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!