While in its developmental stages, Medieval Chicago’s potential to grow into its own project became rapidly apparent. The initial posts were so much fun to write, and what could be better than the opportunity to go on local pilgrimages to medieval(ish) sites? So, in lieu of this special series, I happily announce the creation of an entirely new website: medievalchicago.com. Keep an eye out for new content coming soon!
That said, readers should find material here for a wide range of historical interests. Anyone—residents, visitors, the curious-minded—interested in Chicago, the Middle Ages, art, architecture, manuscripts, and even local events might discover something new. Like many digital projects, this currently solo, ongoing work-in-progress will see periodic posts, rather than weekly. Nevertheless, I hope you take a moment to look at the photos and blog posts already there as well as future additions to the site as it evolves. I hope you enjoy exploring Medieval Chicago as much as I enjoyed creating it!
Medieval historian John Aberth writes of the plague known as Black Death, “for this pestilential infirmity [of 1348], doctors from every part of the world had no good remedy or effective cure, neither through natural philosophy, medicine [physic], or the art of astrology.” Aberth adds that although there were no medical solutions, those peddling in various cures could profit from a plague, and he argues that “To gain money some went visiting and dispensing their remedies, but these only demonstrated through their patients’ death that their art was nonsense and false” (The Black Death, 37).
In the Middle Ages, whenever plagues hit, people’s fear of the disease quickly resulted in a lack of faith in traditional authorities, at times followed by scapegoating. The later phenomenon has been observed with respect to xenophobic conspiracy theories targeting marginalized groups, which alleged that Jews were poisoning wells (and sometimes gypsies and witches) in order to spread the Black Death during the later part of the medieval period. And, as Samuel K. Cohn observes, it was then, “Not until the late sixteenth century did authorities once again arrest people suspected of spreading the plague through poisons and tampering with food; these later waves of fear, however, did not target Jews as the principal suspects; instead, witches or hospital workers were now persecuted” (“The Black Death and the Burning of Jews,” 27).
Of course, in the earlier medieval period, when plague descended and church authorities—with all their medical knowledge and spiritual wisdom—were without a cure, medieval people might understandably turn to the other major source of authority in their lives, their kings and secular rulers, for guidance. We see this phenomenon manifest in the medieval belief that French and English monarchs (including saint-kings such as Saint Louis IX and Edward the Confessor) possessed miraculous healing powers. In time of plague, this gesture served to legitimize royalty as divinely sanctioned and win favor with the people, who could understandably become more restless during times of epidemic and pandemic.
Although kings and queens were often unskilled with respect to medical knowledge, especially by comparison to the clergy and university doctors, this sort of magical thinking and desire to imbue a leader with supreme knowledge and boundless inherent wisdom (despite their often limited information and experience) presents a totalitarian image of a ruler, which relies on public ignorance in order to reinforce the notion of a divinely organized, rigidly hierarchical society. It is a form of hero worship which knows no bounds.
As J. N. Hays points out, “the healing touch was a product of political motives, at least in part. But it coincided with a widespread belief in kings as magicians, endowed with near-divine powers” (The Burden of Disease, 33). This political motive leveraged popular belief in the royal touch to solidifying the claim that monarchs were chosen by God and thus superior in both the spiritual and political realms.
If the king’s touch failed to heal, or one simply did not have access to a royal hand, there was always the other—unspoken and taboo—source of power: magic and witchcraft. As Catherine Jenkin notes “During Venice’s plague outbreaks, notably 1575–1577 and 1630–1631, the population, desperate for a cure, turned to both sanctioned and unsanctioned healers. The wealthy consulted physicians; the less wealthy consulted pharmacists or barber-surgeons; the penitent consulted clergy; and the poor or desperate consulted streghe, or witches” (“Curing Venice’s Plagues: Pharmacology and Witchcraft,” 202). Desperate times called for desperate measures, and without any effective treatments available, everything was on the table.
