Making a Medieval Murderer: The Exoneration of Gilles de Rais

Gillesderais1835

Gilles de Rais. Éloi Firmin Féron, 1835. 

You may have heard the story of Bluebeard—a woman marries a wealthy nobleman with a string of wives who had died under mysterious circumstances only to find said deceased wives congealing in an armoire. It’s a tale as old as time…or something. Variations have been told over the years, and a few real-life murderers have taken inspiration from it. What you might not realize, however, is that the Bluebeard of legend is said to be based on a controversial historical figure—the infamous Gilles de Rais (1404-40).

As the story goes, Gilles de Rais’ crimes were unspeakable. Rather than murdering a series of wives, he was ultimately convicted of sexually assaulting and ritualistically murdering up to 150 boys in his descent into the occult. He was accused of heresy, alchemy, sodomy, sorcery, and murdering countless—and unidentified—women and children. You know, in addition to the 100, 150, or 600 boys, depending on who you ask.

His crimes were so horrific and almost cartoonishly exaggerated, you have to wonder if they were even possible. Where did he find the time, how did he get away with it for so long, and who would ever do such a thing?

What does the history say?

Gilles de Rais fought in the Hundred Years’ War, where he distinguished himself as a courageous fighter. He was given the honor of guarding Joan of Arc by the dauphin in 1429. As her personal bodyguard, he fought alongside her in many of the most significant battles of her life. He helped to life the Siege of Orléans and earned the position of Marshal of France, the country’s highest military distinction.

When Joan of Arc died in 1431, de Rais was devastated. She had been a dear friend to him, and he believed in her wholeheartedly. In his grief, he retired to his estate and threw himself into religion and the preservation of Joan’s memory. Although his estate was one of the richest in France, he burned through his money at an alarming rate, employing armies of servants and soldiers and commissioning works of music and literature in honor of her.

In 1433, he funded the construction of the Chapel of Holy Innocents. The chapel featured a boys’ choir personally chosen by de Rais, a fact that many have pointed to as an early hint of the alleged crimes to come, but this is consistent with the enthusiastic attention to detail he applied to all of his projects.

In 1435, he financed a play he wrote himself about the Siege of Orléans, and it almost bankrupted him. More than six hundred elaborate costumes were made for the 140 actors with speaking parts and 500 extras; each costume was worn only once, discarded, and sewn all over again for each performance. He also provided unlimited food and drink to all of the spectators in attendance.

The play, Le Mystère du Siège d’Orléans, marks another turning point in his life. Not only was it regarded as fiscally irresponsible, but it amounted to the unofficial canonization of a woman who had been burned as a heretic.

To hear many tell it, this is when his descent into the occult truly began, but the only evidence we have of anything even remotely related is his interest in alchemy, which he later confessed to publically. Crucially, alchemy itself was not a crime unless it was accomplished with the devil’s aid; de Rais had not attempted to invoke any demons, he’d only read a book. This was not enough to seize his estates, however, and a far more serious crime had to be invented.

He was arrested in 1440 after kidnapping a priest over a minor dispute. Up until 1789, torture was considered a valid way to extract reliable testimony in France, and it was under these circumstances that de Rais confessed. Although the confession read by clerics at his execution named unspeakable crimes in lurid detail, his actual private confession was no more than a short verbal agreement to the charge of dabbling in alchemy. He was simultaneously hanged and burned alive on October 26th, 1440 in Nantes.

By all accounts, de Rais was oddly calm as he faced an execution not unlike that of his beloved Joan of Arc, who he could not save in spite of his best efforts. After his death, he was hailed as model of penitence, and a three-day fast was observed in his honor. Bizarrely, until the mid-sixteenth century, the people of Nantes marked the anniversary of his execution by whipping their children.

Exoneration 

In 1992, biographer Gilbert Proteau argued that de Rais was innocent in Gilles de Rais ou la Gueule de Loup and called for a retrial.

Proteau was not the first to notice the evidence against de Rais didn’t hold up. As early as 1443, there had been attempts to clear his name. While the evidence of his guilt was mainly limited to rumors, questionable witness testimonies, and the confession extracted under torture, there was one very good reason to want de Rais out of the way.

At one point, de Rais was the wealthiest man in Europe. His wealth has been used to explain his alleged corruption, but it is also a pretty convincing motive. His eccentricity and tendency to hemorrhage money after Joan’s death had caused a serious rift between him and the rest of his family. In 1435, his family petitioned the king to prevent de Rais from selling any more property. Charles VII agreed and issued an edict for de Rais to cease selling property and forbidding any of his subjects to enter into any contract with him. As far as they were concerned, de Rais was running the estate into the ground, and they wanted to keep it intact.

De Rais was not accused of murder until after a dispute with the church of Saint-Etienne-de-Mer-Morte in 1440, which resulted in him kidnapping a priest. Only after he had angered the church was there any investigation, and just two months after the kidnapping, the Bishop of Nantes presented witness testimony accusing de Rais of murder, sodomy, and heresy. Servants claiming to be de Rais’s accomplices testified against him, but no bodies, bones, or other physical evidence was ever found. Crucially, he was prosecuted by the Duke of Brittany, who received all of de Rais’ lands and titles after his death.

Centuries after his torture and execution, the Court of Cassation heard the appeal and fully exonerated de Rais in 1992. Although many French historians have long since accepted his innocence, many English-speaking historians persist in arguing for his guilt.

Fortunately, the movement to clear his name has been steadily picking up momentum, and many of the sources are available online. Since 2010, de Rais’ biographer Margot Juby has been making the case for de Rais in English through the website Gilles de Rais Was Innocent, providing almost a decade’s worth of evidence that the allegations against him were fabricated.

We were delighted to sit down with Juby for a closer look at the facts.

A Conversation with Margot Juby

DSH: We have been given two very different impressions of Gilles de Rais–on one hand, he’s this incredible war hero who fought with Joan of Arc, and on the other, he’s seen as this unspeakably horrible murderer–what do you think he was really like after Joan’s death? How did it affect him?

