Thursday, September 27, 2012


October - my favorite month.  My son was born in October; my wedding anniversary is in October.  It's the one month of the year when I'm not eager to travel to someplace that's new to me, because everything is so heart-stoppingly gorgeous right where I am. 

Because I need another quick-and-easy blog post, and because medieval illustrations of the labors of the months (or at least of the seasons) abound, I'm bringing you today a few examples of how October looked to some of our medieval forebears.

It differed, from place to place.  In some of the northern areas, October scenes feature butchering hogs, whereas in Italy it's all about the wine, and they don't get around to the hogs for another month or two.

Let's look first at an early illustration of all of the months:

This one's 9th century German, but as you can see, October is still all about the wine.  Wine, usually putting it up in barrels but sometimes the grape harvest itself, is the most typical theme in Italian pictures, such as this carving on the Fontana Maggiore in Perugia:

Fontana Maggiore, Perugia, by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, ca. 1275
Simone Bening Book of Hours - moving wine barrels (Flemish)

 Sometimes, October is devoted to scenes of sowing.  Certain crops needed to be sown then, and we see that reflected in some of the images:

From the Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry
From the Grimani Breviary (15th c. Flemish)
German psalter
 In this last, the psalter, we can see a man with a plough in the upper right roundel.  I am not quite sure what is going on in the other one; it looks suspiciously like a floating turtle to me.

Although harvest scenes are more typical in September or August, we do find some linked to October.  In this next picture, something is being harvested, and my best guess would be chestnuts:

Cristoforo and Nicolas Seregno, Switzerland
In Britain, apparently they got around to the pigs fairly early:

British Library manuscript
And Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1526/7-1569, shows us cattle in October (or possibly November):

Just to come full circle, let's finish with the full year from the Crescenzi calendar, a 15th century illustration of an agricultural treatise by Pietro Crescenzi, writing around 1306.  You'll note, it's wine again for October.  (I guess that would be another reason it's my favorite month.)

Images in this post are in the public domain, with the exception of the Fontana Maggiore photo, by G. dallorto, which is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license (Wikimedia Commons).

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What's in a Date?

Marriage of Buondelmonte, February 11, 1216

This painting, by Saverio Altamura from about 1858-60, depicts an historic event, one of only two such events occurring in my novel A Thing Done for which we have exact dates.  The other took place a few weeks later, on Easter.

Exact dates from 1216 are something of a rarity in Italian history.  Even contemporary chroniclers tended to glide over such specifics, or else round off, or re-order for dramatic effect, or just plain guess (which, I must admit, is a possibility with this one as well).  But having two such precious dates to work with, it becomes possible to create a timeline, a structure for one's story.

Except.  How specific am I being, really, when I make such calculations?

Not very.  Today we are not even sure in what year these events took place.  About half of the chroniclers say 1215, and the other half say 1216.  Since the Florentine year did not at that time begin on the first of January, but rather on the 25th of March (the day of the Annunciation), that could account for some of the discrepancy.  But as it turns out, it doesn't.  Some historians picked one date and some the other, even once one has adjusted for the day the year was supposed to start.

So how did I decide which year to use?  Easy - as a novelist, I get to choose what will work best for the story, all other things being equal, and it was handy for me to be able to incorporate some of the results of the Fourth Lateran Council, which was held in late autumn of 1215.  So I set the book in 1216.

Next step, then, was to find out when Easter was that year.  There are various online perpetual calendars which will calculate Easter and other moveable feasts of the church, and/or compute the day of the week for a given date.  In putting in my year (1216), I came up against a question:  one site wanted to know what calendar I wanted to use.  (Others, perhaps a bit better programmed, figured that out from the date, though later dates might have posed problems, as we're about to see.)

Julian, I thought.  But then I decided I'd better double-check that.  It turns out that depending on where your event takes place, there are many more possible calendars than I had realized.  Julian, though, was correct for my story, set in Florence in 1216.

