Making Sense of Supplications in the Late Middle Ages

BnF MS Francais 2644

In my most recent post, I discussed some conflicting issues between different types of quantitative source material on late medieval confession and confessors.  There I argued that historians of late medieval religious life have mischaracterized the popularity and volume of confessional manuals as a denunciation of the capabilities and efficacy of late medieval confessors. As an alternative, I offered the huge number of requests, known as supplications, to the papacy for new confessors in the fifteenth century. These supplications show popular enthusiasm by the laity across all Western Christendom for personal confessors.

While there are almost 14,000 surviving supplications to the papacy for a new confessor, these requests were not distributed evenly. From my previous post, one can see that supplications from France account for over 50 percent of the source material. If we examine the supplications categorized by those historians as “French”, we see another interesting numerical imbalance:

Burgundian Total (Reg. Mat. Div. 1-41)[i] 1442
1409-1411 15
Eugenius IV, (1431-1447) 181
Nicholas V, 1447-1455) N/A
Calixtus III (1455-1458) 227
Pius II (1458-1464) 233
Paul II (1464-1471) 364
Sixtus 1471-1484 319
Innocent VIII (1484-1492) 118

The supplications from late medieval Burgundy, categorized as French due to current geographical boundaries by modern historians, account for 20.2 percent of French entries.

When we consider population estimates, a notoriously difficult issue to tackle, the proportion of Burgundian supplications proves even more striking. In 1450, the estimated population of French lands, including late medieval Burgundy, was around twelve million people.[ii] The estimated population of Burgundy, according to tax data collected from the same period, was 1.4 million people.[iii] Some quick math tells us that the Burgundian population made up about 11.6 percent of the larger French population.

As we can see by comparing the discrepancy in Burgundian-French supplications to the Burgundian-French population, there is a net difference of 8.6 percent between the two categories. Based on this information, we see that the people of late medieval Burgundy were more likely to request a personal confessor than population estimates would suggest. Indeed, Burgundian supplications make up a little more than 12 percent of all supplications to the papacy in the fifteenth century, although they account for around 4 percent of the population of Western Europe at the time.

BL MS Royal 18 E I f. 165v

The sheer amount of supplications coming from Burgundian lands begs the question as to why the people of Burgundy had such a disproportionate enthusiasm for the personal confessor. One potential explanation comes from the political realities of late medieval Burgundy, specifically the idea of representation by the more well-to-do citizens of Flemish cities.

The Flemish cities were, by far, the most populous lands within Burgundy, and had a long history of fighting and revolting against the Dukes of Burgundy for political representation and rights.[iv] These revolts happened so frequently that historians have gathered them into a distinct category called the fourth period of Flemish urban rebellions (1379-1453). Within this period, the people of Gent revolted at least eleven times in the fifteenth century, with the longest and most bitter revolt occurring from 1449 to 1453.

Most interestingly for our purposes here, the revolt of 1449-53 was followed by the largest spike in supplications to the papacy for new confessors both from dioceses in which the revolts occurred, as well as the Burgundian lands in general.[v] In the years that followed the revolt of 1449-53, Burgundian supplications to the penitentiary exploded to 267 requests in a five-year span. Before 1449, there are only 191 requests extant from the entirety of Burgundian dioceses in the first half of the fifteenth century, with 181 of those coming during the sixteen-year papacy of Eugenius IV (1431-1447).

Later revolts in Gent of 1467 and 1487 also saw large upticks in supplications to the papacy, especially the revolt of 1467 against Duke Charles the Bold. 1469 had the highest number of requests for a new confessor out of any year in the fifteenth century with 82.

These Flemish revolts do not conclusively explain the proclivity of the people in Burgundy to seek a new confessor. But they do give us a window into the wider political and social currents, which help to explain Burgundian enthusiasm in these requests, as well as the various upticks in those same requests in the fifteenth century.

Sean Sapp, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame


[i] Based upon my own research in the archives of the Apostolic Penitentiary.

[ii] J. C. Russell, “Population in Europe,” in The Fontana Economic History of Europe, Vol. I: The Middle Ages, ed. Carlo M. Cipolla, (Glasgow : Collins/Fontana, 1972), 25-71.

[iii] Norman J. G. Pounds, “Population and Settlement in the Low Countries and Northern France in the Later Middle Ages,” Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, vol. 49, fasc. 2, 1971. Histoire (depuis l’Antiquité) — Geschiedenis (sedert de Oudheid), 369-402.

[iv] Jan Dumolyn & Jelle Haemers, “Patterns of urban rebellion in medieval Flanders,” Journal of Medieval History, 31:4, (2005), 369-393.

[v] The registers of supplications in the Apostolic Penitentiary are fragmentary or lost for the first quarter of the fifteenth century, so it is unclear if this pattern holds true for the early revolts.

An Axe among the Scepters: Who’s Who in Canterbury’s West Window?