MJ: Most versions of Gilles’ life offer a very muddled account of his military career. They gloss over it and some even dismiss his heroism as an exaggeration. Too much is known about his part in the siege of Orléans and other battles for this to be viable. He was put in charge of protecting Jehanne, apparently at her own request, and came to her rescue at least twice when she was injured. He was also rewarded by the king for his bravery on several occasions, not least when he was made a Marshal of France at the age of 24. At the same time, he was given the highly unusual honour of a border of fleurs de lys (the royal emblem) on his coat of arms. This distinction was more often given to an exceptionally loyal town than an individual, and he shared it only with Jehanne and none of the other captains. Contemporary chroniclers all agree that he was the preeminent captain of Orléans and the Loire campaign; it was only later writers, after his death, who tried to play down his role.

When Jehanne was on trial for her life in Rouen, Gilles was just across the river in Louviers with an army and in the company of another of her captains, La Hire. Biographers try to explain his presence in occupied Normandy, far from his nearest estate, as some whimsical expedition to buy a horse, which is ludicrous. It is obvious that some rescue attempt was planned; the English knew it and threatened to throw their captive into the river if such an attempt was made. As we know, the plan failed and Jehanne was burned.

We can only guess how Gilles felt. The official story is that he had no particular feelings for Jehanne and yet, paradoxically, was so emotionally shattered by her death that he turned to diabolism and murder. Almost all accounts of his life are reduced to such paradoxes, because the two halves of his life simply do not fit.

After her death, his life fragments. There are plenty of events, but they lack coherence. He still maintains some interest in military matters, but he is no longer really a soldier. He dabbles in theatre, in the Church, and even in alchemy, at least according to his one confession that was not extracted by the threat of torture. He signs bizarre documents, seems to be afraid that his family is plotting his death, disinherits his daughter, compulsively sells properties to meet expenses that are not fully explained. And he constantly gravitates to Orléans, where he was happy and loved.

In 1435, to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the liberation of Orléans, Gilles paid for an elaborate mystery play, Le Mystère du Siège d’Orléans, to be performed, not just once but repeatedly, over a period of some months. Biographers are puzzled and disturbed by this and cannot work out what it might mean. Was it “discreet propaganda” (Jacques Heers) or “a cry of bruised love” (Gilbert Prouteau)? Whatever it was, it indicated that Jehanne had mattered immensely in his life. It was also a huge political error. It was virtually an unofficial canonisation of an executed heretic. In retrospect, it is hardly surprising that it marks the moment when his family turned against him, and his enemies, some he thought of as his friends, started to plot his downfall.

DSH: What do you think are the most compelling pieces of evidence that Gilles de Rais was innocent?

MJ: What to choose? The case for his innocence is based on countless small details, which build up into an unanswerable refutation of the case for the prosecution. In fact, the evidence presented in court is so feeble that, properly examined, it is the strongest argument for the innocence of Gilles and his fellow accused. It was some 550 years before the first serious attempt at a biography was written, by the Abbé Bossard. The records of the trial were written in manuscript, in Latin and Old French, and there is no sign that anybody looked at them closely apart from René Mauldes, who transcribed them for Bossard. His is a redacted version, since he felt unable to write the sexual details even in the original languages (he had no such problem with the slaughter). Very few biographers since show any sign of having done more than glance at the records, if that. They have built up a cast-iron case, built on lies and half-truths.

The traditional version of the story is that hundreds of children disappeared and were attested to in court by their grieving parents. Gilles and his entourage would pass through a village and leave at least one bereft family in his wake. Charge 15 of the Articles of Accusation is quite explicit: “For the past fourteen years, every year, every month, every day, every night and every hour, [Gilles] took, killed, cut the throats of many children, boys and girls…”

Yet there are accounts of only forty or so missing boys, and only a dozen are given a full name. The rest have only a family name and sometimes an age. Several are simply “unknown boy”–there are no girls listed. Apparently there were no known victims between 1434 and 1436, and only one in 1437. Although many people testify in court, few are related to the supposed victims; the crowds of weeping mothers simply did not exist. The complainants allude to the fate of the disappeared children, which they could not possibly have known about. Where several complainants attest to the loss of a child, serious discrepancies appear–this is particularly true of the Hubert and Darel boys. On one occasion, Gilles appears to be in two places at once. Some cases are mere anecdotes–in one case, a man seen looking for his son. All this evidence is hearsay.

Moreover, the links between these disappearances and Gilles or his men are weak. Several take place in parts of the country which he was not known to frequent–a whole string of boys go missing in Machecoul while he is living at Tiffauges. To make up for this problem, we are told that several old women–among them the infamous Perrine Martin, La Meffraye (the Terror), and Tiphaine Branchu–scoured the countryside for handsome boys. These ladies were caught and imprisoned, but we do not have their evidence and we have no idea of their fate, although they apparently confessed and their confessions were conveniently made known to some of the complainants. Unfortunately, nobody told Poitou and Henriet, the only eye witnesses, or Gilles himself; they mention no female procurers.

It is fairly well known that the evidence of Poitou and Henriet shows clear signs of having been extracted by torture. What is less often noticed is that Gilles himself was almost certainly tortured–he was promised that, in return for a confession, his torture would be deferred till the next day, not that it would be waived. Unusually, the next day’s hearing took place in the evening rather than the morning, allowing time for the torture to be applied.

This is merely an indication of how biographers have cherry-picked the evidence to make a coherent narrative out of what is, in fact, a messy and contradictory tangle of hearsay and forced confessions. There is much, much more.

DSH: Although he was fully exonerated in 1992, why do you think so many English-speaking historians and biographers persist in believing he was guilty?

MJ: Several reasons. First, plain bad timing. News travels fast now, but back then there was no internet to spread it. Second, all the documentation was in French, and English-language newspapers only printed short, whimsical accounts. It was a nine-day wonder. It is actually more difficult to find out what happened in 1992 than to tease out the details of early 15th century events, and that, believe me, is difficult enough. You would think that, as the prime mover of the retrial, Gilbert Prouteau would have put all the salient facts in his book. You would be wrong.

