Sex and the (Medieval) City: Social Hygiene and Sex in the Medieval Urban Landscape

A few weeks ago I gave a talk for the London Science Museum Lates on medieval sexuality and the ways in which cities responded to what were considered the competing needs for sex and a harmonious Christian landscape.
Included: swearing, manuscript pictures of penises, and a lot of talk about sex work.


These hoes ain’t loyal – on prostitutes and bad bitches in medieval and hip hop culture

Say some sex shit, like wetter than jacuzzi, bitches.

I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but a lot of hip hop songs refer to ‘hoes’. (I know, I know, stay with me.)  What that can mean in any given context varies, of course, but in general terms what we’re talking about are either sexually available women in general, or specifically actual sex workers.

The thing about the hoes is that whether you’re announcing to a woman that she is one (before taking her to a ho-tel), reminding everyone that you can’t trust them, telling them to leave if they can’t accept the basics, or simply wondering where they at – hoes are an integral part of the hip hop landscape.

In many cases the very concept of masculinity is pinned to one’s ability to either attract hoes, or traffic them, a situation which ain’t easy, and makes it hard out here for a select group of men.

Across the board, however, one thing is certain about hoes – they are not worthy of respect, and the fact that men don’t respect them is absolutely paramount to their street cred.  Jay-Z wants you to know he doesn’t eat with them.  Snoop just needs you to understand that G’s are more important than them.  Hoes are women who are available for sex, but don’t have the ability to hold emotional focus or respect from men.

This concept – of a sexually available woman who should have some stigma attached to her as a result of that availability – sits alongside another hip hop trope, that of the bad bitch.  Bad bitches, like hoes, are generally sexual, sexualised, or sexually available.  Unlike hoes, however, who have been pronounced unworthy of love by too many people to name, bad bitches are LOVED.  Kanye is searching the globe for a hotel that hires them as cleaning staff. Nicki Minaj (to whom all praises) has declared herself the badest bitch, though she may also kiss others if you dare her.

So if some women who like having sex are Bad Bitches, and others are hoes, how is the line drawn?

Largely it seems that the ho/bad bitch dichotomy is resolved through masculine control of emotional attachment.  If a bad bitch is not causing problems for a man, but does him the favour of remaining sexually available to him, she retains her status as a bad bitch.  If a woman becomes a problem for someone, she becomes a ho.  The fastest way for a bad bitch to lose her title is for someone to fall in and out of love with her, at which point she is reduced to the level of ho.  Similarly, if a woman is sexually available to one hip hop artist, she’s a bad bitch.  If she’s fucked every one she can, she’s a ho.  Especially if she fucks with Drake.

Of course Drake draws his own distinction, saying that hoes want attention, and women want respect.  Arguably, then, when men are done respecting women it’s at that point that they become hoes, because it is their perception that allows them to state what a woman’s end goal is.

On the whole, then, in the hip hop context bad bitches are good, hoes are bad, and men get to determine who is what and where the line is drawn.

This is exactly the opposite of the perception of sexually available women in the medieval period.

Most people assume, through not much fault of their own, that during the Middle Ages in Europe, sex was considered across the board to be a Very Bad Thing.  Given that the Church and its control of the continent is essentially the over-arching institution of the medieval period, and that the Church on the whole says that sex is quite naughty and should only be done by the marrieds, it would be easy to assume that any sex for funsies was off limits.

This is only half true, however, because the Church whilst announcing that sex is Well Bad, and Definitely Not Holy, also acknowledged that it’s probably sorta kinda necessary.  Not for women of course – don’t go crazy! – but for men.

In fact, it was the Church’s position that men need sex so badly that if they don’t have access to it, they might just burn the goddamn city down.  Any city.  Cuz boys will be boys.

So what are a bunch of unmarried dudes to do?  They can’t have sex, but they will almost certainly go on a violent rampage if denied it.  To this the Church has a solution – prostitutes.

Oh hell yes they bigged up prostitutes.  Saint fucking Augustine started on this line of thought during the Late Antique period.*  In the thirteenth century, Saint fucking Thomas Aquinas reaffirmed that shit in his Summa Theologica**, and basically everyone was just like, ok cool, we’ll get some prostitutes in the joint then.

So since many Church thinkers had acknowledged that prostitutes were pretty useful, and people didn’t want dudes who weren’t getting any to burn the fucker down, most cities had municipally chartered public brothels where you could go get some, and hopefully not riot.

These brothels were usually outside of or near the city walls, because cities knew they needed to have them, but didn’t want to look like they were celebrating that fact.  So, for example, in London brothels had to be across the river in Southwark.

A lot of cities would also legislate what prostitutes had to wear so that everybody would know you were a prostitute.  In London, again, the uniform was a ‘hood of ray’, meaning black and white stripped material.

So normalised was prostitution that it was considered completely acceptable to run a brothel, and intrepid businessmen doing just that in London included the Bishop of Winchester, giving rise to the euphemism ‘Winchester geese’ .  (I dare you to write a rap using that right fucking now.)  A lot of those ladies are buried in the Cross Bones graveyard, which you should go check out next time you’re near Borough Market.

