Long Reads

A Crash Course on Medieval Tournaments

What Asinus Teaches

  1. What Was a Medieval Tournament?
  2. Who Could Participate in a Tournament?
  3. Two Examples of Aristocratic Tournaments:
    1. Chauvency, 1285
    1. Saint-Inglevert, 1390
  4. René d’Anjou’s Treatise on Tournaments

Wild Reddit Question Appears!

I am a 14th century French knight that has just been eliminated early on in a jousting tournament. Do I stay around and watch? Do I leave in shame? How would I proceed with my day?

>>> Link to the original post

>>> My Live Twitter Thread on the Topic

My Answer

Walter Scott is not too far from the truth when he writes the following paragraph in his historical novel Ivanhoe (1820):

“The shouts of the multitude, together with the acclamations of the heralds, and the clangour of the trumpets, announced the triumph of the victors and the defeat of the vanquished. The former retreated to their pavilions, and the latter, gathering themselves up as they could, withdrew from the lists in disgrace and dejection, to agree with their victors concerning the redemption of their arms and their horses, which, according to the laws of the tournament, they had forfeited.”—Chapter VIII.

I would argue, however, that tournaments didn’t follow their own laws but that they actually followed the chivalric code of war! Indeed, jousts and tournaments were nothing like modern sporting events. I get the feeling from your phrasing that you expect knights to face each other off until there’s only two of them left for a great finale. However, jousts and tournaments were true exercises of warfare during peace times more than anything else. It was a way to make war without declaring it.

Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Knight. Lady. Gift. Elephant. Crest. Elephant Crest. Helmet.Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Knight. Lady. Gift. Swan. Crest. Swan Crest. Helmet.
Two Ladies Each Giving a Helmet with an Animal Crest to a Knight
Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Knights. Armors. Shields. Heraldry. Spears. Jousting. Tournament. Horses. Gallop. Fight. Flowers.
The Joust Between the Knight With a Swan Crest and the Knight With an Elephant Crest – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bold. MS 264, f. 101v

By the end of the 15th century, jousts and tournaments became heavily ritualized and participants were advised to wield non-lethal weapons but such was not yet the case during the 13th and 14th century.

As in regard of shame, there were little to none if you “lost” in a jousting event or in a tournament. The only one and true shame would have been to refuse to participate unless you were already at war or on a crusade. Also, the only way to be definitively eliminated from a tournament or from jousts would have been to die during the event. Otherwise, the goal of such event was to “capture” the opponent or to force him to admit defeat in order to put him to ransom, pretty much like it could be done on an actual battlefield.

Let’s give it all more context, shall we?

Jousts and Tournaments: What Were They?

As stated, they were not sporting events. They were true moments of warfare, at least until the first half of the 15th century. During the second half of the 15th century, jousts and tournaments became heavily ritualized and death was an unlikely outcome. When Henry II of France died from a jousting event in 1547, it was a most tragic accident. In contrast, if Boucicault had died during the jousts of Saint-Inglebert in 1390, people would have figured it was a risk he’d been more than willing to take. As a matter of fact, he was allegedly put on bed rest for nine days before he could return to the jousts.

Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Jousting. Knights. The Songe of Pestilence.Horses. Castle. Armors. Spears. King. Queen. Tournament. Heraldry. Fall. Victory. Defeat. Swords. Shields.
Jousts Between Knights on Horses and on Foot- Brussels, KBR, ms. 10218-19, f. 141r

Jousts and tournaments were also two different things. A tournament was a warlike battle between two opposing groups of knights, fighting on horses with swords on a delimited area. Each group had to capture as many opposing knights as possible and put them to ransom. It was deemed a very noble exercise since they were fighting with swords, a most noble weapon. However, it left little room for individual prowess. That’s what jousts were designed for. Knights would face each other, individually, either on foot or on horse, according to well-defined pre-established rules and surrounded by expert witnesses: a high lord (king or prince), other experienced men-at-arms, heralds, minstrels, ladies. Of course, tournaments could also be done in front of an audience.

Quantitative studies show that jousts and tournaments were more often organized from winter to spring when war came to a standstill on most years. The Great Lent was often fully booked for such military events. They were also held at weddings, baptisms or other religious celebrations.

Who Would Participate in Jousts or a Tournament?

The people who participated in jousts and tournaments were actual knights, meaning people who actually fought wars. They were skilled warriors. They often served as ranking officers within their lord’s army. That’s why they required a formal authorization to attend such events. More often than not we see mighty dukes, kings or princes ordering a fight to stop and call it a draw because they don’t want to lose their elite men-at-arms in the process of a joust or a tournament.

Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Jousting. Knights. Horses. Castle. Armors. Spears. King. Queen. Tournament. Heraldry. Gallop. Fall. Victory. Defeat. Shields.
Knights Jousting on Horses – Brussels, KBR, ms. 10218-19, f. 121r

Ecclesiastic authorities didn’t have much regard for jousts and tournaments but the urban bourgeoisie held its own warlike events, aspiring to live up to the standards of the nobility. Sometimes we find knights and burghers participating to the same event! It is quite rare, though, and certainly not the norm. The peasantry had its own military tournaments. Archery tournaments were often held in England and France and we have found several instances where kings actually prohibited other kind of “games” that would or could distract the population from the daily practice of archery.

Jousts and tournaments were true exercises of warfare during peace times. It was a way to make war without declaring it.

It wasn’t too rare that young knights would partake on a long journey across Europe to fight as many jousts or tournaments they could. They’d often join in on actual wars too. The famous Reisen in Prussia against the Pagans was a hotspot of chivalric “tourism” if we can allow ourselves a little anachronism.

Tournament of Chauvency (1285)

Reported only by a long narrative poem, some scholars suspect that the Tournament of Chauvency may have never taken place. Indeed, historical facts were preferably written in prose during the Late Middle Ages whereas poetry was considered the form of fiction. Nevertheless, we can account for every participant of the aforementioned tournament. None of them is fictional or made up.

This tournament happened at Chauvency-le-Château, a little town in Northern France. Many nobles from the western border of the Holy Roman Empire participated to the event. The event was announced by heralds all around the region and it contributed to its substantial attendance. Every day knights fought on the field. Every night they gathered for a feast: they danced, they sang, they spent a jolly good time together among their wives and ladies. All in all it was a joyful event though blood was spilled and injuries occurred. It is worth maybe reminding that the medieval society conceived war and violence as a natural and necessary aspect of human life. Boys were encouraged very young to play with weapons and to master them.

  • Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Knights. Armors. Shields. Heraldry. Spears. Jousting. Tournament. Horses. Gallop. Fight. Royalty. King. Queen. Ladies. Admirers. Castle.
  • Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Knights. Ladies. Dance. Sing. Play. Countess of Luxembourg.Tournament. Party. Night. Tournament After-Party. Music. Instruments.
  • Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Knights. Armors. Shields. Heraldry. Swords. Jousting. Tournament. Horses. Blood. Fight. Battle. Joust. Wound.

Jousts of Saint-Inglevert (1390)

Jean II le Meingre, called Boucicault, ranked among the most renowned knights of the French kingdom at the end of the 14th century. He was so great and so brave despite his short height that his cult following survives to this day.

I wish I was kidding.

On the year 1390, when France and England agreed on a peace treaty, Boucicault received the king’s authorization to organize a 30 days jousting event. He called every knight from the Christendom to meet and challenge him and his two friends at Saint-Inglevert. It appeared French and English knights disagreed on which country had the most chivalrous warriors and this main event was supposed to give an answer to this hot-heated debate.

Boucicault and his two friends had their pavilions out in a field and they were hosting anyone who would challenge them, inviting them to dinner on a large round table (the Arthurian trope was very common during such events). For thirty days, they faced knights from England, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and France. Boucicault was put on bed rest for nine days but he got back on his horse and went right back at it. The jousts followed very strict rules but the losers were expected to pay a tribute to the victors. At the end of the event, however, Boucicault and his two friends didn’t keep anything from their spoils and gave it back to their opponents! Much to their honor.