Prouteau himself, excellent PR man though he was, is part of the reason the retrial is regarded with some suspicion. He was a naughty boy, and wrote a confusing and occasionally dishonest book. The first time I read it–in French, having naïvely waited some twenty years for somebody to publish it in translation–I was mystified. He wrote a novel, quite overtly, and tagged an account of a preliminary hearing (not the trial itself, which had not yet happened) onto the end. The novel section aped all the errors in the “magisterial” tome by Gilles’ first biographer, the Abbé Bossard, and that was clearly deliberate. Prouteau had done no original research, and the evidence presented in court was taken from the writings of earlier authors, such as Salomon Reinach and Fernand Fleuret. This was well and good, but certain elements from Prouteau’s fiction also crept into the peroration delivered in court. This is worrying, though I feel that behind his obvious mischievousness, he was perfectly sincere in his belief that Gilles de Rais was wrongfully convicted.

The retrial itself was not, as it is often claimed, an official process and the verdict carried no weight in French law. At the time, those who had spoken up in Gilles’ defence had planned to ask for the support of French President François Mitterand to look into the matter and formalise the rehabilitation. As far as I am aware, this was never done.

One final reason why many people refuse to accept that Gilles de Rais was neither a murderer nor Bluebeard: human beings hate to lose their villains. As seen by posterity, Gilles is the perfect model of a villain and his story is packed with excitement–black magic, murder, sexual depravity to rival the Caesars. Who would want to give that up to hear about politics and property transactions?

DSH: What do you make of his confession? Torture was clearly a factor. Do you think this was a case where he would agree to any ideas they suggested, or was it a total fabrication? The things he supposedly confessed to are so outrageously horrible, it would be difficult to dream them up, let alone actually do them. I keep thinking about it and wondering how they got there. It makes me think of the penitential literature of the period–a lot of the things people could confess weren’t things people actually did, they were just these lurid fantasies thought up by bored monks.

MJ: When we talk about a “confession” now, we mean something fairly spontaneous and given in the accused person’s own words. Even those can be suspect if the accused has been subjected to intense interrogation. In 1440, it was very different. This is what Professor Thomas Fudgé wrote in his 2017 book, Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages:

“Confessions in many inquisitorial proceedings relating to heresy or witchcraft are remarkably similar in many parts of Europe. This may be attributed to the nature and standardized questions asked of the defendant or deponent. Leading questions were often asked. In many records there are no specific answers provided, only the single word affirmat meaning the witness has affirmed the point in question. Sometimes a statement of confession written in the first person would be drawn up by the court, which the accused or deponent would be compelled to sign or otherwise affirm.”

Lazy writers will say that Gilles de Rais made two confessions before the ecclesiastical court. The first, made privately in his own quarters, is preceded by the Inquisition rubric that it had been delivered “voluntarily, freely, and without any coercion whatsoever.” We know exactly what this assurance is worth, since he confessed only under the immediate threat of torture. It is short, has little detail, and does not mention murder.

The public one, made in court some thirty-six hours later, is the one usually quoted from, as it is longer, far more circumstantial, and has all the gory details. However, there was an earlier confession, not produced by threats (as far as we know) in which Gilles accepted the truth of the earlier heads of the Acts of Accusation (1-11 and 14, interestingly omitting the two articles that dealt with the qualifications of the Inquisitor Jean Blouyn). This meant he really confessed to nothing, since the accusations only started at Article 15. He did go on to admit–aloud, in public–that he read a book about alchemy and evocations that he obtained in Angers, and that he practised alchemy, though he specifically denied dealing with demons. Now, alchemy was perfectly legal and considered to be a suitable hobby for wealthy men; at least one Pope had written a treatise on it. It only became illegal if the Devil’s aid was invoked, which Gilles denied, or if it was the low form known as arquémie, in which the alchemist attempted to turn base metals to gold. This was clearly what Gilles meant. It was a minor offence, akin to forgery. It was not sufficient to get Gilles executed and his property confiscated; more was required.

The other two confessions bear a marked resemblance to those of his valets, Poitou and Henriet. Their confessions were certainly produced under torture and seem to be textbook examples of the leading question followed by affirmation technique of interrogation. It is their testimony that is most often cherry-picked in accounts of the trial; Gilles’ account usually seems confused and lacking in detail, whether the subject is murder or evoking demons. In between the first, private confession and the second, in court, it is certain that torture was applied. He had been promised, in return for confessing, that the torture would be deferred, but not that it would be waived altogether. The second confession was delivered in an evening session; all the others except one, after the interrogation of his friends, had taken place in the morning. It is usually claimed that he confessed at the mere threat of torture, and implied that he was a coward, but this is based on skim-reading the documents.

The confessions themselves are riddled with inconsistencies. It is not even possible to determine exactly what form of sexual assault is described; the accounts given before the ecclesiastical court differ from those given before the civil court. The only eye witnesses, Gilles himself and his two friends, contradict themselves and each other at every turn, and state impossibilities as facts. All the bodies were burned to ashes (a thing that would have been impossible without leaving visible remains). Except, that is for the eighty that were left lying around for several years, unnoticed, and had to be burned in two batches, in mid-summer, without attracting attention. Some of the other cremations took place in a manor house in Nantes with the Duke’s castle at one end of the street & the Bishop’s palace at the other. Or were the bodies taken to Machecoul for burning? The accused men do not agree.

From The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais:

“Gilles is a serial killer without any discernible modus operandi. The children are killed in a number of different ways, sometimes by Gilles himself and sometimes by his henchmen. This is not wholly impossible, but it adds an air of improbability, as if a number of possible tableaux was being presented for the delectation of a shocked audience. Interrogated as to who killed them, [Poitou] responded that occasionally the said Gilles, the accused, killed them by his own hand, occasionally he had them killed by the said Sillé or Henriet or him, the witness, or by anyone among them, together or separately. Interrogated as to the manner, he responded: sometimes beheading or decapitating them, sometimes cutting their throats, sometimes dismembering them, and sometimes breaking their necks with a cudgel: and that there was a sword dedicated to their execution, commonly called a braquemard.”

All of the more lurid parts of these confessions, including the murders as well as the sexual assaults, are related with a detail and a relish that suggest the imaginings of a few frustrated and unworldly celibates vying with each other to appal. The charges are generic: Gilles de Rais was accused of the same crimes that all outsiders were charged with. Witches, Gypsies, Jews, heretics, the Knights Templar…all faced accusations of sodomy, child abduction, murder, dealings with the Devil. All except Gilles de Rais are now almost universally seen as innocent victims.

DSH: If you could tell the people reading this one thing, what would it be?