Technically having sex with a prostitute was a sin, but it attracted very little penance.  Similarly, whilst being a prostitute was a sin, if you decided you were over it (and didn’t have the money to join a specialist order of nuns like the Magdalenes – who still exist!) you just had to get married and you were pretty much off the hook.  You were, after all, doing society a service.

All this means that there was a place, both figuratively and literally in medieval society for prostitutes.  The same is not true of bad bitches.

While it was totally legit for a dude to go get off with a prostitute if he was feeling it women pretty much had to STFU.  Are you married?  Then go ahead and have you some sex.  (But not on a Sunday, or during Lent, or while you’re on your period, or, you know what?  Just check this flow chart.)

If you weren’t married?  Nope. Nothing doing.  Absolutely not.  Maybe become a prostitute for a while if you really feel like you need to be having TEH SEX?  In medieval Prague there was even a term for women who liked having a good time (good times being defined as gambling with men, polkaing, and presumably sexing on dudes) – suspect women, or mulieres suspecte.

By being sexually available and interested in, you know, fun, you were considered someone to be wary of.  Someone untrustworthy.  The bad bitch was therefore the one to watch out for, and the prostitute the acceptable individual.

Again, however, you will notice that the good woman/bad woman divide here is determined by dudes.  If women are having sex specifically to take care of the needs of a bunch of men, and are willing to subject themselves to the regulations men determined to control them, then they are fine.  If women are attempting to gain their own ends by having sex, and that doesn’t necessarily have to do with catering to the whims of men, then they are problematic.

The point of all this, then, is that from the medieval period to now, Western society has done a 180 in terms of defining which sexually available women are alright.  It used to be ok to be sexual if you were getting money for it, now it’s ok to be sexual if you’re just doing your thing.

What has remained constant, though, is that the permission to be a sexual being is still predicated on catering to the needs of men.  It’s alright to be sexual if a dude says so.  The game may have changed, but the rules are the same.

*De Ordine, in, CSEL, Vol. 63., p. 155.

**Summa Theologica, Iia–IIae, Q.10, A.11.

There’s no such thing as the ‘Dark Ages’, but OK

As a very serious adult, with a respectable career and life, and a healthy ability to let petty shit slide, I spent much too much time last week arguing with strangers on the internet who believe in the myth of the Dark Ages.

The arguments in question focused on a massively inaccurate meme, which some observers of the group pointed out was originally supposed to be about knowledge loss after the burning of the Library of Alexandria, but which some very cool EDGE LORD had changed to be about ‘The Christian Dark Ages’. Please feast your eyes on it in all it’s massive wrongness:


This is, pretty obviously, a bunch of honkey bullshit and also massively incorrect, as many important scholars have noted. As a result, I spent hours of my life – which I will never get back –  pointing out repeatedly that the ‘graph’ in question has nothing to do with reality, and arguing with non-experts about the medieval period.

For the most part – these people were well-meaning. Many pointed out that this was a very Euro-centric world view, and that Asia, Africa, and the Arab world were all making huge advancements in scientific and medical theory at this time. That is absolutely true. White people have never been the entire world. The Chinese had a massively advanced scientific culture by this time, for example, and had been holding it down with hermetically sealed research laboratories since the third century BCE. The Arab world, meanwhile was compiling treatises on eye surgery. Scientific advancement was something that was happening in this period. Europe is not the centre of the world.

Having said that, while it is important to acknowledge that the-rest-of-the-world was making huge strides in scientific advancement during this time, and that Europe and white people are not the entire world, nor responsible for all of human advancement, there was no such thing as the Dark Ages in Europe either.

While everything about the idea of the Dark Ages is incorrect, lets start off with the way the term was meant to be used. The totally ignorant graph above, unsurprisingly, is completely fucking off. Hilariously, the idea of the ‘Dark Ages’ actually originated in the medieval period itself. Petrarch – the poet laureate of fourteenth-century Rome – was actually the originator of the idea that there was a period of stagnation that Europe was moving out of. Petrarch had a political axe to grind. He considered that any point at which Rome – where he lived and worked and had considerable sway – did not completely dominate the world was a BAD TIME. This is not an unbiased assessment of world history.

The actual phrase ‘Dark Ages’ itself derives from the Latin saeculum obscurum, which Caesar Baronius – a cardinal and Church historian – came up with around 1602. He applied the term exclusively to the tenth and eleventh centuries.  However, and very significantly in his use of the term, Baronius was not decrying a state of scientific malaise, or a particularly turbulent political period – he’s talking about a lack of sources surviving from that time.  Indeed, Baronius sees the cut off point for the dark ages to be the Gregorian reforms of 1046, following which we see a massive increase in surviving documentation. Witness an actual useful chart:


When we move into a period where there are more texts to be considered, Baronius argues, Europe moved out of the period of darkness and into a ‘new age’.*

Now this is some real talk. As you can tell from that graph, during the Carolingian Renaissance of the ninth century, we see a flurry of Latin writers emerge, and a lot of text copying. This drops off again until what we term the Twelfth-Century Renaissance – home to this blog’s favourite philosopher/proto-Kanye –  Abelard. (Shout out to my boy.) However, when people use the term ‘Dark Ages’ now, they usually use it to talk about the entire millennium of the Medieval period, and they aren’t talking about source survival.  They aren’t thinking ‘dark’ as in ‘occluded’, they are thinking ‘dark’ as in pejorative.

