Fraumunster

Fraumünster Church (“Women’s church” in German) is a former Benedictine abbey situated in the heart of Zürich, Switzerland that was founded in the mid-9th century CE by Louis the German and his daughters, Hildegard and Bertha. Flourishing in the Middle Ages until the Swiss Reformation, Fraumünster had “imperial immediacy,” which gave the abbey a privileged political and constitutional status under imperial feudal law. The abbesses of Fraumünster were thus able to act and rule with tremendous power, independent of everyone except the Holy Roman Emperor himself. Following the Swiss Reformation led by Ulrich Zwingli, the abbey at Fraumünster was dissolved in 1524 CE and its last abbess, Katharina von Zimmern, placed Fraumünster in the control of the city of Zürich. Fraumünster has been a Swiss Reformed city church since that time. The church is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks and along with Grossmunster, Predigerkirche, and St. Peterskirche, Fraumünster is one of the oldest and largest churches in Zürich.

Legends & Medieval History

Situated on the west bank of the Limmat River some 180 m (551 ft) across from Grossmünster Cathedral, the Fraumünster Church was founded in 853 CE by Louis the German (r. 843-876 CE). According to legend, Louis’ two pious daughters, Princess Hildegard (828-856 CE) and Princess Bertha (d. 877 CE), used to live nearby Zürich at Baldern Castle, and they frequently visited the city to worship before the relics of Saints Felix, Regula, and Exuperantius at Grossmünster Cathedral. One early morning, as the royal sisters made their daily visit to Grossmünster, they saw a white stag with burning antlers in the middle of the dark forest. The two women followed the stag, which took them to the edge of the Limmat River directly across from Grossmünster Cathedral. This encounter would repeat itself each morning until the sisters understood that God had given them a sign and had intended them to oversee a religious sanctuary for women at the edge of the river. King Louis was not entirely convinced by his daughters’ stories until a rope fell from the heavens to mark the exact spot of where construction should commence. King Louis, Hildegard, and Betha thus oversaw the construction of Fraumünster Church, and the female duo became the first abbesses at the abbey.

From the 10th century CE, Fraumunster abbesses enacted rules & procedures regarding the customs on goods entering Zürich, appointed city mayors & minted their own coinage

In the Early and High Middle Ages, the abbesses of Fraumünster administered the convent where many noblewomen from southern Germany, Switzerland, and Austria took their religious vows. These abbesses, however, wielded immense power through the 14th century CE. From the 10th century CE onwards, they enacted rules and procedures regarding the customs on goods entering Zürich, appointed city mayors, acted as judges in trials, organized trade fairs, and minted their own coinage. From the 13th century CE, the abbess was even given the title of “imperial princess.” The incumbent abbess of Fraumünster was consequently the de facto ruler of the city of Zürich during most of the Middle Ages. Notable abbesses included Mechthild of Tyrol (r. 1145-1170 CE), Judith of Hagenbuch (1229-1254 CE), Mechthild of Wunnenberg (1255-1269 CE), and Elisabeth of Wetzikon (1270-1298 CE). It was only in the 14th century CE that Zürich’s guilds begin to regain political and economic privileges back from the Abbess of Fraumünster through the establishment of guild laws (“Zunftordnung” in German) at the command of Rudolf Brun (c. 1290-1360 CE), Zürich’s first independent mayor.

Zurich's Grossmunster and Fraumunster

Although Brun managed to limit the influence exercised in Zürich’s urban affairs by the abbesses of Fraumünster, the abbesses and Fraumünster Church remained quite influential until the 16th century CE. Zürich emerged as an important pilgrimage center during the high and late Middle Ages as the Catholic faithful visited the relics of St. Felix, St. Regula, and St. Exuperantius while en route to other pilgrimage centers like Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the Vatican in Rome, Italy, and the Benedictine Abbey in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, which lies only 40 km (25 miles) to Zürich’s southeast. Although Fraumünster was engaged in a perpetual rivalry with neighboring Grossmünster for control over the relics of the city’s three patron saints, the two churches shared and publically showcased these relics in an elaborate urban procession held annually on September 11th. (That day is the feast day of the three saints; this day is still celebrated as a holiday in the city of Zürich.) The two churches also grew incredibly wealthy through the offerings donated by pilgrims from across Europe.

Protestant Reformation & Modern Era

In 1519 CE, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531 CE) arrived in Zürich to begin his new work as pastor at Grossmünster Cathedral. Though born into a family of farmers, Zwingli was an educated man who completed his studies at the University of Vienna and University of Basel. The ideas of the Dutch philosopher Erasmus (1466-1536 CE) strongly influenced Zwingli, who shared Erasmus’ belief that scripture should be read and preached liberally in one’s native language as opposed to Latin. Zwingli quickly broke with established Catholic tradition soon after his arrival in Zürich, preaching a new, radical interpretation of the Gospels. Zwingli, with governmental approval and cooperation, dissolved Zürich’s monasteries and confiscated the possessions belonging to Zürich’s various churches and monasteries over the course of 1523-1524 CE.

Fresco of Fraumunster's Foundation by Bodmer

Curiously, Zwingli knew Fraumünster’s last abbess from childhood: Katharina von Zimmern (1478-1547 CE). She had been a wise abbess who was praised for her learning and skillful management of the abbey’s finances. Von Zimmern (r. 1496-1524 CE) did not oppose Zwingli’s Reformation and shrewdly passed control of Fraumünster to the city of Zürich in late 1524 CE. She would remain a key figure in Zürich’s political and social affairs until her death, but Fraumünster would become a Protestant church forever losing its former independent status. Like the other churches, abbeys, and monasteries in the Canton of Zürich, Fraumünster was physically affected by Zwingli’s reforming zeal. The current austere simplicity of Fraumünster’s interiors is a direct result of Zwingli’s Reformation. In 1524 and 1525 CE, reformers removed Fraumünster’s altars, organ, and all religious ornaments. Decorated walls and ceilings were whitewashed, and Fraumünster’s stained glass windows were removed. The church’s gable above the choir was removed as well, and Fraumünster’s roof was altered into the hipped roof that visitors can see today.

Art & Architecture

Before the construction of Fraumünster, Celtic and Roman structures existed on the site now occupied by the church. Unlike nearby Grossmünster, Fraumünster has seen substantial changes in its design and structure since the first construction of the church in the 9th century CE. In comparison to Grossmünster Cathedral, Fraumünster reflects more of a hybridization of Romanesque and Gothic styles due to constant construction and remodeling over the centuries. During the 11th century CE, a large altar room with a choir apse was built, which provided Fraumünster with a traditional cross-shaped layout. The 9th-century CE crypt beneath the new choir was remodelled and a Romanesque cloister was built on the church’s southern side during the 12th century CE. Fraumünster was completely remodelled in stages during the 13th century CE, and the altar room was enlarged to its maximum extent. While important medieval structures have been kept in place – the Romanesque choir and the high vaulted transept – Fraumünster’s south tower was entirely removed in the 18th century CE. Parts of the convent complex, including old residential buildings for the canonesses, were destroyed in 1898 CE. Conservationists renovated Fraumünster’s nave in 1911 CE, strengthening the church’s north tower as a result of the removal of the south tower over a century earlier.

Fraumünster is renowned for the modern art and other curiosities found within its doors. Several frescoes by the Swiss artist Paul Bodmer (1886-1983 CE) illustrate the legend of the founding of Fraumünster by Princesses Hildegard and Bertha, as well as portraits of Zürich’s patron saints Felix and Regula. August Giacometti (1887-1947 CE) – uncle to the equally famous Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966 CE) – designed the stained glass window in Fraumünster’s north transept in 1945 CE. Marc Chagall (1887-1985 CE) worked at Fraumünster too, and he designed five stained glass windows in the 1970s CE in addition to Fraumünster’s beautiful rosette, which is located in the church’s south transept. Fraumünster’s organ with 5,793 pipes is the largest in existence in the Canton of Zürich.

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Medieval Hygiene

People in the Middle Ages have acquired something of a bad reputation when it comes to cleanliness, especially the peasantry. However, despite the general lack of running water and other modern amenities, there were common expectations of personal hygiene such as regularly washing from a basin, especially the hands before and after eating which was regarded as good etiquette in a period when cutlery was still a rarity for most people. The better off had the possibility of more frequent baths and castles, manors, monasteries, and cities offered their residents better toilets with better drainage, and sometimes even had running water using the ancient combination of cisterns and gravity. Naturally, standards of hygiene varied over time and place, and even, of course, between individuals, just as today; what follows examines the general habits and expectations regarding hygiene in medieval Europe.      

Water Supply

Water was available in villages from nearby springs, rivers, lakes, wells and cisterns. Indeed, most settlements had developed where they had precisely because of the proximity of a reliable water source. Castles might be situated for the same reason and were provided with additional water from masonry-lined wells sunk into their interior courtyards, sometimes accessible from within the castle keep for extra security when under attack. Of over 420 castles surveyed in the United Kingdom, 80% were provided with a well in their interiors and one quarter had two or more. The shaft of the well could be extremely deep: the one at Beeston Castle in England measures 124 m. Some castles, such as the one at Rochester in England, even had the possibility to draw up water from the well at every level of the keep using a system of buckets and ropes which ran inside the walls. Cisterns collected rainwater or natural ground seepage and sometimes a castle might have a system of lead, wooden or ceramic pipes which carried water from a cistern to other, lower parts of the castle like the keep or kitchens, as at Chester Castle in England. Another system of supplementary water collection was to have pipes on the roofing to drain rainwater into a cistern. Finally, settling tanks were sometimes employed to improve the quality of the water by allowing sediment to settle before the cleaner water was drained off. Many monasteries would also have had some or all of these features.

Canals, water conduits, wells & fountains provided (relatively) fresh water to the urban populace. 

As towns grew in number and size across Europe from the 11th century CE onwards so hygiene became more and more of a daily challenge. Fortunately, many of the larger towns tended to be situated near rivers or coastlines in order to facilitate trade, so the supply of water and the disposal of waste was less problematic in these places. Canals, water conduits, wells and fountains provided (relatively) fresh water to the urban populace. These were maintained by town councils who also imposed sanitary measures on local businesses and the population in general. For example, there was often an obligation to clean the portion of the street directly in front of one’s house or shop. Towns and cities might have public baths; Nuremberg, which seems to have been one of the cleanest towns in Europe thanks to its enlightened council, had 14 of them. Local authorities also undertook such emergency measures as removing the dead during times of plague.

Personal Hygiene

As running water was very rare, and considering it took such a physical effort to get one bucketful from a well or nearby water source, it is perhaps not surprising that taking a full bath every day was not a feasible option for most people. Indeed, with baths seen as a luxury given the cost of fuel to heat the water, monks, for example, were typically prohibited from taking more than two or three baths in a year. For those who had a bath, it most often took the form of a wooden half-barrel or tub. Even then it would not have been filled very much but most of the ‘bathing’ was done using a jug of heated water poured over the body rather than a full immersion. A lord might have a padded bath for extra comfort and he usually travelled with one, such was the uncertainty of finding the convenience on one’s travels. The vast majority of people, though, would have made do with a quick swill using a basin of cold water. As 80% of the population did physically demanding jobs working the land it is likely that washing of some kind was done on a daily basis.

January, Les Tres Riches Heures

Medieval peasants have long been the butt of jokes regarding hygiene, which goes back to medieval clerical tracts which often described them as little more than brutish animals; however, it was common practice for just about everyone to wash the hands and face in the morning. An early wash was also desirable because fleas and lice were a common problem. Rarely-changed straw bedding was a particular paradise for vermin even if some preventative measures were taken such as mixing herbs and flowers like basil, chamomile, lavender and mint into the straw.

Soap was sometimes used & hair was washed using an alkaline solution such as the one obtained from mixing lime & salt.

As most people ate meals without knives, forks or spoons, it was also a common convention to wash hands before and after eating. Soap was sometimes used and hair was washed using an alkaline solution such as the one obtained from mixing lime and salt. Teeth were cleaned using twigs (especially hazel) and small pieces of wool cloth. Shaving was either not done at all or once a week unless one was a monk, in which case one was shaved daily by a brother. As medieval mirrors were still not very large or clear, it was easier for most people to visit the local barber when required.