MJ: Believe nothing you read about Gilles de Rais. The internet thrives on copypasta, and the “facts” that you read will have been taken from unreliable sources, quite probably from fiction. I have seen Gilles described as “Joan of Arc’s serial killer brother” and read descriptions of sexual acts that even his judges never thought to invent. Biographies are not much better, since very few are based on original research. All rely heavily on his original biographer, Bossard, who was not a historian. He took many of his so-called facts from an utterly bogus version of the trial record written in the late 19th century by a sensationalist author called Paul Lacroix.

Much of what we think we know about Gilles was invented by Lacroix, parroted by Bossard, and passed on to other biographers in a process of Chinese whispers. The illustrated Suetonius that supposedly gave Gilles the inspiration for his crimes? Lacroix invented it. The Bishop rising up and veiling the crucifix at the most horrific moment of Gilles’ confession? Lacroix originally, elaborated and improved upon by the Decadent author J-K Huysmans in his novel Là-Bas. Biographies of Gilles de Rais are largely fictional.

Jessica Cale

Margot Juby is a writer and biographer from King’s Lynn, Norfolk. She studied English at Hull, where, as poet Philip Larkin remarked to her some time later, she “got a First and (did) bugger all ever since.” Well, not quite bugger all. After years writing poetry, she decided to revisit a biography on Gilles de Rais she had questioned in school, and hasn’t stopped reading the sources since. Her upcoming book, The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais, is a labor of love nearly a decade in the making. You can visit her at http://www.gillesderaiswasinnocent.blogspot.com.

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Fake Monks and False Envoys: To Live and Lie in the Khan’s Court

Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and Guyuk Khan

Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and Guyuk Khan

It may come as some surprise that a Mongol khan’s encampment was a pretty international place to be. When the Flemish Franciscan, William of Rubruck, arrived at Mongke Khan’s court in 1253, he found Hungarians, Alans, Russians, Georgians, and Armenians; there were Greek knights, Chinese clergy, an Indian envoy, a Parisian silversmith, Korean and Nicaean ambassadors, the son of an Englishman named Basil, a Christian from Damascus who represented the Ayyubid Sultan, and a woman from Metz who’d been captured in Hungary and since married a Russian builder.

Many, like this last couple, had of course not come there by choice but had been violently wrenched away from their lives. Others, though, had gone there for different reasons. For the right kind of person, the Mongols’ Asian steppe offered an opportunity for self-reinvention, though the consequences of a misstep could be severe (quite literally, if you set foot on the threshold of the khan’s tent, you were killed). Despite these risks, William’s report of his travels gives us two characters–con men, really–who lied about their identities before the great khan himself.

Pope Innocent IV Sends Dominicans and Franciscans to the Mongols

Pope Innocent IV sends Dominicans and Franciscans to the Mongols

After the Mongol armies vacated Central Europe in 1242, they sparked a series of fascinating travel stories as men made the long trip east to the khan’s court–enslaved, summoned, or sent. In the latter category were a succession of Franciscans and Dominicans on missions that fell somewhere along the spectrum between religion and diplomacy. For example, Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine started his journey in 1245 (at over 60 years old) to assess the Mongols’ intentions for Pope Innocent IV and to admonish them for their violence against Christians, and he actually made it all the way to witness the raising of a new great khan, Guyuk, grandson of Genghis, and receive a threatening letter to bring home. Other friars would go too, though not so far: Lawrence of Portugal, Ascelin of Lombardy, and André de Longjumeau. And then there was William of Rubruck.

Friar William wasn’t sent by the pope. Actually, he repeatedly claimed not to have been sent by anyone at all, and there is good reason to believe him; however, his trip was tied to a powerful man, the one he addresses in his written report as (in translation) “Louis, by the grace of God illustrious King of the French.”

King Louis IX was on crusade in the Holy Land, and the Mongols certainly knew about him. They’d been in touch, sending envoys even as he stopped at Cyprus at the outset of his campaign, and there had been men sent the other way too–friars, of course. Whenever Mongols encountered William, that’s exactly what they would have assumed he was, an official envoy of Louis. When one group demanded some gifts from him, as they often did, he refused, and they called him an impostor, a false envoy. It was a pretty serious charge, for the Mongols apparently killed such people whenever they could find them. Who were these con men then, and what did they want?

Ascelin of Lombary Delivers a Letter from Pope Innocent IV to Baiju the Mongol General

Ascelin of Lombardy delivers a letter from Pope Innocent IV to Baiju, the Mongol General

William never met the first man. He just heard of his story, the story of a cleric from Acre named Theodolus who showed up one day calling himself Raimond. “Raimond” had apparently traveled with King Louis’ 1249 envoy to the Mongols (André de Longjumeau), but we have no other record of his having done so. Maybe he’d simply joined Friar André along the way somewhere. Wherever he joined the friar, he didn’t make the whole trip with him, but remained in Persia, acquiring some musical instruments (sadly unspecified) and going on after André had returned, to the camp of Mongke Khan (Guyuk had enjoyed a fairly short reign). There, he sang a pretty extravagant song of letters from heaven and French submission.

Our other character is Sergius the Armenian monk, who William met in Mongke’s camp. In fact, the Armenian really came to dominate his time there. Sergius’ story is that of a hermit living in the area of Jerusalem who had suddenly begun to experience violent visions of God. With the first two visions, Sergius had been directed to go to the emperor of the Mongols but had not done so. At the third, God had clearly lost patience and cast him down upon the ground, threatening him with death if he continued to ignore his God’s commands. So, naturally, Sergius had gone to the khan, and like Raimond, he’d made extravagant promises that if Mongke would just become Christian, “the whole world would enter into subjection to him, and that the Franks and the Great Pope would obey him.” Sergius the monk was very keen for William to pledge the same. However, he wasn’t really a monk. He told William he had been ordained, but William would later find otherwise. Sergius was an illiterate cloth weaver making a new life for himself among the Mongols.

Audience with Mongke

Audience with Mongke

Raimond’s promise was not so different from the one Sergius made, but his story was. He initially claimed that he had served a mysterious “certain holy bishop,” and that this bishop had received “a missive written on letters of gold,” sent from heaven itself. Raimond was bringing that very letter from heaven to Mongke because the khan “was destined to become master of the whole world.” That all sounded pretty great to Mongke, but where was the letter? “If you had brought the letter that came from Heaven and a letter from your master, you would have been welcome,” he said.