We can thank the Enlightenment historiography for the expansion of the idea that the medieval period was a bad dark time. Kant and Voltaire in particular liked to see themselves as a part of an ‘Age of Reason’ as opposed to what they saw as the ‘Age of Faith’ of the medieval period. To their way of thinking, any time that the Church was in power was a time of regressive thinking. The Middle Ages, then, was a dark time because it was so dominated by religion.

The first push back against the term dark ages began with the Romantics. After the, um, unpleasantness of the Reign of Terror, and the major cultural and environmental upheavals of the Industrial Revolution it became fashionable to look at the medieval period as a time of spiritual focus, and environmental purity. Obviously this is a super-biased way of looking at the period – just like it was biased for Enlightenment thinkers to take one look at the primacy of the Church and declare an entire millennium to be bad. I mean, really what the Romantics were doing was just casting shade on the Enlightenment historiography because they felt like it inevitably led to the guillotine. But what can you do?

By the twentieth century historians had moved on from the idea pretty much completely. If you take the time to actually, you know, study the medieval period, it becomes very apparent very quickly that there was a tremendous amount of intensive thought happening. This is the era of Thomas Aquinas – a bad ass philosopher who will think you under the fucking table. Of Hildegard of Bingen – who basically founded scientific natural history in the German speaking lands. Hell, like we talked about last week Rogerius and Giles of Corbeil were throwing it down for major medical advancement. There was a lot going on. On the real, without the contributions of medieval thinkers you would not get Galileo, Newton, or the Scientific Revolution. The medieval period was not a period of stagnation, it was a time of progress.

But it’s not just that the idea of a ‘Dark Ages’ makes no sense when you look at what incredible advancement was happening at the time, it also makes no sense because it implies that stuff was going really well under the Romans. We estimate that somewhere between thirty to forty percent of the population of Italian Rome were slaves. The Romans had total bans on human dissection, meaning that there was no real way for medicine to progress any further than it had by the time of collapse – a problem that medieval people didn’t have. I mean even if you just want to make it about religion – the Roman Empire was Christian at the time of its collapse and had its heads of state worshipped as LITERAL GODS during the pagan era. Somehow every edgy motherfucker with a fedora is totally cool with this and thinks it is super reasonable though. Because ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. The Romans were not a bunch of really awesome people living a life of idealised rationality any more than medieval people were all ignorant savages living in fear of God.

Is there a time that historians use the term ‘Dark Ages’? Yeah, we do use it to talk about source survival rates. It’s not a term we use as a value judgment, however. We just mean that we don’t have a lot of evidence to go off of. By the same token – if we somehow move on to another electronic format without converting the way things are stored now, we could be moving into a theoretical Digital Dark Age, where historians in the future won’t be able to study what we are writing now. (And that would be a tragedy, because legit, I would kill to be a historian working on Donald Trump’s tweets in the year 2717.)

We’re now moving away from using the term Dark Ages at all, however, because of the frequency with which it is misinterpreted. I mean, if every basic motherfucker out there who never bothered to read God’s Philosophers (hat tip to James Hamman – this book is amazing) will insist on willfully misinterpreting us, we just ain’t gonna give them the ammo.

What it comes down to is that the medieval period was as vibrant as any other period of history. If you’re going to player hate, go ahead, but please don’t act like you know anything about either medieval or ancient history when you do. There is no period of rational supermen followed by ignorant monsters. There are just people doing their best in the circumstances.

* Caesar Baronius, Annales Ecclesiastici Vol. X. (Rome, 1602), p. 647. “Novum incohatur saeculum quod, sua asperitate ac boni sterilitate ferreum, malique exudantis deformitate plumbeum, atque inopia scriptorum, appellari consuevit obscurum.”

On medieval healthcare and American barbarism

A public dissection in the medieval period

As I’ve noted several times, I generally try to ignore whatever is currently passing for ‘governance’ in America at the moment, cuz I just ain’t got the patience, or ability to do all that emotional labour. However, they will keep on doing things that call back to the medieval period, so we’re gonna have to talk about it.

So currently in America, which is defo a first world country and for sure very prosperous and a good place to live, there is some debate about whether or not sick people should be driven into bankruptcy, given the audacity of their instance on being ill. (Have they tried not getting ill? IDK.)

Some Americans, who are for sure good Christians and well into Jesus, need you to know that no one should be obligated to help sick people pay for medical care. To whit:


How charming.

This idea – that health care is something that requires a) payment, and b) is an individual, not a community, concern is what we’re going to talk about today.

Now, as you may be aware, European medicine was underpinned by the idea of humorismwhich was central to Hippocratic medicine. Hippocratic medicine itself was developed from the tradition of Greek natural philosophy. Hippocrates, obviously, gave his name to the discipline, but the Hippocratic Corpus – a series of sixty some essays on medicine – was developed by several authors and compiled around 250 BCE. Galen then came along sometime around 129 AD and updated the ideas slightly, and notably had some influence on theories of anatomy and pharmacology, but was still a stan for humor theory.

