Saturday, March 16, 2013

New Books on the Middle Ages: March

Every month we will try to post a list of books about the Middle Ages that caught my eye in the bookstore.

The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century 

By Paul Collins
ISBN: 978-1610390132

The tenth-century tends to be a somewhat overlooked period in medieval history, so I am intrigued by this lengthy (496 pages) account of what was going on in continental Europe, which includes some of strangest popes in history and the emergence of states from the Carolingian Empire.

Click here to read an excerpt from the Publisher's site

Deadly Sisterhood

By Leonie Frieda
Non Basic Stock Line
ISBN: 978-0297852087

Covers some of the famous women of the Italian Renaissnace: Lucrezia Turnabuoni, Clarice Orsini, Beatrice d'Este, Caterina Sforza, Isabella d'Este, Giulia Farnese, Isabella d'Aragona and Lucrezia Borgia. It looks like the character list of the show Borgias.

Before Galileo: The Advancement of Modern Science in Medieval Europe

By John Freely
Overlook Press
ISBN: 978-1-59020-607-2

The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad

By Lesley Hazelton
ISBN: 978-1594487286

From the publisher: Hazleton follows the arc of Muhammad’s rise from powerlessness to power, from anonymity to renown, from insignificance to lasting significance. How did a child shunted to the margins end up revolutionizing his world? How did a merchant come to challenge the established order with a new vision of social justice? How did the pariah hounded out of Mecca turn exile into a new and victorious beginning? How did the outsider become the ultimate insider?

Click here to visit the First Muslim website

See also this video:

The History, by Michael Attaleiates

Translated by Anthony Kaldellis and Dimitris Krallis
Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (Harvard University Press)
ISBN: 978-0-674-05799-9

I quite enjoy reading through primary sources - the stories written by the the eyewitnesses of the Middle Ages - so I picked up this edition and translation of a Byzantine chronicle that covers the years 1034 to 1079, including the Battle of Manzikert (1071).  I hope to post a review of the book on in a few weeks.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pope Francis and the Middle Ages

Jorge Mario Bergoglio has become the latest man to follow in the footsteps of Saint Peter and become the Bishop of Rome and Pope of the Catholic Church. The Argentinian Cardinal has chosen his papal name to be Pope Francis, inspired by Saint Francis of Assisi, the 13th century Italian who founded the Franciscans.

In an article from the Washington Post, some of the reasons why Cardinal Bergoglio took the name Francis are discussed. Chad Pecknold, assistant professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, commented “I think he’s going to be the people’s pope. We often associate Saint Francis with incredible love for humanity.”

You can learn more about the founder of the Franciscan Order from there two articles:

Love and Saint Francis of Assisi: A Performer in the Middle Ages

The Friar and the Sultan: Francis of Assisi’s Mission to Egypt

It was hard to find a video detailing the life of St Francis of Assisi, but I did come across this - A Day in the Life of St Francis - which has its own unique take on the man...

I also wanted to point out this excellent article How History Can Help Us Predict the Next Pope, by David Perry, a history professor at Dominican University in Illinois.

Perry notes that:

Voting is a quintessentially medieval activity. Sure, popular representations of the Middle Ages focus on kings and knights, princesses and peasants, but medieval people, especially in cities, loved to vote. They organized themselves into groups - guilds, religious fraternities, charitable organization, drinking societies - and wrote complicated bylaws governing elections. Many cities embraced various kinds of representative government during the High Middle Ages. Even the army outside the walls of Constantinople in 1204 took time to develop a voting system to elect the next emperor.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Five Worst Popes of the Middle Ages

With a new Pope about to be chosen, it might be a good time to look at some of his predecessors, and hope that the next heir to St. Peter will not be like any of these pontiffs from the Middle Ages...

Pope Stephen VI


Also called Stephen VII, this Pope's short reign is mostly known for having put on trial the previous Pope...who was dead. Stephen ordered the body of Pope Formosus exhumed, dressed in the Papal vestments, and set upon a throne. In what is known as the Cadaver Synod, Stephen charged the rotting corpse with perjury, coveting the Papacy, and breaking other church laws. During the trial, Pope Stephen screamed at Formosus, as well as mocked and insulted him.

Formosus was found guilty, and was punished by having his clothes stripped off, three of his fingers chopped off, and the rest of the body thrown into the Tiber River.

Stephen's reign did not last much longer - he was strangled to death.

Click here to read The Cadaver Synod: Strangest Trial in History

Pope John XII

For much of the tenth century, the city of Rome was dominated by the Theophylact family, and they often made the decision who would sit on St. Peter's Throne. Perhaps they didn't have too many choices, but it is hard to imagine they could not have picked someone better than John XII, who is about 18 years old when he became Pope. His youth had one benefit, as began his pontificate by personally leading armies against the local enemies.

