Tigers in medieval England

tiger from the Northumberland Bestiary 1250-60

I was looking at the award winning photograph of the Amur tiger a couple of nights ago and that got me wondering about medieval depictions. The Amur used to be Siberian but the new name Amur reflects their decreased territories. This led me to looking at bestiaries with their strange mix of fact and fantasy. The fantastic animals, unicorns and manticores and suchlike, existed as part of culture and as with so much in the medieval world they became a tool to provide an insight into morality. And of course God created all the animals so their study was yet another way for mankind to get a bit closer to understanding God, the Cosmos and mankind’s place within it.

I’m not sure why the tiger was blue. Come to think of it I’m not totally sure why the tiger has spots rather than stripes other than because Isidore of Seville wrote that this was the case.

The illustration is based on a story by Pliny – so for those of the History Jar readers who have ventured into the medieval world of this autumn’s Zoom classes there is a neat rehearsal of a familiar pattern. We know for example that Pliny’s story appeared in Latin format and ultimately a French text before crossing The Channel. The knowledge of the Greeks arrives in medieval hands by circuitous routes. A key text in the evolution of bestiaries is the bestiary of Isidore of Seville who wrote in the seventh century – so back to one of those transition points for information to move from the Arab to the Frankish world.

The hunter in the story is attempting to steal tiger cubs. He makes his get away by dropping one cub at a time to distract the irate parent. In medieval minds tigers were very fast moving animals and dangerous if angry. (again thanks to Pliny) In the thirteenth century an additional element crept into the story when the story teller arranged for the hunter to drop something shiny so that the mother seeing her own reflection believed it to be her cub – clearly not aware of the sensitive olfactory moggy snout! Clearly the hunter gets away, either because the mother tiger is busy looking after her abandoned cubs or licking her own face in a mirror of some description.

The Northumberland Bestiary is in the hands of the Getty Museum https: //www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/240115/unknown-maker-northumberland-bestiary-english-about-1250-1260/. Unsurprisingly given it’s origins it was originally owned by the Duke of Northumberland. It contains 112 illustrations.

As you might expect the British Library is the home for many medieval bestiaries:

https://www.bl.uk/medieval-english-french-manuscripts/articles/beastly-tales-from-the-medieval-bestiary

Sergey Gorshkov’s winning photograph of the Amur Tiger. I should note that medieval writers were thinking about the Asian tiger and would sometimes note that the River Tigris was named for the tiger.

The Embrace by Sergey Gorshkov, Russia   –   Copyright  © Sergey Gorshkov/Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2020 https://www.euronews.com/living/2020/10/16/wildlife-photography-awards-offer-a-rare-glimpse-of-siberian-tigers

A 1614 map of Earl Sterndale

1614 map of Earl Sterndale

Earl Sterndale is part of the parish of Hartington Middle Quarter in the Derbyshire Dales.  It was created as an ecclesiastical parish from a chapelry in 1763.  It’s church, St Michael’s and All Angels, has the distinction of being blown up by the Luftwaffe with a stray bomb in 1941.

I’m posting about Earl Sterndale today because I came across this 1614 map in a file of documents – it’s a random find and to be honest it has no reference on so I don’t even know which book it was taken from by whoever copied it. It’s a reminder though that whilst I tend to teach history in a neat linear pattern that history itself is much more untidy. The fields shown are a mixture of open strip farming and enclosed land. Enclosure was something that began more or less in the thirteenth century and escalated until at the end of the eighteenth century farming practises and land ownership wrought wholesale enclosure.

Records indicate that the farms around Earl Sterndale were largely monastic granges belonging to Basingwerk Abbey, Flintshire, Wales.  The abbey was a Cistercian foundation and it’s lands including the granges near Earl Sterndale were sold following the Dissolution of the Monasteries.   Basingwerk was a lesser monastery with an income of less that £200 per year.  It is perhaps not surprising that Basingwerk Abbey held property and the rights to churches in other parts of Derbyshire including Glossop.   But it’s not completely a monastic story – again history tends to be taught or written about in neat units but the distribution, in this case literally on the land, tells of different administration systems abutting one another and in some cases overlapping.

Within the medieval Manor of Hartington, of which Earl Sterndale was part land belonged in part to the Duchy of Lancaster – the land in Earl Sterndale once having been in the holding of the de Ferrers’ Earls of Derby until the 6th earl fell foul of Henry III and the land was given to Henry III’s second son – Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Lancaster. edmund’s great grand daughter Blanche (the daughter of Henry Grosmont the 1st Duke of Lancaster) married John of Gaunt – for those of you who like to make links.

