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Link: Naughty Medieval French Tales

Largely unavailable for centuries, a new collection of bawdy, naughty, and vivid medieval French tales reminds us that our ancestors were a dirty bunch. Yunte Huang on what they reveal about human nature. 

“By trade I am a fucker, miss
so may your heart be filled with bliss”

Scandalous at the time of their creation in the Middle Ages, the old French comic tales in verse, commonly known as the fabliaux, can still shock you today with their outrageous obscenity, salacious humor, and carnivalesque laughter. Equally scandalous, if not more so, is the fact that these lyrical tales, as provocative as The Plum in the Golden Vase, the Kama Sutra, or Ovid’s The Art of Love, have remained virtually inaccessible for so long due to censorship by cultural and religious orthodoxy. Over the centuries, general readers have only been able to savor a whiff of the fabliaux’s scatological aesthetics and erotic trickery filtered through bowdlerized versions or watered down by canonical authors. Chaucer, Boccaccio, Rabelais, and Molière, to name just a few, were all indebted to those itinerant minstrels wandering the countries and marketplaces of medieval France, those quixotic jongleurs who composed, performed, and passed down these quaint literary jewels. Now thanks to Nathaniel Dubin, a professor of modern classical languages at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota, we finally can read for ourselves these almost-millennium-old tales that once titillated some of the best literary minds in the West.

Literary history aside (or be damned), these anti-establishment, anti-ecclesiastical fabliaux are pure, unadulterated fun. Naughtily sporting 69 stories in total, Dubin’s volume is a golden bough of erotic imagination and folk humor, peopled by randy wives, cuckolded husbands, fornicating priests, and priapic knights. Breaking down rigid social hierarchy so characteristic of the Middle Ages, these riotous tales poke fun at everyone. In “The Three Estates,” two knights ride along and find a shady spot in the woods, “decked with flowers and herbs.” They imagine this to be a nice place for a picnic, a party of wine, pasties and other niceties “as gay as/in a great hall on the high dais.” Along come two clerics, who have a different idea for the use of the sylvan enclave: bring their lady friends here and have a quality time. At last, two peasants barge into the scene, with spades and threshers on their backs. Seeing the enticing spot,

they started speaking just like peasants:
“Hey, Fouchier, from the looks of it
this is the perfect place to shit.
Let’s take a dump right now, old pal.”
“Upon my soul, we may as well.”
Then each of them squats down and strains.

In contrast with the well-mannered noblemen on high horses and clerics with not-so-clerical minds, the peasants, in the parlance of everyone’s native town, just don’t give a shit.

Very often a fabliau is a comedy of situation: a rendezvous between a married woman and a priest is interrupted by the unexpected return of the cuckolded husband. All parties must think on their feet or risk exposure and shame. It’s a survival of the wittiest. In “The Crucified Priest,” the wife of a master carver and her cleric paramour are caught on a tight spot. She tells him to hide inside her husband’s studio and pose as a naked statue. As in all of the fabliaux, the table can be turned as easily as changing positions in bed. A trickster can be tricked, a duper duped. The husband, seeing through the ruse as clearly as he sees the “hanging balls and cock” of the priest, does not let on and comes up a clever scheme of revenge:

“Lady,” he says, “I’ve made a shock-
ing image here by not omitting
those virile members. How unfitting!
I must have had too much to drink.
Some light! I’ll fix it in a wink.”

He goes on to nip off the priest’s genitalia.

In spite of the exaggeration, hyperbolism, and excessiveness, the fabliaux embody an authentic, deep sense of realism. In the words of R. Howard Bloch, a Sterling Professor at Yale who writes a truly inspiring introduction to the volume, “the fabliaux make the body speak.” To be more precise, they make the lower body speak: cocks, cunts, butt holes, farts, shit, and urine. “The Blacksmith of Greil” sings a super-phallic panegyric, rendered superbly into colloquial English:

he was endowed with a prick,
the most colossal slab of meat
that’s served to women as a treat,
God’s honest truth—one shaped so fair
that Nature must have lavished care
to make it, and surpassed her craft,
around the bottom of the shaft
two palms in length, wide as a fist.
A hole, though shaped like an ellipse,
in which this well-hung stud had placed it
would look as if a compass traced it.

Or, in “Trial by Cunt,” three sisters fight for the same man by trying to outwit each other in reply to a Jeopardy!-style question: “Who was born first, your cunt or you?” The first sister replies that her cunt is older because it has a beard and she does not. The second thinks otherwise, because she has grown teeth, whereas her cunt has not. The third sister believes her answer hits the jackpot: “my cunt’s younger than I,/and I’ll tell you the reason why./While I have been weaned from the breast,/the mouth of my cunt gapes from thirst/and, at its young age, needs to suck.” Or, in “The Two Peasants,” the hostess’s gassy butt hole is mistaken for the hungry mouth of the peasant’s companion. Chaucer, it is said, borrowed the rim-job motif for “The Miller’s Tale” in his magnum opus.

