Monday, November 9, 2009

On my Amazon wishlist...

I stumbled across this today and just had to share! It's called Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches and it is fabulous! Almost the entire book is available to read on the link above through Google books, and is well worth it! Face it. With the rainy November weather we all need a good laugh, right?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Always Watch Where You're Running!

Well, what more can I add :-) This is from a 15th century house in Angers. It's another gem from Umberto Eco's "On Ugliness"

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Still Here

Just a quick note to apologize for not posting as often as I should...winter is coming and I've been busy between sewing winter clothes and work picking up. I'll post something new in the next few days!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Kill or Cure

Sometimes medieval medicines make sense, and show a good knowledge of herbs and their healing properties. But when they go bad, they really, really go wrong. Here are a few of my favorites from "The Good Housewife's Jewel", written in 1596 by Thomas Dawson:

Take eight swallows ready to fly out of the nest. Drive away the breeders when you take them out, and let them not touch the earth. Stamp them until the feathers cannot be percieved in a stone mortar. Put to it lavender cotton, of the strings of strawberries, the tops of mother thyme, the tops of rosemary, of each a handful. Take all their weight of May butter, and a quart more. Then make it up in bales and put it into an earthen pot for eight days close stopped, that no air take them. Take it out, and on as soft a fire as maybe, seethe it so that it do but simmer. Then strain it and reserve it to your use"

Take worms while they be nice, and look that they depart not. Stamp them, and lay it to the sore, and it will knit the sinew that be broken in two"

Take four ounces of oil de baye, and an ounce of frankincense, and two ounces of white whey, three ounces of swine's grease, and an ounce of quick silver that must be slaked with falling spittle, an ounce of great salt, as much of one as of the other. Of all these make an ointment [...]"

take orpiment [arsenic] and verdigris, of each an ounce, of vitriol burned till it be red, two ounces, bray each of them by it self in a brazen mortar, as small as flour. then mingle them altogether that they appear as one. Keep it in bags of leather, well bound, for it will last seven years with one virtue [...]"

I shouldn't have to say this, but don't try this at home!

Source: Dawson, Thomas. "The Good Housewife's Jewel (with an introduction by Maggie Black)". East Sussex: Southover Press. 2002.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Byzantine Medical Garb

Well, since I posted about the Byzantine Blue faction garb, I might as well post on this too. Clothing tended to be very indicative of status, rank, and profession in Byzantium and doctors were no different. This 14th century illustration (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, gr. 2243, folio 10v) gives us an interesting view of this.

(image source:´

Here is an interesting description: "The miniature in Paris. gr. 2243 offers additional information which no doubt applies to all hospital personnel, not just those assigned to the outpatient clinics. In the illustration each person on the hospital staff has a distinctive gown and conical hat. The physician wears a blue-green gown, a color traditionally assigned to doctors since late antiquity. Over the gown he has a red mantle which matches his red half-boots. his conical hat is violet. The hypourgos [male medical assistant] wears a violet tunic, red half-boots, and a pale yellow conical hat with a red vertical stripe. The pharmacist wears a variegated red and blue tunic, yellow half-boots, and a red conical hat with a vertical whipe stripe. The colors of the tunics, boots, and hats clearly denote rank and function [...] From other sources describing medical men, however, one can verify the significance of only the blue gown as the prescribed uniform of physicians."

Text source: Miller, Timothy."The Birth of the Hospital in the Byzantine Empire". Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997. Pp.155-6

Another, later image shows a different hat, but the blue robe stays the same:

Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria gr. 3632, folio 134v. "Physician Isaac holds Urine flask", 15th c.

(text source: )

Another 15th century illustration (showing the difference of dress between doctor and assistant, but still none of the hats in the first illustration) is this:

Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria gr. 3632, folio 255v. Serapion with medicine jar (left); assistant with mortar and pestle (center); Praxagoras (right); 15th c.


The same site provides (inter alia) two depictions of physicians (Oribasius and Philo Judeaus) wearing large yellow over-robes. Oribasius has a red undertunic while Philo wears blue, and, despite the color difference, their outfits are basically identical. Since both of these physicians were alive in late antiquity, this may be an anachronistic depiction, especially since the images I posted here all illustrate relative contemporaries (at least they all fall in the mid-late Byzantine period).

Friday, June 12, 2009

Food in Byzantine Dream Symbology

The main primary source for Byzantine dream symbology is the Oneirokritika, a 2nd century book written by Artemidoros, but read and loved throughout the Byzantine medieval period. It covered all types of dream symbols, and I've always found the ones relating to food fantastic, so here they are:

  • Seeing oneself drink water was a sign of comfort if it was cold, but a sign of sickness if it was hot
  • If one was drinking wine, this was a very good sign for the future, providing the glass was small and one was not drunk
  • Drinking hydromel, cider or myrtle wine had two meanings depending on the class of the dreamer: if one was rich it fortold good luck. If one was poor, however, as the poor only drank these if they were ill, it fortold sickness to come
  • If one drank from a horn cup, this was a very good omen, but a glass cup (which is fragile and transparent) prophecied the undesirable revealing of secrets
  • If a sailor dreamed of a glass breaking, this foretold shipwreck. For others, however, it showed a relief from worry and sorrow, especially if the glass had a small opening.


