Saturday, August 25, 2012

Medievalia in Modern Times

There is a lot we owe to the Middle Ages. Though the Victorians dubbed the early Middle Ages as the “Dark Ages” because of an erroneous belief that there were no advances in science, literature, or art, these were far from “Dark” times. In fact, we continue to benefit and to use in our everyday life, that which was medieval.

Besides buttons and buttonholes, sundials, clocks, the printing press, and a host of other medieval things that we still use today, did anyone out there in the internet—yeah, I mean YOU—ever go to college? There is the familiar campus with its large quad area, perhaps grassy, surrounded by an arcade of arches and maybe even a bell tower. But this design that we know so well stems from the cloister, a monastery, where monks and nuns, sometimes the only ones in their town who could read and write, walked grounds almost identical to college campuses today. These became areas of learning (the word “college” goes back to the fourteenth century meaning a body of religious colleagues). Educated men could be clerks and they were considered part of the clerical class—religious without actually having to take vows. They sometimes wore their hair with the tonsure, that shaved bit at the crown of their heads. Eventually, all colleges and universities simply took up the same design. The bell tower also goes back to medieval beginnings when the bell was rung for the call to prayer. This was called the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. Now it calls students to class. We have monks and nuns to thank (or shake a fist at, depending on your point of view) for giving us the modern concept of dividing up the day into hours.

And while we are on the subject of monks and nuns, we can’t forget that many orders today still wear the medieval garb they started with. A monk’s habit is far older, back to the roots of Christianity and Roman garb, but some of the quite extraordinary nuns’ habits come direct from medieval and Renaissance fabrications. The modestly long skirts and sleeves, the wimples and head veils, are medieval, and in fact, they would be at home in any medieval village or town as an average medieval woman’s clothing.

Have you held the door open for someone? Showed someone some courtesy? The very word “courtesy” as well as “curtsy”-- when a woman gives that little bow--come down to us from the manners you would exhibit at court. And when you give up your seat in the subway for a woman and thereby proving chivalry is not dead, you have just shown some of the medieval knightly virtues of days past.

The term “chivalry” first referred to mounted men (a chevalier is French for knight) and then it came to mean a body of mounted men (the chivalry of the King of England, for example), and eventually a code and set of virtues attributed to a proper knight. Chivalry is not dead when people defend the weak and swear not to lie. But a knight’s code took this to extremes and defended and often offended with a sword.

Chivalry aside, have you ever gotten a prescription for eyeglasses? Take a look at the paper form. See the letters on the far left that say O.D. and O.S.? Know what that stands for? Oculus Dexter and Oculus Sinister. That refers to your right and left lenses.

“Dexter” and “Sinister” are familiar medieval terms, especially if you were a herald, one of those guys who kept track of or designed the shields and blazons (what most people think of as coats of arms) for the nobility. “Dexter” is Latin for right side and “Sinister” is Old French for left. So those letters on your eyeglass prescription are referring to your right or left eye. In heraldry, it was the same. The left and right described is left and right as the bearer sees it, not from the view of the opponent.

And since we are speaking of heraldry, the College of Arms, that unusual body developed as a specific guild in the fifteenth century, is still around today in England, and is the only official body that can create and present you with a blazon, and they can only do that if they can find good cause, like some sort of lineage or a company that has served the commonwealth in some capacity, or if the current monarch knights you. Otherwise, those internet scams that will get you a coat of arms for a fee really mean nothing. Either they’ve made the whole thing up or just gave you the arms that rightly belong to someone else of the same name. You have to earn family blazons. You can’t buy them.

But you can acquire a holdover of the coat of arms and badges of the past. They are called company logos, those little drawings and caricatures associated with a company name, like the little Templar knight for King Arthur Flour (which really doesn’t make much sense when you think about it) or the Michelin Tire man.