Meanwhile the manor of Hartington of which Earl Sterndale was part worked on the three field open system where strips of land were allocated to various tenants (villeins).  Rent was paid along with labour for the lord.  In addition to which part of the manor functioned as demesne land which was farmed on behalf of the Duchy of Lancaster itself rather than the income all coming from tenants.  By the fourteenth century sheep had become an important part of the venture for the Duchy – as it was for the Cistercian granges. I’ve read elsewhere that as the Black Death plotted it’s course in 1348 demsesne farming was abandoned in the parish of Hartington; it being more profitable to rent land out.

It’s also worth noting that the village of Earl Sterndale held common grazing rights to a portion of land adding yet another dimension to the equation of who held the land.

The map of 1614 pictured above demonstrates that the three field system with its open strips didn’t suddenly stop here at the end of the medieval period nor was the dissolution of the monasteries sufficient to bring about total enclosure. It is  evident that strip farming around Earl Sterndale continued into the seventeenth century – although there is also evidence of enclosure in the form of Mr Thomas Nedham’s land.  Enclosure when it finally came was at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The importance of the number 7 in medieval times

It will come as no surprise to those of you who have found yourself exploring medieval people’s relationship with the cosmos this week to discover that seven was a significant number in the medieval world. Everything was supposed to be in balance whether it was the elements or the humours – so unsurprisingly in a world that saw seven planets with the world at the centre of the cosmos that there should be corresponding balance elsewhere – from seven sacraments, seven virtues and sins to seven metals. Each one of the metals linked up to it’s own planet and it’s own day of the week. There was also a religious significance thanks to Biblical interpetation -seven days to create the Earth; the four corners of the world link up to the Holy Trinity resulting in completeness – a balance between the spiritual and the world – harmony. Number theory connects the world to the Divine in much of medieval thinking. And from there study of numbers and organising things in numerical pattern draws mankind closer to the Divine.

The theme of numbers can be seen in many medieval works – Dante’s Divine Comedy being the one that sticks from long ago study. And of course patterns such as those created by the Fibonacci sequence are pleasing to the eye. I’m not quite sure how the seventh son of a seventh son fits into the pattern but for today at least here are the seven planets of the medieval cosmos and the seven metals that alchemists worked with.

 Day Planet Metal
 Sunday Sun Gold
 Monday Moon Silver
 Tuesday Mars Iron
 Wednesday Mercury Mercury
 Thursday Jupiter Tin
 Friday Venus Copper
 Saturday Saturn Lead
medieval metals and their planets

Of alchemists and kings

Fathers of Alchemy from Elias Ashmole’s book on the subject

Dr John Dee is probably England’s most famous alchemist thanks to his employment by Elizabeth I. He cast the horoscope which identified 15 January 1559 as an auspicious date for Elizabeth. Just in case you’re wondering, as well as being an astrologer and mathematician Dr Dee spent quite a lot of his time trying to talk to angels. Rather alarmingly he also managed to get involved in a scandalous wife swapping episode which probably also explains why Dee is notably absent from most school texts.

It turns out that the English had a bit of a reputation for alchemy. Elias Ashmole collated late medieval works in the Theatrum Chemicum Britanium of 1652 (and there is no one who knows me who will be surprised that I didn’t cover that during my recent Zoom class.) He began with the introduction “severall poeticall pieces of our famous English philosophers, who have written the hermetique mysteries in their owne ancient language.”

I was a bit perplexed to find Chaucer on Ashmole’s list until I read the Canon’s Yeoman’s tale and found a counterfeiter – well base metal does appear more precious than it started out! It turns out that the tale is based on a real case which can be found here on the National Archives blog: https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/geoffrey-chaucer-and-alchemy/

Ashmole did not comment on whether he believed in the Philosopher’s stone or not.

It also turns out – according to some “histories” that Edward III employed one the form of Franciscan friar Raymond Lull – who somehow or other convinced Edward that he could produce enough hard cash to fund a new crusade. You will all be delighted to hear that Edward’s investment paid off because his alchemist apparently turned several tons of lead into gold which Edward promptly used to pay for his war against the French – oddly I don’t recall reading about effective chrysopoeia during the reign of Edward III. Unsurprisingly Lull disappears form history leaving a tall tale behind him – the real Lull, a Catalonian, died when Edward was a toddler, though it is true that he spoke Arabic and studied various Islamic texts.