The concept of chivalry was getting more and more sophisticated. It didn’t only apply to wealthy landowners who fought on horses. It came to define a culture and its elite. Gallantry was becoming the best part of chivalry. Friends or foes, everybody was expected to behave honorably and follow a chivalrous code of conduct.

“Traité de la Forme et Devis d’un Tournoi” (1462-1465)

By the end of the 15th century, René d’Anjou wrote a treatise on jousting and knightly tournaments: how to announce them, how to hold them, how to bring them to a conclusion. This treatise was written in several lavish manuscript that contains vivid and amazing depictions of such events and as a conclusion of this piece, I wanted to give you a few links to browse them at will.

  • Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. René of Anjou. René I of Naples. Good King René. King. Treaty. Tournament. Tournament Treaty. Heraldry. Lord. Semy-de-Lys. Throne. Sword. Fleur-de-Lys.
  • Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. René of Anjou. René I of Naples. Good King René. King. Treaty. Tournament. Tournament Treaty. Heraldry. Lord. Sword. Horses. Knights. Jousting.

In Conclusion: TL;DR

Did knights stay around and watched if they lost a tournament?

Most certainly. And they lost only because they couldn’t keep up with ransoming fees. Or died…

Did they leave in shame?

No. Shame only belonged to the people who didn’t show up or openly refused to join in on the event. It could even be a legitimate military tactic during a siege that had been brought to a stalemate to bait an enemy with a knightly duel. Could they bear the dishonor of denying an open challenge?

How did they proceed with their day?

They most certainly waited for the night to come and the feast to continue if they hadn’t been critically injured. They also had to start gathering money to pay off their ransom or pay back the equipment they agreed to relinquish to their victorious opponent.

Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Three Fleurs-de-Lys. Heraldry. Fleur-de-Lys. Charles VII. King. King of France. Lily. Lilies. The Virgin Mary. The Holy Trinity. God. Jesus. The Holy Spirit. Angels. Neumes. Throne. Bible.
Long Reads

The Success Story of the Fleur-de-Lys in Medieval Heraldry

What Asinus Teaches

  1. The Legend of Clovis and the Fleur-de-Lys
  2. The Fleur-de-Lys in Medieval Heraldry
  3. The French “Copyright” on the Fleur-de-Lys

Wild Reddit Question Appears!

>>> Link to the original Reddit post

Of all the medieval motifs to choose from, why is the Fleur-de-lys so popular? Why don’t we see Papal staffs or English lions on fence posts, organisation logos and flags everywhere?

Side question: Where does it actually come from? It’s often listed as the coronation of Clovis in the 6th century, but some sources (not very trustworthy ones mind you) claim that the symbol dates back older than that.

My Answer

Welcome to our class of Heraldry 101, young Padawan. I’m glad you made it on time. Today, we’ll discuss why the kings of France preferred a flower over, say, some powerful predator like the lion or the bear. I mean, isn’t it weird? And even weirded when you think that Charles VI chose winged deer as his emblem instead of… I don’t know… winged wolves, or dragons?

In order to get to the bottom of this mystery, we need to consider a few things.

Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Three Fleurs-de-Lys. Heraldry. Fleur-de-Lys. King. Kings. King of France. Kings of France. Angels. Angel. Royalty. Power.
Allegory of the French Royal Power – Paris, BnF, fr. 2598, f. 1r

1. Clovis Has Nothing to Do with It

By the second half of the 14th century, Charles V of France was all busy patroning the arts and the writing of many new lavish manuscripts—he wasn’t only bailing out the upcoming commander-in-chief of his army with his royal treasury. He had his own army of translators. They would offer French renditions of major Latin cultural texts; e.g. Raoul de Presles translated Augustine’s City of God.

Why the well would I bring up such pointless trivia?

The fact is that the whole Clovis legend you mention is mentioned in Raoul de Presles’ translation of Augustine’s City of God and that is because medieval translators didn’t only translated what they read, they also augmented their translations with new prologues, running commentaries and full-on exegeses. Don’t ask me why they did it, we’d be here for another hour at least. The fact is that they indulged themselves with such fancy rhetoric.

Raoul de Prelses translated the City of God for Charles V of France, therefore he wrote the latter a letter justifying his scholarly work and placed it at the beginning of it. Raoul de Prelses went on to talk about many things but first he had to remind how great, wise and noble Charles V of France actually was. Therefore he reminded the legend tying Clovis to the fleur-de-lys. Do you remember how Constantine converted to Christianism? Hold on to your seat because we’ve got some major flashback incoming.

According to the legend, Clovis was about to face a Saracen king who cut his way through Germany (not Spain) and was now threatening France. It was on this very battle that the battle-cries of “Monjoye” and “Saint-Denis” were shouted for the first time—just like La Hire would then shout them at Montargis, in 1427.

Montjoye!

On the eve of battle, Clovis had a dream. He dreamt of three fleur-de-lys. The next day, he wiped what was then his emblem, three crescents (this version of the legend makes Clovis a Saracen himself!—in other versions of the tale, his emblem was made of three toads*), and replaced it with three fleur-de-lys. He then marched on to victory.

Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Three Fleurs-de-Lys. Heraldry. Fleur-de-Lys. Clovis. King. King of France. Baptisme. Genealogical Tree. Holy Spirit. Religion. Pope.
Clovis’ Genealogical Tree – Toulouse, BM, 988

Raoul de Presles exposed as an obvious evidence that the legend was true that the Abbey of “Joie-en-Val”, which was allegedly founded after the battle—and is better known as the Abbey of Saint-Denis—still carried three fleur-de-lys on its escutcheon by his own lifetime. Let’s reckon that Raoul de Presles was very creative with archeological and heraldic materials but that he didn’t just made up the legend either. Suger, abbot of Saint-Denis, French official and chronicler, first came up with the idea in the 12th century. It was strongly passed on through the 13th century with the production of stained glasses and sculptures. Raoul de Presles merely revived the legend when he translated Augustine’s City of God, by the early 1370s, because around those very years, Charles V of France was changing the royal French coat of arms from “Azure semy-de-lys or” to “Azure, three fleurs-de-lys or”. As such, Charles V of France wished to symbolically tighten the knot between the French monarchy and the Holy Trinity, placing the kingdom of France under the direct protection of God—and himself, the king, as His direct representative on Earth.


 * Michel Pastoureau (“Une fleur pour le roi. Jalons pour une histoire médiévale de la fleur de lis”, in Une histoire symbolique du Moyen Âge occidental. Paris: Seuil, 2004, p.110-124) quotes the manuscript Paris, BnF, fr. 22912, f. 3v and writes “crapaulx” (toads) instead of “croissans” (crescents) but this is a paleographic mistake. However, I didn’t have the time to cross-reference this finding with the latest edition of the BnF, fr. 22912 (Olivier Bertrand (ed.), La Cité de Dieu de saint Augustin traduite par Raoul de Presle (1371-1375), livres I à III, édition du manuscrit BnF fr. 22912. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2013).

** The semy-de-lys didn’t vanish, though. However, only the “three fleur-de-lys” came to symbolise the French king as a person and individual once Charles V of France was done with it, whereas the “semy-de-lys” became more of a general emblem related to the royalty.

2. When and How Did It All Start?

If it didn’t start with Clovis? When did the big fashion for fleur-de-lys emblems actually begin? Was it with Charlemagne? Was it with Hugues Capet? None of the above! The first died in 814 and the second in 996. As stated before—we live and die by our mantra, each and every one of us—coat of arms only came into fashion by the 12th century. It is only then that fleur-de-lys emblems started to sprout all over Europe.

