu des aveugles et du cochon. Rite, handicap et société urbaine à la fin du Moyen Âge”, in Revue historique (2015), 675, p. 525-556.

Fun Fact

Blood or Alcohol? What is it that turns a man into a werewolf? ~ Werewolves of the Baltic Sea

[Read the first part of this post series here]

The Prisoner of Azkaban is probably the first book that I couldn’t wait to be published. I still remember vividly the moment I saw it at the supermarket, how I jumped towards it dragging my father along. ‘It’s out! Dad! It’s out! We need to buy it!’

Original cover of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in French

He solemnly agreed, for he’d read the Harry Potter first two novels even before I did.

It happened while we were on a train to the ski station.

‘What’s that book about, dad? You can’t stop reading it,’ I was a tiny bit jealous of the attention my father devoted to the novel instead of me.

‘It’s a children’s book.’

I frowned.

‘A children’s book? But you’re an adult.’

I was very square that way.

‘I know, I know! But I was told about this novel by a friend. It’s great, actually. You should read it once I’m finished with it.’

‘Can I read it now?’

‘Well, no, I haven’t finished it yet.’

‘Meh. Whatever.’

Eventually, the Harry Potter series sucked me in like a maelstrom. I was so eager to read the story that by the time the fifth novel came out I read it in English even though I didn’t understand a thing. Like, really. I just spotted names and figured out one or two words here and there. I read more than two hundred pages like this. Other people asked me if I could read English. They were impressed for I was still very young.

‘No, I can’t.’

‘But you’re reading Harry Potter in English!’

‘Yes.’

‘Why would you do that if you don’t understand it?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘You’re weird.’

I didn’t have a comeback back then. People told me I was weird all the time and I never knew what to answer. Nowadays I just say ‘Yes’ in the most mundane way possible, as if they were talking about the rain or a delayed train. It tends to make them go: ‘Oh, very well then!’ And they leave me be.

Little is to say that the Harry Potter novel series became a major part of my childhood and formative teenage years. As for many other people born in the ’90s, it helped forge my imagination and it magnified the hidden shadows of my ‘collective unconscious’. My father grew up with Bilbo the Hobbit, which he also gave to me to read, and I grew up with Harry Potter.

Biblo, Gandalf and the dwarves plan out their trip to the Lonely Mountain. Illustration by Alan Lee.

The same way my father learned about enchanted rings from Gandalf the Grey, I was introduced to magic wands by Olivander. My father roamed the Lothlórien, following Bilbo’s path. I explored the Forbidden Forest whenever Harry Potter left his dorm at night. We both were faced with big scary spiders. Eventually, as my father was amazed by Beorn’s abilities as a ‘skin changer’, able to assume the form a great black bear, I was frightened by the werewolf Harry Potter met under a full moon in the Shrieking Shack!

By the time J. K. Rowling wrote the Prisoner of Azkaban, it was common knowledge thanks to Hollywood that some men could turn into wolves under the light of a full moon. She states the following:

To become a werewolf, it is necessary to be bitten by a werewolf in their wolfish form at the time of the full moon. When the werewolf’s saliva mingles with the victim’s blood, contamination will occur.’ This explains why Remus Lupin is afraid of a ‘silvery orb’ when faced with a Boggart.

However, our beloved Olaus Magnus argues differently. He teaches that you actually need only three things to become a werewolf: a wizard, a pint of ale and some dark cellar.

If someone skilled in sorcery, repeating certain words, offers a beaker of ale to drink to the one who desires to be enrolled in that band of accursed beings, the latter will achieve the means of changing shape. Later, whenever he finds it appropriate, he can transfer completely from a man’s form to that of a wolf by removing himself to some cellar or deep forest.

(edited extract from Olaus Magnus, A Description of the Northern Peoples (1555), book 18, chapter 46, translated by P. G. Foote)

We sure would like to know what those ‘certain words’ are but Olaus doesn’t provide them, unfortunately. However, he hands out more information on werewolves and their dark customs: how they gather, how they plan their attacks. I’ll report it in my next post. What fascinates me at the moment is how his narrative kind of matches Skyrim’s storyline.

The Werewolf in Skyrim is a mighty and dangerous beast.