Very welcome, one assumes. But of course, Raimond didn’t have it, and he went with an old excuse: he had been carrying the letters, but, most unfortunately, they had been lost “on the back of an unruly pack horse which had bolted off through forests and over hills,” never to be seen again, obviously. William helpfully noted that these things did happen and travelers did need to be careful to keep a hold of their horse when they weren’t on it.

Thus far, the two men had fairly similar narrative arcs, but their stories were about to diverge. While Sergius carved out a space for himself in the Khan’s encampment, Raimond kept digging himself deeper, sure that some reward was just a few shovelfuls down. Mongke asked him whose kingdom he lived in and who this mysterious bishop was, and Raimond revealed that his master was the Papal Legate on the seventh crusade, Odo of Chateauroux, and that his kingdom was that of the French. And then he said that only some inconvenient Muslims were preventing the French king from sending envoys and seeking peace and friendship. Would Raimond then be willing to guide an embassy to Louis and Odo? Why yes, yes he would.

Sergius seems to have avoided such a direct request, which is bizarre. He’d made similar promises and proposals on a few occasions, yet he had remained in Mongke’s camp. What was he doing there? He wasn’t making friends. In fact, he was getting into all kinds of trouble.

William of Rubruck's route 1253-55

William of Rubruck’s route 1253-55

During William’s months with Mongke’s traveling camp and in Karakorum, the Mongol capital, he spent quite a bit of time with Sergius, and serious issues with the Armenian began to trouble him. There was his reliance on the divination services of what might have been a Muslim geomancer. There was his claiming to take only one meal a week, “dough cooked with vinegar for him to drink,” when really he snacked regularly on “almonds, grapes, dried plums and … other fruits,” which he kept beneath the altar. And then there was his tendency to make reckless promises. That had come up when they first met, when Sergius urged William to follow his lead on Frankish submission, but that wasn’t the last of it. When the khan’s wife was deathly ill and Mongke was looking for help, Sergius stepped forward and promised to cure her, even saying that the khan could cut off his head if he failed. With William’s aid, he applied prayer vigils, holy water, and a peculiar rhubarb drink, and, fortunately for Sergius, the patient recovered and he got to keep his head.

And what did he do with his head? He took part in the religious life of the khan’s camp, attending to Mongke’s needs, making the rounds of the royal family, and receiving generous portions of drink along the way. He also behaved with remarkable belligerence towards the other participants in that life. In William’s writing, he’s seen hurling unprovoked insults at Muslims, being goaded into striking at people with a whip, and even claiming responsibility for the death of a senior Nestorian (a Christian of the Church of the East).

That last incident might be most revealing of Sergius’ character and intentions. The story was that this Nestorian had fallen sick, spitting blood sick, and his friends brought in someone William describes as a “Saracen soothsayer,” an interesting choice in itself. This “soothsayer” told them that “A lean man … who neither eats nor drinks nor sleeps in a bed is angry with him,” and everyone somehow immediately identified this as Sergius. They all knew that this sinister “lean man” was the monk, and Sergius didn’t even bother to deny it, quite the opposite. When the man eventually died, after Sergius had been to visit him and trampled on his bed, Sergius told William not to worry: “it was I who killed him with my prayers. He alone was educated and was opposed to us; the rest are ignorant. In future, all of them, and Mongke Khan too, will be at our feet.”

Mongke Khan

Mongke Khan

Sergius was not merely a difficult man prone to vanity, aggression, and rash promises. It’s possible that he was actively trying to position himself as the premier religious leader attached to the khan’s traveling court, and this wasn’t so far beyond his reach as you might think. During William’s stay, Mongke demonstrated an openness to different religious positions, just so long as they demonstrated their usefulness and application in this world. Sergius, for all his recklessness, aimed at staying by the khan’s side and achieving power by remaining spiritually useful.

Raimond, on the other hand, brought too many targets into his particular con. Mongke Khan took him up on his offer and sent an ambassador with him bearing an enormous bow that could scarcely be pulled back by two men working together. The bow was intended as a message for Louis. If what Raimond said was true (Mongke wasn’t quite sold on the whole thing), then the bow was to be given to the French king as a gesture of friendship; if not, the ambassador was to tell Louis that “with bows like this we shoot far and hit hard,” a delightfully intimidating gesture, given the bow’s unusual proportions.

Neither the ambassador nor Raimond reached their destination. They got as far as the Emperor of Nicaea, but the emperor was not taken in by Raimond’s story. When he couldn’t produce letters proving his ambassadorship, the emperor’s people took everything Raimond had and threw him in prison while the Mongol ambassador became sick and died. William heard what had become of them from the ambassador’s attendants. “I met them at [Erzurum],” he writes, “on the borders of Turkia, and they told me what had befallen Theodolus [otherwise known as Raimon]. Hoaxers like this scurry about all over the world, and when the [Mongols] succeed in catching them, they put them to death.”

They didn’t catch Sergius, though. When William left him, he was still where the Franciscan had found him, an illiterate cloth weaver successfully playing the holy man, and sometimes the physician, at the court of perhaps the most powerful man in the world.

Devon Field

Sources:

Friar William of Rubruck. The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, translated by Peter Jackson. The Hakluyt Society, 1990.

Giovanni da Pian del Carpine. The Story of the Mongols: Whom we Call the Tartars, translated by Erik Hildinger. Branden Books, 1996.

human circusDevon Field is a history podcaster with a Humanities M.A., exploring travel narratives and their place in larger events. Particularly, he’s interested in the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods and their travellers, figures that passed between cultural worlds and revealed sometimes surprising connections. You can hear more about William of Rubruck and others like (and unlike) him on the Human Circus podcast.

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Sex, Contraception, and Abortion in Medieval England

617px-Artemisia_absinthium_(Köhler)

Artemisia absinthum (Wormwood)

Centuries of nostalgic medievalism have given us some funny ideas about sexuality in the Middle Ages. We know religion ruled, no one married for love, and sex was for procreation only…right?

Not so much. When studying the Middle Ages, you need to consider the sources. Every author had a bias and could only write what they saw. Most of our modern ideas about sexuality come from Canon Law, but people did not obey all of the laws of the Church in the Middle Ages any more than they do today. To get a better idea of what life was really like, we have to draw on other sources as well.