Link: Podcast: The Sword Brothers

Christians against Muslims, the Crusades that began in the 11th century were wars for control of the Holy Land. The Crusaders themselves were a hybrid of warrior and priest, defending the pilgrim, attacking the Infidel. These Military Orders were also the first multinational corporations, and until their eventual destruction and diminishment, the Knights Templar, the Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights held unparalleled power, enough to threaten whole kingdoms and the Papacy itself. Philip Coulter and his guests tell the story.

Life in the 11th century was nasty, brutish and short. Most people lived and died within a few miles of where they were born, strangers were suspect, and danger lurked everywhere. Who was in charge was a matter of opinion: barons and local chiefs ruled as they wished, those who would be king faced a skeptical and hostile world. We take the modern world for granted, with its more-or-less stable patchwork of nation states, each with its body of law and governance, but in medieval times there was little in the way of a social safety net, little to protect the citizen from the cold winds. Except, there were the knights.

The medieval knights in many ways lived out a kind of secular social idea of how to live in community- they had military responsibilities to their masters, but they also took responsibility for the community around them. The other great presence in the community was the Church, and the monks of the great religious orders were a powerful force in shaping society. Then, after the first Crusade, in the early years of the 12th century, the two were fused - new orders, men who were both knights and priests, holy men with a sword, came along. The Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller, the Teutonic Knights - they were answerable to almost no one. Perhaps the first multinational corporations, they shaped the making of the western world for 200 years.

Part 1: The Story of the Knights Templar - God’s Bankers

Part 2: The Story of the Knights Hospitaller - Charity and Honour 

Part 3: The Story of the Teutonic Knights - The Iron Fist

Great podcast from the CBC. I finished listening to it last night and it was absolutely fascinating and very informative. I highly recommend it.

Link: Game of Thrones as History

For half a century, fantasy has essentially been a series of footnotes to Tolkien. Until George R.R. Martin, that is. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire series—now five novels and counting, with the first two dramatized by David Benioff on HBO as Game of Thrones—ventures boldly outside the Tolkien box and has revitalized the entire genre in the process. Gone are hobbits, elves, orcs, non-human dwarves, ents, balrogs, and most magical items (although not all magic or magical creatures). Gone too are the Manichaean simplicities of a world in which most characters can be quickly identified as good or evil. Martin’s saga has few one-dimensional heroes but many fully fleshed out people.

A Song of Ice and Fire is set in a world modeled after medieval England, and many claim that the series’ genius and popularity stems from its accurate and sensitive portrayal of medieval life. Millions of readers and viewers have formed a passionate bond with Martin’s creation, this argument runs, precisely because it is not simply made up but, rather, rooted in actual human experience. Martin himself has encouraged this line of thinking, claiming he reads “everything I can get my hands on” about medieval history and even including a bibliography on his Web site for those interested in his source materials. But is the argument correct? Just how realistic is A Song of Ice and Fire?

The short answer is “not very.” Before hordes of angry fans launch their trebuchets in my direction, however, let me hasten to add that this is a good thing, not a bad one. As a historian of the period, I can assure you that the real Middle Ages were very boring — and if Martin’s epic were truly historically accurate, it would be very boring too. I’m glad Martin takes all the liberties he does, because I prefer my literature exciting. Medieval people did also, which is why their own most popular literary creations were nearly as fantastic as Martin’s.


Scissors or Sword? The Symbolism of a Medieval Haircut
Simon Coates explores the symbolic meanings attached to hair in the early medieval West, and how it served to denote differences in age, sex, ethnicity and status.
To a twentieth-century audience this story seems strange. Why should a queen choose to have her grandsons killed rather than submitting them to a haircut? In the world of Merovingian Gaul, however, the story had a potent resonance and hair itself was of the utmost importance. The Merovingian kings, who had established themselves in the ruins of Roman Gaul, were known as the Reges criniti, the long-haired kings. For them, their long hair symbolised not only their aristocratic status but also their status as kings. It was invested with a sacral quality and believed to contain magical properties. The Byzantine poet and historian Agathias (c.532-c.582) had written: It is the rule for Frankish kings never to be shorn; indeed their hair is never cut from childhood on, and hangs down in abundance on their shoulders…their subjects have their hair cut all round and are not permitted to grow it further.
Hair was able to carry such symbolic meanings because it is a body part which is easily subject to change: it can be dyed, shaped, worn loose, bound or be removed. Moreover, since it surrounds the most expressive part of the body, the face, any changes made to it are inherently visible and noticeable. Once rules were prescribed about its meaning, function and treatment, it acquired a particular resonance depending on the way in which it was understood in local communities. These meanings were, of course, highly contextualised. A monk awaiting tonsure would recognise that the presence of a pair of scissors marked the point where he fulfilled his vow to leave behind the secular world and become a servant of God. Unless the monk was unsure of his vocation, this woud be unlikely to induce panic. The situation would, however, appear very different to a Merovingian king.
The relationship between long hair and high birth was an ancient one and was present in societies other than Merovingian Gaul. In Ireland, for example, cropped hair denoted a servant or slave. Tacitus had noted the importance of long hair in early Germanic society, commenting that it was the sign of free men. Hair colour, too, bore social significance. In the Irish epic, Tain bo Cuailnge, King Conchobar has golden hair which is associated with royalty, while brown and black hair are also attributed to chieftains and heroes. The association of long hair with a warrior class possessed strong Biblical validation in the story of Samson in Judges 16:17. Long hair denoted strength and virility. In women, moreover, it represented fertility. Since long hair was part of the social badge of a warrior aristocracy, it was protected by law. In the law codes of the Alamans, Frisians, Lombards and Anglo-Saxons, the cutting of hair brought forth penalties. According to the Laws of King Alfred, anyone who cut off a man’s beard had to pay a compensation of 20 shillings, and in Frederick Barbarossa’s Landfried of 1152, it was forbidden either to seize a man by the beard or to tear any hairs from his head or beard.