As the theory went – the body held four humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. These humors, in turn corresponded to the four seasons, the four elements, four temperaments, and four stages of the life cycle like so…

A basic humor chart

More or less, the idea was that if your humours were balanced you would remain healthy. If something got out of whack, you got sick. To get better you needed to get those humors back into balance. A lot of this idea was based on observation. If you were so sick to your stomach you were vomiting bile it sure did look like you had too much and your body was trying to rid itself of it. Bad cold? Same thing with phlegm.

Medieval medicine took this classical basis and ran with it. Classical medical texts were copied and edited in monasteries and monks also wrote their own works on herbal medicine and botany based off their own observations. As groups of devout Christian men with access to medical knowledge, monks considered it to be their religious obligation to provide medical care for members of their communities.

monk hospital

As a result, most monasteries ended up having a sort of informal hospital. Because they were actual fucking Christians.

There were a lot of other groups practicing medicine in the medieval period however. Barber surgeons, famously, did a lot of medical work that involved cutting people. Basically if you were able to keep a razor sharp enough to shave someone, odds were it was sharp enough to do minor surgery. Homeboys would do stuff like blood letting, dentistry, looking after soldiers during and after battle, and also keeping your cut fresh AF.

A medieval barber letting blood

Barbers were medical professionals and for sure got paid. However, the medical services they provided were generally in reach of your average (read: peasant) medieval person.

There was also something for the ladiez to do medically – that is look after other ladiez. (Did you know that half of all people in the medieval period were actually women? No for real. I’m serious.)  Midwifery was some real shit, and basically one of very few professional options for individual women at the time. (Fuck yeah the other option was sex work – shout out to my girls.)

Late-medieval midwives

Midwives were typically apprenticed at a young age in order to learn the trade, and had to have a reference from their parish priest as to their good character in order to do so. They then learned all about assisting the labour process. Labour was an exclusively female medical event – with men being excluded from the birth chamber. Midwives were certainly professionals, but the great majority of people (again, peasants) could still afford their services.

A medieval apothecary

There were also straight up apothecaries who were sort of like modern day chemists/pharmacists who made drugs and medicines. By the thirteenth century they had their own guilds, and they often worked alongside other medical practitioners in order to establish what drugs should be made or

There were, of course, also dedicated physicians in the medieval period. There were several schools that taught medicine, including the much-celebrated Salerno, and later Montpellier, which is still in operation.

Medieval Salerno

These institutions trained doctors including the famous Rogerius who wrote a killer book called The Practice of Surgery (Practica Chirurgiae) round about 1180, and also came up with the term ‘lupus’ and Giles de Corbeil who wrote a series of influential medical poems on the urinary tract and pulsology. The university system was making some pretty good advances in medicine, if slowly. People started doing more work with human dissection and learned more about anatomy. (Fun fact – high medieval Europe did not totally ban human dissection, but Pagan Rome did. Bring that up when people say the medieval period was backwards.)

The medical schools were drivers of medical thought and research and the people who trained in them often ended up working for the elite. You had to go to school for years to be licensed, and it wasn’t cheap, so you charged.

That’s where the trouble started.

After the Black Death showed up, people were not too enthused about medical practitioners. If they knew so much, why couldn’t they stop the plague?


People began cracking down on non-licensed medical practitioners. If these people were actually skilled in terms of medicine then for real, why TF was everyone dying on the regular? Soon laws began to propagate stating that only licensed, i.e. university educated physicians could practice medicine. This fucked shit up.

Suddenly a lot of people who had been offering health care services couldn’t. The barber who pulled out your rotten teeth? Not licensed. Apothecaries who knew everything about how to create drugs? Part of a guild that learned through apprenticeship, not university. The monks who had killer medical libraries, actual running hospitals, and gardens full of medicinal herbs at their disposal? Only educated in the cloister.

It was even worse for women who could not go to university. In the medieval period all students had to take holy orders in order to join university, meaning that they were clergy members, if only for their time in school. Women couldn’t do that. That meant that there was no legal way for midwives to practice, despite the fact that only women were supposed to be involved in the birth of children.

So the ranks of people who could legally provide medical care suddenly dropped. Meanwhile, the only people who could legally provide it needed to see that cash money in order to provide medical care because they made a huge investment of time and money to get where they were.

In some instances, where you lived also determined whether or not you could get medical care. A trained physician would want to stay where the greatest number of potential (wealthy) clients lived. They, therefore, tended to stay in cities, or revolve around courts where their educational investments paid off. No one was going out to the country side to see to the peasants, you feel me? Moreover, the peasants couldn’t drag themselves off to a monastery for help when they got sick anymore, because monks weren’t supposed to be practicing medicine. There just wasn’t anywhere to go for help. By the early modern period, then, the poor had been stripped of a lot of the options they could exercise before.

All of this helped to create the system that America is experiencing today. Healthcare became a luxury – something that the rich elite had recourse to, and which everyone else had to do without.  It is also a hugely modern ‘system’. No one is compelled by their religion to take care of the sick, despite the fact that America loves to call itself a Christian country. We compel bright young people who want to make money to go to med school, because there is a huge financial incentive. Being a medical doctor gets you paid. We do not tell them they have a responsibility to treat the sick when they are trained.