Today we’re going to jump into the deep end with medieval contraception and abortion. The popular assumption is that contraception did not exist and abortion must have been a serious crime, if it happened at all. The issue with this argument is that we take for granted that they must have had a similar understanding of pregnancy and a greater sense of religious morality when it came to the issue of contraception and abortion. To get to the bottom of this, we have to throw out these assumptions and start at the beginning.

Sex

Fornication was still a sin, but it was one most were guilty of. When primogeniture became the rule in the eleventh century, it created a whole class of people were unlikely to ever marry. Noble families with multiple children could only pass on their property to the eldest. The rest of the children would remain in the household even as adults until they married other property-holding people or until circumstances changed. Many entered the Church, where marriage and concubinage among the clergy was still common until the twelfth century. Wealthy families might equip younger sons as knights. Knights could not be expected to marry until they inherited property or came by it through other means; most younger sons never married at all. As for daughters, the pool of landed noblemen to marry was pathetically small. With larger families and fewer opportunities for marriage, much of the nobility never married. To assume they all remained celibate in a culture that all but deified love and had a popular handbook for conducting romantic, sexual, and frequently extramarital relationships is naïve at best. (1)

As for the lower classes, marriage was almost a fluid concept. It was common for people to marry in secret, and these marriages were every bit as valid as any performed outside a church. According to Gratian’s Decretum, all it took to make a marriage legal was three things: love, sex, and consent. As long as the love and consent were there, sexual relationships including those with concubines could be considered informal marriages.

Because the line between fornication and legal marriage was a bit blurry, fornication was more or less accepted in practice. Who’s to say the consenting couple did not marry in secret? Many penitentials appearing during and after the twelfth century classified sex outside of marriage as only a minor sin. Members of the Synod of Angers in 1217 stated unequivocally that they personally knew many confessors who gave no penance for it at all. In practice, the Church tolerated fornication as long as there was no adultery being committed.

Prostitution was legal and common. Although the Church did not condone it, this did not stop it from regulating and profiting from it (see Prostitution and the Church in Medieval Southwark). After all, someone had to see to the needs of the scores of unmarried men and those who had entered the Church out of necessity rather than desire. The Church viewed prostitution as a necessary evil. While active sex workers could not be viewed as respectable members of society, they nevertheless performed an important public service.

Outside of the Church, many medieval writers, such as Albertus Magnus and Constantine the African, viewed sex as a crucial component to overall health on equal footing with food, sleep, and exercise. Sexual release was believed to be the best way to get rid of toxic humors and abstinence could lead to weakness, illness, madness, and death. Sexual enjoyment was necessary for men and women, and was an essential component to conception.

Sex happened. Penitentials were distributed throughout the Church to prescribe penance for every vice we can imagine today (and a fair few we can’t). Troubadours sang about it in their filthy, filthy songs. Pregnancy was inevitable and dangerous. So how did they deal with it?

Menstrual Regulators

It sounds obvious, but people in the Middle Ages did not have the same understanding of pregnancy that we have today. As they could not pinpoint the moment of conception, there was no distinction between the prevention of pregnancy (contraception) and the ending of one (abortion). “Remedies to regulate the menstrual cycle” were common and arguably more widely accepted than they are now. Recipes were recorded in medical texts, shared between women, and they appeared in household handbooks. They could be made at home with a few ingredients most women would recognize.

This ninth century recipe appeared in the Lorsch Manuscript, a medical treatise written by Benedictine monks:

A Cure for All Kinds of Stomach Aches
For women who cannot purge themselves, it moves the menses.

8 oz. white pepper
8 oz. ginger
6 oz. parsley
2 oz. celery seeds
6 oz. caraway
6 oz. spignel seeds
2 oz. fennel
2 oz. geranium/ or, giant fennel
8 oz. cumin
6 oz. anise
6 oz. opium poppy

These recipes did not come out of the blue. There is evidence that similar abortifacients had been used as far back as ancient Egypt. Pepper had been used since the Roman period as a contraceptive, and fennel is related to silphium, the ancient plant farmed to extinction for its contraceptive properties. The other ingredients have been found to have antifertility effects, and the opium was used as a sedative. Other similar recipes were employed throughout the period and beyond; menstrual regulators using the same ingredients continued to be sold as late as the nineteenth century.

Juniperus_communis,_Common_juniper_(3543483554)

Juniper

In addition to those mentioned above, artemisa and juniper were both known to inhibit fertility. Artemisia is a genus of plant in the daisy family asteraceae. There are more than two hundred types of artemisia, among them mugwort, tarragon, and wormwood, the key ingredient in absinthe centuries later. In the twelfth century, Trotula recommended artemisia as a “menstrual stimulator” and in the thirteenth century, Arnald of Villanova advised taking it with capers for maximum efficacy. Modern medicine has confirmed its use: artemisia inhibits estrogen production and can prevent ovulation much like pharmaceutical contraceptives today.

Artemisia was not without its side effects. Wormwood is a notorious toxin known to cause hallucinations and changes in consciousness. Ingested in large quantities, it can cause seizures and kidney failure. (2)

Juniper had been used as a contraceptive since the Roman period. Pliny the Elder recommended rubbing crushed juniper berries on the penis before sex to prevent conception. Its popularity continued throughout the Middle Ages; Arabic medical writers Rhazes, Serapion the Elder, and ibn Sina all list it as an abortifacient, and this knowledge was made more readily available throughout Europe when Gerard of Cremona translated their words in the twelfth century. According to ibn Sina, juniper produced an effect very similar to a natural miscarriage, and so it could be employed without detection.

Historian John Riddle argues that all women knew which plants inhibited fertility and how to use them effectively. They were under no illusions as to their purpose. Although most of what we know about medieval contraception and abortion does come from medical texts written by men, they would have come by the information from women who were using it on a regular basis.

Morality

In the ancient world and even the early Christian Church, abortion was not considered immoral. Although it is often interpreted differently today, the medieval church followed the guidelines of the Bible in believing that life began at birth (Genesis 2:7). St. Thomas Aquinas argued that souls are created by God, not by man, and that the soul did not enter the body until the infant drew its first breath.