Still, the Middle Ages suffers from a somewhat inaccurate reputation with respect to religious and learned views on the magic, which until the later period regarded folk healing and herbal remedies as mere superstitions, though throughout the period, “witchcraft was universally illegal under both sacred and secular law and even healing magic might be considered heretical” (Jenkins, 204). Nevertheless, folk traditions were generally considered relatively unthreatening by church authorities, especially compared to popular medieval heresies, which argued for unorthodox, though often quite learned, interpretations of Christianity, such as the Catharism & Lollardy, and heretical groups such as the Knights Templar, Hussites & beguines to name a few that drew special attention in the period prior to the advent of the Protestant Reformation.
Richard Kieckhefer famously categorizes magic in the Middles Ages as either “natural” or “demonic” in orientation. Folk healers, and most so-called witches, (especially during the earlier period) are regarded by Kieckhefer as practitioners of the former, while seemingly more learned necromancers, who adapt and pervert Christian rituals, are considered practitioners of the later category of magic (and feature later in the period). Scholars such as Aberth, Kieckhefer, Jenkins, Brian Levak and others have each demonstrated a relationship between a rise in magic and the Black Death in Europe (Aberth, The Black Death; Kieckhefer, European Witch Trials; Jenkins, “Curing Venice’s Plagues: Pharmacology and Witchcraft”; Levak, The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe).
Desperate people might pursue illicit measures to procure a remedy for pestilence, and as a result interest in magic cures, protections, spell, talismans and wards increased alongside demand. Indeed, it is possible that this contributed to theories that witches poisoned wells and ultimately the hysteria surrounding early modern witch-hunts.
It is important to note that, while the church authorities generally maintained that magic was demonic illusion, the rise of universities gave way to a learned study of “natural magic” in the form of the pursuit to unlock the occult powers in the natural world [i.e. God’s creation]. Hayes observes how “Natural magic, which attempted to understand the hidden powers of nature, was bolstered by philosophy as well as by religion. These relations were clearest in the late Middle Ages and the period of the Renaissance, when neo-Platonic doctrines gained wider currency among thinkers. Neo-Platonic beliefs insisted on the complete interrelation and mutual responsiveness of the different phenomena of the universe” (The Burdens of Disease, 81).
This approach became more widely acceptable leading up to and during the scientific revolution, especially the medical theories of the ancient physician Galen [130-210 CE], and so what Kieckhefer might categorize as natural magic in the later period bifurcates into two distinct subtypes—the highly learned, quasi-medical and folk traditional healing practices. Moreover, the university study of medicine rooted in classical theories of the four humors remained a medical authority, and one which generally held the approval of the church authorities and royal authorities alike. It is worth acknowledging that none of these authorities appear entirely “correct” by modern medical standards, and even the most learned methods involved practices that were toxic and harmful to the body.
Still, while some medieval and early modern medical practices were undeniably ineffective or even counterproductive, it’s worth pointing out that some practices were helpful, such as quarantine measures during plague. Even the spooky plague doctoroutfits from the early modern era—equipped with cloth masks and a leather suit for personal protection—reveal growing awareness with respect to contagion by contact (prior to germ theory), which overlapped with conventional medical theories that alleged the classical notion of miasma or “bad air” was polluting infected spaces with plague and pestilence.
Mark Earnest contends that “Despite its fearsome appearance, the plague doctor’s costume—the ‘personal protective equipment’ of the Middle Ages—had a noble purpose. It was intended to enable physicians to safely care for patients during the Black Death” (“On Becoming a Plague Doctor“). The plague doctors‘ cloth beak contained perfumed herbs to purify the miasma, their waxed robe were designed to shield the practitioner, and their cane allowed physicians a quick means by which to measure their proximity and maintain distance from sick patients during examinations and treatments. Although Earnest seems to regard plague doctors as a medieval phenomenon, historical evidence suggests that these practitioners were primarily a fixture of the early modern period.
Although, there is ample evidence for widespread medieval belief in learned scientia “science” (often knowledge from classical sources or universities), many historians maintain the narrative that since the scientific revolution in the early modern era, there has been a gradual trend toward belief in science and medical professionals, and the public has generally come to accept doctors’ advice over the opinions of political leaders, when it comes to issues of health and medicine. However, even if one were to accept this notion of historical progress, today’s pandemic problematizes this grand narrative by demonstrating how similar medieval and modern people can be. Like so many established institutions and professional authorities in the age of (dis)information and the rise of Trumpism in America, medical professionals are under attack, and their recommendations and expert advice have become limited by the president of the United States.