The ordinary peasant was probably more concerned with getting rid of the day’s grime when they washed but for an aristocrat there were a few more details to be attended to in order to gain favour in polite society. Social occasions like meals, when one might get up close and personal to one’s peers, warranted particular attention to hygiene and there were even rules of etiquette produced as helpful guides for the unimaginative diner, as here from the Les Countenance de Table:

…and let your fingers be clean, and your fingernails well-groomed.

Once a morsel has been touched, let it not be returned to the plate.

Do not touch your ears or nose with your bare hands.

Do not clean your teeth with a sharp iron while eating.

It is ordered by regulation that you should not put a dish to your mouth.

He who wishes to drink must first finish what is in his mouth.

And let his lips be wiped first.

Once the table is cleared, wash your hands, and have a drink.

(Singman, 154)

Monks had their own special areas for washing, including at Cluny Abbey in France which had a lavabo or large basin where hands were washed before meals. We know from records that they had towels, which were changed twice a week while the water was changed only once a week. The Great Hall of a castle or manor typically had a similar large basin for visitors to wash their hands. 

In summary, then, it is safe to say that the common presentation in modern films and books of filthy medieval peasants who regarded washing as some form of torture is perhaps not quite accurate and people of all classes did keep themselves as clean as their circumstances permitted. Nevertheless, it is also true that when medieval Europeans, even those of the higher classes, made contact with other cultures such as the Byzantines or the Muslims during the Crusades, the Europeans often came off second best in the hygiene stakes.

Toilets

In villages or on manor estates the peasantry used a cesspit for their own waste, which might then be taken and spread on the fields as a fertiliser. In some cases a small hut provided some privacy and a wooden bench with a hole in it some comfort (as well as reducing the chances of falling into the cesspit). Chamber pots were used at night and then emptied into the cesspit. Without toilet paper, or really paper of any kind, people had to make do with a handful of hay, grass, straw or moss.

Toilet, Tower of London

The toilets in a castle, also known as privies or latrines, were much the same as everywhere else although the waste was channelled down a hole into a cesspit at the foot of the castle walls or into the moat itself (an added defensive feature not much talked about in military history). Sometimes there were two toilets next to each other and these might empty into a channel which was regularly flushed with water from a diverted stream. The same arrangement was common to monasteries where toilets were clustered together. There were 45 such cubicles at Cluny Abbey which also boasted a bathhouse with twelve tubs. Castles might also have triangular-shaped urinals, especially in the tower of the circuit walls.   

In towns, the well-off had their own privy in a back-yard or even in the house itself with a channel or chute to drain off waste into the yard. Where the poorer classes lived in greater concentrations households often shared a single outside toilet or a number of toilets with their waste leading to a communal cesspit. Lined with stone, the cesspits also received any other household rubbish and were regularly emptied by a professional labourer dedicated to that specific and unenviable job. There were regulations prohibiting the tipping of waste into the street but these were often ignored and a spell of heavy rain or, even worse, floods, could cause havoc with the town’s sanitation system and contaminate the water supply. With towns also packed with horses and donkeys, and farm animals being transported elsewhere or to the butchers, the streets were usually filthy and this combined with the ever-present rats, mice and other vermin meant that urban centres became the ideal breeding grounds for disease.

Plague & Diseases

The Black Death, which peaked from 1347 to 1352 CE, was just one (albeit the deadliest) of many waves of plagues and diseases which hit medieval Europe. Carried by fleas on rats, the bubonic plague killed anywhere between 30% and 50% of the population wherever it took hold. The low standards of medieval hygiene certainly helped it along although there were other factors such as a complete lack of understanding of what caused it and the absence of effective quarantines. It is also important to note that many medieval locations such as Milan and Bohemia survived relatively unscathed, so it is not quite so simple to attribute the spread of plague solely to a lack of hygiene and proper sanitation.   

Besides terrible plagues and epidemics that seemed to spring out of nowhere with alarming regularity, there were often equally deadly dangers lurking in everyday places. Poor food preparation and storage was a particular area of health risk. Epidemics of diarrhoea (ergotism), known in medieval times as Saint Anthony’s Fire, were caused by eating rye that had been poisoned by fungi. Skin diseases were particularly prevalent, too, although they may have been caused just as much by poor diet as by uncleanliness.

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Medieval Trades

Many trades in medieval times were essential to the daily welfare of the community and those who had learned a skill through apprenticeship could expect to make a higher and more regular income than farmers or even soldiers. Such professionals as millers, blacksmiths, masons, bakers and weavers grouped together by trade to form guilds which sought to protect the rights of their members, guarantee fair prices, maintain industry standards and keep out the unlicensed competition. As towns grew into cities from the 11th century CE so trades diversified and medieval shopping streets began to boast all manner of skilled workers and their goods on sale, from saddlers to silversmiths and tanners to tailors. Naturally, trades and trading practices varied over time and place throughout the Middle Ages and so what follows is a general overview of some of the common and interesting features of trades in medieval Europe

Apprenticeship

Many children learnt the trade of their parents by informal observation and helping out with small tasks but there were also full apprenticeships, paid for by parents, where young people lived with a skilled worker or master and learned their craft. Very often a master who took on an apprentice also took on the role of parent, providing all their needs and moral guidance while in turn the apprentice was expected to be obedient to their master in all matters. An apprentice was not usually paid but did receive their food, lodgings and clothing. Boys and girls typically became apprentices in their early teens but sometimes they were as young as seven years old when they started out on the long road to learn a specific trade. There were many cases of apprentices running away and rules were established that the master and the apprentice’s father had to spend one day each looking for the missing youth. There were time limits of one year, after which a master need not take the escapee back under apprenticeship.

An apprentice usually qualified by producing a ‘masterpiece’ which showed off his acquired skills.

The length of the apprenticeship depended on the trade and the master (the benefit of free labour was a temptation to extend the training for as long as possible) but around seven years seems to have been the average. A cook’s apprentice might only need two years training while at the other end of the spectrum a metalworker like a goldsmith might have to learn their trade for ten years before they could set themselves up with their own business. An apprentice usually qualified by producing a ‘masterpiece’ which showed off his acquired skills. Earning the title of master cost money besides skill, though, and a qualified apprentice who could not afford their own place of business was known as a journeyman as they usually travelled around and found work with a master with premises wherever they could.

Medieval Guilds

Once their own business was up and running, from the 12th century CE master tradesmen became members of guilds. These organisations, managed by a core group of seasoned professionals known as guildmasters, sought to protect the working conditions of their members, ensure their products were to a high standard and outside competition was minimised. Regular inspections ensured (at least to some degree) that goods were exactly what they were advertised as, that regulation measurements and weights were adhered to, that prices were correct and that members did not unfairly compete with each other for clients. By imposing regulations on apprenticeship, guilds could also regulate the labour supply and ensure there were not too many masters at any one time and the prices of both labour and goods did not crash.   

Winemakers, Zodiac Window Chartres

Women in the Trades

While there were very few guilds specifically for or managed by women, and although most apprentices were male and so too their masters, there was a significant minority of women involved in some trades. Widows, especially, were prominent in the trades as they could, if they were without a close male relative and they remained single, run their deceased husband’s business. There were some restrictions, though; for example, they were not able to train an apprentice themselves. Some trades such as the poulterers of Paris did permit any woman with means to own businesses, while many trades such as silk production and veil makers were dominated by women workers. There are records (notably tax assessments), then, of all manner of trades being managed by women from lacemakers to butchers.

The Miller

Each castle or manor had its own mill to serve the needs of its surrounding estate, not only for the grain from the lord’s lands but also that of the serfs who were usually obliged to grind their grain at the lord’s mill. Mills could be powered by wind, water, horses or people. One essential item to set up business was a good quality millstone that did not wear smooth quickly but, unfortunately, this was a pricey commodity. The Rhineland gained a great reputation for producing the best millstones and one of those could cost 40 shillings or the equivalent of ten horses in England. With such a heavy investment and because a castle or manor did not need to use its mill very often (even if ground grains did not keep very long), the mill was often rented out to a miller who could then make whatever profit he could from it. 

The miller enjoyed a high social status in the community because he was essential to it, had a steady income and it was not an unpleasant job to do. Still, because a miller had to make money in order to pay for the mill’s rent, they were sometimes viewed with suspicion by other villagers who worried that they never quite got back the quantity of flower their grain had warranted. As one medieval riddle went:

What is the boldest thing in the world?

A miller’s shirt, for it clasps a thief by the throat daily.

(Gies, 155)

The Blacksmith

In the Middle Ages, the cheapest materials were wood and clay but some items required metal, usually iron, which was much more expensive. Thus the blacksmith was as essential as the miller to any medieval community. Many agricultural tools needed iron parts, if only for their cutting edges, and so blacksmiths were kept busy producing new tools and repairing old ones. Cooking pots and horseshoes were other sought-after products from the blacksmith’s near-magical ability with forge, hammer and anvil. However, such was the medieval necessity of making things last as long as possible that a village blacksmith might not be so busy that he could earn a living, and he also needed an impressive but costly range of tools and equipment himself in order to fulfill orders. Consequently, blacksmiths usually inherited the business from their fathers and many also farmed some land to make ends meet. A blacksmith at a manor or castle was better off as he might receive charcoal made from the trees of the lord’s forest for free and have the benefit of a couple of the lord’s serfs working his small strip of farmland while he was busy with his hammer and tongs.

It was not unknown for bakers to supplement the flour content of bread with something a little cheaper like sand.

The Baker

With bread forming such an important part of the medieval diet, especially for the lower classes, the bakers were another ever-present trader but they were, for the same reason, one of the most regulated. Regular inspections, at least in towns, ensured bakers were serving the right quality, size and weight of loaves. For this reason, bread was typically stamped with an identification mark of just who had baked it. Despite these precautions, it was not unknown for bakers to supplement the flour content of bread with something a little cheaper like sand. Those who tried to swindle their customers and were caught often found themselves chained to a pillory with the offending bread tied around their necks. In order for fresh bread to be available in the mornings, bakers were one of the few tradesmen permitted to work at night.

Medieval Butcher

The Butcher

The butcher prepared choice cuts of pork, mutton, and beef as well as poultry and game. Selling an expensive commodity and occupying the dirtiest and smelliest part of the town, butchers were right down there with the fish merchants in the low popularity stakes amongst urban shoppers. In addition, as with the bakers, many people were suspicious of just what a butcher put in his sausages to save money. As one joke went:

A man asked the sausage butcher for a discount because he had been a faithful customer for seven years. “Seven years!” exclaimed the butcher. “And you’re still alive!”

(Gies, 49)

To keep consumer confidence high, there were additional rules imposed by the butchers’ guild which prohibited the sale of meat from such animals as cats, dogs, and horses, as well as outlawing the mixture of tallow with lard.   

Many trades were grouped together in parts of a city so that guilds could better regulate their members.

The Weaver

Many peasant women spun thread in the home and then sold it on to a weaver, who was usually male. Although some women would have continued to weave on an upright loom, by the High Middle Ages weaving was typically done on a larger scale by a skilled weaver using a horizontal loom which was beyond the means of a peasant. England and Wales enjoyed a high reputation for their wool in medieval times while Flanders became a major centre of wool cloth production. Wool was washed to remove grease, then dried, beaten, combed and carded. The wool was then spun and worked on the loom to make a rough cloth which was next fulled (soaked, shrunk and then usually dyed), sometimes using a water-powered mill or trampled underfoot. The cloth was then sheared and brushed, perhaps many times, in order to produce a very fine, smooth cloth.

Builders

One thing everyone needed was a roof over their heads. As societies became more prosperous, towns grew in size and construction techniques improved from the 13th century CE, so many people looked for better and more substantial homes to live in. Prosperous peasants looked to improve on their traditional mud and timber cottages while lords were looking to impress with manor houses that might look like the castle most of them could not afford. Consequently, there developed many specialised trades for each facet of any building’s construction such as masons, tilers, carpenters, thatchers, glassmakers and plasterers. Carpenters, especially, were involved in the subsequent upkeep of houses and other structures such as barns, granaries, churches and bridges.