The fleur-de-lys had many thing going for it to promote its success. First, its abstract representation was pretty. It matters. Second, it was a flower named in the Holy Bible. In the Song of Songs no less! “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys. | As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.” (Song 2:1-2) Those verses were picked up in the Middle Age to further the devotion to the Virgin Mary. The lily became Mary’s flower. She was depicted either surrounded by lilies or holding a lily into her hand on several French coins and ecclesiastic seals during the 12th century.

When the time came for the kings of France to choose their own symbol, they liked the idea of placing their realm under the protection of the Virgin Mary. Since the lily was her flower, they would be crowned while carrying great blue coats covered with golden lilies (instead of stars, that other regal figures fancied). That way, as a symbolic gesture, they placed themselves under the protection of the queen of Heaven, the mother of God, Mary. The symbolism was quite long in the making*. It took a few kings to be properly picked up but by 1211, a royal French figure is for the first time depicted on a seal with a shield that displays a “semy-de-lys”.

  • Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Three Fleurs-de-Lys. Heraldry. Fleur-de-Lys. Charles VII. King. King of France. Lily. Lilies. The Virgin Mary. The Holy Trinity. God. Jesus. The Holy Spirit. Angels. Throne. Bible.
  • Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Three Fleurs-de-Lys. Heraldry. Fleur-de-Lys. Jesus. The Virgin Mary. Baby Jesus. Prayer. Lilies. Lily.
  • Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Three Fleurs-de-Lys. Heraldry. Fleur-de-Lys. Angel. The Virgin Mary. Lily. Lilies.

By then, however, the fleur-de-lys was a proper heraldic emblem, only second in popularity to the lion, the eagle, or a few geometric figures. It was often encountered in various places such as the northern Low Countries, the Rhine valley, the duchy of Brabant, the county of Artois, the duchy of Tuscany, many regions in France, etc. On seals, it ranks among the most used symbols in Normandy, Flanders, Zeeland and Switzerland. It was imprinted on the emblem of peasant families, urban communities (such as guilds) and cities. The city of Lille, in France, bears the lily on its coat of arms because it makes up for a great pun. In Latin, the lily is called lilium, it resembled “Lille” enough to draw a visual parallel.


* Though it was long in the making, the symbolism also lasted very long. In the basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, which is a 19th century construction, we find a gorgeous mosaic of Louis XIII begging Mary to give him a son and secure the future of his realm. The prayer was heard and a son was born. He grew up to become Louis XIV. The Virgin Mary so appears, on several mosaics of the basilica, to have granted her special protection to the kingdom of France through the ages. Isn’t it amazing? How long symbols can survive?

Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Charles V. Books. Books in the Middle Ages. Reading. Reading in the Middle Ages. King of France. Semy-de-Lys. Fleur-de-Lys. King. Heraldry. Bible. Song of Songs.Charles VI. Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Semy-de-Lys. Fleur-de-Lys. King of France. King. Heraldry.
Charles V of France and Charles VI with Semy-de-Lys garments and furniture

3. The Fleur-de-Lys, Joan of Arc and the Medici

By the 15th century, the king of France started to share his emblematic fleur-de-lys to people, families and communities that supported him through hard times. I’ve already touched on it in my post about Joan of Arc’s origins but I don’t mind to cover the topic again. It’ll give me the opportunity to pile a few more details on the stack for you insatiable history geeks. 

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

Some people have believed, because Joan of Arc was granted the right to carry a fleur-de-lys on her own coat of arms, that Charles VII secretly acknowledged her as his secret royal sister. What a prank! By the 15th century, French kings had already begun a long-lasting political strategy that we could tag as the hostile public takeover of power symbols. Just like they claimed that only them and no other could have inherited their aristocratic title “by the Grace of God”, they wished to monopolize the fleur-de-lys as their own symbol. The fleur-de-lys, despite its wide and ancient popularity, belonged to them, represented them, and was for them to “offer” to their most precious allies.

French kings would grant people the right to bear the fleur-de-lys on their coat of arms as a symbolic gesture of binding friendship. Joan of Arc wasn’t the only one to “receive” the fleur-de-lys from Charles VII. John Stewart of Darnley, Constable of the Scottish Army in France, was also granted the fleur-de-lys on his personal coat of arms, back in 1426, three years prior to Joan’s epic. Two cities at least, Tournay (1426-1427) and Saint-Maixant (1440) were also awarded fleur-de-lys for their valiant resistance against the “English”. Louis XI, who succeeded Charles VII, might have hated his father, but he understood the political finesse behind gifting the fleur-de-lys. He awarded it himself to the Medici family in 1465 for their precious aid.

The fact that two daughters of the Medici family later became queen of France certainly furthered the popularity of the fleur-de-lys. If you happen to visit the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, you will end up in a room which walls are covered with fleur-de-lys.

Conclusion: Charles VI, the Winged Deer and the Fleur-de-Lys

I started with the mystery of Charles VI’s winged deer. I haven’t forgotten about it. Truth is that the deer, just like the fleur-de-lys, carried a religious meaning. The deer had been interpreted by scholars and theologians as a “red beast” (meaning, a good beast) and as a symbol of Christ—for various reasons that would be too long to enumerate here. The lion, too, was a symbol of Christ, though it is a predator. On the contrary, wolves, bears or boars had become devilish avatars.

Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Three Fleurs-de-Lys. Heraldry. Fleur-de-Lys. Winged Deer. Deer. Coat of Arms.
Charles VI’s Armorial: Two Winged Deers Holding the Three Fleurs-de-Lys – Paris, BnF, fr. 2608, f. 1r

To conclude on that note, the popularity of the fleur-de-lys was boosted by its perception as a religious and then regal emblem. It quickly became a popular emblem on coat of arms from the very start, but its political (and spiritual) appropriation by the kings of France only made it more visible, meaningful and desirable.

Medieval Torture. Impaling. Illumination. Illuminated manuscript.
Long Reads

How to Torture People in the Middle Ages?

What Asinus Teaches

Medieval illuminated manuscript. illumination. Torture. Strappado. hanging from the arms.
Medieval torture: The Strappado – Avignon, BM, 659, f. 189v

Wild Reddit Question Appeared!

>>> Link to original post!

What did you have to do to get tortured in the medieval days?

Would they do it to any criminal or did they only use torture for more serious crimes? Would they often torture innocent people for entertainment as well?

My Answer

Ça alors! I was just reading my notes on that very topic earlier today. I hope you don’t mind if I share and translate them 😉

The Introduction of Torture in the 13th century

Torture came into fashion in the 13th century for very specific reasons. Namely, the (re)discovery of Roman law and its implementation by the Church. The 1215 Latran council recognised that trials by ordeals were a thing from the past and that since they were rational and modern beings, it was time to move on.

I was brave enough to conclude that “hard evidence is hard” in a former contribution but what is–you may ask–a proper piece of evidence?

When trials by ordeals where the norm, you were deemed innocent if you won a duel or if you had forty men to swear on a bible that you didn’t do what you had been accused of doing. Things like that. Depending on the case and the local customs.

Roman law, however, doesn’t work that way. You don’t have to prove your innocence. You’re innocent until proven guilty. The law doesn’t wait on someone to blame you for something. State officials have to record a crime to start an investigation. It is their job to find all the evidence that work for you or against you. In that regard, the Common law is a hybrid system.

Since you’re not guilty from the get-go according to the principles of Roman law, how do anyone prove you’re guilty of anything? What could be considered as a proper piece of evidence?

Case number one: you’ve been caught doing the crime you’re being charged with by sworn officials. Your crime is notorious and known to everybody. You head straight to sentencing.