This health care system also routinely marginalises people who provide medical care but are not physicians, in particular those who are providing medical care in one of the traditionally ‘feminine’ roles. Nurses and midwives have much much more patient contact than doctors do, but are paid nowhere near as much. Hell, in America you might be paying out the nose for medical care and only ever see a nurse practitioner anyway, such are the vagaries of for-profit healthcare. So the nurse-practitioner ain’t getting paid, but you are still paying, and somehow all of this is fine and good.

None of this is to say that medical practitioners shouldn’t be paid for their services.  It’s a hard job. You have to learn a lot. In the UK we really treat our junior doctors terribly and they deserve so much more. In the medieval period people still managed to treat people at all levels of society and still make a good living. The people who could afford to give away free health care in the medieval period (monks) had really comfortable life styles. The lower-level practitioners like barbers and midwives made their living on volume. There were options for patients and practitioners to enhance their quality of life.

Overall, then, while medicine has moved on from the medieval period and is much more effective – the healthcare options that many people in America have are actually much worsein comparison to what was available seven hundred years ago.

Perhaps even more distressing for enthusiasts of using ‘medieval’ to mean bad (which you should never do), is that America is a less caring society than Europe in the year 1300. Medieval Europeans were subject to strict class systems, many were unfree, and most lived lives of grinding poverty and work. Most people weren’t allowed to move down the road if they wanted to – but they were still considered deserving of health care.

Tell me one more time who the barbarians are.

Keep the word ‘Judeo’ out of your racist mouth Nigel Farage

Medieval Jews
(This was originally posted 7 April 2017 here.)

My loves, it is with a heavy heart that I announce Nigel Farrage is once again saying some meaningless garbage.

I know, I know. You are not surprised, but I am afraid I have to respond to this douche canoe’s latest idiocy – in this case the following tweet:


For those not up to speed with this particular flavour of British idiocy – at the moment the Archbishop of York, Nigel ‘Why don’t I have a chin? Let’s blame the EU’ Farage, and now Prime Minister Theresa May are all shocked and offended that Cadbury’s promoted an ‘Egg Hunt’ for the National Trust rather than a specific ‘Easter Egg Hunt’.

I know.

All of this is, of course nonsense, and ordinarily I try to ignore Farage as much as possible, being as my well-being is perched on a knife’s edge in today’s political hell scape. However, Farage just referred to England as having a ‘Judeo-Christian’ culture, and I cannot stand for it.

Leaving aside the issue that Jews don’t, you know, celebrate Easter, because they are Jewish, the idea that we here in the UK somehow celebrate the ‘Judeo’ in Judeo-Christian is offensive, given the hundreds upon hundreds of years of bloody repression of Jews in England.

Backing right the fuck up, it should be obvious that medieval society was not particularly kind to Jews. (If you are out of touch about this, check out Moore’s, The Formation of a Persecuting Society.) Because medieval Europe was largely Christian (except Spain, which was balling), Jews generally had a terrible time. They were restricted from pursing most trades, and as a result largely ended up in the financial sector.  Christians, you see, were prevented from lending money at interest because that constituted the sin of usury. Jews did not have the same religious prohibition and made the best of their place in a super stringent society by lending money. This probably led to the stereotypical bigoted idea of Jews as terrible money grubbers that we are all still dealing with.

Jews were so hated that they usually had to be under royal or imperial protection. People resented them because something something the death of Christ (which the Romans were totally off the hook for, obvs), and also because they now owed the Jews money.

English people, like most Europeans, were pretty big dicks to the Jews. First off, and for your information Mr. Farage, there were no Jews in England until after the Norman conquest. (Remember? When the French people took over? Because England is a part of Europe? YOU GIT.) William the Conqueror invited a group of Jews from Rouen to settle in England in 1070, though he wouldn’t let them own land. Because LOL.

By the twelfth century the Jews in London were granted a series of concessions by Henry Ithat meant they were treated a little bit more like people. They were allowed to buy and sell property, be tried by their peers, and swear on the Torah instead of the Bible. They were also allowed the right of movement around England – and I quote – ‘as if they were the king’s own property’. (Sicut res proproae nostrae). (I know. I know.)

So Jews were totally allowed to be people in England. You know, people who were royal property, but stuff got kind of bad after that. King Stephen decided to be a total dick and burn down a Jewish man’s house in Oxford because he wasn’t paying towards the king’s expenses. (Stay classy Stephen!) Then in 1144 there was the death of (soon to be saint) William of Norwich.  William had been an apprentice tanner. William showed up dead. The good people of Norwich decided that William had been killed by Jews because sure, why not. Obviously Jews had killed him as a part of a ritual murder that re-enacted a mass because blood libel is definitely a thing. Thomas of Monmouth wrote a crazy-ass hagiography about it and everything.  After this, any time there was an unsolved murder of a child, everyone in England blamed it on any Jew that could be found. This included Harold of Gloucester (d. 1168), Robert of Bury (d. 1181), and Little Hugh of Lincoln (d. 1255). All the boys were sainted. People were increasingly giant dicks to Jews.