Once the Dragonborn joins the Companions in Whiterun, he gets an invitation to enter the Circle if he has proved himself worthy. The Dragonborn then meet the chosen few of the Companions who’ve been ‘blessed’ with the gift of lycanthropy in a secret cave: the Underforge. The Dragonborn has to drink blood (instead of beer) and a few solemn words are exchanged before he turns into a werewolf and runs into a fit. Bloodthirsty, rendered wild by his/her first transformation, the Dragonborn goes on a killing spree at night in Whiterun and wakes up several hours later, lost in a forest next to Aela.

Since the blood is drunk from what look likes baptismal font, the ceremony to turn into a werewolf in Skyrim looks more like a satanic ritual than a heathen act of witchcraft. This gives food for thought but I love how Olaus Magnus strongly links the consumption of alcohol with werewolves. Or should I?

It has been suggested that the people who were thought to be werewolves were actually victims of depression. And we know well how drinking excess of alcohol can be a clear symptom of depression. I made that experience myself and maybe one day I’ll tell that tale. Meanwhile, Olaus’ text remains highly suggestive. ‘Werewolves, Alcohol and Depression’ could actually be the title of a legitimate PhD research. However, we won’t go that far. We’ll end this post where it started, quoting J. K. Rowling. She totally by-passes the alcohol-werewolf coupling and writes that

Lupin’s condition of lycanthropy (being a werewolf) was a metaphor for those illnesses that carry a stigma, like HIV and AIDS. All kinds of superstitions seem to surround blood-borne conditions, probably due to taboos surrounding blood itself. […] The character of Lupin gave me a chance to examine those attitudes.

More on my next post!

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 19 D I. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Fun Fact

Alexander the Great depicted in Medieval Manuscripts

Foreword

Alexander the Great was a very popular hero in Medieval Litterature, nothing short of a Marvel or DC character. As a matter of fact his true story was slightly forgotten and casted away in favor of wonders and legends.

Here under you’ll find my personal best off of medieval illuminations telling the fabulous stories of Alexander the Great in various manuscripts. Expect this best off to grow over time!

How Alexander was Conceived

A great man can only have a great birth. It is said that Buddha was born he looked around and then took 7 paces in the direction of the 4 cardinal points. Just like that. He was born and he could already walk up straight.

The Legend of Alexander’s legendary birth however draws closer to Suetonius’ reported tale of Augustus’ birth [Suet., 12 Caes., 2:94]:

I have read the following story in the books of Asclepias of Mendes entitled Theologumena. When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colours like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.

Similarly, Alexander’s birth is linked to a divine figure of the Sun and results of a sexual act with a ‘serpent’. Well, in his case, it was no less than a dragon which got involved!

Nectanebus was an astrologer who predicted to queen Olympias of Macedonia that she’d be visited by Amon in the form of a dragon and that she would give birth out of their union. However, Nectanebus got tired of waiting and turned into a dragon and visited Olympias at night. According to that story, Alexander is therefore a bastard!

Why are you so shocked? So was King Arthur. Read Geoffrey of Monmouth [Hist. Reg. Brit., 8:19]:

After this victory Uther repaired to the city of Alclud, where he settled the affairs of that province, and restored peace everywhere. […] The Easter following he ordered all the nobility in the kingdom to meet, in order to celebrate that great festival, in honour of which he designed to wear his crown. […] Among the guests was present Gorlois, duke of Cornwall, with his wife Igerna, the greatest beauty in all Britain. No sooner had the king cast his eyes upon her among the rest of the ladies, than he fell passionately in love with her, and little regarding the rest, made her the subject of all his thoughts. She was the only lady that he continually served with fresh dishes, and to whom he sent golden cups by his confidants; on her he bestowed all his smiles, and to her addressed all his discourse. […] A whole week was now past, when, retaining in mind his love to Igerna, he said to one of his confidants, named Ulfin de Ricaradoch: “My passion for Igerna is such that I can neither have ease of mind, nor health of body, till I obtain her: and if you cannot assist me with your advice how to accomplish my desire, the inward torments I endure will kill me.” […]