It turns out though that in this case there is fire to go with the smoke. A Patent Roll of 1330 identifies Edward III’s interest in alchemical transmutation of base metal and twenty years later John de Walden was arrested and sent to the Tower of London for relieving the Plantagenet monarch of 5,000 gold crowns and 20 pounds of silver to “work thereon by the art of alchemy.” His arrest would suggest that Edward wasn’t totally convinced by the end product.

Johnathan Hughes, The Rise of Alchemy in Fourteenth Century England, Bloomsbury Publishing

Alchemy – Nicholas Flamel

The tomb of Nicholas Flamel

For people who are not fans of Harry Potter (strange I know but there are some) Nicholas Flamel is a character in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. And he was a real person who lived in fourteenth century Paris.

Alchemists believed that the world was made up of four elements and that eventually all substances would return to a pure state – so in the case of base metal they were speeding things up in their bid to transmute lead into gold and in the case of the Elixir of Life they were slowing things down. Or put another way they were attempting to work out the secrets of the cosmos.

Now, the problem with this was that until the lead transmuted into gold there wasn’t a great deal of money to be had – although if you found a rich patron then things probably became more straight forward. Though obviously states tended to be a bit twitchy about people manufacturing gold without their say so and the Church had it’s doubts about men usurping God’s role (though apparently Martin Luther found it all very interesting.) Nicholas Flamel paid his bills by working as a copyist, a public writer who wrote letters for people who couldn’t, a landlord and a bookseller – he had a licence from the University of Paris. He also speculated in property.

Apparently Nicholas laid hands on a very old book allegedly written by Abraham the Jew. Flamel translated it being familiar with kabbalah, and lo and behold Abraham knew the secret to the Elixir of Life. The problem was that he wasn’t that well versed in the language or the symbolism so he decided that he needed some help.

He concluded that the best place to go was Spain where he met a Converso – a Jew who had converted to Christianity. Conchez, the Converse, obligingly undertook to help Nicholas. Unfortunately Nicholas had travelled all that way without the book. Conchez died in Orleans and Nicholas spent the next two decades deciphering the text.

Until in 1382 he apparently found the formula and became very very rich.

There are a couple of problems with the story. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of evidence of alchemy in Mr Flamel’s life. The money? His wife Perenelle, who he married in 1368, came from a wealthy family. That and the fact she’d already been twice widowed. His will does not suggest fantastic wealth.

Perenelle was apparently, according to the story, Nicholas’s able assistant.

Nicholas Flamel by Balthazar Montcornet – 17th century

The story – no smoke without fire and all that? Became popular about 200 years after he died… though some writers claim that they saw him in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

And where does all this come from? Livre des figures hiéroglyphiques was published in 1612 – which possibly goes to show that just because a book is old doesn’t make it totally trustworthy! Unless you happen to think Flamel was an alchemist in which case you might take an entirely different view! And you might also argue that given what I wrote earlier about Church and State views that you might want to look like a mild mannered entrepreneur rather than a proto-scientist.

Did I mention that other alchemist…Sir Isaac Newton?

A medieval/Tudor merchant’s house

Payecocke’s House, Coggeshall nr Colchester

Paycocke House in Coggeshall was the home of a prosperous sixteenth century wool merchant.  It was built- or rather added on to an existing building- at the beginning of the centry by Thomas Paycocke for his bride Margaret. Their initials are carved on the house along with the Paycocke merchant’s mark.   

Not only did Thomas and his wife live in the house but it was also the centre of his business.  What today is a lovely garden would have been a bustling hive of industry when Thomas was alive.

Coggeshall was famous at the time for undyed broadcloth – it’s sometimes called Coggeshall White. It’s described as a “bays”  – so a baize if I’ve got it right is a variety of worsted fabric. Thomas not only used his own home for the cloth but he also sent pieces out to the homes of his workers  – preparing, weaving and finishing.  One of the reasons for “putting out” of work may have been that the extension was designed to impress rather than to be practical – the wealth on display certainly suggests that Thomas wanted to make an impression to his visitors – think of it as a showroom perhaps?

Thomas didn’t have sons. His second wife had a daughter. The house left the family in 1584 when the last male Payecock, a great nephew of Thomas, died. It passed into the hands of the Buxton family, who were related by marriage.  The house continued to evolve. These days it’s a National Trust property and like many other National Trust properties in the area it has been partly planted with dye plants.