As during some medieval and early modern monarchies, it seems that the political leader of the United States feels his position entitles him to an opinion on everything and bestows him with innate wisdom. And, like the royal touch, Trump is not afraid to offer his own unconventional and unsubstantiated remedies for the novel coronavirus which has resulted in an unprecedented global pandemic during his presidency. Despite no medical training or credentials, Trump has publicly sparred with NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease) Director, Dr. Fauci, and with his own CDC (Center for Disease Control) guidelines and recommendations. The use of personal protective equipment (PPE), known to slow the spread of this highly contagious and robust virus, has become politicized in the president’s attempt to deny the issue and deflect blame and responsibility by minimizing the perceived impact and threat of the disease.
There is no evidence for viral engineering, nor any “plandemic” orchestrated by Fauci, but nevertheless these modern conspiracy theories persists online and ultimately in the minds of those persuaded by their unsubstantiated claims.
The president’s second and more startling suggestion was that perhaps an “inside injection” of disinfectants, such as Lysol and other Bleach products, directly into the body might do the trick, considering these chemical we so effective at killing the virus (and also people who ingest them). Trump then pointed to his head, adding: “I’m not a doctor. But I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what.” As expected, the CDC and Poison Control (as well as manufacturers and eventually social media platforms) responded by contradicting the president’s objectively harmful recommendation, enthusiastically pushed by some of his more ardent supporters.
Even some at the conservative media outlet Fox News, often friendly to Trump and his agenda, in this instance challenged the president’s uninformed suggestion. Fox Business Network’s Neil Cavuto described Trump’s recommendations as “unsettling,” and the news anchor plainly acknowledged that “The president was not joking in his remarks yesterday when he discussed injecting people with disinfectant.” Cavuto also delivered a sober warning to his viewers: “From a lot of medical people with whom I chat, that was a dangerous, crossing-the-line kind of signal that worried them because people could die as a result.”
Indeed, when viewed in this light, Trump’s continued magical thinking with respect to covid-19 seems to mirror medieval responses to plague and the Black Death in certain ways, especially in the tendency to reach for unconventional remedies, from often unqualified authorities, in the search for a cure. But, as president Trump explains, if you’ve got the virus, already: “what do you have to lose?”
From the start of the First Crusade, Christian men were fascinated with the possibility of marrying Muslim women. In his account of the Battle of Antioch (1097-1098), Peter of Tudebode narrates an incident about the Emir, Yaghi Siyan, offering the Crusaders the following bargain: “Deny your God, whom you worship and believe, and accept Mohammed and our other gods. If you do so we shall give to you all that you desire such as gold, horses, mules, and many other worldly goods which you wish, as well as wives and inheritances; and we shall enrich you with great lands” (pp. 58-59). The bargain included wives.
Fulcher of Chartres’s utopian version of the intercultural interaction reads like a propaganda piece meant to attract prospective settlers to the newly established Crusader territories. He provides an idyllic vision of assimilation that took place at the meeting point of the East and the West. According to him, assimilation was achieved through the acquisition of inheritable properties and servants by Occidentals, the mutual blending of languages, and most importantly through intermarriages between Christian men and non-Christian women through baptism as he boasts, “Some have taken wives not merely of their own people, but Syrians, or Armenians, or even Saracens [medieval term for Muslims] who have received the grace of baptism” (p. 281). Fulcher’s account, written around 1125 appeals to the aspirations of prospective male settlers in Western Christendom—their aspirations for property and wives. The two examples provided above, resist a simplistic version of what happened between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades. Popular portrayals suggest that the Crusades were violent religious conflicts in the Middle Ages with Christianity on one side and Islam on the other.
However, violence is only one part of the story. Relations between these two religious groups were much more complex. The writings of both Fulcher and Tudebode suggest that the idea of securing local wives was tempting to the Crusaders and the settlers of newly acquired territories. The Crusades reveal that medieval attitudes towards sexuality were not always rigid and repressed.