  • Citron, a sour fruit from a thorny bush, foretold the unemployement of whomever was eating it
  • Beets, mallow, and srrel were all very good signs for debtors. These vegetables upset the intestines, and intestines symbolized creditors.
  • Carrots, which are pulled up by the roots prophecied bad times for landowners
  • Lettuce and squash were very bad omens if a sick person dreamed of eathing them, and meant surgery or amputation
  • Melons were thought to promote laziness, and for this reason were a good sign for friendship, but a bad omen for one's work or livlihood
  • Onions and garlic were a bad omen if one saw oneself eating them, but good if one was holding them. If one was crowned with a wreath of onions, this was a sign of fortune for the wearer, but bad fortune for those around them in the dream
  • Celery was the prize at ancient funerary games. If one was ill and dreamed of wearing a wreath of celery, it meant death
  • Legumes were generally an omen of misfortune. Crushed broadbeans fortold discord, lentils foretold mourning, and millet foretold poverty
  • Sesame seeds, while a good sign for doctors, was a sign of misfortune for those around them. Crushed sesame, especially in sweets, showed relief from troubles with the law
  • Grapes prophecied advantages and favors, peaches and cherries foretold pleasure, but pomegranates were a sign of injury to come
  • Eating winter apples was a sign of worry, and sour apples foretold disagreements
  • Eating white figs was an omen of good weather, just as black figs predicted bad weather
  • Almonds and walnuts were signs of rowdiness and noise
  • Eating lamb in a dream foretold a period of mourning, pork and goat were good signs if cooked, poultry showed the success in gaining a lady's' favor.
  • Whips were made of bull leather, so eating beef foretold mistreatment and torture if dreamed about by a slave, but was a sign of small jobs for the rich
  • Any raw meat was seen as bad (so eating raw poultry showed favors from an undesirable lady)
  • Any salt preserved fish or meat showed delays and postponements of family matters

A good secondary source on this, if you want more, is "Ti Etrogan I Byzantini" by Christos Motsias, Kaktos, 1998.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Day at the Circus: the Birth of the Mullet

Another one of my great interests is the Roman and Byzantine Circus, which, thankfully, had to do with chariot races rather than clowns. Imagine the scene after a Manchester United game, replace football fans with chariot racing fans, and you pretty much have an idea of what the Circus factions were like. They were divided into 4 colors, although only the blues and greens attained any lasting prominence. Emperor Justinian made the mistake of openly supporting one side, which, in part, almost lost him his empire. The fans rioted, smashed windows, beat each other up, graffitied, robbed, and were arrested. But what makes me love them even more is their love of the mullet. Yes, I said mullet! In the 6th century, during Justinian's time, Procopius writes of the particular dress of the Blues:

"First the rebels revolutionized the style of wearing their hair. For they had it cut differently from the rest of the Romans: not molesting the mustache or beard, which they allowed to keep on growing as long as it would, as the Persians do, but clipping the hair short on the front of the head down to the temples, and letting it hang down in great length and disorder in the back, as the Massageti do. This weird combination they called the Hun haircut.
Next they decided to wear the purple stripe on their togas, and swaggered about in a dress indicating a rank above their station: for it was only by ill-gotten money they were able to buy this finery. And the sleeves of their tunics were cut tight about the wrists, while from there to the shoulders they were of an ineffable fullness; thus, whenever they moved their hands, as when applauding at the theater or encouraging a driver in the hippodrome, these immense sleeves fluttered conspicuously, displaying to the simple public what beautiful and well-developed physiques were these that required such large garments to cover them. They did not consider that by the exaggeration of this dress the meagerness of their stunted bodies appeared all the more noticeable. Their cloaks, trousers, and boots were also different: and these too were called the Hun style, which they imitated.
Almost all of them carried steel openly from the first, while by day they concealed their two-edged daggers along the thigh under their cloaks. Collecting in gangs as soon as dusk fell, they robbed their betters in the open Forum and in the narrow alleys, snatching from passersby their mantles, belts, gold brooches, and whatever they had in their hands. Some they killed after robbing them, so they could not inform anyone of the assault.
These outrages brought the enmity of everybody on them, especially that of the Blue partisans who had not taken active part in the discord. When even the latter were molested, they began to wear brass belts and brooches and cheaper cloaks than most of them were privileged to display, lest their elegance should lead to their deaths;" --Procopius of Caesaria, Secret History (you can read his whole work at the medieval sourcebook here: )

There really is nothing new on this earth, is there!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Handsewing Challenge

Hey all, this is just a bit of publicity for my apprentice's new Handsewing challenge. If you've never sewn anything completely by hand before, and would like to, this is a great opportunity! The challenge is based in Drachenwald, but is open to anyone in the SCA. There's more info on the blog, here:

you can email either of us to be added as an author to the blog!

See you there!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Proud to be a Merkin

Ok everyone, so I need some help. I've been looking for documentation for merkin use in the Middle Ages, and have hit a wall. The OED places it's use as a word to 1617, but it's actual use, as far as I can tell, dates to 1450. Unfortunately, the only reliable source I've found is the Guardian, and alot of websites copying the info in it:

A short and curly history of the merkin

The Oxford Companion To The Body traces the merkin back to 1450, a time when the bidet was a distant prospect and personal hygiene fell well short of the mark. Pubic lice were common - so some women, fed up with the constant itching, just shaved the lot off and then covered their modesty with a merkin.
Prostitutes, too, were frequent wearers. In the days before penicillin, it didn't take long to become infected with sexually transmitted diseases. They knew it was no work, no pay, and didn't want to scare the customers off with their syphilitic pustules and gonorrhoeal warts. So the merkin was used as a prosthesis to cover up a litany of horrors.
The Oxford Companion recounts an amusing tale of one gentleman who procured the disease-riddled merkin of a prostitute, dried it, gave it a good comb and then presented it to a cardinal, telling him he had brought him St Peter's beard. [...]

Gareth Francis

I'd dearly love to find some primary sources or scholarly references to make this a bit more credible! Anyone got some?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Renew, Reuse, Recycle

One thing that strikes me again and again is how much obvious recycling of materials you find on the Silk Road. Parchments were folded to make grave-shoes, leftover bits of silk were tacked onto existing garments, embroideries were folded and turned into bags, then unfolded and cut out to make dress yokes. This is one of my favorite examples of this:
Female Dancer: Turfan under the Tang Dynasty, 689 or 633; Wood, silk, clay, and paper; H. 30 cm.
Description: "With her hair piled up high and her face immaculately made-up, this delicate dancer was also excavated from the joint tomb of Zhang Xiong and Lady Qu. Her outfit reflects Central Asian influence: a fine yellow shawl over a striped dress with a blouse featuring two pearl roundels. The high-fired delicate features of the figure suggested tot he excavating archaeologists that she had been made in a major metropolitan center, and they were delighted when they discovered that her arms were made from cancelled pawn tickets from the Tang capital of Chang'an. In addition to the pawnshop documents, archaeologists recovered slips documenting over six hundred small loans that ordinary urban dwellers made to purchase medicine, clothing, beans, and wheat bran."
Source: Li Jian (ed.). The Glory of the Silk Road: Art from Ancient China. The Dayton Art Institute, 2003. P.99

Monday, March 23, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day

Wool trade, multiple spinning bobbins, Isaac Claes Swanenburgh, 1614-1638, London History Museum, tec01011, copyright Kathleen Cohen. source:
Today, being Ada Lovelace day, I'd like to post some items regarding women in medieval technology. First, a few links.