At the top of the building profession were the master builder and master mason, both of whom needed to be skilled in mathematics and geometry to produce their scale models and parchment plans upon which lesser workers would depend in order to make the real-life pieces of a building fit together properly. As they rarely lifted a finger themselves, they also needed to be good managers of the large team of skilled workers under their command on specific projects, especially the big ones like building a castle or church.

Medieval Spice Merchant

City Traders

Larger towns and cities, of course, had especially numerous and diverse tradespeople. There were tailors, drapers, dyers, saddlers, furriers, chandlers, tanners, armourers, sword makers, parchment makers, basket-weavers, goldsmiths, silversmiths and, by far the biggest industry sector, all manner of food sellers. Many of these trades might be grouped together in parts of a city so that guilds could better regulate their members or to attract visitors such as by the city gates or because a particular area had a tradition for one trade (like Notre-Dame in Paris had for books, which it still has today).

Medical Practitioners

Medieval doctors, at least in the later Middle Ages, learnt their expertise at a university and enjoyed a high status but their practical role in society was limited to diagnosis and prescription. A patient was actually treated by a surgeon and given medicine which was prepared by an apothecary, both of whom were regarded as tradesmen because they had learnt their skills via the system of apprenticeship. As a surgeon could be expensive, many of the poorer class took their minor physical problems to a much cheaper option; the local barber. When not cutting hair and trimming moustaches, a barber performed minor surgeries and also pulled teeth. The poor might also seek the skills of a peddler of folk medicine who dispensed advise and lotions based on traditional and natural remedies which, despite their dubious origins, must have worked to some degree in order for them to keep practising throughout the Middle Ages.   

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The Children of Heracles

The Children of Heracles (Heraclidae) is one of Euripides’ lesser known and least popular works, as is the myth surrounding the tragedy play. Its date is also uncertain, possibly written in the late 430s or early 420s BCE. The play revolves around the mother and children of Heracles (Hercules) and their attempt to find sanctuary from the forces of the king of Argos, a king who wishes to have them killed. It is possible that the play as it exists today has been revised later by other writers. 

Life of Euripides

The Children of Heracles was written by the youngest of the great trilogy of Greek playwrights Euripides. Little is known of Euripides’ early life. He was born in the 480’s BCE on the island of Salamis near Athens to a family of hereditary priests. He was married and had three sons, one of whom, also named Euripides, became a noted playwright. He preferred a life of solitude, alone with his books and there are even stories that he lived isolated in a cave. Unlike the elder Sophocles, Euripides played little or no part in Athenian political affairs; the one exception was a brief diplomatic mission to Sicily. He wrote over 90 plays, of which, 19 have survived which is more than any of his contemporaries. The poet made his debut at the Dionysia competition in 455 BCE, not winning his first victory until 441 BCE. Unfortunately, his participation in these competitions did not prove to be very successful with only four victories; a fifth came after his death for a trilogy which included Iphigenia in Aulis and The Bacchae.

It is said that when Athenians speak of “the poet” they are referring to Euripides.

With the Peloponnesian War waging, Euripides left Athens in 408 BCE to live the remainder of his life in Macedonia. Many believe he wrote some of his best plays there. Although often misunderstood during his lifetime and never receiving the acclaim he deserved, he became one of the most admired of all poets decades later, influencing not only Greek but Roman playwrights. Years after the playwright’s death, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) called Euripides the most tragic of the Greek poets. Classicist Edith Hamilton in her book The Greek Way agreed when she wrote that he was the saddest of all of the greats, a poet of the world’s grief:

He feels, as no other writer has felt, the pitifulness of human life, as of children suffering helplessly what they do not know and can never understand.” (205)

She added no poet’s work was “so sensitively attune as his to the still, sad music of humanity, a strain little heeded by that world of long ago” (205). It is said that when Athenians speak of “the poet” they are referring to Euripides. In his book Greek DramaMoses Hadas said that audiences would come to appreciate his style and outlook viewing his plays as more sympathetic than those of his contemporaries. 

Euripides

Synopsis of the Play

The play begins after the death of the mythical hero Heracles. He had been enslaved by King Eurystheus of Argos/Mycenae and compelled to complete his twelve labors. Heracles was survived by his young children, his mother Alcmene, and cousin and long-time companion Iolaus. His family had escaped the clutches of the king and traveled the length of Greece looking for refuge. The king vowed to capture the family and return them to Argos to face certain death, threatening cities with war if any gave them safe harbor. At last, they arrive in Athens and rest at the temple of Zeus. The sons of Theseus – Demophon and Acamas – promise them safekeeping. Despite a stern warning from Eurystheus’ herald of a potential war, the family is assured refuge. Sadly, a prophecy dictates that a virgin must be sacrificed for Athens to win a future war.

When the king of Athens, Demophon, states he will not sacrifice an Athenian maiden, one of Heracles’ daughters – her name is never mentioned – volunteers; unfortunately, the play fails to mention if the sacrifice is ever made. The Athenian forces, led by Heracles’ elder son Hyllus and a rejuvenated Iolaus (Heracles’ companion during the 12 labours), is victorious and the defeated Eurystheus is brought before Alcmene who demands his immediate death. Although many Athenians do not want him killed, the play ends with the captured king saying that his spirit will protect the city and people of Athens in the future. 

The Cast of Characters

The cast of characters includes:

  • Heracles’ former companion Iolaus
  • Heracles’ mother Alcmene
  • King Eurystheus of Argos
  • King Demophon of Athens
  • King Acamas of Athens (silent)
  • an unnamed maiden (daughter of Heracles)
  • and a herald, a messenger, a servant, and the usual chorus of old men.

The Play

The play begins at the altar of Zeus at Marathon. Iolaus, the long-time companion and relative of the Greek mythical hero Heracles, speaks aloud,

… I alone shared in most of the labours of Heracles while he was among us. And now that he has his home in the sky, I have taken his children here under my wing, giving them the protection I stand in need of myself. (97)

He declares how the King Eurystheus of Argos wishes to kill them. He, Heracles’ children and mother Alcmene have wandered from city to city seeking refuge. Hyllus, the eldest son, is away searching for a place for them to build a home. No one, out of fear of the Argive king, will give them asylum. At last, they have arrived on the outskirts of Athens. Suddenly, in the distance, he sees the herald of the Argive king making his way towards them.  He beckons the children to come to him. He addresses the herald, “You loathsome creature, how I wish you would die, you and the man who sent you…” (98)

Theatre of Dionysus - Acropolis, Athens

Ignoring the old man’s comments and looking directly at Iolaus, the herald replies, “You must leave this place for Argos, where the penalty of death by stoning awaits you.” (98) Iolaus defiantly refuses him and says that the herald will never take him or Heracles’ family by force. He pleads aloud for the people of Athens to keep them safe:

O men of Athens, dwellers in this land from earliest days give us your help. We are supplicants of Zeus of the Agora, yet violence is being used on us and our holy branches are defiled, disgracing your city and dishonouring the gods. (99)

A chorus of old men hears his cries and asks Iolaus why he has thrown himself upon the ground. Iolaus introduces himself and the children to the chorus and says they have come to Athens to seek mercy. The herald quickly warns the chorus that the old man and family belong to King Eurystheus. The chorus, however, is not intimidated and responds that he should have spoken first to the rulers of the land and shown the proper respect.  The herald is then told that Demophon son of Theseus is the ruler.

Demophon: “Lay a finger on them & you’ll regret it at once,” 

Shortly, the king and king’s brother Acamas enter. Demophon is quickly told how Iolaus and Heracles’ family seek asylum from the Argive king. The Athenian king, obviously annoyed, looks towards the herald, “… the clothes he wears, the shape of his cloak are a Greek’s, but he is behaving like a barbarian.” (101) The herald responds, “Argos is my home …King Eurystheus sends me here from Mycenae to fetch these people.” (102) He warns Demophon that if he chooses to give them shelter “the matter becomes one of armed conflict.”  However, if the herald is permitted to take them away and return to Argos, the city of Athens will enjoy the friendship of Mycenae. Ignoring the herald’s warning, the king is compelled to accept Iolaus plea.  “Where is the justice in leading off supplicants against their will?” (104) He orders the herald to return to Argos and tell his king that he will never take the family of Heracles by force. When the herald tries to seize the children, Demophon raises his staff and stops him. “Lay a finger on them and you’ll regret it at once,” (105) The herald exits but tells the Athenian king that he and his king will return with an armed force. Iolaus is thankful, for they have found friends and kinsmen. Demophon leaves to “muster my citizens.” He will send scouts to watch for the Argive. 

Although the herald has gone, the chorus chimes in when they say, ‘You may thirst for war but do not, I pray, ravage with your spear the city where the Graces have their happy home.” (107) The king returns and tells Iolaus and the others that the Argive army has arrived, for he has seen them with his own eyes. However, he bears sad news: according to the oracle, a sacrifice must be made – a virgin girl whose father is of noble blood. Regrettably, he will not sacrifice his daughter or one of any Athenian father. Iolaus is at a loss. “Where are we to turn? What god has been denied the tribute of our supplicant garlands?” (109) He begs the Athenian king to have himself given to the Argive, but Demophon refuses.

Hercules & Iolaus, Roman Mosaic

A maiden – a daughter of Heracles – steps forward. “I am myself ready to die, good old man, and to take my stand at the sacrifice, I need no order.” (110) Iolaus rejects her wishes and suggests that lots should be drawn instead, but the maiden rejects this idea. She believes she must give her life freely – no compulsion. She exits. The chorus tells Iolaus not to torment himself, for she dies an honourable death – one of glory. Just then a servant of Hyllus arrives. Alcmene is called to meet him. The servant tells her that her son has made camp outside town. He and his army will be the left wing of the Athenian forces. As the servant begins to leave to join his master, Iolaus speaks, “I’ll come along with you; we are of one mind in this, wanting to help our friends by standing shoulder to shoulder, as it is right we should.” (115) The servant is hesitant: Iolaus is too old, and he is incapable of fighting. However, Iolaus is insistent. Taking armour from the temple, he prepares to leave. Alcmene begs him to stay to protect the family, but the old man believes he must fight. He leaves.

Alcmene: “You loathsome creature, is this you here? Has justice caught you in her net at last?” 

Shortly, a messenger arrives. He brings news of a victory. Alcmene asks of Iolaus. She is told that “his contribution to the victory was outstanding, thanks to the gods.” (118) Surprisingly, he was an old man no longer – changed back to a young man. Alcmene listens to the messenger tell of the Athenian victory and the capture of Eurystheus – even how Iolaus spared the king’s life. ‘It was out of respect for you he wanted you to feast your eyes on Eurystheus in the hour of your victory, when he had become yours to do with as you pleased.” (121) The king, of course, had wished to avoid the meeting. Against the king’s wishes, a servant brings him before Alcmene. She speaks, “You loathsome creature, is this you here? Has justice caught you in her net at last? (122) She tells him that he will soon meet his death. Unfortunately, the servant reminds her that Athenian law will not permit it. He asks if she will go against the law. She ignores the servant and says that she, herself, will end his life.

Eurystheus speaks. He will not plead for his life:

Athens has shown her restraint, in sparing me’ she honours the gods far more than she respects your hatred of me … if I die, you must call me by two names: the victim whose blood demands vengeance and the hero of noble heart. (124) 

To quit life would give him no pain. Still intent on killing him, Alcmene says, “I will kill him then hand over his corpse to the friends who come for him. As far as his person is concerned, I will not go against Athenian wishes and he by his death will give me the revenge I seek.” (124) The king says he will present the city with a gift: “blessings greater than you now imagine. When I am dead you will bury me where fate prescribes.” (124) He will lie under the soil of Athens extending goodwill and protection. Alcmene tells the people of Athens that he is an enemy and yet will benefit the city in death. She orders him to be taken away and fed to the dogs. The chorus tells the servant, “On your way, men! No guilt shall fall on the king’s head from actions of ours.” (125)

Assessment

The Children of Heracles is one of Euripides’ lesser-known works, and, according to many classicists may have been rewritten over the years by other poets. Over all, the poet’s works have influenced countless others in both Greece and Rome. More of his works have survived than any of his contemporaries. Like other playwrights of the era, Euripides makes reference to Greek mythology, and, in this case, it’s the hero Heracles.  In the retelling of the story, Heracles is dead; however, his nemesis, the king of Argos, pursues his family, wishing to bring them back to Mycenae to face certain death. They are given shelter in Athens by King Demophon and his brother Acamas. A war ensues, and Athens is victorious. The family, at last, has found a home.