Stuff got really bad under Richard the Lionheart. At his coronation a number of high ranking Jewish people showed up to do homage at Westmister, and they got kicked the fuck out of the coronation banquet and then attacked by a crowd outside. A rumor then started spreading that the king had ordered the London Jews to be massacred, and a good old fashioned mob went into the Old Jewry pretty much killing anyone they could get their hands on. The super friendly Judeo-Christian culture that Mr. Farage is celebrating then kicked off a series of violent attacks against various groups of Jews in Lynn, Stamford Fair, Colchester, Thetford, Ospringe, and Bury St Edmunds with dozens of people ending up dead. The Jews of Lincoln only survived an attempted massacre by taking refuge in the castle.

York castle
York castle, where the pogrom took place

One of the worst incidents was, of course, the Pogrom (or Massacre) of York where on March 16 and 17 1190 a bunch of soldiers preparing to leave on the Third Crusade decided it would be classy and good to try to force the local Jews to convert. The Jews hid in the castle, but couldn’t escape the mob outside. Most of those inside decided to take their own lives, with the fathers of most families killing their wives, children, and themselves, and then setting fire to the keep. All the survivors were killed by the enraged bystanders. A Judeo-Christian culture – ladies and gentlemen!

pogrom plaque

During Richard the Lionheart’s absence the Jews that no one had managed to kill were generally harassed by William de Longchamp, and when Richard got his ass captured in the holy land, the Jews were told that they had to contribute 5,000 marks towards the king’s ransom. That is more than three times more than the city of London was supposed to contribute. Cute.

Eventually English kings found ways to make money that didn’t involve shaking down the Jews, and at that point the Church was putting more and more pressure on kings not to allow Jews to lend money to Christians. So at this point Edward I was just like, ‘Sod it, let’s just kick all the Jews out of the country.’ On July 18 1290 it was decreed that all Jews should be expelled by All Saints Day that year, with somewhere between 4,000 and 16,000 Jews forced to leave. I mean – what an amazing cultural exchange we had here! Wow!

Jews were eventually allowed back in the country in 1655 when members of the Dutch Jewish community directly approached Oliver Cromwell. Don’t be fooled by this though. Cromwell was, as many important historians have noted, a total Puritan douche nozzle. He thought Jews should be let back in because – in terms of Christian apocalyptic theory – Jews are necessary at the End Times because they first have to be swayed by and worship Antichrist, and then convert to Christianity. Then the world can end. Isn’t that nice? What a great spirit of cultural cooperation! Anyway, Cromwell’s Puritan ass wouldn’t have eaten chocolate egg one on Easter because that would be fun, and as we all know, God hates fun.

My point here is that none of this points to a ‘Judeo-Christian culture’ like Farage wants you to believe in. He’s just using the phrase to exclude Muslims from British society, even though they are here to stay, fam.

Why anyone wants to choose Easter Eggs as the hill to die on is a mystery to me, and the entire ‘controversy’ is a manufactured tempest in a tea cup. My major point is that you shouldn’t trust racists when they tell you about the ‘culture’ of anywhere. They don’t know a damn thing about culture or history.

On chronicles versus journalism, and ruling versus governing


(This was originally posted 22 February 2017 here.)

Ohhhh there is a lot to say, is there not? You think that you have starred fully into the depths of the dumpster fire and fully appreciated its heat, its dazzle, its stench, but it just. keeps. burning.

As a medieval historian, one aspect of said dumpster fire that has interested me of late is the concept of ‘fake news’ and what Trump feels the purpose of the press is. More specifically, it is of interest that apparently Trump feels that the press should be taking on the same function during his presidency as commissioned chroniclers did during the medieval period.

For those of us who haven’t wasted their lives on medieval history PhDs – chronicles, roughly speaking, are historical timelines. They provide a history in a straight-forward linear order. The chroniclers who write them, in general, record a number of incidents that they see happen around them, as well as past events that they are aware of in some cases. They may, therefore report on an event that effects multiple places – like, say, a comet – as well as what the local nobility were doing, or on local miracles. (There are a lot of miracles in medieval chronicles.)

As a result of the genre, chronicles can be a great source for letting us know the day to day events in a particular place. Because we often have chroniclers writing about past events sometimes centuries in the past, we have to be very careful about taking every even and time frame as a given. As historians, we work around this by triangulating sources. If we can find more than one source that gives us a date, we accept it and move forward.

Now, writing a chronicle, though it may seem easy to us now, was a skill. Literacy in the medieval period was not exactly wide-spread, and the majority of chronicles, like the majority of all written medieval work, were written in Latin. To be a chronicler, therefore, you had to be well educated. You also had to have enough time during the day to sit around and write. Keep in mind – in the medieval period, about 95% of all people were peasants, who had more pressing concerns, like farming, on their minds. You therefore also had to have enough free time to take up an undertaking like this.

As a result, most chronicles were written by rich people, for an audience of rich people, and they were, more often than not, paid for by commissions from rich people. The resultant chronicles thus often reflected the opinions of whatever group of rich people had paid for them. The rich people in question were often royalty or nobility, and the chronicles they commissioned often flatter their own families while casting major shade on whatever group they were at odds with.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (shout out to my boy!), for example, commissioned several different chronicles during his reign.[1] You’ll be unsurprised to learn that they usually just talk about how great all of Charles’s projects were. Turning brothels into religious houses? BAM it’s in there. (Charles was SWERF-y. Do better, Charles.) Doubling the size of Prague? Oh yes gurl. Shouting out every goddamn church that Charles had built? You know it.

