Snowy Night, a Winter’s Dream

I love the snow for what it is –
Of dreams and stars that spark,
Of clouds and tears.
Some say it’s angels in the dark.

I love the snow for what it stands,
My childhood memories asleep
And holidays with frozen hands.
Snowmen were built of snow knee-deep.

I love the snow for what it might,
The hopes it brings, the smiles it carves
Each winter, a brand new sight
To welcome with open arms.

I love the snow, I hope you too –
This thread that links all that is true.

Snowy Night Winter Dream
Christmas decorations in Cismigiu Park, Bucharest
snow at night
blizzard in the middle of the night
white flakes against a Christian Orthodox church
Snowy Night Winter Dream
winter wonderland
Snowy Night Winter Dream

I hope you enjoyed my sonnet on snowy night, a winter’s dream.
You might also enjoy reading about:
Snow’s Thousand Faces and Meanings
A Train Journey through Snow, in Romania
A Journey through the Medieval City of Sighisoara
or
Amazing Roles dogs Played During WW1: Sled Dogs, Pulling Dogs

What is it that you enjoy about snow?

snowy night winter’s dream

You can find all my books on Amazon, here.

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Vlad the Impaler’s Medieval Feast. Wine or Blood?

Vlad Impaler medieval feast wine or blood

Started as a rumor, the story that Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Tepes or Dracula, a Romanian medieval prince, loved to feast on blood and not wine, snowballed along the centuries to such an extent that it is accepted as truthful today.

Before we dress up and attend Vlad’s medieval feast to find out the truth by ourselves, what’s in his cup, wine or blood, we owe it to the historical facts to acknowledge his bravery in battle.

When my children were young, as a loving mother I was the one in charge of pouring their drinks; at least most of the time. But if we would have been a royal family living during medieval times, we would have had a personal cup-bearer. Not too bad, isn’t it? Not to mention drink wine with most meals, as the water was too unclean to be consumed. Oh, not so sure about this…

The first documentation of such a job, cup-bearer or paharnic in Romanian (from pahar meaning cup) dates back to 8 January 1392. The paharnic was also responsible for the royal cellar. From the same time dates the first documented stolnic job, or the King’s seneschal, responsible with his food and meals. And making sure there was plenty of! In Romania’s former principalities, Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldovia, these jobs were filled by boyar aristocrats. Always a source of conspiracies, double cheats and overturn.

Vlad the Impaler and the boyars. Paharnic. vlad medieval feast blood

It was this piece of information tht reminded me of some stories about Vlad the Impaler and his medieval feast on blood… As a Romanian born, I do know this is not true, but how many of you know the real story?

Read on.

Vlad the Impaler and his medieval feast. Blood or wine?

Vlad the Impaler, born in Sighisoara, ruled Wallachia over three terms during his life. Considered one of Romania’s national heroes, Vlad is the hero of plenty of terrifying accounts. Some true, some lost in translation. Let’s see the known resources of the time.

History is true as long as it is based on credible, unbiased resources.

German stories about Vlad the Impaler

During the Autumn of 1462, a Saxon chronicler from Brasov compiled a collection of over thirty horror stories about Vlad the Impaler and his most uncommon endeavors, Geschichte Drakole waideThe History of Prince Dracula (Istoria lui Drăculea vodă). According to this, Vlad ordered the impaling of approximately three hundred Saxon merchants from Transylvania and had others burned alive.

woodcut of Vlad the Impaler on the title page of a German pamphlet  published in Nuremberg in 1488 - wikimedia
A woodcut depicting Vlad on the title page of a German pamphlet about him published in Nuremberg in 1488

There are no other known written accounts of the same genre left by the Saxon writers from Brasov to better understand the style of the time, only the ones about Vlad.

Why they did it?

Killing and torture were pretty common during Medieval Times, still, Vlad’s endeavors seemed to stand above the rest and to have the right frightening impact on the peasants. The fascination with death, under all its aspects, is certainly deeply rooted in human nature. From here was but a short distance to Vlad and his medieval feast on blood.