One question may disturb the reader: who is the unnamed sacrificial maiden. While it is obvious that she is the daughter of Heracles, her name and age are never given.  Lastly, does Alcmene actually kill the king as she vows to do? The king is taken away at the very end of the play, but his fate is left in question. He is, however, viewed as being a hero. According to the editors of Euripides: Medea and other Plays, “The play dramatizes a reversal of fortunes: from being powerless and persecuted the family of Heracles rise to a position of security and strength.” (92) While many of the characters do not appeal to the audience’s sympathies, it is still seen as “fully worthy” of Euripides in its ingenuity of plot and the strength of its language. (93)

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Grossmunster

Grossmünster (“large cathedral” in German) is a Romanesque ex-cathedral situated in the heart of Zürich, Switzerland, which was built over the course of the 11th and 13th centuries CE. According to legend, the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne founded Grossmünster around c. 810 CE to house the bones and relics of the early Christian martyrs St. Felix, St. Regula, and St. Exuperantius who were believed to have fled to Zürich and died in city during the 3rd century CE. Grossmünster is Zürich’s most recognizable and famous landmark by virtue of its iconic twin towers, and it retains a place of prominence in Protestant Christianity due to its role in the Protestant Swiss Reformation, which began at the direction of Ulrich Zwingli in 1519-1520 CE. Along with Fraumünster, Predigerkirche, and St. Peterskirche, Grossmünster is one of the oldest and largest churches in Zürich. Its triple-aisled crypt is also the largest in Switzerland. 

The current austere simplicity of Grossmünster’s interiors is a direct result of Ulrich Zwingli’s Reformation.

Legends & Medieval History

Legend has it that the patron saints of Zürich – Felix, Regula, and their servant Exuperantius – were once members of the Christian Thebaic Legion, which had its base in what is now the Swiss canton of Valais. Due to the intense persecution of Christians by Roman authorities in the region, Felix, Regula, and Exuperantius fled to Zürich at some point in the late 3rd century CE. When Roman authorities in Zürich discovered their Christian beliefs, the Roman governor of Turicum – Roman Zürich – forced the three Christians to be boiled in oil and drink molten lead. Soon thereafter, he ordered the three Christians beheaded. Folklore has it that after their executions, Felix, Regula, and Exuperantius calmly picked up their severed heads and walked 40 paces – or about 27 m (30 yards) – to the place where they wished to find eternal rest and ascend to heaven. About 500 years later, Charlemagne (r. 800-814 CE) came to Zürich in pursuit of a large stag that he had seen while out hunting around Aachen, Germany. Upon arrival in Zürich, Charlemagne’s horse stumbled over the graves of the three saints, and it was there that Charlemagne ordered the construction of a new church along the Limmat River: the Grossmünster Cathedral.

Zurich's Grossmunster and Fraumunster

The basilica of Grossmünster was constructed in six stages from c. 1090-1230 CE and was erected over a 9th-century CE Carolingian building of similar dimensions. Architects made periodic renovations and structural alterations to Grossmünster in later centuries; most notably, increasing the cathedral’s southern tower to match the height of the northern tower in the late 15th century CE. Grossmünster’s organization and activities were overseen by the bishopric of Konstanz, Germany until the advent of the Reformation in the 16th century CE, and Grossmünster was both part of a secular canon’s monastery and a parish church until that time too.

Zürich emerged as an important pilgrimage center during the late Middle Ages as the faithful visited the relics of the three saints.

During the Middle Ages, Grossmünster’s fortunes were intricately connected to those of Fraumünster, which was the nearby Benedictine convent located only 180 m (551 ft) across the Limmat River. These two churches stood facing from one another, dominating Zürich’s skyline as the two largest structures in the city and as pillars of the influence and power of the Catholic Church in northern Switzerland. The two churches were, however, in perpetual rivalry with one another for control over the relics of St. Felix, St. Regula, and St. Exuperantius. The two churches shared and publically showcased these relics in an elaborate urban procession held annually on September 11th. (That day is the feast day of the three saints; this day is still celebrated as a holiday in the city of Zürich.) Zürich emerged as an important pilgrimage center by the late Middle Ages as the faithful visited the relics of the three saints while en route to other pilgrimage centers like Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the Vatican in Rome, Italy, and the Benedictine Abbey in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, which lies only 40 km (25 miles) to Zürich’s southeast. 

Protestant Reformation & Austere Modernity

In 1519 CE, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531 CE) arrived in Zürich to begin his new work as pastor at Grossmünster Cathedral. Though born into a family of farmers, Zwingli was an educated man who completed his studies at the University of Vienna and University of Basel. The ideas of the Dutch philosopher Erasmus (1466-1536 CE) strongly influenced Zwingli, who shared Erasmus’ belief that scripture should be read and preached liberally in one’s native language as opposed to Latin. Zwingli quickly broke with established Catholic tradition soon after his arrival in Zürich, preaching a new, radical interpretation of the Gospels. Decidedly against a literal interpretation of the Eucharist, the selling of indulgences, the veneration of saints and relics, and the celibacy of priests, Zwingli additionally denounced the Catholic mass, Swiss men who worked as mercenaries in foreign armies, and perceived forms of idolatry in Catholic worship. Reforming the church in Zürich, Zwingli argued, was necessary so that Zürchers could live a life according to the Gospels as Jesus Christ had truly intended. Zwingli, with governmental approval and cooperation, dissolved Zürich’s monasteries, confiscated the possessions belonging to Zürich’s various churches and monasteries, and desecrated the graves of holy martyrs. (However, what exactly happened to the relics of Saints Felix, Regula, and Exuperantius remain a topic of debate between Protestants and Catholics in Switzerland.)

Grossmunster's Cloister

Grossmünster, like the other churches, abbeys, and monasteries in the Canton of Zürich, was profoundly affected by Zwingli’s reforming zeal. The current austere simplicity of Grossmünster’s interiors is a direct result of Zwingli’s Reformation. In 1524 CE, reformers removed Grossmünster’s organ and religious statuary. Decorated walls were whitewashed, and Grossmünster’s stained glass windows were removed. It is worth noting that Zwingli, himself, never endorsed an iconoclastic removal of religious images, and he never sanctioned violence that would run counter to the interests of Zürich secular authorities. That being said, acts of iconoclasm occurred throughout the summer of 1524 CE in Zürich, which would in turn be mirrored by the actions of Protestant communities in Germany, the Netherlands, France, Denmark, and Belgium.  

A period of refurbishment commenced in the late 19th & early 20th centuries CE, which saw Grossmünster’s Romanesque appearance restored to its full splendor.

Following Zwingli’s death in 1531 CE, Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575 CE) became the chief pastor at Grossmünster Cathedral. His tenure was one of relative peace and calm compared to that of his predecessor. While just as fiery in his sermons as Zwingli had been, Bullinger was of a prudent, diplomatic, and charitable character. He continued Zwingli’s work in overseeing Grossmünster’s theological school and corresponded with leading figures of his era, including Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, and Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603 CE). Under Bullinger’s aegis, Grossmünster retained its position of prominence among Zürich’s churches, and Bullinger helped Grossmünster avoid the organizational and legal troubles that commonly faced other large cathedrals during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The latter history of Grossmünster is largely quiet. Aside from a fire in 1763 CE that destroyed Grossmünster’s towers – they were rebuilt in a gothic “box” style a few years later – the past four centuries have been mostly uneventful. A period of refurbishment commenced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries CE, which saw Grossmünster’s Romanesque appearance restored to its full splendor. A pulpit was restored in 1851 CE and an organ returned in 1960 CE. Stained-glass windows by the famed Swiss artist Augusto Giacometti (1901-1966 CE) were installed in 1933 CE as well.

Grossmunster Interior, Zurich

Architectural & Archaeological Notes

Grossmünster Cathedral largely adheres to the basic tenets of Romanesque style: grotesques on column capitals, carved portals, and church towers. Grossmünster’s cloisters have elegant groin vaulting, and its nave has a pointed vaulting. The cathedral at Constanz, Germany, as well as other Norman and Lombard Romanesque churches strongly influenced the outline of Grossmünster’s physical shape and façades. Recent archaeological surveys have shown that prior to the construction of a Carolingian edifice, there were ancient Roman structures as well as a Roman burial ground where Grossmünster now stands.

Grossmünster is unique in that one enters the cathedral from its north side rather than the more traditional west portal. This is because Grossmünster’s southern and northern entrances formed part of a pilgrimage axis that linked the cathedral to the nearby, small Water Church (German: Wasserkirche) – built on the site where St. Felix, St. Regula, and St. Exuperantius were executed – and Fraumünster. On its north side, Grossmünster has a portal in the form of a classical Roman arch, denoting the triumph of the Christian faith. On the main portal, one can observe the Romanesque figure of King David of Israel playing a harp in addition to two lions. Surviving Gothic wall paintings depicting the legend of Felix and Regula and a 15th-century CE statue of Charlemagne in Gothic style are located in a 12th-century CE triple-aisled crypt beneath Grossmünster. A column capital in the church’s north aisle contains a fine image of Charlemagne riding a horse as well. Directly beside Grossmünster Cathedral is the chapterhouse and the cloister, which dates from c. 1170 CE. 

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Serf

Medieval serfs (aka villeins) were unfree labourers who worked the land of a landowner (or its tenant) in return for physical and legal protection and the right to work a separate piece of land for their own basic needs. Making up at least 75% of the medieval population, serfs were not slaves as only their labour could be bought, not their person, although they were subject to certain fees and restrictions of movement which varied according to local custom. The hub of the medieval rural community and reason for a serf’s existence was the manor or castle – the estate owner’s private residence and place of communal gatherings for purposes of administration and legal matters. The relationship of the peasantry to these manors and their lords is known as manorialism. Serfdom declined by the 14th century CE thanks to social and economic changes, particularly the wider use of coinage with which serfs could be paid, allowing some the possibility of eventually buying their own freedom.

Origins

The idea of people of different social levels living together on a single estate for mutual benefit goes back to Roman times when countryside villas produced foodstuffs on their surrounding land. As the Roman Empire declined and foreign raids and invasions became more common, the security of living together in a protected place had distinct advantages. The lord of an estate gave the right to live and work on his land to the peasantry in return for their labour service. Peasants were either free or unfree, with the latter category known as serfs or villeins. Serfdom evolved in part from the slavery system of the old Roman Empire. Without much property of their own, the serfs gave up their freedom of movement and their labour in exchange for the benefits of life on the estate of a landowner.

The most important function of serfs was to work on the demesne land of their lord for two or three days each week.

In addition to those born into serfdom, many free labourers unwittingly became serfs because their own small plot of land was barely sufficient for their needs. In such circumstances as a prolonged illness or a bad harvest, many freemen became serfs in order to survive, a downgrading frequently attested to in 1087 CE’s Domesday Book, a record of landowners and labourers in Norman England.

Manors

Some country estates covered as little as a few hundred acres, which was just about enough land to meet the needs of those who lived on it. The smallest unit of land was called a manor. Manors could be owned by the monarch, aristocrats or the church, and the very rich could own several hundred manors, collectively known as an ‘honour’. The majority of manors were like small villages as they created self-contained and independent communities. Besides a manor and/or castle, the estate had simple dwellings for the labourers and might also include a small river or stream running through it, a church, mill, barns and an area of woodlands. The land of the estate was divided into two main parts. The first part was the demesne (domain) which was reserved for the exclusive exploitation of the landowner. Typically, the demesne was 35-40% of the total land on the estate. The second part was the land the labourers lived and worked on for their own daily needs (mansus), typically around 12 acres (5 hectares) per family. The serfs on the estate farmed that land reserved for their use as well as the demesne.