This fantastic article covers women's roles in various guilds, including several women in charge of quite large foundries.

I did a fair amount of searching and found no information whatsoever on them, excepting a few church records marking their donations. Joan Hille also appears in the records of Little Staughton as the maker of one of their 5 churchbells (From: 'Parishes: Little Staughton', A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 3 (1912), pp. 165-168. URL: )

Next up is the illustrious Byzantine Empresses Zoe and Theodora. The sisters ruled together in the early 11th century, and quite the controversial pair. Zoe herself managed to marry three times (two of the three met with unfortunate ends: her first husband Romanus was found dead in his bath, and the empresses blinded and exiled her second husband Michael V), and took her first husband at the age of 50! What makes them relevant to this post is that both of them were avid perfumers.

Michael Psellus wrote about them in his Chrongraphia: "[Zoe's] own private bedroom was no more impressive than the workshops in the market where the artisans and the blacksmiths toil, for all round the room were burning braziers, a host of them. Each of her servants had a particular task to perform: one was allotted the duty of bottling the perfumes, another of mixing them, while a third had some other task of the same kind. In winter, of course, these operations were demonstrably of some benefit, as the great heat from the fires served to warm the cold air, but in the summer-time the others found the temperature near the braziers almost unbearable. Zoe herself, however, surrounded by a whole bodyguard of these fires, was apparently unaffected by the scorching heat. In fact, both she and her sister seemed naturally perverse. They despised fresh air, fine houses, meadows, gardens; the charm of all such things meant nothing to them."

Psellus's text can be read on the Medieval Sourcebook, here:

Moving right along, we have the fabulous Martine de Bertereau (born in 1601), the first woman minerologist. This is decidedly past the middle ages, but she is too interesting to leave out! After marrying her husband (a mine inspector in Germany), they travelled as far as South America inspecting the mines there, as well as in Hungary, Germany, and France. In 1640, she wrote "La Restitution de Pluton", with the purpose of persuading Cardinal Richelieu to open and utilize the mines located in France. He responded by throwing their entire family in prison on suspicion of witchcraft (the use of divining rods was part of their work), where she soon died.

Some facsimile pages of her work can be found here:

Then, earlier, in the 11th century we have Trotula, the first recorded female physician, who was known for her crazy ideas, such as the administration of painkillers to women during childbirth, and that both women and men could be responsible for infertility. Additionally, she was a leader in the fields of gynecology and nutrition. Her works include "Passionibus Mulierum Curandorum" (The Diseases of Women) and "Practica Secundum Trotam". A much better article on her than I could ever write can be found here:

Trotula wasn't alone, however, and we have quite a few noted Italian female physicians in the middle ages. In Italy, women were allowed to study at university up to 1500, so it was no surprise that it is only here that we really see women taking their place as doctors. In addition to Trotula, Italy can boast of (to name a few): Dorotea Bucca, the chair of medicine and philosophy at the University of Bologna from 1390 (holding the post for 40 years); Abella, a 14th century physician in Salerno, who authored "De atrabile" (Black Bile) and "De natura seminis humani" (Nature of seminal fluid); Jacobina Félicie, a 13th century Florentine, fought the law when she moved to Paris, where only members of the (all male) medical faculty were allowed to practice; Alssandra Giliani was a leading anatomist and surgical assistant in 14th century Bologna, and is known for discovering a way to replace blood with a dye to assist the study of veins; Mercuriade, who's work in 14th century Salerno included various works on fevers and ointments; Constance Calenda who worked in 15th century Salerno; Calrice di Durisio was a 15th century eye specialist; Maria Incarnata was a Napolitan surgeon.

Here are sources for more on these Italian doctors:

And finally, athough a bit past the middle ages, is Maria Cunitz (born in 1604), noted astronomer and author of "Urania propitia" (1650). .
Follow this link for an incredible article about her life and achievements:

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

When life hands you fish...

Ok, I suppose a post on medieval glue isn't the most fascinating thing for most of you, but it's useful and I think people forget how easy it is to make! Carpenters, painters, bookbinders and shoemakers all needed various glues to ply their trades as, I imagine, did housewives and those (like myself) with a tendency to drop things rather often. There are already many sites out there which discuss the various practical uses of medieval glue, so, rather than reinventing the wheel, my aim here is simply to provide you all with some primary sources.

So without further ado, the recipes:

From Petrus de S. Audemar (13-14th century):

"Of Certain Kinds of Gum or Glue: If you have not the air-bladder of a sea-fish, cut up thick vellum in the same manner, and wash it. Also wash carefully three times in warm water the dried bones of the head of a pike, and boil them. Whichever of these you boil, add to them one-third part of very clear gum, that is, gum arabic, and boil a little; and you may keep this as long as you will"

"How Glue is Made from Cheese: Fresh cheese is first to be washed in hot water, until the milk is washed out, and then ground with lime and water, in a little mortar or on a marble slab; and a little before this is done--namely, while the cheese is being ground--the colour is soaked in water again. Then, when the cement is prepared, so as to be as white, clear, and shining as milk, it is put into a small vase, and the colour is scraped into it with a kife, and care must be taken not to let the air have access to the mixture; and when the colour is seen to be good, it may be used for writing at pleasure."

Source: de S. Audemar, Petrus. "De Coloribus Faciendis". From Mrs. Mary P. Merrifeld. "Medieval and Renaissance Treatises on the Arts of Painting, Original Texts with English Translations". Dover Publications Inc., New York. 1967.