It is worth considering that, at the time when this collection of horror stories was compiled, Matei Corvin (Matthias Corvinus, or Iancu de Hunedoara) was King of Hungary.
Matei Corvin and Vlad the Impaler had a secret agreement to become allies and start an anti-Ottoman crusade and free Constantinople, as well as block the spread of the Ottoman Empire westward. Even Pope Pius II supported them by giving Matei 40 000 gold coins for soldiers and warships.
But Matei Corvin needed the Pope’s moral and financial support for his own political struggles, to rally to his cause the nobility of his country, even under the banner of the Crusade. In fact, he pursued his main goal relentlessly: to be recognized king of Hungary by the emperor.
Matei Corvin changed his mind at the last moment (after receiving the Pope’s financial contribution) mainly due to extreme political changes in the Holy Roman Empire and Corvin’s wish to keep the Holy Crown of Hungary at all cost. Thus he used the Pope’s money to pay for it, fulfilling his own pland and did not joined Vlad the Impaler in the anti-Ottoman crusade.

This entire game of Matei Corvin led to Vlad the Impaler facing the army of Mohamed II alone in the famous Night Attack at Târgoviște on Thursday, June 17, 1462. Here, Mehmed came with an army ‘in which in numbers and armaments must have been equal to that which he had employed on the siege of Constantinople.’ The Sultan wrote of 150 000, chroniclers of the time mention 400 000. Vlad the Impaler, while still awaiting Matei Corvinu’s support that never arrived, mustered an army of 30 000 (22,000 and 30,900 chroniclers say) men, women, and children over the age of twelve. It was in this battle that Vlad ordered that 23,844 Turks be impaled.

The Night Attack of Vlad the Impaler as painted by Romanian artists Theodor Aman.
The Night Attack of Vlad the Impaler as painted by Romanian artists Theodor Aman.

Vlad the Impaler, between a rock and a hard place

After the retreat of the Turks, the situation did not improve for Vlad.
His younger brother, Radu the Handsome, Radu cel Frumos, had the Turk’s protection (situation going back twenty years to the time when both Vlad and Radu were held hostages there to secure their father’s loyalty).
The Saxons of Transylvania, instead of supporting Vlad, conflicted him because Vlad had limited their economic freedom in Wallachia in his attempt to support the local merchants.
So the Saxons of Transylvania compile an account of Vlad’s acts and complain to Matei Corvin who sees this as the best opportunity to please them as well as solve his own problems, thus turning Vlad the Impaler into a scapegoat.

Matei Corvin ordered that Vlad the Impaler be captured and imprisoned by the end of 1462. And then Matei Corvin sent ambassadors to Venice and to the Pope to explain his acts and his financial spending. The ambassadors brought along texts containing evidence of treason and “inhuman cruelty” of Dracula. The texts were compiled by the Saxons of Transylvania, Die Geschichte Dracole waide (The Story of Prince Dracula).

You can see how Matei Corvin, having all these horror stories about bloody Vlad the Impaler, so un-Christian like, could explain his last-minute abandon of a Christian Crusade.

Danuve Principalities - Moldavia, Wallachia. Transylvania, part of the Kingdom of Hungary
Danuve Principalities – Moldavia, Wallachia. Transylvania as part of the Kingdom of Hungary

At the same time, Gutenberg’s press, although still brand new, was very much in operation. Before 1500 there were already over fourteen editions (surely each one revised and improved) of Vlad’s horror stories circulating Germany. By the end of the 16th century, thirty such editions were in print.

The Story of Prince Dracula, as written by the Saxon merchants

The accounts included here refer to Vlad the Impaler’s main reign from 1456 to 1462. The text was recorded almost at the same time by three witnesses. Thomas Ebendorfer, professor at the University of Vienna, wrote Latin chronicle, Cronica Regum Romanorum (Kaiserchronik) and he considers the events as taking place between May and August 1463. Pope Pius II mentioned it in his Commentaries and considers that the stories took place between April and July 1463. Lastly, the accounts of the German minstrel Michel Beheim who composed his 1070 verses long poem. Beheim used the Saxon tales and new information provided to him by a monk, Jacques de Gorrion (Gornji Grad).