Case number two: state officials find witnesses that can testify you did what you’re being charged with. There needs to be two of them and they must be male adults. This is sometimes quite difficult to find… Therefore medieval legists came with a work-around. A single male adult witness can be replaced by two women or two minors–because women are litterally viewed as minors in regard to the law and they will remain as such in most Western countries until… the 20th century.

Case number three: you CONFESS!

Medieval illumination. Torture. Waterboarding.
Medieval torture: Waterboarding – London, BL, Harley MS 4375-1, f. 70v

Confession, according to Roman law, is the queen of all evidence. However, what can you do when someone refuses to confess? That’s when torture comes into play. Back then, it was called “to put someone to the question.” The first mention of such practices date back from the 13th century. We’re not talking here about sentencing people to a horrible fate, but well about intimidating people with threats of pain or actual suffering in order to get confessions.

In the 16th century, Joos de Damhouder wrote a book about criminal practices (which quickly became a best-seller) and defined the use of torture. Some people couldn’t be put to the question: doctors (of laws, not physicians), knights, officials, children under the age of 14, pregnant women and old people (with exceptions in cases of regicide or witchcraft). Torture had to be done on people who were heavily suspected to be guilty of the crime they were being charged with and common gossip don’t make up for such practices. You must have at least half a proof that the person as commited the crime (which translate into one male adult witness or two minor witnesses).

However, a confession said under torture ALWAYS had to be repeated out of torture. It litterally got Joan of Arc out of it since she maintained to her judges, at Rouen, that “Should you tear my limbs apart or split my soul from my body, I wouldn’t tell you otherwise. Should I tell you otherwise, then I would always argue that you forced me to.” She must have known what the deal was and how torture worked as a judicial procedure. Moreover, if you didn’t confess during the act of torture, the evidence collected against you were exponged and the proceedings had to start from scratch all over again. Meaning you just couldn’t torture someone on and on again just for the kick of it.

Many people had to attend the act of torture for it to be valid too, among whom a physician.

It is not to say that some didn’t play fast and loose with torture or that some tortured souls didn’t enjoyed it. There must have been some cases. However, torture was a heavily codified judicial procedure and the judges who ordered it were well-educated men who dreaded the concept of appeal more than they cared for human lives. Especially by the 16th century, torture to be applied had to be approved by superior courts largely made of intellectuals who didn’t care much for brutality and violence.

Torture was ultimately challenged in the 18th century and deemed as an uneffective procedure. Voltaire led the charge during the “Affaire Calas”. The judicial authorities were already questioning the usefulness of torture. Only 5% of tortured people confessed in France, 30% in the Low Countries and, well, 50% in the Holy Roman Empire. It mostly depended on the legal conditions of torture. In France, by the mid-17th century, someone could only be put to the question two times for an hour and then the torture had to stop. In the Low Countries, someone could be put to the question up to seven times for a total time of 30 hours! In general, protestant countries were more prone to torture than catholic countries. Witchhunts in the protestant principalities of the Holy Roman Empire killed far more people than the infamous Spanish Inquisition.

Furthermore, I will note that the numbers I gave do include two types of torture. Someone can be put to the question to make him confess, that is one thing, but once he’s recognised as guilty, he can be put back again to the question! On that second “torture run”–which was generally far more brutal–he’d be asked to denounce his associates. This was, of course, the perfect occasion to blame someone you wanted to bring with you to the grave and it sometimes led to entire villages being accused of witchcraft and heresy when torture was implemented too quickly and neighbours didn’t like each others.

Medieval illumination. Torture. Bench. Ropes.
Medieval torture: The Bench – Paris, Arsenal, 5080, f. 392r

The 6 Most “Promising” Ways of Torture People in the Middle Ages

#1. The Strappado

Hanging someone by his arms as he is bound behind his back. Weights can also be attached to his feet for good measure.

#2. The Bench

Burning someone’s flesh with the help of ropes.

#3. The Waterboarding

Did you even think we only came up with it? Water was sometimes replaced with oil or vinager.

#4. The Waffle Iron

This was not a Belgian delicacy (for Belgian didn’t exist yet that torture had already been banned in the Low Countries), it involved pincers.

#5. The Spanish Boot

(Widely used in France.) You strap wooden planks tightly to someone’s leg then you hammer wooden wedges between the planks and the leg.

#6. The Collar

(Quite “popular” in Brabant and in the principality of Liege.) Someone stands up with his neck strapped in a piked collar. The pikes, of course, are facing inward. The collard is held up by ropes attached to walls. If you fall asleep… your neck will pay the price.

One Random Fun Fact

People who were put to torture often tried to assuage the pain that was inflicted to them. My “favourite” drug they used was–you can believe me or not, I’ve actually tracked down the source a long time ago (but it took me several days so I won’t do it again)–Marseille soap.

I was so shocked when I heard it from my university professor’s mouth that I stopped everything and said, out loud: “Did they farted soap bubbles?” He looked at me. His face was blank. I honestly don’t remember what he answered–I think he said yes (!?)–but he carried on like a pro.

True story.

One Solid Reference

Henry Ansgar Kelly, “Judicial Torture in Canon Law and Church Tribunals: From Gratian to Galileo”, in Catholic Historical Review. 2015, Vol. 101, Issue 4, p. 754-793.

Short Reads

Did Medieval Towns Have Gardens and Yards?

What Asinus Teaches

  1. Definition of a Medieval Town
  2. Its Various Types of Neighbourhood
  3. Its Yards and Gardens

Wild Reddit Question Appeared!

>>> Link to the original post!

What would the yards between buildings in a Medieval European city be used for/occupied by? [image included for reference]

I stumbled into the excellent Layers of London website and was exploring a map of London from about 1270-1300. We can confine my question to that time and place if that helps. I also looked at some old maps of other cities in the 13th century like Paris, and while they’re a bit tricky to interpret, I think they have the same quality I found.

Here is a screenshot of a closeup look at some neighborhoods. The darker brown is keyed as “houses and other buildings forming a built-up front-age,” the white negative space is road, and the slight off-white occupying the space in between “blocks” of houses is keyed as “yards and gardens in the urban area.” That’s the part I’m curious about.

What’s so confusing to me is that it seems to occupy such a vast amount of space relative to actual buildings. When I read about medieval urban spaces, I’m told that it’s incredibly cramped and jam-packed with buildings. Watching/reading guides for drawing medieval cities for something like D&D show the only negative space to be the major roads between buildings.

Who owns/has permission to use the “yard” between everyone’s buildings? Does your business extend out into the open? Are there agreements between neighbors about how that space can be used? Is it more of a communal thing that is privately shared by every resident of that “block”?

Gardens in the Middle Ages. Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination.
Urban Garden – Wien, ONB, Cod. 2617, f. 53r

My Answer

What Defines a Medieval Town?

Our post-industrial conception of urban and rural areas is very black and white. The city and the countryside seems like two opposites in our modern worldview. However, green areas constituted the best part of most cities before the 18th century and medieval towns, especially, were tightly connected to their surrounding countryside or contado. Though international trade was a real thing, globalization hadn’t taken over local commerce. Cabbages were not imported from another country because you fancied them, they were found in your own very region if not in your own backyard.

Medievalists are often at odds when it comes to define what a medieval town was. Was it the walls? Was is the bourgeoisie (a class of priviledged town-dwellers)? Was it the population number? The medieval town is nothing like an ancient Greek or Roman city. It’s messy.

It grew organically around a few landmarks: a church, an abbey, a castle, a mill or all of those things! Privileges were first acquired by the end of the 11th century. Walls rose from the ground around the 12th century. Town really started to be clustered by the 14th century when the Black Death pushed many countrymen to cut their losses in the countryside and take their chances in the big cities.