From the Marciana Manuscript (16th Century):

"A Most Excellent Glue for Damp and Moist Places which always becomes Harder, but only Fears the Heat, and Fixes Everything to Wood and Stone, which must be as Smooth as Porphyry: Take one pound of good yellow wax, nine ounces of liquid varnish, and one pound of black naval pitch. Put the varnish into a pipkin over a slow fire, that is hot enough to liquefy without burning it; then throw in the wax, liquefy it in the same manner and incorporate it well with the varnish; then do the same with the pitch, having previously pounded it, etc. Then take Armenian bole ground to a fine powder, and stir some of it into the other ingredients until the whole material becomes liquid, and yet so tenacious that it fixes and holds together firmly the things which you wish to glue together; and you must stir the ingredients well together and use them warm, because in a short time the cement hardens so that xou cannot glue with it. And when you have applied it where you please, and wish to make the surface smooth and polished, take a firebrand from the fire and bring it near to the glue until the heat causes it to liquefy and spread; you should also move about the firebrand over the surface of the glue, and melt it so that it at length becomes smooth and beautiful &c. And on putting the work which you have cemented into water, it will immediately become very hard."

Source: Divers Secrets (Extracts from a manuscript in the Marciana Library at Venice). From Mrs. Mary P. Merrifeld. "Medieval and Renaissance Treatises on the Arts of Painting, Original Texts with English Translations". Dover Publications Inc., New York. 1967.

From Cennini (15th Century):

"To make a Glue out of Lime and Cheese: There is a glue used by workers in wood; this is made of cheese. After putting it to soak in water, work it over with a little quicklime, using a little board with both hands. Put it between the boards; it joins them and fastens them together well. And let this suffice you for the making of various kinds of glue."

"And there is a glue which is known as leaf glue; this is made out of clippings of goats' muzzles, feet, sinews, and many clippings of skins. This glue is made in March or January, during those strong frosts or winds; and it is boiled with clear water until it is reduced to less than half. Then put it into certain flat dishes, like jelly molds or basins, straining it thoroughly. Let it stand overnight. Then, in the morning, cut it with a knife into slices like bread; put it on a mat to dry in the wind, out of hte sunlight; and an ideal glue will result. This glue is used by painters, by saddlers, and by ever so many masters, as I shall show you later on. And it is a good glue for wood, and for many things. [...]"

Source: Cennini, Cennino d'Andrea. "The Craftsman's Handbook (Il Libro dell'Arte)", trans. By Daniel V. Thompson, Jr. Dover Publications, Inc., New York. 1960.

From Theophilus (13th Century):
"Glue from Hide and Stag Horns When this has been carefully dried out, take some cuttings of
the same hide [horse, ass, or cow-hide], similarly dried, and cut them up into pieces. Then
take stag horns and break them into small pieces with a smith's hammer on an anvil. Put these
together in a new pot until it is half full and fill it up with water. Cook it on the fire without
letting it boil until a third of the water has evaporated. Then test it like this. Wet your fingers
in the water and if they stick together when they are cold, the glue is good; if not, go on
cooking it until your fingers do stick together. Then pour this glue into a clean vessel, fill the
pot again with water, and cook as before. Do this four times."

Source: Theophilus, On Divers Arts (De Diversis Artibus), trans. By Hawthorne, J., and Smith, C., Dover Publications, Inc, New York. 1979.

and if you are very, very interested in fish glue, absolutely everything you need to know is here:

Also, if any of you have other period recipes, please post them here!

Friday, February 20, 2009

La plus ca change...


"The Flag of the Mad Mother" (15th century). Dijon.
Source: Eco, Umberto (ed.). On Ugliness. p. 139

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy St. Valentine's

Charicature by Bartolomeo Passerotti

16th-17th century, private collection

Source: Eco, Umberto (ed.). "On Ugliness". Rizzoli International Publications, 2007. Milan, 2007. P. 130.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Blue Laws

Woad was one of western Europe's most important dyestuffs, which makes it no surprise that the woad industry was a powerful one. So when dyes like indigo (which produces more dye than Woad) and Logwood (which looks like woad at first, but fades quickly) were introduced in the late middle ages, there was some backlash. Pretty soon, laws began to be passed prohibiting them. Indigo was made illegal in what is now Germany in 1577 (and repeated in 1594 and 1603), saying it was the "devil's dye", and Nürnberg dyers had to take an oath promising not to use the dye every year.

The deceitful use of Logwood (selling cheap knock-offs is nothing new!) was made officially illegal in England by Queen Elizabeth I. Here is part of the text:

“Act of Queen Elizabeth I prohibiting the use of Logwood 1567
Anno vicesimo tertio Reginae Elizabethae
Cap. IX Logwood and Blockwood shall not be used in the dying of cloth, etc.
Whereas of late years there hath been brought into this Realm of England, from beyond the seas, a certain kind of Ware or Stuffe called Logwood, alias Blockwood, wherewith divers Dyers, Clothiers, Hatmakers and others have and do die daily, divers broad Clothes kersies, Woolls, Pennestones, Bayes, Cottons, Hose, Yarn, Hats, Caps, Flannels, Docadoes, Rashes, tuft Dockadoes, and other things, forasmuch as the colours made with the said stuff called Logwood is false and deceitful, and the Clothes and other things wherewith dyed, are not only sold and uttered, to the great deceit of the Queen’s loving subjects within this her Realm of England, but also beyond the Seas, to the great discredit and slander, as well of the Merchants, as of the Dyers of this Realm.
For reformation whereof, be it ordained, enacted and established, by the Queen our Sovereign Lady, and by the assent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and by the authority of the same, that all such Logwood, alias Blockwood, in whose hands soever the same shall be found, after the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel next ensuing, shall be forfeited, and openly burnt by authority of a Mayor or other head officer of the City or Town Corporate, or of two Justices of the Peace of the County where it shall be found, and that from and after twenty days after the end of this session of Parliament, no person of what degree soever be he, shall dye or cause to be dyed any Cloth, Wooll, or any of the Premisses above mentioned, or anything whatsoever, with any of the said Ware or Stuff called Logwood, alias Blockwood, upon pain that the Dyer of every such thing so dyed, the one moity to the use of the Queen’s Majesty, her Heirs or Successors, and the other moiety to him that shall sue for the same, by action of debt, bill, plaint, or information, in any Court of Record, in which suit, no essoyne, protection, wager of Law, no writ of privilege for the defendant , shall be admitted or allowed; and the party offending, being thereof convicted, to remain in prison without bail or mainprize, till he have satisfied the same value. […]"

Source: Edmonds, John. “Historic Dyes Series No. 3: Medieval Textile Dyeing”. John Edmonds, 2003. Pp. 79-80.