The sequence of events in the three sources is identical, proving the existence of a common source, the Saxon stories, brought by the Hungarian delegation and put in circulation June-August 1463 in Vienna. A renowned printer of that time was Ulrich Han who worked in Mainz with Gutenberg and had already published an Almanach, Almanack in Vienna during 1462

Further printings only began in 1488 and lasted until 1559-1568 in Nuremberg, Lübeck, Bamberg, Leipzig, Augsburg, Strasbourg, and Hamburg. Yet, there are great differences between the first edition from 1463 and the 1488 texts, with regards to the order and the content of the events described.

The Story of Vlad the Impaler, 1488 - vlad medieval feast blood
Front page of Die Geschicht Dracole Wayda Nuremberg Marx Ayrer, 14. October 1488

Some tales said Vlad ordered his victims to be chopped like the cabbage. Others depicted Vlad boiling his victims alive, in huge cauldrons, only their heads sticking out. Others were so horrible and unbelievable, I won’t even mention them. But some are worth sharing.

After the old governor ordered that old Dracul be killed, Draculea (Vlad the Impaler) and his brothers gave up their Islamic believes and promised to protect the Christian faith.

The same year, Vlad was made governor of Wallachia. Immediately he orders the murder of Vladislav Voda, the previous ruler.

Vlad ordered that Saxon villages and fortresses near Sibiu, in Transylvania, be burned to the ground. The Transylvanian villages of Klosterholtz, Nuwdorff, Holtznetya were turned to soot.

It is worth mentioning here that although I don’t approve of Vlad’s crimes, some of the places Vlad set alight – if not all – harbored boyars who wished to take Vlad’s place as ruler of Wallachia.

Dracula ordered that all the thrives of his kingdom be caught and he had them all impaled

Vlad the Impaler depicted here as feasting among the impaled. A colorized rendering of the woodcut by Ambrosius Huber of Nuremberg (1499). NOTICE the blond beard - colours added much later.
Vlad the Impaler depicted here as feasting among the impaled. A colorized rendering of the woodcut by Ambrosius Huber of Nuremberg (1499). NOTICE the blond beard – colours added much later.

When the Turk ambassadors arrived at his court and, according to their tradition, did not remove their headdresses, the turbans, Vlad ordered that they are nailed to the ambassadors’ heads. As a lesson.

One of the first things Vlad did was to order that all the boyards who cheated his father and contributed to his death be caught and impaled.

Once a priest came by, preaching that sins can never be forgiven. Vlad invited him to his place, to share his meal. So Dracula breaks bread and starts eating, all the time beckoning the priest to take a bite, knowing that it was before sundown the priest should fast. And the priest ate. Enraged, Vlad asked him how he can preach about sins when he sins himself?

Another story speaks of a great feast Vlad organized for all the lazy, old, sick or generally non-working people of his kingdom. He first ordered that a great hall be built, then he had a banquet table set inside, filled with mouth-watering food and drinks. And invited them all to the feast. When they were enjoying themselves the most, he ordered the doors shut and the whole place set on fire. To teach everyone a lesson about the value of work.

Vlad the Impaler - capturing boyars. Painting by Theodor Aman. 
vlad medieval feast blood
Vlad the Impaler’s envoys capturing the boyars during a feast (April 1457), in an 1860s painting by Theodor Aman. Source

Once, a foreign merchant complained to Vlad that, while he spent the night at an inn, 160 ducats have been stolen from his cart. Vlad ordered a hunt of the thief who was later impaled. Then he repaid the merchant but ordered that 161 ducats be returned. When the merchant came to Vlad to thank him for his help, he also returned the extra coin. Vlad appreciated the man’s honesty and admitted to his plans of impaling the merchant, should he had not come clean.

At a major crossroads, where there was a well for thirsty travelers, Vlad ordered that a golden cup be placed, for everyone’s usage. The cup stood there as long as Vlad was the ruler of Wallachia, as a testimony of Vlad’s love for honesty and order.