However the city didn’t only include one single species of inhabitants. Beyond the social human diversity you’d also find cattle: cows and pigs for the most part. The first were popular for their milk, the latter litteraly cleansed the streets and also made up for tasty meat. Nevertheless, roaming pigs became a daily pest. It happened that a young French king died in Paris when his horse fell unexpectedly upon a pig. In Amiens, the town had to ban pigs from within the city walls several times during the 14th and 15th century. Really, medieval towns looked a lot like rural areas.

Aristocrats, Religious Congregations and Burghers

Gardens in the Middle Ages. Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination.
Royal Garden – London, BL, Egerton MS 3781, f. 1r

As I’ve already stated in a former post, medieval cities held several seats of power. In Paris or London, the king had his castle (the Bastille or the Tower); the powerful aristocrats had their mansions; the archbishop had both his cathedral and his palace; many priests had their own church and parish; religious orders were scattered all over town in their convents; the burghers had a towncentre, several indoor and outdoor market places; craftmen were regrouped into streets… Each of those members of society had their own rights and privileges, they had their own assembly, they answered to different political players. Not only was the town an actual maze of narrow streets, it was also a labyrinth of a political chess! Keeping everybody in check proved to be very difficult. Urban revolts were quite common during the 14th and 15th century, to the point that Richard II of England and future Henry IV came close to death when the good people of London stormed the Tower. Philip the Good, a few decades later, found himself trapped within Bruges and barely made it with his life.

This social diversity called for a greater architectural diversity. Lords and prelates often held actual lands within city walls. Behind the strong façades of their buildings–mansions, convents, churches–they’d entertain vast gardens or actual fields and pastures. Some of those well kept areas have been turned today into public parcs, big or smalls. Burghers who belonged to the upper-middle class also enjoyed their own private gardens. Yards were more common than we could expect.

Recreative Gardens, Urban Agriculture and Medicinal Horticulture

Gardens in the Middle Ages. Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination.Gardens in the Middle Ages. Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination.
Allegorical Gardens – London, BL, Harley MS 4425, f. 12v VS PAris, BnF, fr. 143, f. 198v

People of the Middle Ages enjoyed having a garden as much as we do today, if not even more. They had no TV nor printing press to distract them. Spending some time in the yard after a long day of work was quite the release. Friars were invited to have a gentle stroll in their gardens instead of napping after dinner. The rose already obsessed many people for its unique scent and beautiful shape.

Cities had often been placed next to rivers and marshes. When those marshes were dried up it became the perfect spot for in-walls agricultural fields. It wasn’t enough to help a city go through a siege, but it could help in times of generalized famine. Religious congregations were quick to capitalize on such parcels whilst aristocrats rather paid for the services of professional gardeners (they had lands in the countryside and didn’t bother to grow crops within city walls).

After the Black Death struck, it was also advised by many authors to maintain a medicinal garden. It’d be the jewel of a few hospitals and convents. Really, gardens were everywhere though parcels were divided and turned into construction areas to make room for more houses when rural exodus peaked. A few neighbourhoods were always quite densely populated though and in those cases gardens were more often replaced by courtyards.

Lyon, which is a very ancient city dating back from the Roman Empire, has many what we call “traboules”: secret shortcuts within neighbourhoods only known by the locals that formed over time because of the very high density of buildings. These are more than narrow alleyways. They go up and down buildings, connect various streets together and made Lyon a proper nightmare to manage and control for the authorities. However, the case of Lyon is quite unique. Most medieval cities, since they were not former Roman colonies, had gardens, alleyways and courtyards, in-walls fields and pastures or private parcs.

Urban Gardens in the Middle Ages. Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination.
Urban Gardening – Paris, Arsenal, 5196, f. 357v

References

  • C. Rawcliffe, “‘Delectable Sightes and Fragrant Smelles’: Gardens and Health in Late Medieval and Early Modern England”, in Garden History, 36 (2008), 3-21.
  • E. Gesbert, “Les jardins au Moyen Âge : du XIe au début du XIVe siècle”, in Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, 46/184 (2003), 381-408.
Gardening in the Middle Ages. Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Garderner. Gardening. Strawberry. Third Estate.
Gardening in the Middle Ages – Paris, BnF, nal 3134, f. 32v
Heraldry. Héraldique. Knights of the Round Table. Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Illumination. Enluminure. Medieval manuscript. Manuscrit médiéval.
Manuscript Illuminations, Short Reads

How to Identify the Knights of the Round Table in Medieval Manuscripts

  • Heraldry. Héraldique. Knights of the Round Table. Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Illumination. Enluminure. Medieval manuscript. Manuscrit médiéval.
  • Heraldry. Héraldique. Knights of the Round Table. Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Illumination. Enluminure. Medieval manuscript. Manuscrit médiéval.
  • Heraldry. Héraldique. Knights of the Round Table. Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Illumination. Enluminure. Medieval manuscript. Manuscrit médiéval.
  • Heraldry. Héraldique. Knights of the Round Table. Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Illumination. Enluminure. Medieval manuscript. Manuscrit médiéval.
  • Heraldry. Héraldique. Knights of the Round Table. Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Illumination. Enluminure. Medieval manuscript. Manuscrit médiéval.
  • Heraldry. Héraldique. Knights of the Round Table. Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Illumination. Enluminure. Medieval manuscript. Manuscrit médiéval.

Many wonder if King Arthur was even real. I will not answer to that question. What really matters today, on this 2020 International Heraldry Day, is that Arthurian aristocrat “fanboys” from the late 15th century actually came up with coats of arms for each and every knight of the Round Table.

If you believe that fanfictions are a by-product of contemporary literature only, you don’t know the first thing about medieval literature. Medieval literature is at its core a strong tradition of fanfiction writing. Moreover, you may believe that people have waited the rise of Marvel and DC comics to dress as their favourite superhero, but the late medieval nobility certainly knew a thing or two about cosplaying.

Heraldry. Héraldique. Knights of the Round Table. Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Illumination. Enluminure. Medieval manuscript. Manuscrit médiéval.

Medieval tournaments and jousts were often planned out as full on re-enactments of old Arthurian tales. By the end of the 15th century, an extensive set of rules was laid out on the manner to stage “Errant Knights”, a very specific type of tournament which required every participant to impersonate a knight of the Round Table.

Part of the fun was to dress in an old fashion way with an out-dated military equipment, but most importantly, to wield the coat of arm of a knight of the Round Table. Those coats of arms weren’t chosen freely by the participants but appointed by the heralds who coordinated the event.

Heraldry. Héraldique. Knights of the Round Table. Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Illumination. Enluminure. Medieval manuscript. Manuscrit médiéval.

Furthermore, every knight was to be followed by a company of servants among whom a herald. The latter also had to wear clothes displaying the Arthurian coat of arms of his master*. That way, if the participants couldn’t tell who another knight was embodying from his coat of arms, the herald could tell him. Added bonus: the participants could even be followed by a couple of ladies!**

This is all fine and dandy, you might think, wondering why I’m obsessing on such trivialities. What really fascinates me though is that Arthurian knights—if they ever existed—didn’t have coats of arms***. Best case scenario, they accomplished their heroic deeds during the first half of the 6th century. However, coats of arms only came into fashion by the 12th century. By that time, mounted knights were so heavily equipped that it was impossible to recognize them from their face as it was totally covered. Therefore, they came up with a new method to identify themselves on the battlefield and let everyone know their name (and wealth), namely, coats of arms. Soon after, bishops, guilds and other members of the medieval society created their own coats of arms. Though the fervour for heraldry (the study of coats of arms) slowly waned since then, it gave birth to commercial logos; the Porsche emblem is nothing but a coat of arms and most football/soccer jerseys also display one, for example.

Heraldry. Héraldique. Knights of the Round Table. Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Illumination. Enluminure. Medieval manuscript. Manuscrit médiéval.