In the West Window of Canterbury Cathedral, ranged below the arms of Richard II and assorted depictions of saints and prophets, is an apparently incomplete series of portraits of English kings whose identities have become confused or forgotten over the centuries. Current attempts to identify these kings rely in part upon the eighteenth-century testimony of English historian William Gostling, who could apparently see in the window more than is visible today:

In the uppermost range of the large compartments are seven large figures of our kings, standing under gothic niches very highly wrought. They are bearded, have open crowns on their heads and swords or sceptres in their right hands. They have suffered, and been patched up again, and each had his name under him in the old black letter: of which there are very little remains. These seven are Canute, under whom remains Can. Edward the Confessor holding a book, under him remains Ed. Then Harold. William I holding his sceptre in his right hand, and resting it transversely on his left shoulder, under him remains …mus Conquestor Rex. Then William II. Henry I. Stephen. The tops of the canopies are all that are left of the fourteen niches of which the two next stages consist: if these were filled in the same manner, the series of kings would finish with Richard III.[1]

Tracery Lights and Upper Range of the West Window in Canterbury Cathedral. I have labeled the position of the kings A-G for ease of reference. All images of the West Window courtesy of Jules & Jenny from Lincoln, UK.
“Edward” in the West Window

Gostling’s descriptions have proved difficult to match up with the window as we now have it. Any lettering visible in the eighteenth century has disappeared, and at least some portraits are not in the order they once were. According to Gostling’s account, the fourth king (D) should be holding a scepter in his right hand and resting it on his left shoulder: he does not. Nor can the king in position B today be imagined as “holding a book.” So William I (once D) and Edward the Confessor, at least, must have moved between Gostling’s time and now.

B holds a sword in his right hand, which he rests on his left shoulder–this may be Gostling’s William I. If D made a simple swap with B, it would follow, as some scholars have assumed, that today’s D is Edward the Confessor. But the king who now stands in that position holds an emblem not elsewhere associated with Edward: a prominent axe.[2] Instead, Edward might be more usually imagined as here in the famous Wilton Diptych, where he stands alongside Edmund Martyr and John the Baptist in support of Richard II, who commissioned the West Window. Interestingly, scholars have noted similarities between the styling of Edward in the diptych and the king in position A on the West Window, accepted since Gostling’s time as Cnut the Great, the Scandinavian king of Anglo-Saxon England. Despite detailing the similarities between the two, including their forked beards and long sleeves,[3] no one has suggested that this might be Edward himself rather than an Edward-inspired Cnut.

Edward the Confessor in the Wilton Diptych. National Gallery [Public Domain]
“Cnut” in the West Window

But why not? The king of the “Cnut” window (position A) might seem from afar to be holding a book-like object in his left hand (upon closer inspection it is part of his clothing). This may, nevertheless, be the otherwise-unidentified “book” to which Gostling refers in his description of Edward. Besides the marked similarities between the Edward of the Wilton Diptych and the “Cnut” of the Canterbury window is the problem of the inexplicable axe or halberd found in “Edward’s” hand. In fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman art, likely under the influence of contemporary depictions on altar frontals, glass, and panel screens of fellow Scandinavian king St. Olaf of Norway, Cnut was the only king of England imagined as carrying an impressive axe!

Cnut in British Library Royal 14 B VI, membrane 4. Image courtesy of the British Library.

In a recent Alumni Spotlight on the Medieval Institute website, Notre Dame alumna Rachel Koopmans estimates that one in three of the glass narratives of the miracles of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral are misattributed. I wonder if here we have another case of mistaken identity in the Cathedral’s glass, this time of kings! If we are ready to accept that at least some of the portraits of English kings have shifted places since Gostling’s time, why should we be bound to accept that Cnut has not moved from position A since the late eighteenth century? The iconographic evidence surely supports a different conclusion.

Rebecca West, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[1] It is unclear how Gostling identifies Harold, William II, Henry I, and Stephen. Are they labeled with the “old black letter”? Or do they simply fill the pattern in the series of fourteen kings from Cnut to Richard III that Gostling envisions? William Gostling, A Walk in and about the City of Canterbury, New ed. with considerable additions (Canterbury: William Blackley, 1825), 343–44.

[2] “The position of his left hand, slanting in front of him, is such that it may have appeared mistakenly to Gostling as ‘holding a book’; his halberd however remains unexplained if he is to be identified as the Confessor.” Bernard Rackham, The ancient glass of Canterbury Cathedral (London: Lund, Humphries, 1949), 129.

[3] Richard II, who ordered the window, had a great devotion to Edward and is supported by English kings Edward the Confessor and Edmund the Martyr in the famous Wilton Diptych.

Alcohol and Alcoholism in the Middle Ages (Part 2)

Don't forget to check out Part 1 first!

Fifteenth-century German pastoral theology switched easily between classifying vices according to the Seven Deadly Sins and the Ten Commandments. Drunkenness was subsumed under gluttony in the first scheme, and often the First Commandment in the second (“those who turn their stomachs in God,” as Dietrich Coelde put it). [1] Fifteenth-century German pastoral theology also trended towards the remarkably uniform. But inebriety, its severity, and its solutions offered what Ian Siggins categorizes as a rare case for preachers to insert their own opinions based on what appears to be experience. (Observational experience, mind you!)