Vlad’s life included in the Cosmography by Sebastian Münster

The stories of Vlad the Impaler are also included in the 1544 Cosmography by Sebastian Münster, the earliest German-language description of the world.

Europe As A Queen - depicted by Sebastian Munster in 1570
Europe As A Queen – depicted by Sebastian Munster in 1570

What exactly did Vlad the Impaler dip in the blood?

Michael Beheim’s song about Vlad the Impaler

In a time when reading was not an option for everyone, these stories were further spread by troubadours or minstrels, Minnesänger. One such troubadour was Michael Beheim who compiled ‘Story of a Violent Madman Called Voïvode Dracula of Wallachia’ or Ainem wutrich der heis Trakle waida von der Walachei, a 1070 verse long song. Beheim first sang his poem at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III during a long winter in 1463. Here is a tiny small extract:

 Michael Beheim - Dracula Song, 15th Century (source) vlad medieval feast blood
Michael Beheim – Dracula Song, 15th Century (source)
Translating to:
'It was his pleasure and gave him courage
To see human blood flow
And it was his custom
To wash his hands in it
As it was brought to the table
While he was taking his meal.'

(Translated by German scholars Clemens Ruthner and John Buffinga)

Well, hands, not bread dipped in blood.

I try to imagine the people listening to this song, perhaps having already heard of Vlad the Impaler, Dracula, imagining how Vlad would enjoy a (medieval) feast on blood.

I wanted to mention this detail of hands / bread, as there was an entire dispute between two Boston Professors, McNally and Florescu, and the Canadian Professor Emerita Elizabeth Miller, leading expert on Bram’s Stoker’s Dracula – over what exactly did Vlad the Impaler dip in the blood, bread or his hand?
Bottom line is:

  • Bram Stoker, when he wrote Dracula (1895 – 1897), might have been familiar with Beheim’s poem about Vlad Tepes.
  • 1972, McNally and Florescu used a liberal translation of Beheim’s poem to tie Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the real Vlad the Impaler, Dracula III. This translation stated that Vlad dipped his bread in the blood.
  • Elizabeth Miller states that Stoker only borrowed the name and bit of historical information and that there was no mention of Vlad the Impaler, Dracula III in Stoker’s notes.
French Xylography from 1499 depicting Vlad the Impaler
French Xylography from 1499 depicting Vlad the Impaler

More bloody stories about Vlad the Impaler

Russian stories about Vlad the Impaler

in 1490 the monk Eufrosin translated into Russian a collection of 19 such horror tales of Hungarian origin: Stories about Prince Vlad. We know the origin of the author because he mentions ‘King Mátyás, using Matthias Corvinus Hungarian name. We also know that their writer was a Christian believer. These stories do depict Vlad’s bravery against the Ottomans. But do they mention of Vlad enjoying a medieval feast on blood?

This collection was less spread in the East since here Gutenberg’s print was not used yet. Thus, mostly the monarchs, the monks, and the clerics had the chance to read it. But it reached the hands of Ivan the Terrible who, they say, was inspired by Vlad the Impaler. We are familiar with the Tsarist autocracy of byzantine inspiration, and how the Russian people stayed loyal to their Church, thus revering their Byzantine heritage. Remember, this happened shortly after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, an event considered by many as a sign the End time was near. Also, a time when the idea Moscow as a Third Rome was of great appeal.

These stories read today as historical fictional accounts, making Vlad the Impaler a mythical character.

One such story depicts Dracula enjoying his lunch beneath a forest of impaled bodies. A servant was seated opposite Vlad, invited to share in the King’s meal. When the henchman could not stand enveloping reek of death anymore and covered his nose, Vlad was seized by murderous rage and ordered that the servant be impaled. ‘On the height of the stake the air is clean and so no stench will reach your nose’, he is supposed to have said.