Other sources:

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Medieval Automata

Heres a link to a great intro to medieval automata

I do have to say, though, that automata really freak me cool as they are, there's something unnatural about them. I also think we forget that mechanics in the middle ages wasn't as backwards as many people think. There are several descriptions of various automata at the Byzantine court. Unfortunately, many of them were melted down for their precious metals long ago. Also, in the 13th century, Al-Jazari wrote the Kitáb fí ma'rifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya (Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices), which describes over 50 mechanical devices and how to build them. 200 years later, Leonardo da Vinci continued the craft, creating many automata himself.

Crouching Tiger...

These two Chinese pillows were at an exhibit at the Museum for East Asian Art here in Cologne, and the tiger one really made me smile :-)
The top one is stoneware, 13.3 cm high by 38.1 cm long, and dates to the 12th century.
The second one is earthenware, 14 cm high by 29 cm long, and dates from the 12th - 13th century.
Both photos are from the Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Köln copyright the Reinisches Bildarchiv Köln

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Africa, Africa!

One of my major gripes is that many people tend to think of the Byzantine empire as only being Greece, Egypt, and part of Asia Minor. I find that the most interesting artwork, however, comes from the fringes, and is a unique combination of regional and traditional Byzantine style. The further away from Constantinople you go, the more regional the art gets. In my opinion, The Sudan (Nubia) and Ethiopia belong to those ignored areas of Byzantine art. Although they, like Russia, were never part of the Empire, they both were christianized by the Byzantines (Nubia in the mid 6th century and Ethiopia in the mid 4th) and, as a result, their cultures and artwork were very much influenced by this. Here are two examples of Nubian frescos, these two both come from Faras.

The first one depicts Queen Martha, protected by the Virgin Mary and a martyred soldier, and dates from the 11th century. Martha's dress is a beautiful mix of traditional style and Byzantine ceremonial garb.

The second image shows a Nubian princess being protected by the Virgin Mary, and dates from the 12th century.

Both are in the National Museum at Khartoum.

The next image comes from an Ethiopian illumination, dating before 1350. It is a depiction of the angels leading Mary to Temple. It comes from the Cloister Estifanos at
Lake Hayq.

In this illumination, you can really see the mix of Byzantine themes and style, with very Ethiopian elements. What is especially typical of the region are the noseless, mouthless faces and the oversized eyes. What I love about it is the beauty that lies in its simplicity.

It is now located in the National Library at Addis Ababa, Inventory number A.5

Source: Volbach, W.F., J. Lafontaine-Dosogne. "Propyläen Kunst Geschichte, Band 3: Byzanz". Propyläen Verlag, Berlin.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

I want my mummy

Well, the plan was to write a small article on the use of mummies in medieval medicine, but I found a bunch of stuff on the net already. Here are links to two of the best articles I found. Some of it is post period, but all of it is fascinating!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"Squashed Tit, Tit like a bun"...

And it's the moment you've all been waiting for...dirty poetry hour! I bring to you three of my favorites:

Blazon of the Ugly Tit
by Clement Marot (1535)
"Tit that is nothing but skin,
Scrawny flag limply flapping
Big tit, long tit
Squashed tit, tit like a bun
Tit with a pointy nipple
Like the sharp end of a funnel,
You jounce about at every move
Without any need for a shake...
Tit, we might say that he who fondles you
Knows he has a finger in the pie.
Toasted tit, hanging tit
Wrinkled tit, tit that gives
Mud instead of milk,
The devil wants you in his
Infernal family, to nurse his daughter.
Tit to be thrown over one shoulder
Like those broad shawls of olden times
If you are spotted, lots of men feel like
Grasping you with gloves on
So as not to soil themselves, and to use
Tit to slap the big ugly nose of she
Wo has you dangle below the armpit."

The Black Scrotum
Anonymous (12th-13th century)
"My Lord, in your presence
I want to say before everyone here
the reason why I have come to court.
I've been married for seven years now
with a peasant, whom I never fully knew,
until last night, when for the first time
I discovered
the reason why I can no longer stay with him,
nor remain in his company.
You'll find what I say is true:
my husband has a prick blacker
than iron, and a scrotum blacker
than any monk's or priest's cassock;
and it's hairy like the skin of a bear,
and furthermore no old moneylender's purse
was ever so swollen as his scrotum.
I've told you the truth;
I don't know how to tell it any better."

Source: Eco, Umberto (ed.). "On Ugliness". Rizzoli International Publications Inc. New York, 2007. pp. 136, 166. (If you don't already have a copy, you need to get one!)

and finally, a song

Ain Graserin
by Oswald von Wolkenstein (late 14th to early 15th c.)

"A peasant maid came walking through the cool dew,
Her pretty little white feet quite naked:
what a happy encounter, there amid the green
meadows which her trusty sickle knew so well!
There it was that I helped her to open the gate
and hold it ajar, to swing it around a little
hinge and then to close it firmly so that the
maid would never again have cause to weep
for the flight of her pretty little duckling.

When I saw the beauty coming, as quick as a
flash I hastened to help her slip the 'unruly'
one snugly into that exquisite slot: I had
carefully sharpened my hoe in view of my
work with her; moist and impatient it could
hardly wait; so I helped her to rake the grass.
'Why are you struggling so, my precious?'
'But no, what are you saying my little duckling?'

And when I had thoroughly scythed the pussy
clover and filled all the holes thereabouts, not
content, she begged me to linger a little longer
in that garden of hers down there: she wanted
to find some roses to make me a garland.
'Tease and comb my flax just a little more,
caress it if you want it to grow tall
and strong'. My heart, my darling duck, you
have the most magnificent beak!"

Source: CD liner: "Speculum Amoris, Lyrique de l'Amour Medieval du mysticisme a l'erotisme", La Reverdie.