However, it soon became apparent that John was more interested in the women of Rome than in handling church affairs. His antics eventually led to Emperor Otto I calling a synod to depose the young Pope. According to one chronicler, the charges against John included:

He had fornicated with the widow of Rainier, with Stephana his father's concubine, with the widow Anna, and with his own niece, and he made the sacred palace into a whorehouse. They said that he had gone hunting publicly; that he had blinded his confessor Benedict, and thereafter Benedict had died; that he had killed John, cardinal subdeacon, after castrating him; and that he had set fires, girded on a sword, and put on a helmet and cuirass. All, clerics as well as laymen, declared that he had toasted to the devil with wine. They said when playing at dice, he invoked Jupiter, Venus and other demons. They even said he did not celebrate Matins at the canonical hours nor did he make the sign of the cross.

Pope John retaliated by excommunicating the synod, and when he caught three of the men who took part, he had one flogged, cut off the right hand of the second, and removed the nose and ears of the third. Alas, his reign ended soon after, at the age of 27, when was "stricken by paralysis in the act of adultery" and died.

Pope Benedict IX
(1032 - off and on to 1048)

Another descendant of the Theophylact family, Benedict was at least 20 when he became Pope. Sexual scandals soon started, leading many church officials to complain about him. The Abbot of Monte Cassino, who later became a Pope too, wrote about "his rapes, murders and other unspeakable acts. His life as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it."

What also sets Benedict apart from most other popes was that he resigned as well. Unlike Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned because of his old age, this Benedict resigned in exchange for a large sum of money - bribed by his godfather John Gratian, who then became the new Pope, Gregory VI. However, Benedict soon had seller's remorse, and over the next Rome and the St.Peter's was fought over between the various sides. Eventually the German Emperor came down and removed all the contenders, naming a new Pope. Benedict lived on until 1056, but never regained the Papacy.

Pope Boniface VIII


Before he became Pope, Boniface was instrumental in persuading his predecessor, Pope Celestine V, to retire. Once he got to the Papal Throne, Boniface decided that having Celestine around was too much of a threat, so he captured the elderly man and imprisoned him until his death ten months later.

Most of his reign was spent in conflicts with the other states in Italy, but Boniface got in trouble when he decided to pick a fight with Philip IV, King of France. Eventually, he excommunicated the French king and proclaimed that all monarchs were subordinate to the Papacy. Philip responded by sending an army into Italy, where they captured Boniface at his summer retreat in Anagni. The French troops beat up and nearly killed Boniface - three days later he was dead, perhaps killing himself.

The Italian poet Dante, in his work The Divine Comedy, has Boniface relegated to the eight circle of hell for simony.

Pope Alexander VI


While he may not have been guilty of all the deeds depicted in the popular show The Borgias, Pope Alexander VI was one of the most notorious schemers to hold the papacy. He made many efforts to enrich his family and get his children into positions of power, and he also had enough time to have a mistress.

His death in 1503 is something of a mystery - Alexander may have been poisoned, and his son Cesare Borgias was suspected of committing the crime. Rumours soon spread, aided by the rapid decomposition of Alexander's remains. One person who saw the body commented, "It was a revolting scene to look at that deformed, blackened corpse, prodigiously swelled, and exhaling an infectious smell; his lips and nose were covered with brown drivel, his mouth was opened very widely, and his tongue, inflated by poison, fell out upon his chin; therefore no fanatic or devotee dared to kiss his feet or hands, as custom would have required."

Click here to read more about the Medieval Papacy from

Friday, March 08, 2013

Olive Oil and Cathedrals, the Last Pope, and the Cat picture

A Dash Of Olive Oil May Preserve British Cathedral 

A report from NPR about using the oleic acid from Olive Oil to preserve York Minster in England

Will this be the last Pope?

According to a report from, a 12th century prophecy suggests that the about-to-be-elected Pope will be the last one before the Last Judgment. Apparently, in 1139 an Irish archbishop named St. Malachy gave Pope Innocent II a list of who the next 112 Popes will be. This 112th Pope will be named Peter the Roman, and according to the prophecy will “feed his flock amid many tribulations, after which the City of the Seven Hills shall be utterly destroyed, and the awful Judge will judge the people.” The document containing the prophecy was found in the Vatican Archives in 1590, and many scholars believe it was actually created in the sixteenth century.

The Cat and the Manuscript

This great picture went viral last week - Emir O. Filipovic, a scholar working in the Dubrovnik State Archives in Croatia, found this when he opened up a manuscript. Apparently, a 15th-century cat must have got his paws into the ink, then onto this document. Emir took a photo of it, and later on tweeted to Erik Kwakkel and from there it went call over the world. Click here to read Emir's article about it.