Another time, an emissary of King Matei Corvin arrived to see Vlad the Impaler. It was an important delegate, a high Polish nobleman. He, too, was invited by Vlad to share his feast among the impaled bodies. Nearby, a brand new, gold spike stood. Vlad asked the emissary how he finds the spike. Whose was it? What would you answer? The Polish nobleman said that perhaps a boyar upset Prince Vlad and he, as a good Prince that he is, wants to show his respect for the man’s position at his court, impaling him into a stellar spike. Vlad liked the emissary’s answer but explained that the spike had been custom made for the Polish nobleman. The man accepted his fate, coming from such a fair and expert judge, admitting that he, alone, is to be blamed for his death and not Prince Vlad. Dracula liked the man’s answer, stating that he is a true emissary who knows how to speak to a sovereign and even granted his clemency.

Other stories also mention Vlad’s dislike for emissaries, Kings or any Sovereign who came to see him but were not dressed according to their rank or could not answer his riddles. He would simply order their death by impaling, stating that it wasn’t his fault, but their own, or their King’s, for not educating them before coming to speak to him.

The portrait of Vlad the Impaler found in Ambras Castle portrait and painted in 1560, a copy of an original made during his lifetime
The portrait of Vlad the Impaler found in Ambras Castle portrait and painted in 1560, a copy of an original made during his lifetime

Vlad’s black and white vision of the world

One of the stories translated into Russian speaks of Vlad the Impaler after he was released from Matei Corvin’s imprisonment (1462 – 1475), depicting his righteousness and character. Vlad was given a house in Pesta to live in, before his return to Wallachia. One day, a thief, running from local guards, sought refuge in Vlad’s yard. After him, the Hungarian guards rushed in. Vlad arrived in the yard at the moment a Hungarian sentry took hold of the thief. In one motion, Vlad cut the sentry’s head. The Hungarian King, Matei Corvin, later asked Vlad why he killed the guard. At which Vlad replied that it had been the guard’s fault entierly since he entered the house of a great ruler and inflicted pain one a human being. If the sentry would have asked to speak with Vlad first and presented him with the facts instead of taking the law into his hands – he would have still been alive and Vlad would have ceased the thief himself.

Along the centuries, some kings feasted from gold plates, drinking from silver goblets adorned with jewels, while sitting on thrones nailed in silver, covered in expensive brocade sewn with gold thread, on silk pillows. Others had banquets with countless courses of food, barrels of wine and beer that everyone was expected to drink, eating hundreds of animals cooked just for that one meal. Perhaps this is another reasonas to why Vlad , living at the end of the ruthless medieval era, was imagined to feast on blood.

Vlad's signature
Vlad’s 1470s signature, Wladislaw Drakulya

Throughout his life, Vlad the Impaler had one thought on his mind, to protect his country from Ottoman invaders, to assure its autonomy, to build its economic strength, to be recognised as a Great King. Judged harshly by his contemporaries, Vlad was often stood alone in his confrontation of the biggest political power of his time, the Ottoman Empire.

It was this struggle that allowed him to cast one of the biggest shadows throughout history, perhaps as big as the fame he wished to have during life.

My latest book is SILENT HEROES.
How far would you go to save strangers in need?
Who really are the Marines’ most trusted allies?
What if help came from the most unexpected sources, would you still accept it?

SILENT HEROES ~ "A human story about marines and their dogs on a mission. Highly recommended for readers of war stories." - buy on Amazon
SILENT HEROES ~ “A human story about marines and their dogs on a mission. Highly recommended for readers of war stories.”
vlad medieval feast blood vlad medieval feast blood
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Rafik’s Journey in Silent Heroes. An Afghan Village

Welcome to Rafik’s journey. The youngest character in Silent Heroes, Rafik travels from his Afghan village of Nauzad all around Afghanistan. It isn’t a journey made by choice, but out of necessity and bravery.

A critical political hot-spot for the past two millennia, Afghanistan is a country often mentioned in news headlines, yet one that few people choose to think of, and even fewer are aware of its natural beauty.