Abortion or “menstrual regulation” was not explicitly mentioned in the Bible except to recommend it in the case of suspected unfaithful wives (Numbers 5:11-31) (3), and whether or not it was immoral in the Middle Ages depended on who was asked.

Burchard of Worms’ Decretum tackled the issue of abortion in the section titled Concerning Women’s Vices. Burchard unequivocally opposed it, but the penance recommended varied. To Burchard, the severity of the sin was not dependent on the act itself, but the status of the woman and the circumstances of conception. The worst crime was that resulting from adultery. For this he orders seven years of abstinence and a lifetime of “tears and humility.” Abortion stemming from fornication was also bad (penance for ten years on fast days), unless the woman was poor or a sex worker (statistically likely). If the woman was poor and acted because she would not be able to feed a child, it was understandable and no penance was prescribed.

Regardless of the Church’s recommendations, abortion was not actually illegal. In fact, the first law that made abortion illegal in the English-speaking world did not come until the Ellenborough Act of 1803, and even that only outlawed abortions obtained by taking “noxious and destructive substances.” It was not until 1869 that the Catholic Church decided that life began at conception.

Conclusions

If there is one thing we should take away from this, it is that when it came to sex, the Middle Ages were not as different from today as we often assume. People married for love, they had sex for fun, and family planning existed and was used more or less effectively. Due to centuries of literature and art portraying the Middle Ages as an idealized time of chastity and moral superiority, we have come to collectively accept a fiction that bears only a passing resemblance to a much more complicated truth.

Through this Contraception in History series, I have tried to show that although reproduction has been the primary purpose of sex throughout history, it was not the only purpose, and people have always found ways to take their reproductive destinies into their own hands.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Brundage, James. Sex and Canon Law. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 33-50.
Burchard of Worms. Decretum (c. 1008).
Burford, EJ. Bawds and Lodgings, a History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100-1675. London, Peter Owen, 1976
Cadden, Joan. Western Medicine and Natural Philosophy. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 51-80.
Capellanus, Andreas. The Art of Courtly Love. Translated by John Jay Parry. New York, Columbia University Press, 1960
Gaddesden, John. Rosa anglica practica medicine. Venice, Bonetus Locatellus, 1516.
Gies, Frances and Joseph. Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages. New York, Harper & Row, 1987
Payer, Pierre J. Confession and the Study of Sex in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 3-32.
Riddle, John M. Contraception and Early Abortion in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 261-274.
Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History. New York, Stein and Day, 1992

1. See The Art of Courtly Love.

2. Fun fact: Nicholas Culpeper claimed that wormwood was the key to understanding his 1651 book The English Physitian. Unlike the rest of the book, the entry for wormwood is a stream-of-consciousness ramble that reads like someone who was ingesting it at the time.

3. It is very possible the bitter waters in this verse refer to wormwood, a notoriously bitter substance known to induce miscarriage.

If you would like to know more about Contraception in History, see below for the rest of the series:

Contraception in History I. Aristotle, Hippocrates, and a Whole Lotta Lead

Contraception in History II. Contraception in Ancient Egypt: Hormonal Birth Control, Pregnancy Tests, and Crocodile Dung. 

Contraception in History III. Ancient Birth Control: Silphium and the Origin of the Heart Shape

Contraception in History IV. Minos, Pasiphae, and the Most Metal Euphemism for V.D. Ever

Contraception in History V. “Love’s Pleasing Paths in Blest Security”: Seventeenth Century Condoms

 

The Joy of Confessing: “Women’s Vices” and Burchard’s Decretum of 1003

Some people think medieval history is boring—all religion, suppression, and marrying for alliances—but we know better, don’t we? Medieval history is a Pandora’s box of surprises, and the deeper you go, the stranger they get. Case in point, penitentials. Yes, I’m going to get into sources here with you for a minute, but bear with me, it’s worth it.

When studying the Middle Ages, the temptation is to stop at Canon Law, that is, the rules and guidelines set by the Church. The mistake is in assuming everyone lived by it; even prominent people within the Church disagreed with each other on many key points, and the laws they reached by consensus were laws for an ideal world where everyone lived perfect Christian lives according to the standard of whichever pope they happened to have at the time. As you can imagine, not everyone lived the way Rome wanted them to. To get a more accurate picture of medieval life, we need to consider other sources like court documents, medical texts, and even popular literature. The source we’re going to be looking at today is a personal favorite of mine: pentitentials.

sex with a dragon

When I get busy with dragons, I never forget my crown

What, pray tell, is a penitential? It’s every bit as exciting as it sounds. Penitentials were confessional literature compiled by monks as guides to the theory and application of confession. Spanning hundreds of pages and multiple volumes, penitentials listed every sin imaginable in separate categories and advised punishments for each. Penitentials are fantastic sources for those studying the Middle Ages, but proceed with caution: while many of the sins do give us a better idea of the ways in which common people could misbehave, it is impossible to say how often some of the sins came up (or how many were products of a bored monk’s imagination. See also marginalia, below).

With that disclaimer firmly in place, we are going to take a look at the Decretum of Burchard of Worms.

Apart from having the best name ever, Burchard served as the bishop of Worms from 1000 until his death in 1025. During his tenure, he wrote his Decretum, a massive twenty-book list of every sin conceivable to the medieval imagination, drawing on a combination of earlier penitentials and things actually heard in confession at that time. Some of the penitentials he used as sources dated back to the seventh century, and this may help to explain some of the stranger sins below.

wolf as monk

A wolf dressed as a monk. Why not?

The nineteenth book of Burchard’s Decretum has a section dealing in sickness of the soul, including magic, divination, and “women’s vices.” It is worth noting that many of the “diabolical practices” mentioned here could be forgiven with a fairly light penance, as opposed to the death sentences handed out like candy four hundred years later with the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum. Many of these are framed as questions a priest would ask his penitent. I have included some of my favorites here, but if you want to read this in its entirety, you can also find it here.

As relevant art from these period is sadly limited, I have added some marginalia to our…erm…margins. Enjoy.

***

“Have you violated a grave, by which I mean, after you see someone buried have you gone at night, broken open the grave, and taken his clothes? If you have, you should do penance for two years on the appointed fast days.”

I mean, not since college. Is that bad?

bunny“Have you refused to attend mass or prayers or to make an offering to a married priest, by which I mean have you not wished to confess your sins to him or receive the Body and Blood of the Lord from him because you thought he was a sinner? If you have done so, you should do penance for one year on the appointed fast days.”