I tried to find a recording online, but this is the best I can do. If you want to hear part of the song in the original, go here

It's a shame the Victorians ruined our cultural sense of humor, isn't it?

Monday, January 19, 2009

And there was much embarrassment

A 14th century wall painting in the narthex of the 12th century church Our Lady of Asinou, on Cyprus. The depiction is of the Gnashing of Teeth, which was one of the group torments in Hades.

They look more sheepish than tormented, though, if you ask my humble opinion, kind of like their bosses just caught them in the sauna, when they were all supposed to be at the weekly board meeting.

Source: "The Church of Our Lady of Asinou". Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation and the Holy Bishopric of Morphou in Collaboration with the Department of Antiquities. Nicosia, 2002.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Artifice, the first.

Things really never change...fake gems, disappearing-reappearing ink, painting roses red, it has all been done before. Since this is a topic I love, and because there is so much information out there, I'm going to do this in parts. Today I'm going to focus on the Bolognese Manuscript, a 15th century book on dyeing, ink making, painting techniques, gilding, among other things. There are also many many recipes for making fake jewels. Here is a selection. I have to say, I haven't tried any of these recipes yet, but am planning to! So if anyone succesfully makes any of these, I'd love to hear your tips!

"To make pearls just like natural pearls.--Take pearls and pound them fine, and then put them into the before-mentioned water [2lbs of sal-ammoniac distilled]; then place the vessel containing the water with the pearls dissolved in it on the hot ashes to dry; and when the water is nearly evaporated, and the pearls remain at the botom of the vase, take it out, and add to it white of egg well beaten as if for vermilion, and knead up the pearls with white of egg like smooth paste. then take moulds and make the paste into pearls, and let them dry; pierce them, and let them boil in linseed oil. Then take out and rub them in bran, and afterwards on linen cloth. And if, instead of pearls, you put mother-of-pearl, it is good, and will make good pearls, &c." p. 553-4

"To imitate precious stones with crystal.--Take roche alum, alum zucarino, Roman vitriol, and "salis copertum", of each equal quantities, and put these ingredients into clear and strained ley, and dissolve them, and you may colour the crystal. For a sapphire, add azure; for an emerald, add verdigris; for a ruby, add vermilion; for a balas ruby, add verzino or "stupio"; for hyacinth, sky-blue and a little azure; for amethyst, some oricella; and so you may imitate all stones by adding different colours. Remember, however, that the crystal and the colours must be dissolved like colours and coagulated. Then boil them till they become like stones." p. 518

"To make sapphire, and to refine and colour it.--Take a crystal, or a transparent stone, and whichever you take heat it strongly and then quench it several times in cold water; then pound it, and take an equal quantity of sal alkali, and melt them together. Aftrwards put them into a furnace, and add a little zaffirro. And if you wish to have the colour green, add a little minium, and note, that some say that "callamita femina" makes a transparent red. Note also, that these stones are found upon Mount St. Bernard, and are good and perfect crystals, as if they were really mineral." p.524

To make amber (beads).--Take the whites of hen's eggs, and whip them with a sponge till they cease to froth; dd a little roche alum, colophony well powdered, and some cherry gum. Strain the mixture through a cloth, and put it into a flask well closed and luted, and set the flask in a jar full of water.; boil it for an hour, and then put it to cool in the open air, and dry it, and afterwards wrap it up in a linen cloth and bury it in dung for 3 days, and it will then be liquid, so that you may work it in your hands, and make beads and whatever you please. While you are modelling them, anoint your hands with common oil, pierce the beads, and let them dry, and they will be done." pp.515-6

"To Make a stucco for making imitation corals.--Take the white horn of a cow, break it, and soak it in strong ley for the space of a fortnight; then make it boil over the fire until it becomes soft like glue, and so that you can strain it through a cloth or a strainer; and when it is strained, take vermilion in the finest powder, and mix it up with the strained liquid, so as to be like dough, and make paternosters of it in moulds like pearls as before; then boil them in linseed oil, and let them dry. And if you scrape the horn with a glass, and then soak it in the manner above mentioned, it will soften so that you may strain it more easily, and do with it as before, and you will have fine and beautiful imitation corals" p. 544

"To make a window of goat-skin parchment which will appear to be real glass.--Take the skin of a id or a sheep or a goat, macerate it, remove the hair without lime, and scrape it very fine; then take a drachm of clean and clarified honey, mix it with 8 or 10 whites of eggs well beaten together with the honey in the same way as white of egg is beaten up for vermilion. Put the skin to soak in the white of egg and honey, squeeze it with your hand while in composition, and let it remain in soak for 2 or 3 hours at the most; Then take it out and stretch it well on a frame, and let it dry. Then paint upon it what you please, and let the colours dry well. Afterwards varnish it on one side, that is, on the side which the colours are, and dry it in moderate sunshine, and it will appear like glass" p. 492

Source: Merrifield, Mary P. "Medieval and Renaissance Treatises on the Arts of Painting: Original Texts with English Translations". Dover Publications, Inc: New York. 1967. ISBN: 0-486-40440-4

Waiting for the Sun

Today's featured items are three types of 16th century portable sundials, more specifically, the chalice dial, polyhedral dial, and ring dial. The first were, obviously, in the shape of chalices and could be used to tell the time of day, by rotating it until the pin matched the correct month. I seriously want one! Images can be found here:

Polyhedral dials are essentially table-top sundials, and could be elaborately painted and decorated:

Ring dials were really practical, the first one even had charts for telling the age of the moon, and the latitudes of different cities.

And finally, my personal favorite, a sundial-spoon!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"The Woman Said my Horse was Small"...

Here's a link to one of the most interesting articles I've read in a while. It's title?

"Penile Puns: Personal Names and Phallic Symbols in Skaldic Poetry", written by Kari Ellen Gade


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Call any Vegetable...

The whole idea of removing food with other food is fantastic. Here are two recipes from the Allerley Mackel. Last year I taught a 'Housewife Academy', where we tried various medieval laundry recipes, and these two worked very well. The peas need to be dried, not fresh, before you boil them, though!