Merlin, therefore, being introduced into the king’s presence, was commanded to give his advice, how the king might accomplish his desire with respect to Igerna. And he, finding the great anguish of the king, was moved by such excessive love, and said, “To accomplish your desire, you must make use of such arts as have not been heard of in your time. I know how, by the force of my medicines, to give you the exact likeness of Gorlois, so that in all respects you shall seem to be no other than himself. If you will therefore obey my prescriptions, I will metamorphose you into the true semblance of Gorlois […]; and in this disguise you may go safely to the town where Igerna is, and have admittance to her.” The king complied with the proposal, and acted with great caution in this affair; [then he] underwent the medical applications of Merlin, by whom he was transformed into the likeness of Gorlois. […] The king therefore stayed that night with Igerna, and had the full enjoyment of her, for she was deceived with the false disguise which he had put on, and the artful and amourous discourses wherewith he entertained her. […] She refused him nothing which he desired.

The same night therefore she conceived the most renowned Arthur, whose heroic and wonderful actions have justly rendered his name famous to posterity.

Oh, because you thought Jon Snow’s story and the ‘R + L = J’ theory was an original idea? You thought works of fiction never saw a bastard prince secretely being the actual heir to the throne prophesied to save or take over the world? Yeah. Sure!

Ever since Jesus, magical bastards that can survive or come back from death tend to be plentiful and rather generic. Yet we love them. We can’t help it.

Nectanebus Prophesies Alexander’s Birth

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 19 D I. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus and Olympias (London, British Library, Royal MS 19 D I, f. 3r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 15 E VI. Talbot Shrewsbury Book. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus addressing Olympias (London, British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Olympias enthroned, with attendants, and Nectanebus in a white robe with a case of astronomical instruments (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 7r)

Nectanebus Lays with Queen Olympias

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Harley MS 4979. Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance.
Nectanebus as a dragon and in bed with Olympias (London, British Library, Harley MS 4979, f. 11r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 19 D I. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus disguised as a dragon beside Olympias’s bed (London, British Library, Royal MS 19 D I, f. 4v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 15 E VI. Talbot Shrewsbury Book. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus and Olympias in bed (London, British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus practicising enchantments on Olympias, who lies in bed (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 8v)

Nectanabus Keeps Flirting in the Shape of a Dragon

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Harley MS 4979. Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance.
Nectanebus as a dragon kissing Olympias at King Philip’s feast (London, British Library, Harley MS 4979, f. 12v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 19 D I. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus as dragon kissing Olympias (London, British Library, Royal MS 19 D I, f. 4v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 15 E VI. Talbot Shrewsbury Book. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus as a dragon at Philip’s table (London, British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6v)

The Legend Refuted

As the 15th century went by and the Renaissance grew closer, scholars were tired to see fables get the better of the nobility’s knowledge of History. Vasco de Lucena decided to refute the legends regarding Alexander the Great and to translate Quitus Curtius Rufus’ biography of the Macedonian king. Nevertheless, his erudite translation was illustrated with well-known legendary tales. His work states how Alexander the Great couldn’t be born from a dragon. Vasco de Lucena even goes as far as to quote the Holy Scriptures to do so. Yet, the illuminations made to embellish several of the manuscripts containing his work still act as reminders of Nectanebus’ fabled fatherhood.

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. BnF, français 257. Quinte Curse. Vasco de Lucena. Life of Alexander.
Birth of Alexander the Great (Paris, BnF, fr. 257, f. 1r)

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Alexander battles monsters on his way to India

“Go West, young man!” did they say in 19th century Northern America. During the European Middle Ages, however, it was more like “Go East, young man!” And so did Alexander. Did he expect to face dragons, giants and other monsters on his way to conquer India? As you can see, he seemed pretty well prepared, even to meet naked damsels in the woods!

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander battles with dragons (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 49v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander battles with white lions (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 50v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander driving off elephants with pigs and musical instruments (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 57r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander meeting women of the forest (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 58v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander fighting against dragons with emeralds in their foreheads (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 73r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander fights with horse headed men (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 79r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander fights with one eyed giants (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 79v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Fights with headless men with faces on their torsos (Blemmyae) (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 80r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander fighting with two-headed dragons (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 83v)

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