With my current diet, I save calories and consume less sugar by drinking almond milk instead of skim milk. Almond milk was, in fact, a medieval dish. Milk itself was quite valuable to make cheese with, something you could store for long periods of time. But almond milk, merely crushing and milling almonds to a flour and adding water, made a suitable drink for children, for when one felt ill, and was often used as merely a dipping sauce. So even the food we consume can be traced to medieval beginnings.

All of these are remnants from days gone by, from architectural elements of gothic arches, to today’s instantly recognizable image of the Golden Arches. Medievalia is everywhere.


Julia Buckley said...

Fascinating, Jeri! I also have switched to almond milk, BTW. My son's health teacher convinced him, and then he convinced us. :)

Jeri Westerson said...

It tastes okay. Not great. Quick cereal and great for shakes. Milk has a lot of natural sugar and almond milk--the unsweetened kind--has none.

But I thought it was funny that everything old (really old) is new again.

Bev Myers said...

Hi Jeri--
There's so much people don't realize. A reader once was surprised that my Tito Amato had glass windows in his house. Venice, 1740. Oy!

Chester Campbell said...

Fascinating stuff, Jeri. I'm sort of medieval myself. It least my grandkids think I am.

Sunny Frazier said...

Since I'm immersing myself in Medieval history, this post was really fun to read. Thanks for the "eye opener" on the glasses. I wonder if that's the underlying meaning of the Dexter character on TV? Is he doing the "right" thing, or is he "sinister?"

Jeri Westerson said...

Ha, Sunny! You never know. I know that I like to slip Dickensian descriptors into my choice of character names.

Jeri Westerson said...

I know, right Bev? I think a lot of bad movies have dumbed down the public as to what was real and what was not in the Middle Ages and later, mixing up the eras into an incomprehensible mish-mash.

JJM said...

Loved the article, Jeri -- a lot of interesting information. And I agree that trying to pinpoint the post and ante quem of various things is not easy -- I found it hard enough even for as recently as the 19th century. I do not envy you trying for accuracy in Mediaeval times!

I am puzzled, though, by your statement that monks and nuns came up with the concept of dividing the day into hours. I'm sure you generalized from something more specific when you wrote that, because, as I'm sure you know, that concept actually predates Christianity by well over a millenium ... The ancient Greeks and Romans even had alarm clocks, and timers to limit the length of, erm, "business appointments", shall we say?, at brothels. These used specially rigged clepsydra (Greek for water clock; it means "water thief") -- and water clocks were around as far back as the fifteenth, even sixteenth, century BCE in Egypt.

Sheila Connolly said...

Way back in some other century, when I was an art historian, I wrote my thesis on a medieval French monastery (or what survives of it). More than just colleges, they were self-sufficient communities, which raised, stored and prepared their own food, along with all the educational and religious functions. They were also, in some cases, heavily fortified against marauders. The place I studied (St. Aubin in Angers) had a huge, free-standing bell-tower that not only housed the bells, but provided a safe place to stash valuables--the entry was on the second story, and you could pull the ladder up if you were under attack.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Jeri,

Very interesting and informative. I very much enjoy mysteries set in Medieval times.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Jeri, you skipped a step in the explanation of "chivalry." "Cheval" is French for "horse." And you can feel honored that Chester Campbell was moved to take the time to comment. He and his wife Sarah are here at Killer Nashville with me this weekend, and he was just given the Magnolia Award for extraordinary service to the Southeast chapter of MWA. Congrats, Chester!

Jeri Westerson said...

Mario, I'm talking more about what came down to us as modern folks, and how the division of time was made accessible and ordinary to the man on the street. When the bells rang at certain times of the day, one might look up and think, "Hmm. It's Terse, about 9 am" as we know it and as they came to know it.

Jeri Westerson said...

Can't put it all in, Liz. You'll have to go to my other blog for fuller explanations of things.

JJM said...

Ah, yes, that makes more sense, Jeri, thank you. I suspect that making sure people showed up in church for service on time was part and parcel of all this, indeed. ;-)