Thomas’s father had set Thomas on his way but the economic conditions of the period helped Thomas to become very wealthy. Raw wool prices slumped at the end of the fifteenth century – it began to rise relatively early in Henry VIII’s reign.  In the meantime Payecock was able to export his cloth at a substantial profit.

https://www.essexlifemag.co.uk/people/500-years-of-paycockes-house-1-5729009

Flowery mead

Unicorn in captivity

For those of you hoping for a recipe for a particularly nice honey based alcohlic beverage – I’m very sorry but not today.

A flowery mead is a medieval lawn and it is an essential for a medieval garden. Basically the grass is studded by lots of little gem like flowers. All those medieval tapestries with unicorns tend to depict flowery means. The tapestries incidentally are often called mille fleurs – thousands of flowers. Albertus Magnus, a keen thirteenth century gardener and bishop to boot, recommended lawns with short grass – presumably he wasn’t the one doing the shearing.

So what might you need to create your own flowery mead and put the lawn mower away? These days I suppose we’d describe a flowery mead as a flower meadow.

Corn poppies, corn flowers, sweet violets, wild strawberries, flag iris and daisies, heartsease, cowslips, primroses, daisies, scabious, red clover, dianthus- to name a few and I bet that you’ve already got some hawkbit – as eaten by hawks to improve their eyesight….

Medieval field measurements

Image from the Luttrell Psalter held by the British Library

An acre comes from the Latin word ager meaning field which led to the Old English aecer.  Originally an acre was the strip of land that could be plowed in one day by a team of oxen pulling a plough.      Ideally there would be a team of 8 oxen in a team, but it could be four or fewer depending on your wealth and whether your neighbour would lend you his. Clearly the more oxen you owned the more land that you could work and the more likely you were to be able to have surplus supplies. So far so good. Beyond that point it becomes a bit more complicated. Weights and measures were not standard – think of it more as a rule of thumb.

You could then divide every acre into 4 roods (1 rood = ¼ of an acre)  and each rood contains 40 perches or 40 rods.  The perch comes from the Latin name for a measuring pole whereas a rod comes from the Old English rod or goad that the ploughman used to encourage the oxen on – or put another way, if I’ve got it right – a rod, a pole and a perch are exactly the same thing and are the name given to the device by which the land was measured and which again was initially dependent on where you were as to what size it actually was! These days a rod is 5.5 yards and this seems to have been typical of a medieval ox goad.

Acres could also be divided into long-furrows or furlongs – each furrow ran the length of the acre strip of land. This was the distance that the ploughman ploughed before turning the plough = ideally it should be 40 rods or 220 yards if you prefer yards to rods, poles or perches.  

Acres were standardised in 1878 to 4840 square yards and because of the practical fact that fields were all sorts of shapes rather than neat strips the acre is now any shape you would like it to be. If you’re looking at a tithe map you’ll often see meansurements in acres, roods and perches.

If you just had the one ox rather than a team then an oxgang was the amount that a single oxen could plough in one season – or between 15-20 acres…again the rule of thumb kicks into operation.

And just when you were feeling as though you might be getting a handle on things I’m going to add the fact that in medieval times the unit used for measuring land for taxation purposes and to identify social status was the hide. A hide was deemed sufficient to support one family. Depending where you lived, and the quality of the land, the hide was a movable feast varying between 40 and 1000 acres.

When the Saxons claim to collect tax for Danegeld then worked on the principle of 120 acres = 1 hide. In 1086 when William the Conequer’s Domesday Book was completed the same premise was applied. And just so we’re clear a hide has the same area value as a carucate.

http://www.yeovilhistory.info/land-areas.htm

A hundred – an administrative area set up by the Saxons to subdivide a shire was the equally of a hundred hides in size. Across the border into Danelaw the hundred is identified as a wapentake. And of course if a hide supports one family then every hundred would be capable of supplying 100 fighting men – who all presumable arrived with the family rod, perch or pole if they didn’t have a sword or spear.

https://lochista.com/understanding-acres-perches/

So from this happy little list of imperial measurements – 12 inches to the foot, 3 feet to the yard, five yards and one foot and six inches to the rod (or pole or perch), 4 rods (or poles or perch) to the chain, 10 chains to the furlong, and 8 furlongs to the statute mile I have omitted a chain.

A chain is 22 yards or 4 rods, poles or perches. A chain is the width of the medieval acre.

And I think that is more than enough for one day- and whichever way you look at it the medieval farmer was required to do an awful lot of walking!