Even though the earliest laws in the Crusader states reveal concerns about the danger miscegenation posed to Christian sexual purity, they focus on sexual acts and do not explicitly forbid interfaith marriages. The Canons of the Council of Nablus of 1120, the earliest laws in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem prescribed draconian measures against the rape of Muslim slave-women by Christian men. Canons 13 and 14 punished sexual activity between Christian men and Muslim slave-women with castration and expulsion. In the same vein, Canon 15 of the Nablus prohibits consensual sex between Muslim men and Christian women. Thus, these Canons reveal an anxiety about intermixing and the impurity incurred by sexual acts between Christians and Muslims.
However, the Nablus laws were not concerned about interfaith marriage. Marriages between Christians and non-Christians (pagans, Muslims and Jews) were quite common in the initial stages of the Crusades. In fact, there is no law in the Nablus that prohibits consensual or non-consensual sex between Christian men and free Muslim women. There are two possible reasons for this: either every single Muslim woman was enslaved once Jerusalem was captured during the First Crusade or sexual acts between Christian men and free Muslim women were not considered threats to sexual purity.
The conspicuous absence of a law prohibiting sexual acts between Christian men and free Muslim women silently condones the Christian penetration of Muslim culture and, hence, the latter’s subordination through sexual acts with free Muslim women; just as Canon 15 prevents the Muslim subordination of Christians by prohibiting sex between Christian women and Muslim men. The Nablus laws reveal a nuance in how the idea of sexual purity worked in the Crusader states. In a master-slave dynamic, when the Muslim was already in a subordinated state, the fact that she was Muslim was important. A Christian man having sex with a Muslim slave constituted sexual impurity. However, when the Muslim woman was free, the dynamic was dramatically altered. The focus then was on the fact that the Muslim is free, suggesting that a member of an antagonistic religious group had autonomy. The existence of a free Muslim presented evidence that complete subordination of the community was not achieved. Consequently, sex with a free Muslim woman did not constitute impurity. Rather it was an act of nullifying the autonomy of the Muslim community through religious conquest disguised as sexual penetration.
By the mid-thirteenth century, the Canons of the Council of Nablus fell into disuse and were gradually replaced by the secular law codes Livre des Assises de la Cour des Bourgeois. The Assises protected the economic stakes of Christians, that is, wealth tied in property, and consequently prohibited intermarriages. Chapter 177, for instance, states that, “the holy faith prohibits a Christian from marrying a Saracen, because everyone should know that according to the holy foundations of Jerusalem, a woman is entitled to half of all the property that her husband earns with it after they were married, because as a man and a woman are one flesh, all that a man acquires the lifetime of his wife, falls in half possession of his wife legally.” Along the same lines, Chapter 200 states that one third of the property of a baptized former slave without legitimate heirs goes to his former lord and-or lady. This stipulation prevents illegitimate heirs from inheriting the entire estate. Illegitimate heirs of a former slave would likely have been Muslim. Most slaves in Jerusalem were Muslim and while the conversion to Christianity granted them freedom, it also made their marriage to their Muslim partners illicit. Therefore, this law intended to keep at least part of the wealth and property, that the baptized former slave accrued, in Christian hands. Chapter 235, on a slightly different note, authorized the son to “disinherit his father and mother of all his property” if the parent goes to Muslim territories and denies his faith or becomes a “Jew or a Saracen.”
Thus, the laws pertaining to sex and marriage in Crusader states evolved with the evolving necessities and concerns in Western Christendom. At the start of the First Crusade, the exertion of Christian dominance over Muslim subjects entailed sexual acts and marriage between Christian men and free Muslim women as suggested by Nablus laws. By the mid-thirteenth century, intermixing was increasingly prohibited for economic reasons.
Oregon State University
Ambika Natarajan received her Ph.D. in the History of Science from Oregon State University and she specializes in the History of Science and Sexuality in the Habsburg Monarchy. Her research work focuses on multiple aspects of migrant female work, including domestic work and sex work and how working-class women altered the discourse on labor and migration. Her work has appeared in The Austrian History Yearbook and she is currently working on a book manuscript. She also has graduate degrees in English Literature and Biotechnology and diplomas in German, French, and Creative Writing and has taught courses in Biostatistics and graduate-level biology courses, Russian History, American Diplomatic and Religious History, and History of Science and Religion internationally. To learn more about her research, visit her website.