July, Les Tres Riches Heures

Rights & Obligations

The most important task of serfs was to work on the demesne land of their lord for two or three days each week, and more during busy periods like harvest time. All of the food produced from that land went to the lord. It was sometimes possible for a serf to send a family member (providing they were physically able) to perform the labour on the demesne in their place. On the other days of the week, serfs could farm that land given to them for their own family’s needs. Usually, serfs could not legally leave the estate on which they worked but the flip side was that they also had a right to live on it which gave them both physical protection and sustenance.

A serf inherited the status of their parents, although in the case of a mixed marriage (between free and unfree labourers) the child usually inherited the status of the father if legitimate and, if illegitimate, the status of the mother. In England and Normandy, the eldest son inherited the actual land worked on by their serf fathers, with daughters inheriting only if they had no brothers. Widows typically inherited around one-third of their late husbands’ land. In contrast, in central and southern France, Germany and Scandinavia, inheritance was equal between sons and daughters of serfs.

Aside from payment to their lord of a regular percentage of the foodstuffs produced on their own land, the peasantry had to pay a tithe to the local parish church.

A landowner could sell one of his serfs but the right for sale was that of labour, not direct ownership of the person as in slavery. Theoretically, the personal property of a serf belonged to the landowner but this was unlikely to have been enforced or had any relevance in practical terms.

Aside from payment to their lord of a regular percentage of the foodstuffs produced on their own land, the peasantry had to pay a tithe to the local parish church, typically one-tenth of the peasant’s harvest. The latter was used to maintain a priest, the church and provide a small welfare fund for the poor. In addition to those two heavy costs, a serf was obliged to pay fines and certain customary fees to their lord such as on the marriage of the lord’s eldest daughter, or on the death of a serf in the form of an inheritance tax paid by the serf’s heir. Fines were usually paid in kind for most of the medieval period, for example in the shape of the best animal the serf had. To protect the future generations of a landowner’s serfs there were such customs as a fine for the daughter of a serf marrying a person from outside the estate.

Medieval Peasants Threshing

Serfs born into a large family very often did not receive any land of their own to work and so were obliged to continue to live in the home of their parents, marry another serf with land or live in the household of another peasant elsewhere giving their labour as rent. Other options included negotiating a new parcel of land from the lord, working for a local clergyman or trying their luck in a town or city where they might find unskilled employment working for a tradesman such as a miller or a blacksmith.   

As customs varied from estate to estate and over time, there were some labourers who occupied a grey area of status between the free and unfree. One such category of serf was the ministerial serf in parts of France, Germany and the Low Countries. These serfs, still unfree in legal terms, had in practice more freedom of movement and could own their own property and land because they were the children of serfs who had served a lord as administrators or in some military capacity.   

Daily Life

A description from the customs of the Richard East estate in England in 1298 CE records the following daily tasks expected of a serf:

He will plow and harrow at his own expense a fourth of an acre. And throughout the year he will work every second day, either carrying or mowing or reaping or carting, or doing some other work according as the lord or his bailiff commands him, except on Saturdays and major church holidays. And at harvest time he will find two men to reap for two days for the customary additional work at his own cost, that is two men on each day. And at the end of harvest time he will reap with one man for the whole day at his own cost.

(quoted in Singman, 85)

The lord was not completely heartless and did have one or two minimal obligations to observe himself:

All the aforesaid villeins at the end of moving will have sixpence for beer and a loaf of bread apiece. And he [the lord] must provide three bushels of wheat for the aforesaid bread. And each of the aforementioned mowers will have one small bundle of hay each evening, as much as he can mow with his scythe.

(ibid)

Men did the heavy agricultural work described above with women also doing lighter farm work and helping out at harvest time. Throughout the year women had their own extensive traditional duties such as milking, making butter and cheese, brewing ale (brewed from malted grains), baking bread, tending fruit trees, cooking in general, making wool and producing wool- and linen cloth, looking after poultry, household cleaning, and (probably) looking after any children.

Medieval Peasant's Cottage

A tax assessment, compiled in 1304 CE for one Richard Bovechurch of Cuxham in England, gives an idea of what a serf of average wealth might own with the value of each item in shillings (s) and pence (d). There were 12 pence to the shilling. 

  • 1 horse – value 2s
  • 1 cow – 4s
  • 1 piglet – 6d
  • 3 hens – 3d
  • 1 bushel of beans – 3d
  • 2 acres sown with grain – 4s
  • 2 acres sown with vetch – 2s
  • 1 cottage – 18 d
  • 1 brass pot – 12d
  • 1 pan – 3d
  • 1 cart – 8d

Serfs typically lived in a modest one-story building made of cheap and easily acquired materials like mud and timber for the walls and thatch for the roof. There a small family unit dwelt; retired elders usually had their own cottage. More welcome than the in-laws, a dog and cat often proved useful, the former for herding and the latter for keeping down the number of rats in the granary. There was typically a hearth fire in the centre of the home which, besides a lot of smoke, provided warmth and light, as did candles. The windows of these simple dwellings had no glass but were closed at night using wooden shutters, and bedding was made of straw and woollen blankets. Farm animals were kept in a separate or attached building while a more prosperous serf family might also have a building for brewing beer and baking. A toilet was usually nothing grander than a hole over a cesspit, sometimes within a small shed for privacy but certainly not always. These domestic buildings were typically arranged around a courtyard to provide some protection from the wind.

Food & Leisure

Typical peasant food consisted of coarse bread made from wheat and rye or barley and rye; porridge made from barley or rye; and thick soup made from any of the following: cereals, peas, cabbage, leeks, spinach, onions, beans, parsley and garlic. The better-off peasants had milk, cheese and eggs, and meat was another rare luxury as farm animals were much more valuable alive, the most common meat being salted pork or bacon. Dried and salted fish and eels were available at a price. Fruit, usually cooked, included apples, pears and cherries, and wild berries and nuts were collected, too. The main drinks were weak ale or water with honey added. Few peasants would have had access to all the food just listed and most had diets lacking in fats, proteins, calcium and vitamins A, C and D.

January, Les Tres Riches Heures

A serf had leisure time on Sundays and on holidays when the most popular pastimes were drinking beer, singing, and group dancing to music from pipes, flutes and drums. There were games like dice, board games and sports such as hockey and medieval football where the goal was to move the ball to a predetermined destination and there were few, if any, rules.  Serfs did get to live it up a little once a year when, by tradition, they were invited to the manor on Christmas day for a meal. Unfortunately, they had to bring along their own plates and firewood, and of course, all the food had been produced by themselves anyway, but they did get free beer and it was at least a chance to see how the other half lived and relieve the dreariness of a country winter.

Manor Courts

The manor had its own court run by the lord or his steward which was held a few times each year. In England, such a court, held in the great hall of a castle or manor, was known as a hallmote or halimote. Disputes between members of the manor estate such as the right to use particular areas of land like woodlands or peat lands (but not disputes between the lord and an individual peasant) were dealt with here, as well as the fines imposed on the estate workers and any criminal matters. Serious crimes such as murder, rape, and arson were judged in the courts of the Crown. The hallmote may have been biased toward the landowner but he was usually bound by the customs established by his predecessors and the ultimate decision of the court was actually in the hands of a jury, a panel of selected locals, usually fellow estate workers. This panel, typically consisting of 12 men, had evolved from the original jury of the early medieval period which referred to the men called by a defendant as character witnesses. There were also higher courts to appeal to and records show that the peasantry, acting collectively, could bring cases against a landowner.

Decline in Serfdom

The institution of serfdom was gradually weakened by several developments in the late Middle Ages. The sudden population declines caused by wars and plagues, particularly the Black Death (which peaked between 1347-1352 CE) meant that labour was in short supply and thus expensive. Another trend was for free labourers to leave the countryside and seek their fortunes in the growing number of towns and cities. Runaway serfs could similarly try their luck and there was even a custom that by living for one year and a day in a town a serf earned his freedom. Without sufficient labour, many estates were abandoned. This situation gave serfs leverage to negotiate a better deal for themselves, even to receive a payment for their work. The greater use of coinage in medieval society helped make this possible and worthwhile. With saved-up money, Serfs could make a payment to their lord instead of labour in some cases or pay a fee to be absolved from some of the labour expected of them, or they could even buy their freedom.

Serfs increased their political power by acting collectively in village communities which began to hold their own courts and which acted as a counterweight to those of the landed gentry. Finally, there were sometimes serious revolts by the peasantry against their masters: the years 1227 CE in the northern Low Countries, 1230 CE on the lower Weser in northern Germany and 1315 CE in the Swiss Alps all witnessed violent peasant armies getting the better of those involving aristocratic knights. A major but unsuccessful peasant revolt which called for the end of serfdom occurred in England in 1381 CE. Across Europe, all of these factors conspired to weaken the traditional setup of unfree labourers being tied to the land and working for the rich so that by the end of the 14th century CE, more agricultural labour was done by paid workers than unpaid serfs.

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Bjorn Ironside

Bjorn Ironside (also spelt Björn Ironside; Old Norse Bjǫrn Járnsíða) is a legendary Viking who in the stories surrounding him raids alongside his brothers and his father, the Viking chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok. While the legends mentioning Bjorn are set in the 9th century CE, they are most extensively known from three sources, all from around the 13th century CE: The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons and Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum. Here, he is the son of Ragnar and Aslaug (or Thora, in the Gesta), and his most frequently named and most famous brothers are Ivar the Boneless, Hvitserk and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.

On their adventures, it is his crippled brother Ivar who leads the gang, while Bjorn is described as a capable and ferocious warrior who with his prowess can turn the tide of battles. His epithet seems to be quite literal and refers to the strength of his sides, which were like iron (i.e. modern fitness enthusiasts could learn from him). These trips take the brothers from across Scandinavia to Anglo-Saxon England and, in some of the stories, to Normandy, the Frankish Kingdoms, Lombardy and up to a town called Luni or Luna which was supposedly on the way to Rome. Bjorn either becomes the ruler of Sweden (or part of it – Uppsala, central Sweden and all its lands) after his father’s death at the hand of King Ælla of Northumbria (r. c. 866 CE) or is gifted lordship over Sweden and even Norway by his father while he still lives. His death or manner of death is not recorded and neither are any possible wives, despite the popular TV series Vikings – in which Bjorn is portrayed by Alexander Ludwig and is the son of Lagertha, not Aslaug – creatively filling in these blanks for us. With regard to children, only the 13th-century CE legendary work Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks mentions any at all: Eirik and Refil. In this story, the former rules Sweden after his father’s death and is succeeded by his brother Refil’s son, who is also named Eirik.

The sons of Ragnar, led by Ivar in terms of strategy & by Bjorn and Hvitserk in terms of battle prowess, often go raiding & adventuring together.

Although as with the rest of the Lothbrok family the persona Bjorn Ironside may be distantly inspired by one or multiple famous Vikings from the 9th century CE, a clear link is hard to establish; the tradition in which Bjorn occurs is legendary rather than historical in nature, and thus so must be most details of his heroic exploits and life.

Bjorn in The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok

The best-known and main source for the mythos of Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons is the 13th-century CE Icelandic The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (Old Norse: Ragnars saga loðbrókar). The work first describes the childhood of Bjorn’s mother, Aslaug, who is the daughter of Sigurd and Brynhild (the legendary dragonslayer and the Valkyrie from Germanic mythology further popularised by Wagner) but loses her parents when she is three years old and grows up with a poor family in Norway, who name her Kráka (‘crow’) and keep her parentage hidden. Meanwhile, Ragnar, son of King Sigurd Ring of Denmark, rids a town in Götaland from a slight dragon problem and receives the hand of Thora, daughter of the jarl of Götaland, as a reward. With her, Ragnar has two sons, Bjorn’s older half-brothers Eirek and Agnar.

Thora unfortunately dies an untimely death. When Ragnar then goes on a raiding trip along the Norwegian coast he ends up looting something unforeseen; he meets Kráka and whisks her off, marrying her for her beauty and quick wits despite her seemingly poor heritage. The couple have four sons together: Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside, Hvitserk, and Rognvald (and, at a later point, after the episode in Sweden described below, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye). The brothers, led by Ivar in terms of strategy and planning and by Bjorn and Hvitserk in terms of battle prowess, often go raiding and adventuring together. According to the Saga, ‘They were all great men and the boldest of warriors, and as soon as they were old enough they learned all sorts of skills.’ (7, found in Crawford, 98).