Hops – an unwholesome weed.

https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b52000858n/f455.image

In 1426 an innkeeper in Kent was fined for putting a weed into the beer – hops. Jack Cade’s rebellion of 1450 was blamed on hops rather than the ineptitude of the government in at least one instance. The plant was perhaps looked on askance because it originated from the Low Countries. However, by 1597, John Gerard was advocating hops in beer as a remedy to keep the drinker healthy rather than merely as a thirst quencher.

In 1603 Parliament passed an act which forbade hop growers from adulterating their hop flowers with bits of stalk and leaves. By the seventeenth century there was no stopping the growth of hop farming. Indeed in 1710 another act was passed preventing the use of anything but hops.

Traditionally hop garlands and wreaths were hung up every year for good luck. Rather than adding them to beer in spring the new shoots can be eaten (I’ve not tried) – hence the name “poor man’s asparagus.” And of course, a pillow filled with dried hops will apparently send you to sleep. And having lulled you into a false sense of security now is probably a good time to mention that spring was a time for fasting and purging – putting a whole new meaning on the idea of spring cleaning. Hops were just one of the plants used to treat pests and parasites – yellow iris, red current leaves, wormwood and tansy were just a few of the ingredients added to the brew to give you a fresh start after the winter months.

I think I need to end on a more positive note! In 1406 John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, founded the Order of the Hop. He had just become the Count of Flanders and wanted his new subjects to feel appreciated. It was John who helped to popularise hops in Europe. Aside from hops John also commissioned many books, continuing the work of his parents. One of them – the Livre de Merveilles du Monde, contains some rather famous descriptions of journeys to exotic and strange places including Marco Polo’s account of his journey to China. However, the reason why its in this post is because as Celia Fisher explains that the frontispiece of the book depicts hops. The whole of the book is available to view online – just follow the link beneath the image at the start of this post.

Illustration from the Medieval Flower Book p62

Fisher, Celia. (2013) The Medieval Flower Book. London: The British Library

Forget-me-not and courtly love.

L0055259 Platearius, Matthaeus Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Western Manuscript 626 Platearius, Circa instans seu de medicamentis simplicibus …; circa 1480 to 1500 1480 – 1500 Platearius, Matthaeus (d. 1161) Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Myosotis is part of the borage family and there are various folk lore based stories for it’s name. One of them is based on courtly love. A knight was walking with his lady beside a river. Obviously when one goes courting it is essential to wear full armour – in this case the knight was very chivalrously carrying the lady’s flowers when he slipped and tumbled into the raging current – as he was swept away he threw her flowers to her crying “Forget me not!” And there you have it!

Courtly love is of course the medieval form of ritualised love expressed by a knight for a married lady who is outside his reach – so duty, honour, devotion and courtesy were all important as they were part of the chivalric code. Ideally a knight’s love should be unrequited. Lancelot and Guinevere became very popular at this time. For a more in-depth article about the literature of courtly love follow the link to the British Library:

https://www.bl.uk/medieval-literature/articles/love-and-chivalry-in-the-middle-ages

An illustration from Anne of Brittany’s book of hours. Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne. Type : manuscrit Langue : Latin Format : 238 ff. – 300 × 190 mm. – Reliure galuchat noir datée de 1684, fermoirs métalliques XVIIe s. au chiffre d’Anne de Bretagne, gardes pap. dominoté, tranches dorées Droits : domaine public Identifiant : ark:/12148/btv1b52500984v



By 1190 the monks of Glastonbury had cashed in on the popular stories of the knights of the Round Table with the discovery of the graves of King Arthur and his queen.

Courtly love became the rage in the twelfth century at the point where tournaments also became the height of fashion. The use of courtly love as a motif in England grew when Eleanor of Aquitaine became queen. It was William IX of Aquitaine (Eleanor’s grandfather) who made it fashionable in 1101. Aquitainean troubadours carried songs of romance around Europe. It should be noted that William’s love was not unrequited – he appears to have been something of a serial seducer.

Henry of Bolingbroke adopted the forget-me-not as an emblem during his exile in 1398 when Richard II banished him from England for ten years. When his father John of Gaunt died the following year Richard turned the sentence into banishment for life – setting in motion the events that led to his usurpation.

Anyway, back to the forget-me-not, in medieval times if you got bitten by a dog or a snake you might be treated with forget-me-not. Gerard called it scorpion grass named due to the shape made by the curling bract of flowers.

Phillips, Stuart. (2012) An Encyclopaedia of Plants in Myth, Legend, Magic and Lore. London: Robert Hale

Swabey F. (2004) Eleanor of Aquitaine, Courtly Love and the Troubadours