If he was so awesome why did he need to pay people to write about it? Wellllllll before Charles took the throne in Bohemia, his dad John of Luxembourg was the king. Motherfucker, ran the place pretty much like Trump is running America now, which is to say he didn’t, and he just milked it for money while he travelled around going to tournaments.

The nobles back in Bohemia didn’t like that, or John’s profligate ass, and they paid for chronicles that tore him down. They dragged him for being foreign, and stupid, and talked about how the nobles should rule instead.[2] So basically, when Charles took the throne he had to make sure there were lots of chronicles about that could rebut the older anti-Luxembourg dynasty chronicles, to make sure everyone knew he was great.

In short, chronicles are something that we can read to see what events took place over a particular period, and how a particular group of people felt or wanted us to feel about them. It’s not so much a record of current events, but a specific spin on a series of current events.

This is what Trump wants journalism to be.

Journalism is not a chronicle. In theory, Journalism gathers information and uses verification to report on events. Obviously, because humans are incapable of being totally objective, journalism isn’t either.  However, the idea behind journalism methodologies is that they allow for transparency and that readers can understand how a particular conclusion was reached.

Inherent within journalism, as well, is that it exists to monitor power structures and act as a watchdog. Journalism exists specifically to call into question the actions of the ruling elite. This is why journalism is universally acknowledged as an indispensable tool of democracy, and why more democratic societies have a higher proportion of information sources.

Journalism, thus, acts in exactly the opposite way that a chronicle does. It exists to question power structures, whereas chronicles largely exist to advocate for the viewpoints of the elites who could create them.

It makes sense, then, that in the medieval period, where a group of ruling elites who claimed to have derived their power through God’s will chronicles are what passes for news. Chronicles seldom call into question the motives of their patrons. They may aim scorn at other powerful people who are in opposition to a chronicle’s patron, and more than one chronicle may give you more than one side of a story, but they do not exist to allow the average person a glimpse into the realities of a particular ruler’s court and allow them to critique it.

Journalism exists so that a public which chooses their government (to a greater or lesser extent) can be aware of what is happening and make decisions based upon that information. It is a tool for democracies, not for the ruled.

Obviously what we’ve learned from Trump thus far, is that he wants chronicles, not journalism. H doesn’t want his motives questioned, he wants his works celebrated.

Ask yourself whether that means that he wants to govern, or to rule.

[1] On Charles’s patronage of chroniclers, see Marie Bláhová, ‘Literární činnost Karla IV’, in, Marie Bláhová (ed.), Kroniky doby Karla IV (Prague, 1987), pp. 558–585.

[2] Staročeská Kronika tak řečného Dalimila, (Prague, 1988).

On the medieval separation of Church and State, or, putting the ‘holy’ in Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Imperial Electors

Sooooooooooooooooooo, current governments enacting laws based on religious ideology, amiright? Here in the modern Western world, we’ve grown accustomed to governments largely agreeing that we have freedom from and of religion, by and large.  Obviously, at some points (*ahem*), this doesn’t work out and particular individuals push for religiously motivated legislation. This usually doesn’t go well for us women. Funny that.

Often, people who want to do my head in will refer to this kind of religious influenced legislation (or, you know, executive order (*cough*)) as being ‘medieval’, which as I have pointed out several times, is not helpful. More to the point, in this case it’s not even accurate, because there sort of kinda was separation of Church and State in the medieval period, at least in the Holy Roman Empire, but it worked in the exact opposite way.

So the Holy Roman Empire was essentially established on Christmas Day 800 when Charlemagne was crowned by Pope Leo III. Charlemagne was a total bad ass, as many important historians have noted, and had essentially united all of Western Europe under his rule, for the first time since the fall of Rome. Boy had his shit on lock, unlike Leo. Leo was, shall we say, not that popular. He showed up in Aachen because he got his ass beat down while on procession through Rome, and almost got his eyes and tongue cut out.

His beat ass showed up at Charlemagne’s court, looking for protection and Charlemagne was like, ‘Hey home boy while I’m here keeping you alive, why don’t you crown me Emperor?’ Leo was like, ‘Say no more, fam’. That’s where the trouble started.

When the papacy finally got some power, they decided to straight up change the narrative on this one. It wasn’t that the Emperor was decided already, and he got a Pope in to do the honours.  No no – The Pope got to decide who the Emperor was going to be and it was the crowning that signified this. Charlemagne is probs still rolling in his grave about this.

The Popes tried to justify the idea that they were kingmakers in a number of ways. One of these was by referring to the Donation of Constantine. The Donation was a document that claimed to have been written in the fourth century by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine I, (You know, him what Constantinople was named after?), and to give control over the western half of the Roman Empire to the Pope. In reality that was what we might now refer to as an, um ‘alternative fact’ (*cough*), and it was really just something made up in the eighth century when the papacy was trying to justify its existence. Anyway Popes liked this big ol’ lie and were like, yeah see, we run this show? I’ll tell you who gets to be Emperor.