Life for Afghan children, the true Silent Heroes of any Afghan village

How was your life when you were a child of eight years old? When I was Rafik’s age, I wouldn’t even dream of going around the town on my own. My grandmother or my parents would still walk me to school. Yet Rafik and his friends venture daily outside their village.

boy and girl. Silent Heroes Afghan village
An Afghan boy a little younger than Rafik

They start their walk early, right after sunrise. It is a 10 kilometers march to the nearby stream to collect water for drinking, washing and cooking. Then they tread back, bent under the unforgiving Afghan sun and the liquid weight of their buckets and yellow plastic containers, for another 10 kilometers, home.

The water sings while their small feet dance on the hot sand. Sometimes a few drops would spill and the youngest children would laugh to see them roll away over land so dry that not even water can penetrate it. The older ones would scold them. Water is precious and they don’t want to take this journey again, later in the day. The sun is unforgiving and so are the landmines that litter the ground between their village and the stream, like weeds sprouting after rain, but planted by Taliban. So the youngest ones would burst into tears. That one word, Taliban, has this effect on them, as it has on their older sisters and their mothers.

Here, in Afghanistan, one does not need folk tales with monsters to tell their young. To scare them. Here, in Afghanistan, the monsters are real and they walk between the people.

Once a well-known bazaar, today Nauzad village, where Rafik lives with his mother and older sister, is no more than a ghost town, a dusty landmark lost in the shrub-lined valley of the Nauzad river. The only majestic landmark that still stands is that of the Hindu Kush Mountains, profiling in the horizon. With all their men gone to war, life has become a way of simply surviving from one day to the next, the hot climate being just as unforgiving as the Taliban insurgent group operating in the mountainous area rising in the north.

In the beginning of Silent Heroes Rafik is entrusted with a life-and-death mission…

‘Between their skirts, a skinny boy of eight moved along.’

‘Rafik wiped the salty drops invading his eyes with the dusty sleeve of his shirt, yellow-tinged by time and wear. His head was ablaze and sweat trickled down his neck, soaking the back of his pants. His feet bounced on the already hot sand. The boy was sure they looked like the naan his mom used to cook in the tandoor. Back when flour was still available. He would crawl behind her and grab fresh bread out of the basket to share with his friend. She would laugh and playfully snap at him. But not anymore. For the last year there had been no one for him to share his naan with.
One morning, his friend had left to fetch water and never returned. They found him on the field, halved by an IED.
Rafik felt his chest ready to explode with the pain of memories and wiped his eyes again, although no tears came. The rough sleeve against his face helped relieve the agony in his chest.’

Silent Heroes by Patricia Furstenberg
Afghan sunset over Hindu Kush mountains
an Afghan sunset

Placing an entire country on Google maps

I invite you to open Google maps and search for Afghanistan. Now zoom in. How many places can you actually visit? Why do you think it is still impossible to zoom into Afghan locations?

Did you know that the Afghan maps you do see today on Google Maps were not visible before October 2011? Most of Afghanistan was pretty much off the map.
A man named Hasen Poreya and his friends, the Afghan Map Makers, all volunteers, walked around Herat with pen and pencil in hand and filled in all the missing details from Google maps.

Herat is Afghanistan’s third largest city and it was a major historical landmark along the silk road. The Afghan Map Makers have put streets, parks and even the Herat University on the map – so that people from all over the world can discover their town all over again. They, too, are the Silent Heroes of any Afghan village.

Afghanistan before and after the Map Makers have added details on Google Maps
Afghanistan, before and after the Map Makers have added details on Google Maps (source, Google Maps blog)

Where will Rafik travel next?
Come back in a few days to find out – or subscribe to my blog posts.

Until then, you might like to read:
5 Remarkable Places You Will Want to Visit After Reading Silent Heroes, When Love and Values Are Worth Fighting

You can BUY Silent Heroes from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon Australia, Amazon Canada, or Amazon Worldwide: link here to your preferred Amazon website.