Viking Age Swords

On one such raid, to Hvítabø, Rognvald is cut down and dies, but the brothers are victorious nonetheless and pursue the fleeing townsmen. When they turn back to the town, Bjorn speaks a verse:

Our blades bit more than theirs,

our battle-cry was raised—

I must tell this truly—

there on the Gnipafjord.

Let every man who’d like to—

lads, don’t spare your swords now—

become, before Hvitabaer [Hvítabø],

the bane of a foeman.

(8, quoted from Waggoner, 14).

Bjorn and his remaining brothers would continue to be the bane of their foemen elsewhere, too. Soon after the Hvítabø episode, they sally forth to Sweden to successfully avenge their half-brothers Eirek and Agnar, who were killed by its king, Eystein. Upon landing in Sweden, Ragnar’s sons are described as ruthless and brutal (by today’s standards, anyway), burning and pillaging everything and killing everyone who stood in their path. Not even King Eystein’s magical cow, Sibilja, who moos so terribly the enemy force starts fighting amongst itself, is a match for them, and after concluding this affair and killing Eystein the brothers go south. The Saga describes how they are headed to Rome but only make it as far as a town called Luni (or Luna) before they hear how much further Rome still is, decide it is all too much of a drag and turn right back around.

Ragnar’s heritage is divided & Bjorn Ironside receives Uppsala & central Sweden, & all the lands that belong to it. 

Bjorn eventually loses his father when Ragnar has grown just a tad too confident; after boasting he will invade England with just two ships, Ragnar is captured by King Ælla of Northumbria (r. c. 866 CE) and meets his death in a snake-pit. Ragnar’s sons then avenge their father by sailing to England and allegedly torturing Ælla by performing the blood-eagle on him (see below).

The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons

This latter story, along with most of the main elements of The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, is also preserved in the late 13th-early 14th century CE Icelandic work, The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons (Ragnarssona þáttr). What the Tale expands on – unsurprisingly, if one has bothered reading its title – is the actions of Bjorn and his brothers, especially after their father dies at the hand of King Ælla. Ivar finds a way to build connections within England from a base in York, and with his new allies he and his brothers defeat the forces of Ælla. Their wrath is not quenched until they torture Ælla to death: ‘They now had the eagle cut in Ella’s back, then all his ribs severed from the backbone with a sword, in such a way that his lungs were pulled out there.’ (3). Luckily for the now ex-king (who has an actual historical counterpart), this method is usually thought to be fictitious and the stuff of these legends, only.

After they have had their fun playing around with Ælla’s insides, the sons of Ragnar go raiding far and wide, from England to Normandy, other areas in what is now France, and to Lombardy. As in the Saga, Luni is the farthest point they reach, with Rome here also proving too much of an effort. Their father’s heritage is divided, too, and Bjorn Ironside receives Uppsala and central Sweden, and all the lands that belong to it. Along with his more recently born brother, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, and Hvitserk, Bjorn spends ample time raiding widely in France before heading back to his newly acquired kingdom. No more mention is made of him and no tale of his death is recorded, either.

Ragnar Lothbrok's Sons & King Ælla's Messengers

The Gesta Danorum

A third main source connected with the Ragnar legend and in which his son Bjorn Ironside plays a clear part is the Gesta Danorum (‘Deeds of the Danes’). Probably written in the early 13th century CE by Saxo Grammaticus, in Latin and not Old Norse like the above two, the Gesta’s ninth book contains a trove of information on Ragnar’s life and deeds including new characters and events unreported by other sources while still trying to tie in familiar elements. Two otherwise unknown wives of Ragnar’s are mentioned here: the shieldmaiden Lagertha and a woman named Swanloga. The resulting mishmash of an account may be due to Saxo having tried to reconcile various stories he had heard or read elsewhere into a single account.

For all its additions, the Gesta also has some clear omissions when it comes to elements usually present in the stories about Ragnar and his sons, one of which would give anyone a mild identity crisis. Aslaug, who is normally depicted as Bjorn’s mother, is wholly absent, and thus Bjorn switches mums to Thora (although this is only implied). A whole array of brothers are mentioned, many by different mothers than in the other stories: Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye (here Siward), Agnar, Ivar, and two wildcards called Radbard and Dunwat are Bjorn’s full brothers, while half-brothers include Fridleif (by Lagertha), Ubbe (or Ubba) by an unnamed woman, as well as Rognvald (here Ragnald), Hvitserk and Eirek by Swanloga.

At least two medieval Frankish chronicles mention a Viking they call Berno (possibly Bjorn in Old Norse?) who raided on the Seine in France in the 850s CE.

Saxo also explains Bjorn’s – in the end very unimaginative – epithet: ‘Biorn, having inflicted great slaughter on the foe without hurt to himself, gained from the strength of his sides, which were like iron, a perpetual name (Ironsides).’ (9). Bjorn, like the other brothers, assists Ragnar on many trips connected to raiding and ruling across Scandinavia and the British Isles, receiving both lordship over Sweden from him as a reward for his bravery and service as well as Norway as an extra at a later point in time. Just like Ivar, Bjorn behaves in an exemplary way when one of Ragnar’s other sons, Ubba, plans to usurp his father and tries to gain Bjorn’s support, in a passage which oozes morality:

Esbern [Ubba’s grandfather, who was in on the plot] speedily made an attempt on Biorn himself, addressing him most courteously through his envoys. Biorn said that he would never lean more to treachery than to good faith, and judged that it would be a most abominable thing to prefer the favour of an infamous brother to the love of a most righteous father. The envoys themselves he punished with hanging, because they counselled him to so grievous a crime. (9).

The Gesta, too, has the familiar story of Ragnar’s boastful but fateful invasion of England where he ends up face-first in King Ælla’s snake-pit. Outraged and upset, squeezing a die he was holding when he received tidings of his father’s death to such a degree his fingers bled, Bjorn hops aboard the brutal vengeance train along with his brothers. Sigurd and Bjorn take a fleet of 400 ships and declare war on Ælla. Victorious, they capture the unfortunate king, who luckily is unaware of his approaching fate. Rather than sticking to the torture method described in the Tale which was bad enough as it was, Saxo has Ragnar’s boys cutting the figure of an eagle in Ælla’s back and says that after that ‘they salted the mangled flesh.’ (9). After this event, Bjorn returns home and no further mention is made of him.  

Possible historical inspiration for Bjorn

It is clear that the legendary corpus focusing on Ragnar and his sons stems mainly from the 12th- and 13th centuries CE and is exactly that – legendary. However, the historical context and the inspiration for the legends are found in the 9th century CE, the pinnacle of Viking raids and expansion, and some of the details are indeed historical. King Ælla, for example, really did rule Northumbria around 866 CE and did see a Viking ‘Great Army’ land on his doorstep from 865 CE onwards; although his historical death occurred in battle with Viking forces around York c. 867 CE, the legendary torture methods are not mentioned and not likely, either. The struggles of lordship across Scandinavia and the many excursions of both Ragnar and his sons also fit within the 9th-century CE context of the Viking spreading their wings (well, ships) across Europe. The problems with taking possible parallels between the legends and history to a higher level, though, are among others the commonality of Viking names (meaning two Bjorns in two sources do not at all have to be the same person), and the scarcity of sources we have for the 9th century CE.  

William of Jumièges

This is precisely why a straight-up, one-on-one identification of a historical character with the later legendary character of Bjorn Ironside is riddled with problems. However, there seems to be a (side-)current running through some of our modern scholarship that does just that and sees Bjorn Ironside together with another Viking called Hásteinn (also spelt Hastein or Hasting) as the leaders of a historical Viking raid on present-day Spain. Such far-flung expeditions did indeed take place; the earliest one we know of took place in 844 CE and saw Vikings conquer Seville and other places before being chased off by the resident Arabs (the area was then part of the Umayyad Emirate of Córdoba). In 859 CE, a large Viking fleet appears to have cruised out from their base on the Loire river in France and made its way to Spain, too, as well as – according to the tales – North Africa, and areas of Italy and south-eastern France, gathering plenty of booty and slaves in the process. Scholar Elise Roesdahl states that a Viking winter camp is indeed known from the Camargue in the Rhône delta region, and that Pisa and other towns in Italy were plundered, too (200). Moreover, these Mediterranean Viking raids are not just recorded in later Norman and Scandinavian stories but also in such contemporary works as the Frankish Annals of St Bertin and Arab sources.

The Mediterranean raids’ alleged connection with Bjorn Ironside and Hásteinn seems to – as far as we know – stem solely from the hand of one William of Jumièges, who wrote his work the Gesta Normannorum Ducum (‘Deeds of the Norman Dukes’) c. 1070 CE. The legend of Bjorn Ironside, here also the son of a ‘King Lothbrok’ and described to have attacked the town of Luni, thus existed well before our best-known 13th-century works on him. William’s Gesta built upon Dudo of St-Quentin’s De Moribus written between 996-1015 CE; ‘based on literary rather than annalistic models, Dudo’s work has been described as “a deeply unreliable history”.’ (Hanawault 1994, 111, quoted in Christys 2015). Not a good start, then. Although Hásteinn may have had a historical basis, what we know of the whereabouts of the possible historical Hásteinn does not match up time-wise with William of Jumièges placing him in Spain. Regarding Bjorn, we do not know much more, except that at least two medieval Frankish chronicles mention a Viking they call Berno (possibly Bjorn in Old Norse?) who raided on the Seine in France in the 850s CE. This hardly seems enough to equate either or both of these 9th-century CE Viking leaders with as defined a character as Bjorn Ironside, however. Whoever did lead these expeditions in France and Spain would clearly have appealed to the interest of later writers, though, and the most logical deduction is that one or both of them later helped inspire or became otherwise connected with the legendary figure of Bjorn Ironside, who travels far and wide including to the Mediterranean. 

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Cwenthryth of Mercia

Cwenthryth of Mercia (also given as Cwoenthryth, 9th century CE) was the daughter of King Coenwulf (r. 796-821 CE). Little is known of her actual life but she later became infamous in the 12th century CE through the legend of St. Kenelm as the scheming sister who arranges her brother Kenelm’s death. There is no historical basis for this legend and the casting of Cwenthryth as villainess was most likely due to the historical Cwenthryth’s dispute with Wulfred, Archbishop of Canterbury between c. 805-832 CE, and a later scribe’s poor opinion of a woman challenging the authority of the church.

Recent interest in Cwenthryth has been sparked by the character Kwenthryth in the TV series Vikings where she is played by American actress Amy Bailey. The character in the show is actually a combination of three medieval noble women all of whom were demonized by later writers to such a degree that very little – or nothing – remains in historical accounts to contradict the official version of their lives: Cwenthryth of Mercia, Cynethryth of Mercia (died c. 800 CE, wife of King Offa, r. 757-796 CE)), and her daughter Eadburh of Mercia (d. c. 802 CE). The TV character’s name is taken from the historical Cwenthryth; her manipulative aspects come from the legend combined with snippets from the other two women’s lives.

A scribe at Winchcombe wrote ‘The Story of St. Kenelm the Little King’  Which transformed Cwenthryth into a medieval villainess.

Historical Cwenthryth

The dispute between the historical Cwenthryth and Wulfred goes back to before she was even born. King Offa of Mercia defeated Eahlmund of Kent (r. 784-785 CE) in battle in 785 CE and took control of the kingdom. Mercia and Kent had a long and contentious relationship prior to this time as Mercia sought control and Kent tried to keep its autonomy. Eahlmund’s father, Egbert II (r. 765-c.779 CE), had previously defeated Mercia in 776 CE and Kent retained its independence until Offa’s 785 CE offensive.

Once Offa was in control, he made significant changes to a number of institutions and policies and, among these, was to reduce the prestige and power of the archdiocese of Canterbury by creating another archdiocese at Lichfield in 787 CE. According to surviving documents, this was done primarily because of Offa’s personal distaste for the Archbishop of Canterbury Jaenberht (presided 765-792 CE) who had supported Egbert II and his son. This feud set the precedent for later problems between Canterbury and the ruling house of Mercia.