The Julian calendar had been instituted to correct the growing discrepancies inherent in Rome's civil calendar.  Julius Caesar decreed that the year we know as 46 B.C. should have 445 days, to make things come out right.  This was known at the time as "the year of confusion."  Afterwards, the Roman calendar would use a system of 365-day years, with a leap year every fourth year.

Julius Caesar
The principle was sound, but a Roman error in computing the length of the solar year meant that the accurate dating of Easter was in jeopardy by the 16th century.  A few leap years too many, and the vernal equinox was slipping ever closer to summer, which meant that Easter might even be celebrated on the wrong Sunday altogether.  This would not do.

Pope Gregory XIII
It was in the year 1582 that Pope Gregory XIII announced that Thursday, October 4 would be immediately followed by Friday, October 15, thus finally catching up with what some call solar reality.  The change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian, which we are still using today, took place immediately in Italy.  (England adopted it in 1752, Russia at the end of World War I, and Greece finally got around to it in 1923.)

Here's a table of the differences between the two:

But even prior to the messy changeover from Julian to Gregorian, all over Europe calendars were disparate and uncoordinated.  Some places began their year on the first of January, others (like Florence) on 25 March, still others on the first of March (Venice), others on Christmas or Easter.  Even those who agreed on the day didn't necessarily agree on the year.  Florence and Pisa both began their years on March 25, but Pisa reckoned its year from the March 25 before A.D. 1, and Florence from a year later.

In an example cited by Joseph and Frances Gies, Reginald L. Poole posits a traveler setting off from Venice on March 1, 1245 (the first day of the Venetian year), and arriving in Florence only to find that it's still 1244.   He then proceeds to Pisa (and to 1246).  Going west, he would find himself back in 1245 when he got to Provence, and if he got to France before Easter (April 16), he'd be back in 1244.

I can't figure out if that would be worse than jet lag or not.

There's actually not much evidence that these discrepancies bothered anybody very much.  In an agrarian society, one not yet ruled by the clock, a certain amount of slippage was permissible.  The medieval view of the year was not like ours.  It seems likely that our medieval forebears lost more sleep over currency discrepancies than dueling dates.

In any case, I was able to find the date of Easter in the year 1216:  April 10.  (Also, the date of Buondelmonte's wedding, February 11, was a Thursday.)

Oh, and you know that wondrous fact, that Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same day?

Nope.  True that they both died on April 23, 1616.  But Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra died in Spain, which was on the Gregorian calendar and had been for three decades, whereas William Shakespeare died in England, which was not.  Shakespeare actually died ten days after Cervantes did.

Thus, first this man:

and then this one:

As the latter said, in Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5, "The time is out of joint."

Images in this blog post are in the public domain by reason of expired copyright.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Etruscan Kitties

Tomb of the Leopards, Tarquinia
The Etruscans used many animal figures in their frescoes and sculptures and pottery, which feature creatures both real and legendary.  I am particularly enchanted with their depictions of cats - usually big cats - which, like the leopards above, tend to be stylized, sinuous, and exotic.

The famous Chimera of Arezzo
Herakles and the lion

So - were the Etruscans surrounded by lions and leopards and panthers, oh my?  Well, no, probably not.  But what they did have was the little versions - little cats.  Like the one shown on the wall, in relief, in this tomb:

Tomb of the Reliefs, Cerveteri
See the little guy arching his back under a coil of rope, also sculptured in relief, on the pillar?  Some argue this is not a cat, but it sure looks catlike to me.  And this particular tomb is filled with depictions of the objects of everyday life in Etruscan days.

And now, because I have pretty much no time for blogging this week, I'm going to get really lazy and show you some present-day descendants of Etruscan cats, photographed last spring in Tarquinia, Cerveteri, and Orvieto.   Enjoy!

Cat walking past Etruscan tomb (Cerveteri)

Images in this post are either our own, or in the public domain.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Minstrel Schools in the Middle Ages

When you get a lot of musicians together in one place, interesting things happen.