Historically speaking, it is impossible that the Knights of the Round Table ever owned a coat of arm. The sole fact that they gathered around a Round Table is already a 12th century invention! Maybe they carried a seal ring like the Romans did. Who knows? Nevertheless, it means that at some point during the 15th century, someone felt the need to give a coat of arms to every single knight of the Round Table. Not only that, but whoever that person was, his work was met with a huge success and soon enough every educated herald in France knew what colours Arthur, Lancelot and Perceval were expected to display on a battlefield.

The fictitious coats of arms of the Knights of the Round Table are still preserved today in several medieval manuscripts. Many of them can be perused online. Here’s a shortlist of four of them (beware that the knight’s name is always written above his coat of arms and sometimes several pages before it, never right under it; red captions are titles, not legends):

Lille, Municipal Library, MS 329

Paris, Arsenal Library, MS 4976

Paris, Arsenal Library, MS 5024

Paris, BnF, fr. 1437

Heraldry. Héraldique. Knights of the Round Table. Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Illumination. Enluminure. Medieval manuscript. Manuscrit médiéval.

Those four manuscripts are heraldic treatises. Such books usually displayed actual coats of arms and served as iconographic resources or lavish memorabilia for heralds. The sumptuous Armorial of the Golden Fleece, which is a fantastic specimen of the genre, not only display coat of arms but also knights and noblemen in full attire.

Another fun fact about heraldry and medieval manuscripts is that when actual mighty noble figures were depicted in miniatures, they would be shown with their coat of arms. This mostly concerned illuminated chronicles. As such, kings and queens of England, Scotland and France are easily identifiable in what must be the most broadcasted and advertised copy of Froissart’s Chronicle.

Heraldry. Héraldique. Knights of the Round Table. Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Illumination. Enluminure. Medieval manuscript. Manuscrit médiéval.

All of this brings us to Jacques d’Armagnac, duke of Nemours. To say that this man loved books would be an understatement. He personally supervised the making of several luxurious manuscripts and devoted money to the upkeep of three personal libraries. When he was tried and sentenced to death, his judges, who all belonged to the high end of the French nobility, divided his gilded manuscripts among themselves.

Jacques d’Armagnac possessed religious and encyclopaedic manuscripts—that was a given—several manuscripts containing historical narratives and chronicles, but also manuscripts recounting the epic tales of the Knights of the Round Table. And you better believe Jacques d’Armagnac had something to do with the creation of fictitious Arthurian coats of arms. The miniatures in his Arthurian manuscripts, portraying the Knights of the Round Table fighting on horseback and on foot, provide detailed heraldic characteristics as to identify them. If you were to compare the coat of arms of a knight depicted in those manuscripts, you would be able to find out his name in the aforementioned Arthurian heraldic treatises!

Heraldry. Héraldique. Knights of the Round Table. Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Illumination. Enluminure. Medieval manuscript. Manuscrit médiéval.

Just… How cool is that?!

Once I discovered that I geeked out so hard that I couldn’t help myself and wrote this very blogpost. Medieval manuscripts have yet so many secrets to uncover!


* A herald always wore the colour of his master, as seen on this frontispiece depicting Jean Lefèvre de Saint-Rémy, also known as Toison d’Or, chief herald to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, and the Order of the Golden Fleece.

** More on the “Errant Knights” in Maurice Keen, Chivalry. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984, p. 204.

*** Neither did Alexander the Great. Nevertheless, medieval illuminators gave him one since he was depicted as a medieval knight.

Short Reads

Joan of Arc’s Charisma

Wild Reddit Question Appears!

Why did anyone take Joan of Arc seriously?

She was a teenage girl saying she had a holy vision, not of noble heritage. How did she end up leading an army? Why was she taken seriously?

>>> Original post on Ask Historians

My Answer

I feel that there is a lot to unpack in this question. I’ll do my best to untangle the many webs intertwined here and weave them as clearly as I can in a nice little pattern 🙂

The Question of Joan’s Heritage

You mention that “[Joan was] not of noble heritage.” You’re perfectly right! She was a proper nobody. Now, believe it or not but it posed troubles to many pseudo-historians and conspiracy theorists. They couldn’t believe that Joan, having achieved what she achieved, wasn’t somehow of noble blood. They even came up with the crazy theory that Joan was of royal blood! I’ve already pinpointed the fallacies at the basis of that theory and I invite you to read it if you find the time 😉 It’s basically a Shakespearian fiction turned into a historical phony hypothesis. The fact is that Joan didn’t accomplish so much on her own for that matter. A lot of people were talking about her and granted her magical powers still. Most chroniclers of the time had an opinion on her or at least wrote about her.Joan and the French military hierarchy

Nevertheless, Joan faced a wall when she first met the men she’d fought alongside with. They wouldn’t believe in her. They wouldn’t listen to her. She was so relentless though that she carved herself a place among them. I wrote about it a little time ago. The fact that Joan actively searched to engage into battles and showed the greatest courage on the battlefield turned her into an inspiring figure. Also, it helped that she was always quick with a sharp reply. Some people in power, mostly Georges de La Trémoille, thought she’d make a nice figurehead. They didn’t actually believe in her. However, a few high ranked military leaders of the French army, such as Dunois (Bastard of Orléans) and the duke of Alençon, would years later report on Joan’s miracles at Orléans, on her second trial*.

*Joan was condemned as a heretic on her trial at Rouen. Many years later, her mother called to the king and the Church to undo this trial and clean her daughter’s name. That’s when many people who met Joan and fought alongside her witnessed in her favour.

Who Took Joan of Arc Seriously?

The better question is who took Joan seriously? Which brings me to an anecdote I’ve never reported in my various contributions up to this point. On September 3rd, 1430, two women had been arrested and were executed in Paris in front of the cathedral. They believed that Joan of Arc was good. One of them was called Piéronne and originated from Britanny. She declared that God himself had appeared to her, dressed with a red mantel over a white gown, which was considered as blasphemous (for God’s clothing was a white mantel over a red gown–he had fashion sense!)*.

At the meantime, when Joan died, a few captains that fought with her at Orléans tried to replace her with a random shepherd. Those two anecdotes go a long way in telling us how seriously she was taken and by whom. She contributed to a long standing superstitious culture in a world in which people believed in miracles and named miracles even the silliest things–even an unexpected colour for bread. Rational thinking was not the paradigm that most people followed. Sophie Page writes: “Since both magicians and saints claimed to possess supernatural powers, it was necessary for the ecclesiastical authorities to distinguish between the categories of magic and miracle**.”

* Colette Beaune (ed.), Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris. Paris: Livre de Poche, 1990, p. 281-282.

** Sophie Page, Magic in Medieval Manuscripts. London: British Library, 2017, p. 16.

A Too Short of an Introduction to Medieval Magic

When Joan arrived at Chinon and met the king she was then sent to Poitiers to meet theologians who were charged to assess the holiness of her visions. As it happens Augustine had written about visions in his De Genesi ad litteram (book XII). He described three types of visions: the best were spiritual and touched the soul, some were carried by dreams, the last belonged to the physical realm. The people who judged Joan at Rouen determined that her visions belonged to the third and least noble kind. They took a very long time asking Joan how the Archangel Michael was dressed and tried to pinpoint inconsistencies in her narrative. “Was he naked when he came to you?” they asked. “Do you think he’d have nothing to wear?” she answered as if they were stupid. It was common in female saint biographies that they’d be tempted by the devil at some point in their journey. He would appear to them in the flesh and try to lay with them. Having sex with a demon was certainly a “physical” and devilish vision.

“In the medieval universe, angelic mediators carried prayers to God. Demons sought to divert the souls of men and women from heaven*.” Augustine wrote that angels existed for every living things, hence the concept of guardian angels developed in the Late Middle Ages. However, “theologians were naturally dubious of the human ability to distinguish between angelic and demonic spirits, as it was well known that demons could assume fairer forms to deceive mankind*.” This led to the writings of many more texts on visions, the meeting of angels and the conjuring of demons. A whole literature flourished on the subject. All Joan had to do was to convince people she had vision and that those visions were sent by God. She certainly had visions and she never denied them. Moreover, it belonged to the realm of the possible in those times to the less pragmatic of minds had no trouble to join in on the narrative. Once Orléans was delivered only a few days after she entered the city, Joan gained enough charisma that people believed in her.