Scissors or Sword? The Symbolism of a Medieval Haircut

Simon Coates explores the symbolic meanings attached to hair in the early medieval West, and how it served to denote differences in age, sex, ethnicity and status.

To a twentieth-century audience this story seems strange. Why should a queen choose to have her grandsons killed rather than submitting them to a haircut? In the world of Merovingian Gaul, however, the story had a potent resonance and hair itself was of the utmost importance. The Merovingian kings, who had established themselves in the ruins of Roman Gaul, were known as the Reges criniti, the long-haired kings. For them, their long hair symbolised not only their aristocratic status but also their status as kings. It was invested with a sacral quality and believed to contain magical properties. The Byzantine poet and historian Agathias (c.532-c.582) had written: It is the rule for Frankish kings never to be shorn; indeed their hair is never cut from childhood on, and hangs down in abundance on their shoulders…their subjects have their hair cut all round and are not permitted to grow it further.

Hair was able to carry such symbolic meanings because it is a body part which is easily subject to change: it can be dyed, shaped, worn loose, bound or be removed. Moreover, since it surrounds the most expressive part of the body, the face, any changes made to it are inherently visible and noticeable. Once rules were prescribed about its meaning, function and treatment, it acquired a particular resonance depending on the way in which it was understood in local communities. These meanings were, of course, highly contextualised. A monk awaiting tonsure would recognise that the presence of a pair of scissors marked the point where he fulfilled his vow to leave behind the secular world and become a servant of God. Unless the monk was unsure of his vocation, this woud be unlikely to induce panic. The situation would, however, appear very different to a Merovingian king.

The relationship between long hair and high birth was an ancient one and was present in societies other than Merovingian Gaul. In Ireland, for example, cropped hair denoted a servant or slave. Tacitus had noted the importance of long hair in early Germanic society, commenting that it was the sign of free men. Hair colour, too, bore social significance. In the Irish epic, Tain bo Cuailnge, King Conchobar has golden hair which is associated with royalty, while brown and black hair are also attributed to chieftains and heroes. The association of long hair with a warrior class possessed strong Biblical validation in the story of Samson in Judges 16:17. Long hair denoted strength and virility. In women, moreover, it represented fertility. Since long hair was part of the social badge of a warrior aristocracy, it was protected by law. In the law codes of the Alamans, Frisians, Lombards and Anglo-Saxons, the cutting of hair brought forth penalties. According to the Laws of King Alfred, anyone who cut off a man’s beard had to pay a compensation of 20 shillings, and in Frederick Barbarossa’s Landfried of 1152, it was forbidden either to seize a man by the beard or to tear any hairs from his head or beard.

Link: The Battle of Towton

The men whose skeletons were unearthed at Towton were a diverse lot. Their ages at time of death ranged widely. It is easier to be precise about younger individuals, thanks to the predictable ways in which teeth develop and bones fuse during a person’s adolescence and 20s. The youngest occupants of the mass grave were around 17 years old; the oldest, Towton 16, was around 50. Their stature varies greatly, too. The men’s height ranges from 1.5-1.8 metres (just under five feet to just under six feet), with the older men, almost certainly experienced soldiers, being the tallest. […] The soldier now known as Towton 25 had survived battle before. A healed skull fracture points to previous engagements. He was old enough—somewhere between 36 and 45 when he died—to have gained plenty of experience of fighting. But on March 29th 1461, his luck ran out. Towton 25 suffered eight wounds to his head that day. The precise order can be worked out from the direction of fractures on his skull: when bone breaks, the cracks veer towards existing areas of weakness. The first five blows were delivered by a bladed weapon to the left-hand side of his head, presumably by a right-handed opponent standing in front of him. None is likely to have been lethal. Read More.

Fascinating and well researched article about medieval warfare in England. A mass grave at Towton was found and since then, researchers and archaeologists have been piecing together what happened. It’s pretty amazing how much detail they can recover from these centuries-old skeletons.