Coin of Offa of Mercia

Offa was succeeded by his son Ecgfrith (r. 796 CE) who ruled only a few months before dying, most likely assassinated, and Coenwulf, a distant cousin, took the throne. Records and letters from his reign show that Coenwulf experienced multiple problems with Wulfred, Archbishop of Canterbury, over lands Coenwulf owned in the archbishop’s diocese, Minster-in-Thanet and Reculver. Wulfred denied the legitimacy of Coenwulf’s claims and Coenwulf, of course, contested this in letters to Pope Leo III.

When Coenwulf died in 821 CE, his will stipulated that these lands were left to his daughter Cwenthryth, who was Abbess of the Parish of Minster-in-Thanet. Wulfred reasserted his right to the lands at this time and requested rent from Cwenthryth as well as her official recognition of his lordship. Cwenthryth refused and so Wulfred filed a lawsuit against her to force compliance in c. 824 CE.

At some point between that time and 827 CE, councils were convened to decide the matter but no resolution is recorded. Wulfred then sued Cwenthryth again, this time for compensation for loss of income from the properties and, in 827 CE, Cwenthryth is said to have retired to the Abbey at Winchcombe, which had friendly relations with her father, and there is no further record of her; Wulfred acquired her properties in accordance with his second lawsuit. The account of her legal battle with Wulfred, and her position of abbess at Minster-in-Thanet, is literally all that is known of the historical princess Cwenthryth.

Kwenthryth & King Ecbert

Cwenthryth in Legend

In the 12th century, a scribe at Winchcombe wrote The Story of St. Kenelm the Little King which would transform Cwenthryth into the medieval villainess she would be known as ever after.

The story goes that, when Coenwulf died, he left his kingdom to his seven-year-old son Kenelm who was loved by the nobles of Mercia and welcomed as their king. Kenelm was tutored by a noble named Aesceberht who was the lover of Kenelm’s older sister Cwenthryth. Cwenthryth suggested to Aesceberht that, if Kenelm were killed, she would be made queen and he would rule with her.

Aesceberht led Kenelm further & further into the woods & then killed him by chopping off his head.

Aesceberht invited young Kenelm on a hunting trip during which Kenelm is said to have known Aesceberht’s intentions but trusted in his god’s will for his life. Aesceberht led Kenelm further and further into the woods and then killed him by chopping off his head; afterwards he buried him in a thicket.

At the hour of Kenelm’s death a number of devout clergymen were praying in the Church of St. Peter in Rome when a white dove flew in through a window and landed on the altar, gripping a letter in its claws. The men took the letter from the bird but could not read it because it was not written in Latin. There was one among them, though, who knew the “English tongue” and translated the letter for the rest of them and then for the Pope.

The letter was an account of how the little king Kenelm had been killed and buried in the woods and the Pope then wrote to all the kings of Britain telling them what had happened and commanding them to go find the boy’s body and give it a proper burial. The kings obeyed, found Kenelm’s grave, and carried the body toward Winchcombe to be buried “for they deemed that Kenelm was a holy child and they knew that he had been wickedly slain by the guile of his sister Cwenthryth” (Freeman, 88).

Cwenthryth was at the Abbey at Winchcombe as the procession came into town with Kenelm’s body when suddenly all the bells began ringing without anyone near the ropes. Cwenthryth was reading from her psalter when this happened and asked her attendants what it meant. When she was told that her brother’s body had been found and was proceeding toward the abbey, she said, “Should that be true, may my eyes fall out upon this book” and, in that very moment, her eyes fell out of her head onto the pages of the psalter. She and Aesceberht soon after “died wretchedly”, though no details are given, and Kenelm was given a Christian burial. Over his grave they built St. Kenelm’s Chapel which, the story claims, one can visit at the time of the author’s writing.

English Midlands c. 912 CE

Another version of the story includes a cow or white cow who, after Kenelm is murdered, comes and sits on his grave day and night for years to draw attention to the crime. In this version, the white dove takes somewhat longer to make its flight to Rome but the rest of the story proceeds along the same lines as the Winchcombe account. Commenting on the Kenelm legends, scholar Edward Augustus Freeman writes:

It is hard to see what should have made anybody invent such a tale if nothing of the kind had ever happened. Yet it is a very unlikely story. For it was not the custom of the English then to choose either children or women to reign over them so that, if Coenwulf left only a daughter and a young son, it is next to certain that his brother Ceolwulf would have been chosen king (87).

However unlikely the tale may seem to a modern audience, it was accepted – as it seems all the tales of the Christian saints’ lives and miracles were – as fact by audiences of the time it was written. By the time of Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400 CE) pilgrimages to the site of St. Kenelm’s Church on his feast day (17 July, the date when he was either murdered or buried at Winchcombe) were immensely popular. Chaucer even alludes to St. Kenelm in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale in his Canterbury Tales.

Charters witnessed by the historical Kenelm show that he was at least 25-years old in 811 CE, the probable year of his death, and there is no evidence indicating he was murdered in a plot involving his sister. Cwenthryth, it is known, entered the Abbey at Minster-in-Thanet after her father died and she came into possession of his lands. The altercation with Wulfred began shortly after her arrival there.

The people of the time, however, had no access to these records and were largely illiterate. They would have had accounts like The Story of St. Kenelm the Little King read to them and would have then repeated the story to others. In time, Cwenthryth became the evil sister who orchestrated the death of her innocent little brother; a reputation she has had ever since.

Cwenthryth in Vikings & Other Evil Queens

In the TV series Vikings, Kwenthryth is not evil so much as damaged by abuse at the hands of her uncle, brother, and other men of the Mercian court and is also depicted simply as a woman attempting to assert herself in a patriarchal role. Even so, her character is drawn from the legendary Cwenthryth as well as the two other queens mentioned above Cynethryth and Eadburh of Mercia.

Cynethryth’s reputation has been tarnished just as badly as Cwenthryth’s as later scribes characterized her as scheming, manipulative, and murderous. According to one tale, her daughter Alfrida fell in love with the handsome prince Ethelbert of East Anglia and asked her father to arrange a marriage. Offa did so but Cynethryth became jealous of her daughter’s happiness and convinced Offa that Ethelbert was plotting against him. Offa invited Ethelbert to his palace and, on the night before the wedding, had him killed in the great hall.

Ecbert of Wessex Played by Linus Roache

When Offa’s men tried to bury the body, however, angelic lights would appear to expose the crime and they had to try again to find a less conspicuous site for the burial. At last they managed to bury Ethelbert in Hereford where a wonderous spring then burst from the ground, very like in the Kenelm tale and many others. Cynethryth, after a life of deceit and murder, improbably retired to an abbey after the death of her husband in order to contemplate the divine.  

Long before her retirement, however, Cynethryth taught her deviousness to her daughter Eadburh who was married to Beorhtric of Wessex (r. 786-802 CE). Eadburh is characterized by the scribe Asser (d. 909 CE) as a “tyrant” who would either convince her husband to have various people killed or did so herself by poisoning them. She is said to have poisoned her husband by accident in an attempt to kill one of his favorite court counselors and, afterwards, to have fled Wessex for the kingdom of the Franks.

Once there, in a famous – and almost certainly fictional – medieval moment, she was asked by Charlemagne which she would choose in marriage, himself or his son. When Eadburh chose the younger man, Charlemagne informed her that, had she chosen him, she would have had both of them but, since she chose his son, she would have neither. She was then expelled from his castle but made abbess of a convent. She is then said to have violated all the codes of sanctity through sexual relations with a man and was thrown out to spend the rest of her days begging in the streets.

Documents and letters of the time, however, suggest that these women were nothing like their depiction in the works of the later scribes who wove their legends. Cynethryth is praised by the famous scholar and cleric Alcuin (c. 735-804 CE) for her piety and attention to the church and there are no reliable accounts of her alleged murderous tendencies. There is evidence however that, like Cwenthryth, Cynethryth challenged the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury over land rights and, as in the later event, the church won.

In the case of Eadburh, it is easy to understand where the resentment of the later scribes (like Asser) comes from: Eadburh was the means by which Mercia controlled Wessex. Asser complains, at one point, how “as soon as she had won the king’s friendship, and power throughout almost the entire kingdom, she began to behave like a tyrant after the manner of her father” (Keynes & Lapidge, 71). Eadburh’s marriage was arranged for the express purpose of Mercian control over the southern reaches. Beorhtric needed Mercian support to win the Wessex throne from his challenger (the future Egbert of Wessex, r. 802-839 CE). Offa gave him this support and, in exchange, Beorhtric married Eadburh who then helped shape Wessex’s policy and decisions regarding Mercia. It is hardly surprising, then, that later scribes from Wessex should cast her in a negative light.

In Vikings, Kwenthryth is promised support by King Ecbert of Wessex who sends his son Aethelwulf and the Viking mercenaries under Ragnar Lothbrok to defeat Kwenthryth’s uncle and brother and restore her to the Mercian throne. Once this is accomplished, Kwenthryth poisons her brother Burgred at a celebratory feast and assumes the throne of Mercia. Ecbert eventually betrays Kwenthryth and kills her with the help of his mistress (also his daughter-in-law) Judith. None of these events is historical but they do point to a historical truth.

In the TV show, Kwenthryth is depicted as a strong and determined, if damaged, woman fighting for the same recognition and rights given to men and, in the end, is betrayed; the same can be said for the historical figures who inspired the character. Cynethryth, Eadburh, and Cwenthryth were all women who challenged the patriarchal authority of the church or crown and would be betrayed by the scribes who later wrote the tales about them which came to be regarded as history.

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Kievan Rus

Kievan Rus (862-1242 CE) was a medieval political federation located in modern-day Belarus, Ukraine, and part of Russia (the latter named for the Rus, a Scandinavian people). The name Kievan Rus is a modern-day (19th century CE) designation but has the same meaning as `land of the Rus’, which is how the region was referred to in the Middle Ages. The Rus ruled from the city of Kiev and so `Kievan Rus’ simply meant “the lands of the Rus of Kiev”.

The Rus are first mentioned in the Annals of Saint-Bertin which records their presence in a diplomatic mission from Constantinople to the court of Louis the Pious (r. 814-840 CE) in 839 CE. The annals claim they were Swedes, and this is possible, but their ethnicity has never been firmly established.   

The story of the arrival of the Rus in the east is first told in the Primary Chronicle (also known as the Tale of Bygone Years, c. 12th century CE) of Russia. This work relates how the people of the land invited the Rus (identified as Scandinavian Vikings) to rule and maintain order in their country in the mid-9th century CE. Three brothers, including one named Rurik, accepted the invitation and founded the Rurik Dynasty which would last for over 700 years.

The Norse leader Rurik (r. 862-879 CE) founded the dynasty which would last until the first Tsar of Russia, Ivan the Terrible (r. 1547-1584 CE).

This version of events is supported in the present day by historians who are labeled `Normanists’ (those who accept a Norse origin for the Rurikid Dynasty) and is challenged by so-called `Anti-Normanists’ who argue for a Slavic origin of Russia and the other states. The Normanist claims are presently considered more valid and it is generally accepted that the Norse leader Rurik (r. 862-879 CE) founded the dynasty which would endure, in an unbroken line, through the reign of Ivan IV, first Tsar of Russia (r. 1547-1584 CE) also known as Ivan the Terrible.

The state of Kievan Rus fell to the Mongols between 1237-1242 CE, breaking the region in pieces which eventually developed into the modern states of Belarus, Russia, and the Ukraine.    

The Primary Chronicle & Early Kings

The Russian Primary Chronicle was probably completed in c. 1113 CE at Kiev and was once attributed to the monk Nestor (c. 1056-1114 CE) but is now thought to be a compilation of earlier works possibly edited by Nestor. The earliest surviving manuscript dates from 1377 CE with editorial notes substantiating the earlier date of the work. The Chronicle is regularly alluded to as historical narrative but this has been challenged as it contains a number of mythic or legendary aspects. Even so, archaeological evidence from the region supports many, if not most, of the events it describes.