Terry Jones, medievalist and Python, cites an example:

"... in 1212, when Randulf, Earl of Chester, was besieged by the Welsh in his castle of Rhuddlan in Flintshire.  He sent an appeal for help to Roger de Lacy, justiciar and constable of Chester, affectionately known in the local dungeons as 'Roger of Hell.'

"Roger, casting around for the most effective, vicious and altogether intimidating relief force he could find, realized that Chester was full of jongleurs who had come for the annual fair.  He gathered them up and marched them off under his son-in-law Dutton.  The Welsh, seeing this fearsome body of determined musicians, singers and prestidigitators bearing down on them ready to launch into an immediate performance of their terrifying arts, fled."  (Medieval Lives by Terry Jones)

As Jones points out later, these were wandering minstrels, and they had wandered to Chester because there was a fair.  No doubt they hoped to perform and earn some money; perhaps they hoped to impress a potential employer, so they could achieve some stability and lead a less hand-to-mouth existence.

But it is very likely that they also intended to use the opportunity to meet with other musicians, share repertoire, buy, sell, or trade instruments, learn new playing styles and techniques, trade gossip, talk about who might be hiring, and also just have a good time with their peers.

In the 14th century (and quite possibly earlier), it was not only the freelance musicians who sought opportunities to congregate for this valuable information exchange.  Annual minstrel schools, held in many different locations, hosted scores of musicians whose travel and expenses were paid by their employers - the nobles and municipalities of Europe, whose musical establishments were major sources of prestige for them.  (And some of them got quite competitive about it, too:  "My shawm band can outplay your shawm band!")

These minstrel schools were the occasions whose sole purpose was for musicians to meet and hobnob, to share and learn from one another.  Medieval musicians had other opportunities to assemble, but they involved other activities:  courtly weddings, visits between nobles (with their entourages), fairs, major celebrations.

Performers were a mobile lot, traveling surprising distances with surprising frequency; the result was a very cosmopolitan European musica culture.  Not that the different nations were without their separate, distinctive styles - learning these other styles was, in fact, a large part of the reason musicians wanted to get together.  But the musicians themselves were a polyglot and sophisticated bunch of travelers - the sort who today would be frequent fliers - at a time when many people never left the village they were born in.  

So.  Those schools.  Let's look at the what, the where, and the when of them, having already given a bit of thought to the why.

The what:  The schools were gatherings of musicians, organized and hosted by musicians, often with financial and other support from the host town, which benefited from the commerce generated by so many visitors (not to mention getting to hear a lot of music).  The 14th century schools existed primarily, though not exclusively, to serve the needs of instrumental musicians (at this point, that's what menestral usually meant, with a singer called, for example, a menetrier de bouche and a string instrument player a menetrier de cordes to make the distinction).  By this time, the role of the all-purpose jongleur was shrinking.

The where:  Sometimes more than one school was held in a single year, in two different places, but often the venue appears to have rotated among hosting towns.  The Low Countries probably hosted most of them; perhaps they were in a sufficiently central location to make it convenient.  Records are spotty and not at all centralized, but schools have been reported in all the following towns:

Brussels, Mons, Cambrai, Beauvais, Lyon, Geneva, Bourg-en-Bresse, Malines, Bruges, Paris, Tournai, Lille, Douai, Valenciennes, Namur, and Mechlin.

The city or one of its religious houses might house the visitors, or local musicians might extend their hospitality to their traveling colleagues.  In Bruges in 1318, we know that the visiting musicians bunked in an area near the Carmelite convent that even today is known as "Speelmansstrate." 

The when:  Schools were held during Lent (when the musicians' employers couldn't make much use of their services anyway), in the week before Laetere Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent.  That way the attendees had at least 16 days of travel time to get back home, if they could, in time for Easter, when their talents might be wanted again at home.  Also, Laetere Sunday was a bit of a break from Lenten rigors, and was even sometimes celebrated as a feast day - hence, the musicians might get a chance to perform while in their host city.