The reason that they were picking Emperors at all, if they were so powerful that they were supposed to control all of Western Christendom, is because it was considered that there needed to be a separation of powers. The Church, you see couldn’t be involving itself in worldly matters, because as members of the clergy, Popes weren’t supposed to shed blood. As a result, Popes were supposed to pick Emperors in order to do all the violent shit that statecraft involved/involves.

In the fourteenth century, Pope Boniface VIII wrote about this in his 1308 bull Unum Sanctum.* He expressed this idea by saying that Popes were possessed with two ‘swords’ granted to them by God as the representatives of Christ on earth: one of spiritual power, and one of temporal. Since Popes couldn’t be violent, they granted their own ‘sword’ of temporal power to Holy Roman Emperors during the imperial coronation ceremony.  All of this meant, essentially that there was no imperial power that did not flow from the papacy, and that Emperors were meant to wield their temporal power for the benefit of the papacy.  Moreover, because an Emperor received his power from the Pope, if he were to piss off the papacy, or engage in sinful behaviour, the Pope should be able to depose him and go find someone more representative of the papal brand.  Homeboy made it clear that ‘it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subjected to the Roman pontiff”**, Emperors included.

The point of all of this? The way the separation of Church and State went down in the medieval period was essentially the Church trying to get the Holy Roman Empire to do what it wanted because it couldn’t be violent. It used religious means to attain secular ends. Today, the opposite thing is true. The state uses its legislative power to enact secular orders based on religious ideals.
So the next time you are angry because a bunch of sad old angry men decided that they can tell women what to do with their bodies, don’t call it medieval. Call it what it is – totally fucked.
*See A. Friedberg, Corpus iuris canonici, Vol. II, (Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1879-81), pp. 1245-6. On Unum Sanctum, see Friedberg, Corpus, p. 48; Zdeněk Kalista, Renata Ferklová, Karel IV.: jeho duchovní tvář (2nd. ed.)  (Praha: Vyšehrad, 2007), p. 96.
**‘Porro subesse Romano Pontifici omni humanae creaturae declaramus, dicimus, definimus, et pronuntiamus omnino esse de necessitate salutis.

On the American election, teaching history, and why it matters

(This was originally posted 14 November 2016 here.)

This election should not surprise anyone who teaches history. I teach medieval and early modern history at several unis in London.

The study of history in these eras shows us very clearly that Western society is built for white male protestant property owners.

This same society has been built over the bodies of black and brown people, and kept whites without property deliberately marginalised. Within it, the role of women has always been to be scapegoats for the worst of male excess, and vessels for sexual gratification/the getting of heirs.

You should not, therefore, be surprised to see a misogynist racist ruling what has always been a white supremacist society.

As historians, it is our job to show our students the roots of this society – SHOW them the thought processes that have built our world.

Today I am teaching two seminars – one on courtly love, one on the rise of Protestantism.

So – for courtly love we are going to discuss how noble society built a) the concept of women as objects to be admired and desired and b) we’ll talk about the concept of upper class men being entitled to the bodies of lower class women. I’ve talked about the concept of courtly love, the rape of poor women and Trump before here, of course, and we’ll expand on that.

We’ll also talk about how this concept plays out in pop culture, and how we romanticise the *idea* of women, but hate their sexual autonomy. In particular we’ll talk, like I have on this blog, about Hot Line Bling, and how Drake reuses concepts of courtly love.  We’ll talk about how society is still pushing for a quiet, sexually cowed woman to be controlled by more powerful men, not only in the realm of politics, but in pop culture.

We’ll talk about how it has ALWAYS been this way and that electing a man who brags about dominating women is nothing new.

In my early modern class I am teaching the Reformation. We will use this as an opportunity to discuss the glorification of the individual white male and his theoretical ability to speak for God.

The Reformation argues for the ability of individual white males to interpret the Bible for themselves, and therefore God’s will. Granted, before the Reformation the Church – a group of white males – interpreted God’s words. After the Reformation, however, every individual white man is told that he has the wherewithal to understand God, with or without training.

That no one needs to be educated and learn to interpret allegory is underscored by a movement away from Latin. Latin needs to be taught to people. In the vernacular, any uneducated person can read the Bible, and interpret it for themselves. In the Reformation we see the enshrining of the individual uneducated white male’s opinion. White men now speak for God. What is more, white men don’t need to speak any language other than their own. There is no need to find common ground with others.

We are all just living in the continuation of this world. A world that is built around the lionisation of mediocre white men with money. This is our job as historians – to show this. To show our students how we got here and how we are STILL here.

If you haven’t been connecting the study of history to the present day with your students, you’ve been doing it wrong. Those who study history are unsurprised by Trump’s election, and the racism and sexism in America, because it was always there.  It has always and ever been present in the Western world as a whole, and is on even further display in a country which was created to enshrine the desires of a group of slave-holding white men.

Go wake your students up. Teach them the history, point them in the direction of things like the Ferguson Syllabus. Give them the tools. This is our job. This is the work. History matters. Tell your students how the world was made this way, and how they can change it.