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Convents: the Religious Life of Medieval Women 3/3

Convent secrets, medieval women

As part of the research for my new book I want to learn about convents and the religious life of Medieval women. So far we saw why women would join a convent as well as the amazing curriculum a convent offered. Surprised? Still, there is more to find out. Read on…

Convents – their unknown, ugly truths

Although a safe haven from married life and death through childbirth, a place where one could pursue intellectual interests, convents were often under attack especially during the Early Middle Ages mostly due to their unfortunate location – too secluded or near a landing place for invaders. Nuns were raped or killed, sometimes even burned alive within the walls of their convent.  One way to prevent rape was self-mutilation, often facial, as suicide was not a choice and martyrdom was already associated with the merit of keeping one’s virginity.

convents religious life medieval women. viking attacks

Living the secluded, routine life of a convent filled with hardships and often uncertainty, it is hard to find nuns without faults. A sexual misdeed was occasionally present. Very much like today, during the Middle Ages celibacy was not a natural condition for the vast majority of humans, only for extraordinary ones with higher goals. After the first half of the Middle Ages, nuns often underwent activities outside the convent’s walls mingling with the communards, exposed to the minstrel’s immoral songs, the laywomen’s teasing, or the savoury charms of the upper class. Often, even the wealthy ladies lodging in the convents’ guest rooms were a temptation to younger nuns through their wealth and immorality.

In the 13th century, two nuns of Godstow were excommunicated for “casting off their habits, fleeing from their house and leading a worldly and dissolute life,” as written in the Register of the Bishop.

Recent archaeological findings at Little Priory in Oxford, an 1110-1525 medieval convent, shows clear evidence of sinner nuns. British archaeologist Paul Murray and his team uncovered a woman buried outside the church grounds in a face-down position: “perhaps a penitential act to atone for her sins,” says Murray. She could be the last prioress, Katherine Wells, removed from the head of the convent by the powerful Cardinal Wolsey for a number of misdeeds, some of which might be true, some not, as Cardinal Wolsey desired to dissolve the nunnery. Wells was accused of giving birth to an illegitimate child fathered by a priest from Kent and of stealing the convent’s belonging to provide a dowry for her daughter. 

convents religious life medieval women

By the 13th century Pope Boniface VIII issued a papal bull decreeing that convents must be enclosed with cloisters and nuns should never see the secular world again, thus live more holy lives. But by then convents were self-sufficient and abbesses controlled enormous properties, holding more power than any other contemporary woman.

Love, above all. But which love?

Let’s remember that many of those who found themselves committed to a religious life while in their youth were sent to convents or monasteries by their families, and at a much younger age. They can’t be held responsible for not taking to the religious life.

A Juliet – like nun who faked her own death

Recently, medieval historians from the University of York discovered that a nun even faked her own death to escape convent life and built her own family. A Latin marginal note dating from 1318, written by archbishop William Melton in a convent’s register condemns the acts of Joan, a Benedictine nun, who “out of a malicious mind simulating a bodily illness, she pretended to be dead not dreading for the health of her soul, and with the help of numerous of her accomplices, evildoers, with malice aforethought, crafted a dummy in the likeness of her body in order to mislead the devoted faithful and she had no shame in procuring its burial in a sacred space amongst the religious of that place.” (source).

Nuns, very much like priests, had to perform a dangerous job during Medieval times as once outside the fake safety of their rocky religious walls they were exposed to a harsh, turbulent life of wars, killings, deadly diseases (Black Death), painkiller-free physical pain and no human rights or law-enforcement whatsoever. A job that certainly not everyone was cut for.

Convents and their influence on the Anthropocene

Sprouting between towns, halving distances, convents became outposts of civilisation. They encouraged the development of more towns, the creation of roads -both contributing to deforestation in Medieval Europe. By the 13th century, the geographical layout of Europe was greatly altered.

Medieval Europe deforestation. convents religious life medieval women
Medieval Europe deforestation-sharing-the-planet-humanitys-greatest-challenge-43-Sir Mark Walport-The Guardian

Not all women or young girls with a religious calling chose to become a nun and join a convent. Some became hermits, living a solitary life in the wilderness, others took only temporary vows as beguines; some became tertiaries, joining various orders while the most determined ones became anchoresses, taking a vow of living a solitary life in a cell. What ties them all is the variety of lives they chose to lead, so unlike the battered existence of medieval women, their confidence in the purpose of their relationship with God and their stoic approach in pursuing it, embracing all sacrifices.