"How to remove grease or oil spots from various clothing including white ones:
Take water from boiled peas, soak the spots therein, and wash thereupon with clean fresh running water; hang it then where the sun shines warmly.

To remove various stains from silken veils:
(Take) juice of chanterelles, soak the stains therein for two hours, wash it then with clear water and let it dry."

Allerley Mackel:To remove stains from cloth, velvet, silk, gold stuffs and clothing these stains being of grease, oil or wine stains or any other kinds, and how to do this easily without damage, with waters or lyes as will be taught in this booklet. Thereto also how to restore clothing which has lost its color, as well as how one dyes yarn and linen, and also wood and bone, in a variety of colors.
Printed in Mainz by Peter Jordanim, March 1532. Translation © 2005, Drea Leed

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Historical Cross-Dressing

I realize I've been posting alot of Silk Road items lately, but its a new fad of mine, so you'll all just have to bear with me. I found this particularly interesting! Apparently, in 8th century China it not only became fashionable, but acceptable, for women to cross-dress. It was also fashionable, I happily add, for women to have a bit of 'substance' to them!

Here is the description:


Tang dynasty, mid 8th century, painted earthenware; H. 52.5 cm,; 51cm

Unearthed in 1958 from the tomb of General Yang Sixun (d.740) Xi'an. The National Museum of Chinese History.

These two figures were among the numerous attendents, such as the marble warrior ( found in the general's tomb. The style of these attendents represents the fashions of the mid-eighth century, which favored a robust figure and a long flowing gown. According to the Tang Histories , by the Kaiyuan era (713-41) women could be found in the streets dressed in men's apparel. The similarity between the clothing and the hairstyles of these two figures is striking. Even the woman's high coiffure closely resembles the headscarf worn by the man."

Source: Li Jian (ed.). "The Glory of the Silk Road: Art from Ancient China". The Dayton Art Institute, 2003. P. 182.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Byzantine Gold Wire Drawers

Today I'm opting for cool rather than strange :-)
This is an abstract I found ages ago, and have been meaning to look more into forever.

"Johnathan Harris
Transferable Skills? Byzantine Craftsmen in London 1440-1483
It is generally thought, largely on the basis of a letter of Cardinal Bessarion, that, by the 1440's, the Byzantine Empire had been completely overtaken by the West in all spheres of technical expertise. This idea is challenged the evidence [sic] of some documents the Public Record Office in London which show that, between at least 1442 and 1483, two gold wire drawers from Constantinopple, named Andronicus and Alexius Effomatos, lived and worked in the English capital. It is argued that these craftsmen were welcomed because they specialised in making gold thread of a type which had long been manufactured in Byzantium but was superior in strength and economy to that produced in England. Indeed, since the earliest evidence for native English production of this type of gold thread dates from the period of their residence in London, there is at least the possibility that they actually introduced their craft into England, reversing the relative balance of technology as it is usually portrayed. "

Source: "Byzantium: Identity, Image, Influence. Abstracts. XIX International Congress of Byzantine Studies, University of Copenhagen." 8-24th August, 1996.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Barbie biker gloves

These 6th-9th century gloves were found in the same place as the cloth with the embarrassed faces :-) To the left is the original, below are pics (sorry the picture quaility isn't that great) of my very well-worn reproductions, that my friend Katerina made for me.

Here is a translation of the description:
Found in Moscevaja Balka, 1974, Inv. Nr. Kz6716
Length: 18 cm
It's difficult to tell if these gloves belonged a child or a woman, as the leather is too dried and degraded. The work is exceptionally meticulous: The fine leather (lamb) was originally white. The cut fingers were sewn individually onto the backs and palms of the hands. The insets on the palm-side are in line with the knuckles, while on the back of the hand they sit deep in. The leather on the fingers is sewn with a fan-shaped decorative border over the knuckles; set in the middle are round pieces of red leather, which are set in like incrustations. [...]"

Source: Ierusalimskaja, Anna A., Birgit Borkopp. "Von China nach Byzanz: Frühmittelalterliche Seiden aus der Staatlichen Ermitage St. Petersburg". Bayerischen Nationalmuseum und der Staatlichen Ermitage. München, 1996.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Today I bring you some 10th-11th century Anglo-Saxon anti-elf recipes. In their culture, many diseases were attributed to elves, and this was, for the most part, accepted and supported by the church at the time. An interesting point is that when you have a sharp pain in your back the German word still used for it is "elf-shot". Another thing I personally find interesting is the inclusion of garlic in a preparation against "nightgoers"... looks like Bram Stoker didn't invent that much on his own:-) If any of you have more information on this, I'm all ears!

"Work a salve against elfkind and nightgoers [aelfcynne, nihtgengan], and the people with whom the Devil has intercourse. Take eowoumelan, wormwood, bishopwort, lupin, ashthroat, henbane, harewort, haransprecel, heathberry plants, cropleek, garlic, hedgerife grains, githrife, fennel. Put these herbs into one cup, set under the altar, sing over them nine masses; boil in butter and sheep's grease, add much holy salt, strain through a cloth; throw the herbs in running water. If any evil temptation, or an elf or nightgoers, happen to a man, smear his forehead with this salve, and put on his eyes, and where his body is sore, and cense him [with incense], and sign [the cross] often. His condition will soon be better"
Leechbook, book III

And one against nightmares:
"if a mare ride a man. Take lupin, and garlic, and betony, and frankincense. Bind them on a fawn's skin. Let a man have the herbs on him, and let him go inside.
Leechbook, book I

And one against Water Elves:
If a man is in the water elf disease [waeter aelfadle], then the nails of his hand are dark and the eyes teary, and he will look down. Give him this as a medicine [laecedome]: everthroat, hassok, the lower part of fane, yewberry, lupin, helenium, marshmallow head, fen mint, dill, lily, attorlathe, pulegium, marrubium, doch, elder, fel terre, wormwood, strawberry leaves, consolde. Soak with ale; add holy water to it. Sing this gealdor over it thrice:
I have bound on the wounds the best of war bandages, so the wounds neither burn nor burst, nor go further, nor spread, nor jump, nor the wounds increase [waco sian?], nor sores deepen. But may he himself keep in a healthy way [halewaege?] . May it not ache you more than it aches earth in ear [eare?]. Sing this many times, "May earth bear on you with all her might and main". These galdor a man may sing over the wound."
Leechbook III

Source: Joly, Karen Louise. "Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context". University of North Carolina Press, 1996. pp. 149, 159, 165

I really, really shouldn't have to say this, but please don't try these at home.