Max Weber argued in his essay on authority and domination** that in times of great disorder and general unrest, people would easily turn to a charismatic figure to lead them. Someone who came from nothing. Someone who had no title nor experience but someone who actually showed up and led them to victory. This charismatic leader finds his/her authority rooted in his/her success. He/she has to safeguared his/her people. As soon as the charismatic leader faces a defeat or couldn’t translate his authority into another form of domination (feudal or bureaucratic, for example), he/she’s discarded. This pattern doesn’t only apply to Joan. Throughout history many figures became charismatic leaders according to that definition. Oliver Cromwell was one of them in my opinion. I find it particularily striking that he also hated that people took the name of the Lord in vain and that he promoted, as well as Joan, a very strict and religious discipline within the military. Joan is known for having chased allegded prostitutes with a sword. She broke her sword on the back of one of them and, according to Jean Chartier, a French chronicler and Valois partisan, that’s when she lost it. That’s the moment the magic stopped working and she went from incredible victories to repetitive defeats.

People took her seriously because they believed in magic and miracles. She was only human though, but that’s what makes her story even more fascinating.

* S. Page, Ibidem, p. 75, 78.

** Max Weber, La domination. Paris: La Découverte, 2013. Translated into French by Isabelle Kalinowski.

Long Reads

What Color Is The Devil And Why Is It Black?

I was on Twitter the other day and shared a meme of mine in which Plato talks with the devil. The person whom I sent the meme then asked me what I first constructed as a troll comment: “Why is the devil black?” We find many things on Twitter and I first thought that my interlocutor was leaning toward a slightly veiled racist comment. He kept asking, however, why was the devil pictured as black? That’s when I remembered that the devil is mostly depicted in red today and it hit me that it could be a legitimate question to understand why the devil was pictured as black in medieval manuscripts.

Keep in mind that I’m an ass. As advertized!

The Devil’s Color Today Is Red

I mean, I should have connected the dots faster! I’m Belgian and our national football/soccer team is called the ‘Red Devils’. They’re quite famous nowadays: Eden Hazard (Real Madrid C.F.), Romelu Lukaku (F.C. Internationale Milano), Dries Mertens (S.S.C. Napoli), Axel Witsen (Borussia Dortmund), Vincent Company (formerly at R.S.C. Anderlecht) and Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City F.C.). All of them are international superstars! When I went to Naples recently, I discovered that talking about the Red Devils was actually a great way to connect with locals (thank you Dries Mertens!).

When I went to Naples recently, I discovered that talking about the Red Devils was actually a great way to connect with locals (thank you Dries Mertens!).

Also, if you look for devils on Google image search, you’ll only see the color red in the matching results. Red is the color of Hell because it is the color of fire and Hell is constructed in our heads as a place full of fire since it is located at the core of the Earth, deep under the surface (whereas angels have white wings since they live above the clouds).

A quick Google search of the Devil will paint your web navigator in red.

However, red was not always the Devil’s color. I remember watching an old documentary—that I’m too lazy to track down—which told how he was depicted in green a long time ago. Nevertheless the color red caught on a bad reputation in the 16th century among Protestants because it was the color of the people who supported the pope*. Protestants also focused on a passage of the Apocalypse read that red was the color of the beast that rides the whore of Babylon. The color that she also wore herself:

I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.

And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet color.

~ Book of Revelation, 17:3-4.

Nevertheless the color red caught on a bad reputation in the 16th century among Protestants because it was the color of the people who supported the pope.

As the historian Michel Pastoureau reminds us, Martin Luther saw Rome as the new Babylon. Red was therefore the color to avoid at all cost. It comes as no surprise then that the color red gradually became more and more associated with the devil and evil. Even in the Catholic world, only women would later be allowed to wear red, that’s probably why pink is today seen as a color for little girls whereas blue is the color of little boys. But more on that later.

Back to red devils, they are so popular now that they dictate the features of fictional characters when they’re supposed to be threatening, dangerous and evil. I’ll take only one example in that regard and that is the case of Darth Maul in Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. A most scarlet face hides under his black hood. He even has horns on his head instead of hair to fully assimilate him with a demon from the underworld. As soon as the audience sees his face, they know he’s an evil character and can’t be anything else but evil. It is an easy, clever and straightforward representation. If we were to extrapolate about the color red in the Star Wars universe, unless when Queen Amidala wears it (and maybe in a few other occurrences), it is quite clearly linked with evil whereas the color blue, a celestial color, represents the good. As Anakin Skywalker slowly transforms into Darth Vador, though he still wields a blue lightsaber, his eyes turn red. That aesthetic is carried on in the latest episodes of Star Wars and is fairly obvious to spot when Kylo Ren and Rey are facing each other in Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.

If we were to extrapolate about the color red in the Star Wars universe, unless when Queen Amidala wears it (and maybe in a few other occurrences), it is quite clearly linked with evil whereas the color blue, a celestial color, represents the good.

* Michel Pastoureau & Dominique Simonnet, Le petit livre des couleurs. Paris: Points, 2004.

What the Color Red Meant in the Middle Ages

Before the 16th century and prior to the Reformation, however, the color red was the noblest of all, second only to gold—and white, maybe. Red is the color of blood and the only blood that mattered was the blood of Christ, who died to save us all, according to Christian theology. It reminded its martyr. It was holy and sacred.

Seraphs, which are described as the angels who were the closest to God, were depicted with red wings in medieval manuscripts when they were not exclusively red! Various illuminations depicting the hierarchy of angels in Heaven systematically color the seraphs in red, at the very top of the celestial ladder, right next to God. I’m not making this up, look at the illuminations for yourself.

Similarly the highest ranked clerics of the Church wore red gowns. They still do. I’m talking about the cardinals of the Catholic Church, of course, that even have a shade of red, a red bird (the northern cardinal) and fishes displaying red scales (the cardinal tetra) named after them. According to Catholic theology, the Church on earth is supposed to reflect the heavenly Church of God and his angels. The pope equates God in this parallel and the cardinals equate the seraphs. Anyone who’d consider the Church not worthy of this holy comparison—because the earthly Church, reportedly founded by Christ himself, is supposed to be holy by definition—put himself in great danger. Such was the case of John Wycliffe, an English theologian who was personally protected by the King and therefore avoided ecclesiastical prosecution. Wycliffe wrote that the Church on earth couldn’t compare in terms of holiness with the heavenly Church of God. It gave birth to the long-lasting heresy of the Lollards, which would be persecuted and repressed violently.

As Michel Pastoureau reminds us, in his short and delightful book I’ve already referenced above, red was also the color worn by women on their wedding day, especially by brides from the lower social class.

The point I’m trying to make is that red was seen as a holy and prestigious color in the Middle Ages. As Michel Pastoureau reminds us, in his short and delightful book I’ve already referenced above, red was also the color worn by women on their wedding day, especially by brides from the lower social class.

I’ve done a quick research on that in digitized manuscripts and sure thing, we don’t see a single bride in white! White—as it is commonly known—became the traditional color of wedding gowns during the 19th century. Women were invited to wear their most expensive and lavish dress on their wedding day during the Middle Ages and red pigments were particularly expensive, beyond the fact that the color red carried a highly spiritual meaning. As for jewels, women often borrowed from their relatives on their big day but mostly they wore crowns. I’ve seen a few examples of golden and blue dresses—in one case I spotted a green dress. However, if the bride is not wearing any red herself, the groom or the witnesses would wear it instead. Red was the color of weddings!