11th century CE Kievan Rus Territories

The work begins by claiming that, after the biblical Great Flood, the sons of Noah (Ham, Shem, and Japeth) divided the world between them and Japeth received the region of Kievan Rus as part of his allotment. What Japeth did to establish order in his lands is not mentioned but the Chronicle relates that the people fought with each other and eventually were subjugated by the Khazars of Central Asia (Turkey) and the Varangians (Vikings) of Scandinavia.

The Slavs of the region were forced to pay tribute to the Khazars and the Varangians until they drove the Varangians out but maintained the relationship with the Khazars. Afterwards, however, they found that they could not govern themselves and the tribute paid to the Khazars was too great. Even though they had been tired of paying the Varangians, they recognized that life may have been better under their protection. The Chronicle states:

They said to themselves, “Let us seek a prince who may rule over us and judge us according to the law.” They accordingly went overseas to the Varangian Russes; these particular Varangians were known as Russes, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans, English, Gotlanders, for they were thus named. (59)

The Slavic ambassadors arrived at the unspecified land of the Rus and invited them to come and rule their land as kings. Three noble brothers accepted the invitation and the Chronicle continues:

The oldest, Rurik, located himself at Novgorod; the second, Sineus, at Beloozero; and the third, Truvor, in Izborsk. On account of these Varangians, the district of Novgorod became known as the land of Rus. The present inhabitants of Novgorod are descended from the Varangian race, but aforetime they were Slavs. (59-60)

Corroboration for Scandinavian settlements in these areas comes from physical evidence unearthed in archaeological digs. In c. 750 CE a settlement was established at Staraja Ladoga near the Volkhov River; the first Scandinavian village in the region. Scholar Thomas S. Noonan writes:

Archaeological evidence shows that Scandinavians lived in Ladoga from its inception: a set of Scandinavian-Baltic smithy tools, including a talisman with the face of Odin, was found in a stratum of the 750’s…The Scandinavians who visited Ladoga did not come to loot and raid. There were no other towns in the vicinity, monasteries did not exist, and the neighboring burial mounds of the local peoples were very modest in their contents. There was little of value to steal here. Ladoga was created to facilitate access to the interior of European Russia, with all its natural wealth. (Sawyer, 141-142)

The evidence further suggests that Ladoga became a seasonal settlement later or, at least, the population fluctuated which is in line with the Chronicle’s narrative of the Slavs ejecting the Varangians and then inviting them back. Norse artifacts have also been found at Novgorod and the other sites mentioned in the Chronicle.

Rus Burial Mounds, Staraja Ladoga

Two years after their arrival, the two younger brothers died and Rurik took their regions as his own with his capital at Novgorod. Two men of Rurik’s group, Askold and Dir, asked him for permission to leave the land and seek their fortunes at Tsargrad (Constantinople) and were given leave. On their way to Tsargrad they stopped at a city on a hill called Kiy (Kiev), conquered it, and then began raiding the surrounding area in true Viking fashion. The Chronicle credits them with the famous attack on Constantinople involving 200 Viking ships (c. 860 CE) which was driven off, after much slaughter, by a storm said to have been sent by God; the historical date of this raid, however, does not fit with the rest of the narrative.

In Novgorod, Rurik died of natural causes and entrusted his young son Igor to the care of his kinsman Oleg (also known as Oleg of Novgorod, and Oleg the Prophet, r. 879-912 CE) who succeeded him. Oleg began a series of military campaigns from Novgorod, conquering and consolidating the surrounding lands. He came at last to Kiev and saw how Askold and Dir were amassing enormous wealth through raids.

He tricked them both into coming out of the city, killed them, and took control of the region, moving the capital from Novgorod to Kiev at this time (c. 882 CE). Through negotiations and military strength, he convinced a number of tribes and settlements to stop paying tribute to the Khazars and pay him instead. By the time his reign ended, Oleg had vastly expanded Rus’ control of the region and filled Kiev’s treasury.

It was foretold that Oleg would be killed by a beautiful horse he owned but which he never dared to ride because of the prophecy.

He was known as Oleg the Prophet (which actually translates as Oleg the Priest) due to a prophecy concerning his death. It was foretold that Oleg would be killed by a beautiful horse he owned but which he never dared to ride because of the prophecy. He ordered the horse sent away but provided that it would always be well fed and cared for. Once he had conquered the surrounding regions and made lucrative treaties (especially with Constantinople), he felt confident of his reign, scoffed at the prophecy and asked his advisers what had ever happened to the horse that was supposed to kill him. He was told it had died and Oleg asked to be brought to the horse’s bones. Once there, he mocked the prophecy and stamped on the horse’s skull – startling a serpent beneath which bit him on the foot and killed him.  

He was succeeded by Igor of Kiev (912-945 CE), Rurik’s son, whom he had raised. Igor was married to a Varangian woman named Olga (later St. Olga of Kiev, d. c. 969 CE) sometime before he came to power. Like his adopted father, Igor engaged in successful military campaigns and exacted tribute from the conquered. In time, however, he found that all the wealth he had amassed was not enough for him and imposed heavier tribute on the people. He was finally assassinated by the tribe known as the Drevlians for his greed. His son, Sviatoslav I (r. 945-972 CE) was too young to take the throne and so Olga served as his regent between 945-963 CE.

Olga’s first order of business was to punish the Drevlians for killing her husband. The Drevlians sent word they wanted her to marry their Prince Mai and Olga seemed to agree and requested emissaries; these she killed by tricking them into being carried in a boat which she then had dumped into a pit and they were buried alive. She then entreated the wisest men of the Drevlians to come to her, invited them to bathe upon their arrival, and set the bath-houses on fire, burning them to death. She then asked the Drevlians to prepare a funeral feast to honor Igor, allowed them all to get drunk, and had her soldiers slaughter everyone there.

Princess Olga's Revenge on the Drevlians

The surviving Drevlians took refuge in the city of Iskorosten, where Igor had been killed, and Olga lay siege to it. When she could not take it, she said she would impose the lightest terms of surrender on the city and asked only for three pigeons and three sparrows from each home. These were quickly given and she had her soldiers attach a piece of hot sulphur by a thread to the birds and then release them to return to their nests in the city. These nests in the eaves of houses, and coops, and elsewhere all caught fire at once and Iskorosten was consumed. Olga killed or sold into slavery most of the survivors but spared others so they could continue to pay tribute.

The stories of Olga’s revenge are among the more mythical sections of the Primary Chronicle but are thought to point to actual historical events in the eradication of the Drevlians. These stories were later discounted by the church who made Olga a saint for her dedicated Christian missionary work in the region; even though Kievan Rus remained predominantly pagan throughout the reigns of her son and his successor. It was not Olga but Vladimir the Great (r. 980-1015 CE) who would convert the region to Christianity.

Vladimir the Great & Yaroslav the Wise

Olga abdicated in favor of Sviatoslav I in c. 963 CE and retired to Kiev to spend the rest of her life in domestic duties. Sviatoslav I quickly began a course of military campaigns even greater than those of Oleg and Igor to expand his territory and control trade routes. He conquered Khazaria first, which had long been a rival power, and then the Volga Bulgars, the Alans, and the Danube Bulgars until he had more than tripled his kingdom in size.

He was assassinated returning to Kiev from one such campaign and his sons Yaropolk I (r. 972-980 CE), Oleg, and Vladimir fought for the crown. Oleg was killed and, when Yaropolk I took power, Vladimir fled to Norway to the court of his relative Haakon Sigurdsson (r. c. 972-995 CE). Here he gathered a force of Varangians and bided his time until he felt ready to return and take back the kingdom. He defeated Yaropolk I’s armies and killed his brother in an ambush.

Vladimir followed the example of his father and embarked on a number of military campaigns to either expand the kingdom or secure certain areas. Throughout these marches and battles he had pagan shrines erected to honor local or national deities. At about this time (c. 987 CE) Basil II of the Byzantine Empire (r. 976-1025 CE) asked Vladimir for military aid to defend his throne from two challengers (one of whom, Bardas Phokas, had already declared himself emperor). Vladimir agreed and then either asked for, or was offered, Basil II’s sister Anne in marriage. The marriage was approved on the condition that Vladimir convert to Christianity.

The Varangian Guard

This pact resulted in the Christianization of Kievan Rus and the establishment of the Varangian Guard in the Byzantine Empire. Vladimir sent 6,000 Varangians to Basil II in Constantinople in c. 988 CE and these would become the elite bodyguard of Byzantine emperors and a formidable body of shock troops from that time until the beginning of the 14th century CE.

Another version of Vladimir’s conversion claims that he had lost faith in his pagan gods and sent emissaries to different nations to talk to the clergy about their religious beliefs and practices. After researching Christianity, Islam, and Judaism he selected Eastern Orthodox Christianity because of the beauty of the churches of Constantinople and there being no prohibition on alcohol or eating pork. This story was created (at some point in the 11th century CE) most likely to distance Vladimir’s conversion from a simple marriage contract and emphasize his independence from foreign influences. Whatever the circumstances of his conversion, it had far-reaching effects as scholar Robert Ferguson notes:

The choice of Slavic and not Old Norse as the language of the Rus Orthodox Church made the process of assimilation irreversible. It also opened up Rus society to the profound and enduring influence of Byzantine culture. (131)

Although he may have initially agreed to convert simply to form an alliance, Vladimir quickly embraced Christianity’s best values. He made provision for the poor of his kingdom and made himself personally available to help anyone, no matter their social status. He founded schools to encourage literacy and improved the lives of his people in every respect. Trade flourished and the economy boomed under Vladimir who also founded cities and built numerous churches.

Vladimir was succeeded by Sviatopolk I (r. 1015-1019 CE) known as “the Accursed” for murdering three of Vladimir’s sons (including Boris and Gleb, who were later made saints) after coming to power. Sviatopolk I may have been Vladimir’s eldest son but this is unclear. His reign was undistinguished and he was deposed by another of Vladimir’s sons, Yaroslav I (c. 1019-1054 CE), known as Yaroslav the Wise.

Vladimir I Converting to Christianity

Yaroslav I was the last great monarch of Kievan Rus. He married Ingegerd Olofsdotter (c. 1001-1050 CE), daughter of Olof Skotkonung (r. c. 995-1022 CE), King of Sweden, and later forged important alliances through the marriages of his children to those of other nations. He also reformed the laws, brokered important treaties with Constantinople, and secured his borders from invasions by the nomadic Pechenegs of Turkey. In keeping with the tradition of a Rus king as a warrior, he led a number of successful military campaigns and elevated Kievan Rus to its cultural and economic height. Around 1037 CE, he began construction of St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Novgorod, still among the most impressive medieval churches in the world; its opulence is evidence of the grandeur of Yaroslav I’s reign.

After his death, Kievan Rus splintered as his sons fought each other for power while other cities and principalities rose in revolt. The succeeding monarchs at Kiev were not strong enough to hold the kingdom together and separate, smaller, polities developed. The Northern Crusades, of the 12th century CE especially, toppled the Baltic region of the kingdom and the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204 CE) ruined trade through the sack of Constantinople, cutting off access to the traditional routes to Greece. By the time of the Mongol Invasion of 1237-1242 CE, Kievan Rus was not even remotely a united federation anymore and the separate states were easily taken.  

Kievan Rus in Vikings & Legacy

Kievan Rus is slated to be featured in Season 6 of the popular TV series Vikings through the recurring character of Oleg the Prophet (played by Russian actor Danila Kozlovsky). Precisely how the kingdom of the Rus will appear or what role it will play in the on-going drama is unknown but fan speculation suggests that the character of Bjorn Ironside (played by Canadian actor Alexander Ludwig) will travel there on one of his raids. Vikings regularly compresses or combines historical events so it is probable that Oleg the Prophet will be depicted as founding Kievan Rus.

The inclusion of Kievan Rus is an important development in a show which consistently highlights the impact Viking raids and migration had on other cultures. Although the so-called Anti-Normanist historians continue to maintain that Norse influence in the Slavic regions was negligible, physical and literary evidence argues otherwise. The Varangian Rus who settled at Staraja Ladoga, Novgorod, and Kiev established one of the richest and most stable cultures of the time. The development of a national identity with a common religious faith under Rurikid monarchs like Vladimir the Great and Yaroslav I lay the foundation for the countries which would later emerge in the region.

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