A few cities maintained more-or-less permanent schools (Paris, Bruges).  Musicians extending their musical boot camp (or waiting for more auspicious travel conditions) might while away some time at these establishments.

We have records of minstrels attending the schools throughout the 14th century and a little beyond, and around that time the schools apparently ceased to exist, or at least ceased to be a major draw for performers from courts and municipalities.  This may have been for any number of reasons, but one certainly was a rise in musical literacy among performers.  The schools served a vital function while people still depended on rote learning and memorization to acquire repertoire, but once it was possible to circulate written music and have the players able to read it, long slogs across Europe were no longer so necessary.  A bit like conferencing by Skype rather than sending your employees off on business trips.

John of Aragon
There's also the who (no, The Who were not among the attendees... you know perfectly well I didn't mean that!  Stop grinning, Dorothy.  Though it is an interesting mental image.).  Minstrels came from all over.  Some could have made the trip home in time for Easter, but the musicians from the court of Aragon, for example, usually made it back home between the middle and the end of May.  Some years, the minstrels of John of Aragon spent half the year on the road, getting to the schools and back.  (In a year when Easter came early, some routes might have still been impassable, so the musicians would either have to leave before winter weather set in, or miss out.)

A few examples:
  • The court of Burgundy regularly sent its musicians to the schools.  They traveled in a group, and received horses, valets, and 20-50 francs apiece from the Duke for expenses.  
  •  In 1366, the school held in Brussels hosted minstrels from Denmark, Navarra, Aragon, Lancaster, Bavaria, and Brunswick.
  •  In 1377-8 the Counts of Savoy sent their minstrels to Bourg-en-Bresse, where the chatelain graciously provided them with fodder for their horses.
  • In 1377, John of Aragon's minstrels brought home a new shawm player, Jacomi Capeta.
  •  In the only mention I found of a school held in England (town unspecified), Brabantine minstrels Hansen and Henderlijn attended in 1365.
  • John of Aragon's minstrels were charged, in 1381, with locating a bombarde to purchase that would match their other instruments.  They failed to do so.
  • Three of Edward III's English musicians - Merlin the fiddler and bagpipers Barberus and Morlanus - got a leave of absence to attend in 1334 or 1335, sent "across the seas, to learn new songs"

 It wasn't always easy.  Minstrels are known to have died on the way, and once in a while somebody would complete the journey only to learn that he'd been replaced during his absence, and must now seek work elsewhere.

As to what these musical gatherings accomplished for the state of music in Europe, there's one intriguing example, which, while not tied specifically to a school, may very well have sprung from one.

It is unusually specific about timing, too, calling to mind a quote from David Barber's book, Bach, Beethoven and the Boys:  Music History as it Ought to be Taught:

"The Renaissance era ended and the Baroque began on March 25, 1600 at 4 o'clock in the afternoon.  No other history of music has the courage to make this statement with such conviction."

Our chronicler is not quite that specific.  But Tielman Ehnen von Wolfhagen, in his Limburg Chronicle written around 1360, does tell us this:

"Up to now songs had been sung long, with five or six measures, and the masters are making new songs with three measures.  Things changed also with regard to trumpet and shawm playing, and music progressed, and had never been as good as it has now started to become.  For he who was known, five or six years ago, as a good shawm player throughout the whole country, is not worth a fly [sometimes translated as 'a hill of beans'] now." (Quoted in an article by William Wegman)

So, something happened in or around 1354-5, right in the middle of the heyday of the minstrel schools, which conceptually changed musical performance, and which resulted in important changes in the quality of shawm and trumpet playing.  Do we have any idea what it was?  Of course not - we should only be so lucky.

But it sure sounds like the kind of thing that might have emerged from a minstrel school.  And if it didn't, surely it was the schools that managed to disseminate whatever it was within a half-dozen years - a lightning fast record for spreading this sort of trend in the middle ages.

Images in this post are all in the public domain by virtue of being really seriously old.