Red was the color of weddings!

Which brings us, naturally, to the infamous “Red Wedding” written by G.R.R. Martin in his novel series A Song of Fire and Ice—adapted for television in Game of Thrones. I will only mention it to stress how that wedding didn’t fit any properly medieval setting. Rarely do we read about weddings ending ugly in medieval chronicles. A wedding was a sacred ceremony, not only a feast but a holy moment well defined and framed by the Church. Any crime committed during a wedding would have resulted in the most pernicious and vicious excommunication. Carrying on sieges and battles on holy days were already the mainsprings of bad reputation to knights and military commanders. Joan of Arc suffered such a fate when she led the siege of Paris on a day devoted to the Virgin Mary. Straight out murders and massacres on wedding days would have caused the utter destruction of anyone’s reputation and it would have cost him all his allies. This was not a smart move. It is funny how sometimes G.R.R. Martin properly draws from medieval history, like when he writes about the death of Robert Baratheon during a wild boar hunting party, yet more often than not he stretches away from historical veracity to come up with his own symbolism. The Red Wedding is red because of all the blood that was shed. Weddings were red in the Middle Ages because most people dressed in red on such occasions and the color red carried a noble spiritual meaning.

The Red Wedding (in A Song of Fire and Ice) is red because of all the blood that was shed. Weddings were red in the Middle Ages because most people dressed in red on such occasions and the color red carried a noble spiritual meaning.

Red Beasts and Black Beasts

Red was the color of the divine, a color that carried prestige and meant power. If the Good, the Bad and the Ugly were medieval colors, the Good would be red, the Bad would be black, and the Ugly would be another tale entirely—though he could also be black. Such a definition helps us understand how animals were categorized in the Books of King Modus and Queen Ratio. The author, presumably Henry of Ferrières, divides commonly hunted forest animals into two sorts: the red beasts (the noble ones) and the black beasts (the nasty ones).

The five red beasts are the following: the deer, the doe, the fallow deer, the roe and the hare. The five black beasts are as follows: the boar, the sow, the wolf, the fox and the otter. One could argue that the fox is a red beast but the terminology here carries meaning beyond the sole color of the animal’s fur. The Books of King Modus and Queen Ratio is not only a hunting treatise, it is also an allegorical tale. Every time King Modus explains how animals are to be hunted, Queen Ratio delivers the symbolic and spiritual meaning of those animals according to the Christian faith and the Catholic dogma. That’s why she argues that if the deer has ten pikes on his antlers to defend himself from harm, the Christian has the Ten Commandments at his disposal to shield himself against all evil. The deer not only belongs to the “good beasts”, it is a Christological beast, whereas the boar is an evil animal that guards the satanic tree of the Devil’s Ten Commandments. It all belongs to the rhetoric that our world is merely the projected shadow of a higher one: God’s own realm.

What’s funny though is that in most manuscripts containing the Books of King Modus and Queen Ratio I found out that the boar was represented upon a red background (see above). So there may be more to red that I let on is this blog post. Indeed, as you can also see in the few illuminations depicting St John that I’ve encountered, the devil taunting him as he writes the Book of Revelation is not systematically black, he can also be red! Oh, the flimsiness of cultural and representation studies. What’s funny with the Late Middle Age allegoric literature is that anything could be seen as godly or devilish depending on the author’s intent as long as it respected or reminded the Catholic dogma in any way, shape or form. Even the fornication tales of Jupiter could carry a divine meaning to the more daring of medieval scholars. They wrote several books around that theme—but as Maz Kanata puts it in The Force Awakens: “That’s a story of another time.”

Going Full Circle: Black Beasts as the Beast

Boars, sows, wolves, foxes and otters were all considered as pests to get rid of. They were deemed dangerous. It was indeed a risky venture to hunt the wild boar in the forest, as many romances told and several dead kings proved to be true. Age of Empires 2 players must also be very careful when hunting the wild boars in the Dark Age.

Such beasts, the black beasts, were thought to stink, to bite, to destroy everything in their path. It comes as no surprise then that the Beast, the incarnation of evil, would adopt their features and characteristic. The Beast had to be black. And since it was formerly an angel, it had wings! But not any wings: bat wings.

Illuminated manuscript. Medieval manuscript. Devil. Cistercian lay brother. BnF
A cistercian lay brother cutting down a devilish creature – Paris, BnF, fr. 2608, f. 381r

Bats didn’t have the best reputation during the Middle Ages depending on where they lived. In Northern Spain? They were loved—but more on that in a minute. In Northern France? Not so much. To begin with, bats hairless, which is the reason why they’re called “bald mouse” in French (“chauve-souris”), and it gave way to several interpretations. Not all of them favorable to their kin. Bats are naked as the alcoholics and the gluttons are naked from selling even their clothes in order to give way to their addiction. That’s how the Ovide moralisé puts it*.

Moreover, the Latin word for bat is “vespertilio” (in Old French it was still “vespertille”). It meant “the bird that flies at night” or the bird of darkness. Bats are pleased to live in the dark and they wouldn’t have it any other way. They flee the light. Such are the sinners, who run away from knowledge and the holy beacon of faith and truth that was the Church (supposedly).

The Beast, who’s dark and black and master of evil, only has bat wings as a natural conclusion of the medieval symbolism I presented here to you. It answers the question why the devil was black in medieval manuscripts instead of red but it does not end this blog post. Here comes the bonus section for those who stuck until the end!

The Devil may have turned red, sure, yet he still appears in black today but in disguise, with another name and under another mantle. At night, he roams the streets of a major city that is infested by criminals. He tracks them down and give them Hell. You know that new devil yourself. His name is known to you. Batman, he is called. How did he acquire such a name? The legend says that Bruce Wayne was pondering at night how to inflict fear to criminals. In his office, he gathered his thoughts.

Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black terrible… a… a…”

As if in answer, a huge bat flied in the open window.

“A bat! That’s it! It’s an omen..; I shall become a bat!”

And thus is born in this weird figure of the dark… this avenger of evil: the Batman.

~ DC #33, Nov. 1939

However, Bruce Wayne was certainly not the first person to have a bat fly in and become an omen. Oh, no! Such a fate happened to King James I of Aragon in the 13th century. Remember when I told you that bats had a good reputation in Northern Spain? Here is why**.

King James was in his tent, just as Bruce Wayne was in his office. King James pondered about the upcoming battle, just as Bruce Wayne pondered about his upcoming crusade against criminals. The word crusade is almost too fitting here since King James was readying himself against Moorish enemies. As he spotted the bat, he figured it was a good omen—just as Bruce Wayne did—and he put the symbol of a bat on the top of his banners the next day. The battle was won and since then bats have been figures of good luck in the region of Valencia and Barcelona, even to this day!

I started mentioning a football/soccer team. It is only fitting that I’d end up with another: the Valencia C.F. which celebrated its hundred-year anniversary this very year! If you look at their jersey, you’d see a bat on the top of their flag. As a matter of fact, it clearly reminds Iberian medieval coat of arms, where bats were not uncommon but very much present (I’ll let you look it up for yourselves).

Oh, the flimsiness of cultural and representation studies!

On a final word, I leave you to reconsider the hypothesis advanced by Gabriel Iglesias aka Fluffy. Could Batman be Mexican? King James spoke a kind of Spanish. Therefore Batman might very well be hispanic! Enjoy the video.

* More on that: Angela Calenda, “La métamorphose des Minéides en chauves-souris dans l’Ovide moralisé”, in Reinardus. Yearbook of the International Reynard Society, 28 (2016), p. 23-30.

** More on that: Denise Tupinier, “Origine et signification de la Chauve-Souris dans les provinces du Levant espagnol”, in Publications de la Société Linnéenne de Lyon, 54-2 (1985), p. 52-56.

Short Reads

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.

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

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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