Friday, January 9, 2009

eh? speak up...

While you do see ear cleaners all over medieval Europe, I particularly like the way these ones are made. They just look so....happy.

Translation of Description:

Ear Cleaners (Kapouschki), 12th century, bone. 8,8 x 1,5 cm, 9,7 x 1,5 cm. NGM KP 32143/A 74.13, NGM KP 35471/1066

Source: "Nowgorod: Das goldene Zeitalter der Ikonen." Bucerius Kunst Forum, Hirmer Verlag München, pp. 210-211, plate 191.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Home Improvements...

I laugh every single time I look at this :-) What I love is that someone had this painted on their house, and I'm thinking I might too!

Ochse spielt Trick-Track (An Ox Playing Backgammon)
Kunstwerk: Freskomalerei ; Wandmalerei profan ; Einzelbild ; Wien Dokumentation: 1500 ; 1525 ; Wien ; Österreich ; Wien ; Bäckerstraße Anmerkungen: Wien

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

In Piss Somewhat Warme...

Call me conservative, but there just has to be a better way to clean your nice shirts... although I do see the merit in that, regardless of the medieval event, both piss and beer are always readily available. Go to the right party, and ask nicely enough, and you could probably even get both in one go :-)

"A good way to washe a shirt, and saue the Gold or silke thereon, from stayning. First take a new shirt and lay the coller and ruffs or silke in piss somewhat warme for half an hour. Then take it out and then wash it in hot scalding liquor, or seeth it, and it shall never stain silk. If ye have no piss, you may take grounds of strong beer or ale, and let the silk lie in it the night before you wash it. And this has been often proved very reliable. But always you must take care that you don’t hang your clothes in the hot sun after they are washed, but lay another cloth thereon between the sun and it, or else the sun will change both Gold, Silver and Silk. Therefore it is better to hang them in some place of shade after their washing, if you can. Also, to add too much soap to your water is a good way to stain both gold and silk. A verie good way is, first to melt your sope in the licour, and then let it coole, and so to wash your clothes therin."

“A Profitable Booke,declaring diuers approoued Remedies, to take out spots and staines in Silkes, Veluets, Linnen and Woollen Clothes: With diuers Colours how to die Veluets and Silkes, Linnenn and Woollen, Fustian and Thread: Also to dresse Leather, and to colour Felles. How to guild, graue, sowder, and Vernish. And to harden and make soft Yron and Steele. Verie necessarie for all men, specially for those which haue or shall haue any doing therein: with a perfect Table hereunto, to finde all things readie, not the like reuealed in English heretofore. Taken out of Dutch, and Englished by L. M. Imprinted at London by Thomas Purfoot, dwelling within the Rents, in S. Nicholas Shambles. 1605. Transcription by Drea Leed This book is transcribed from a copy currently at the National Art Library in London, England. Although this is the 1605 edition, the original edition was printed in 1586.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

I've had days like that, too

How funny are these little guys! They were part of a dress found near the Black Sea, and were to be traded on the Silk Road. The little 'ears' on top of their heads are to show that the faces are not from ordinary humans, but it's unclear whether they are representing an animal or a mask of some kind.
From a border of a Women's dress, 6-9th century. A translation of the description is:
"Found in Moscevaja Balka by E.A. Milovanov, 1968. Inventory Nr. Kz6740. Height: 24.5 cm. Width: 31.5 cm. Linen, Silk."

Source: "Von China nach Byzanz: Frühmittelalterliche Seiden aus der Staatlichen Ermitage St. Petersburg." Anna A. Ierusalimskaja und Birgitt Borkopp. Bayerisches National Museum, München 1996. P.27

Monday, January 5, 2009

When you run out of tinker toys...

This is one of the strangest churches I've visited. From Wiki:
"The Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne contains the alleged relics of Ursula and her 11,000 companions.[13] It contains what has been described as a "veritable tsunami of ribs, shoulder blades, and femurs...arranged in zigzags and swirls and even in the shapes of Latin words."[14] The Goldene Kammer (Golden Chamber), a 17th century chapel attached to the Basilica of St. Ursula, contains sculptures of their heads and torsos, some of the heads encased in silver, others covered with stuffs of gold and caps of cloth of gold and velvet; loose bones thickly texture the upper walls.”[15][16] The peculiarities of the relics themselves have thrown doubt upon the historicity of Ursula and her "11,000 maidens." When skeletons of little children, ranging in age from two months to seven years, were found buried with the sacred virgins in 1183, Hermann Joseph, a Praemonstratensian canon at Steinfeld, explained that these children were distant relatives of the eleven thousand.[17] A surgeon of eminence was once banished from Cologne for opining that, among the collection of bones which are said to pertain to the heads, there were several belonging to full-grown mastiffs.[18] The relics may have proceeded from a forgotten burial ground.[19]"

For those uncomfortable moments in life

I think these speak for themselves :-)

My Little Coptic Pony

And for the first entry, I give you this. Description translates to: "Pegasoi in Medallions. Wool textile(detail), from the excavation of A. Gayet in Antinoe, 67x39 cm, 6/7th century (?). Lyon, Musee Historique des Tissues, Inv. Nr. 28.520/27 - The pattern of the fabric is made of lines of medallions with red backgrounds, that contain running pegasoi; between these, on a green background, little heart-shaped images are strewn. On the border are flowers contained in diamonds. The work originates from a workshop in Antinoe, and is based on Sassanid silk textiles."
Source: "Propyläen Kunst Geschichte Vol. 3, Byzanz." W.F. Volbach, J. Lafontaine-Dosogne. Propyläen Verlag Berlin. Plate 407b.

In the beginning...

Hey all and welcome! I've been wanting to create this blog for a while now, and finally sat down and did it :-) I'm always looking for more, so if you've got photos of wacky medieval items, bring it on!