Looking back through time and space we can certainly say that these women, through their quiet yet not silent humanity, were the true leaders of the medieval religious life. There is so much more to learn beside convents and the religious life of medieval women and I’ll return with more shared knowledge.

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Until then you might enjoy:
Looking at Skulls in the Catacombs of Paris
A Resultant Force, Women Writing about War

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The Oldest Christmas Carol, Jesus Refulsit Omnium

Oldest Christmas Carol. Wise Men and Infant Jesus in Manger

The oldest Christmas Carol historians have knowledge of is a 4th century motet or Epiphany: ‘Jesus Refulsit Omnium’ – Jesus, Light of All the Nations – exactly translating Jesus, the brilliance of all. It depicts the sudden realization that enlightened the Magi, the Wise Men, when they finally arrived to the stable where infant Jesus had been born and it was created by St. Hilary of Poitiers between 310 – 367 (most probably without any instrumental backing).

Listen to this touching rendition of Jesus Refulsit Omnium as performed by the Chamber Choir of George Watson’s College at the annual Festival of 9 Lessons and Carols at St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, on 16th December 2015:

You can find the choir, a capella sheet music here. The lyrics in Latin are below:

Jesus refulsit omnium
Pius redemptor gentium
Totum genus fidelium
Laudes celebret dramatum

Quem stella natum fulgida
Monstrat micans per authera
Magosque duxit praevia
Ipsius ad cunabula

Illi cadentes parvulum
Pannis adorant obsitum
Verum fatentur ut Deum
Munus ferendo mysticum.
(Source)

 The Magi by Henry Siddons Mowbray, 1915 . oldest christmas carol Jesus Refulsit Omnium
The Magi by Henry Siddons Mowbray, 1915

This is the English translation by Kevin Hawthorne, PhD :

‘Jesus, devoted redeemer of all nations, has shone forth,
Let the whole family of the faithful celebrate the stories

The shining star, gleaming in the heavens, makes him known at his birth and, going before, has led the Magi to his cradle

Falling down, they adore the tiny baby hidden in rags,
as they bear witness to the true God by bringing a mystical gift.’

Saint Hillary of Poitiers, whose first name comes from the Latin word for happy or cheerful, hilari, was a Bishop of Poitiers who later received the title of Doctor of the Church. It is worth mentioning that in Latin doctor means ‘teacher’ – thus Doctor of the Church recognized a significant contribution brought to theology through research, study, or writing. Three hymns are attributed to St. Hillary of Poitiers thus making him the first Latin Christian hymn writer.

Charles Bosseron, Adoration of the Magi. oldest christmas carol Jesus Refulsit Omnium
Charles Bosseron, Adoration of the Magi

What exactly is a motet?

A motet is a short, sacred vocal composition. I love the etymology of the word motet. Originating in the Latin movere, ‘to move’, it depicts the movement (against each other) that the various voices produce during the song. Yet considering motet as a diminutive deriving from the French mot, ‘word’, it depicts a ‘little word’ – thus a short song.
The medieval motet most probably became the sacred Renaissance madrigals.

I am Christian Orthodox, yet I love the peace that washes over me when I listen to Catholic vocal compositions, late-medieval to present. My native language, Romanian, resonates closely to its Latin roots and the one year of Latin study I did in school has added an aura of mystery and enchantment to this now dead language.

I hope you enjoyed listening to what is believed to be the oldest Christmas carol, Jesus Refulsit Omnium.

Song lyrics and movie clip are property and copyright of their owners and are provided for educational purposes and personal use only.

The #MusicMonday meme was created by Drew @ The Tattooed Book Geek. You can pick a song that you really like and share it on Monday. I thoroughly enjoyed this blog feature on Mischenko’s lovely blog, ReadRantRockandroll .

Wishing everyone a blessed Holiday Season!

Which one is your favorite Christmas song?

You might also enjoy reading A Journey through the Medieval City of Sighisoara, Romania.

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