In his Praeceptum divine legis, which formed the basis for his vernacular preaching as well, Dominican reformer Johannes Nider actually classified drunkenness under the Sixth Commandment. [2] The appeal to him was the general emphasis of pastoral interpretation of the commandment as involving moderation or temperance. Nider’s concern, in other words, was to find ways to moderate drinking behavior.

Johann Herolt, for his part, even took inebriety as a chance to disagree with Thomas Aquinas. The thirteenth-century friar had enshrined into doctrine the idea of degrees of sinfulness in getting drunk. It is not a sin if the drinker does not realize the drink would get them drunk. It is a venial sin if the drinker knows a drink will get them drunk, but does not intend to be so. But it is indeed a mortal sin to drink in order to get drunk.

The fifteenth-century preacher stipulates this general outline. But he reaches into real-world experience to push a bit further: “I believe that inebriation is less of a sin in those who have weak heads and get drunk very quickly on a small amount of wine.” [3] The flip side of this assertion is that someone who knows they cannot “hold their liquor” and gets drunk anyway is probably committing an even worse sin.

The friars show sensitivity and specificity when considering alcohol use and abuse. It is no wonder, then, that devout Christians like Katharina Tucher turned to religion for solutions to drinking too much wine as well.

When preaching about excess wine consumption in German, as preserved in Die vierundzwanzig goldenen Harfen, Nider appropriated the standard solutions for gluttony that he had drawn from tradition for his Latin Praeceptum. He emphasized alternative ways to spend time. Listen to the Word of God. Stay busy with work. Meditate on the Passion, especially Christ on the cross being given bitter gall.

Nider emphasized alternative thought patterns, too. Contemplate that the body, and thus good sensations, is only temporary. Remember that there are poor people who do not have enough to eat or drink in the first place. And, excellently, keep in mind that being drunk means the wine will not taste as good. [4]

Medieval Germany had about thirteen times as much land devoted to viticulture as it does today but produced almost no wine for export. [5] So “not taste as good” might have been a bit subjective.

Tucher, who would not have been familiar with Nider’s preaching when she recorded her Offenbarungen in 1417-1421, nevertheless attempts to apply a solution to her drinking problem similar to one he suggests. Her visionary Christ exhorts her, “Observe how your God and Lord has drunk something bitter and vinegary and has trampled the winepress through your will. And if you break away from drinking, then I will be your helper.” [6] Tucher reiterates to herself the lesson to meditate on the Passion, and hopes that it will prove a long-term solution.

Tucher’s account of her struggles with wine present a case of someone—a lay person, no less—understanding excess alcohol consumption as a religious problem and seeking a religious solution. Oswald’s poem represents a counterpoint, although filtered by the search for satire. The interesting thing is that the clerical perspectives are also more complex than a straightforward assignment of inebriety as a branch of gluttony.

Herolt’s observation that different people got drunk at different rates is a rudimentary approximation of the idea of biological alcohol tolerance, which he does not relate to any kind of spiritual quality or weakness. Nider’s solutions are secular as often as they are religious—not the traditional opposition of vices with moral virtues.

Just as intriguingly, options like diving into work or listening to someone reading the Bible have two key traits in common. First, they take time. Second, they require, or at least suggest, being in the presence of someone who is not drinking at the time. The standard solutions that Nider draws on, in other words, seem to reflect an awareness of the desire to get drunk as a problem that sticks around for a duration of time—an awareness of an ongoing drinking problem, not just a problem with drinking on one occasion.

It’s important not to say “recognition of alcoholism,” because that word has a meaning specifically rooted in modern culture, science, and assumptions. Nevertheless, medieval attempts to address excessive wine consumption through the prism of the sin of gluttony show a definite awareness of a non-religious problem at work as well.

Cait Stevenson, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame


[1] Dietrich Coelde (here Koelde), “A Fruitful Mirror, or, A Small Handbook for Christians,” trans. Robert B. Dewell, in Denis Janz, ed., Three Reformation Catechisms: Catholic, Anabaptist, Lutheran (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1982), 52.

[2] Johannes Nider, Praeceptum divinae legis (Strasbourg: Georg Husner, 1483), section 6.6.

[3] Trans. in Ian Siggins, A Harvest of Medieval Preaching: The Sermon Books of Johann Herolt, O.P. (Discipulus) (Bloomington, Ind.: Xlibris, 2009).

[4] Nider, Praeceptum divinae legis, 6.6; Stefan Abel, ed., Johannes Nider: “Die vierundzwanzig goldenen Harfen: Edition und Kommentar (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 227.

[5] Tom Scott, “Medieval Viticulture in the German-Speaking Lands,” German History 20, no. 1 (2002): 98.

[6] Katharina Tucher, Die Offenbarungen von Katharina Tucher, ed. Ulla Williams and Williams Werner-Krapp (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1998), 65. Translation mine.