That’s right. Married priest. At this point, priests were still allowed to marry or have concubines. Clerical marriage wasn’t condemned by the pope until Leo IX in 1049, but the ban didn’t take hold until well into the twelfth century after the Lateran councils in 1123 and 1139. The more you know!

“Have you tasted your husband’s semen in order to make his love for you burn greater through your diabolical deeds? If you have, you should do seven years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Okay, oral sex has magical properties. So far, so sensible. What next?

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take their menstrual blood, mix it into food or drink, and give it to their men to eat or drink to make them love them more. If you have done this, you should do five years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

fish

That poor fish.

How’s that for a binding spell? If that doesn’t work:

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a live fish and put it in their vagina, keeping it there for a while until it is dead. Then they cook or roast it and give it to their husbands to eat, doing this in order to make men be more ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Wait, what?

“Have you done what some women are accustomed to do? They lie face down on the ground, uncover their buttocks, and tell someone to make bread on their naked buttocks. When they have cooked it, they give it to their husbands to eat. They do this to make them more ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Bread…on my butt?

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a man’s skull, burn it, and give it to their husbands to drink for health. If you have, you should do one year of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Who hasn’t? Next…

nude knight on a hobby horse

See what happens when you don’t have your burnt skull potion?

“Have you believed what many women turning back to Satan believe and assert to be true: you believe that in the stillness of a quiet night, with you gathered in your bed with your husband lying at your bosom, you are physically able to pass through closed doors and can travel across the span of the earth with others deceived by a similar error? And that you can kill baptized people redeemed by Christ’s blood without using visible weapons and then, after cooking their flesh, can eat it, and put straw, wood, or something like this in place of their hearts, and, though you have eaten them, you can bring them back to life and grant them a stay during which they can live? If you have believed this, you should do penance for forty days (that is, a quarantine) on bread and water with seven years of penance subsequently.”

Do any women believe that? Show of hands, please.

“Have you done what some adulterous women do? As soon as they find out that their lovers wish to take lawful wives, then they use some sort of evil art to extinguish the men’s sexual desire so that they are useless to their wives and unable to have intercourse with them. If you have done this or taught others to, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”

baking magic butt bread

Baking some magic butt bread

Sure. Someone put a “spell” on you. Right.

“Have you done what some women are accustomed to do? They take off their clothes and smear honey all over their naked body. With the honey on their body they roll themselves back and forth over wheat on a sheet spread on the ground. They carefully collect all the grains of wheat sticking to their moist body, put them in a mill, turn the mill in the opposite direction of the sun, grind the wheat into flour, and bake bread from it. Then they serve it to their husbands to eat, who then grow weak and die. If you have, you should do penance for forty days on bread and water.”

Is this a sin or a recipe? And hang on, only forty days for murdering a spouse with magic bread?

Also included under “women’s vices”, for some reason:

“Have you eaten any food from Jews or from other pagans which they prepared for you? If you have, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”

BURCHARD. What. The. Heck? I guess there wasn’t a chapter for xenophobic culinary guidelines.

As batty as these sound, some of them are nevertheless revealing of superstitions and pagan rituals that had survived until the eleventh century through confessional literature, if not in real life. We do need to take these with a pinch of salt, however; while some of them could be indicative of real practice, others are just as likely to have been imagined or embellished by the monks painstakingly copying these manuscripts and doodling madness in the margins.

You can find this section translated here.

Jessica Cale

On The Famous Voyage: Finding London’s Lost River

the fleet by samuel scott

The Fleet River. Samuel Scott, 1750.

London’s major river is, of course, the Thames but, as the capital’s antiquarians will tell you, there are more than a dozen ancient tributaries hidden beneath the surface of the modern metropolis. The largest of these smaller rivers is the River Fleet, which flows from the largest stretch of common green in London, at Hampstead Heath, to Blackfriars Bridge, where it enters the Thames. This is a journey, not just from North London to the River, but also through the history of the City from Ancient to Modern times, marking some colourful characters and encompassing some bewildering changes along the way.

Cities are typically built along rivers to provide drinking water, transport, defense, and sewage removal. The Fleet has served all of these functions over London’s long history. As place-names along its banks (Brideswell, Clerkenwell) suggest, many wells were built along the Fleet in Roman and Saxon times, although, as we shall see, the purity of its waters were not set to be a defining feature as London grew.

The Fleet (‘tidal inlet’ in Anglo-Saxon) initially provided a waterway which served London from the North and, in a later incarnation as the New Canal, was part of the network which brought coal from the North of England to fuel the rapidly industrializing London of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even after the canals were superseded by road and rail and entirely covered over in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the valley carved by the Fleet continued to form the basis for some of London’s modern arteries, such as Farringdon Road and the Metropolitan Railway line (although it resisted having an underground railway line–that which would become the Jubilee Line–lain beneath it by repeatedly flooding tunnels).

Defensively, the Fleet has a rather inglorious history. It is unclear how the Fleet was utilized by the Romans and it seems rarely to have been called upon subsequently. A second century boat carrying ragstone (possibly intended for building the city wall) was discovered in 1962, sunk at the mouth of the river.

Much later, the Fleet’s banks were built up into earthworks during the Civil War, when London was very much a Parliamentarian (‘Roundhead’) stronghold. The Royalist armies, however, never threatened the capital, with Charles II’s return to the City being by invitation rather than by conquest. During one of the great crises of the restored king’s reign in 1666, desperate Londoners were hopeful that the Fleet would provide an effective break against the Great Fire as it reached its third day. Here the Fleet proved as ineffective as the civic defenses and the Fire jumped the Fleet ditch, ultimately allowing it to claim St Paul’s Cathedral.

Of course, the most serious modern military threat to London came from the air in the form of the Luftwaffe. The old river beneath Fleet Street could offer no protection when Serjeant’s Inn, one of the oldest legal precincts in England, was destroyed during the Blitz.

It is with the removal of sewage and other waste, or at least with its failure to do so effectively, with which the Fleet is most famously associated. As London grew, the Fleet increasingly became a repository for whatever the city’s inhabitants wanted to get rid of. The medieval meat markets which grew up to feed the expanding population soon became problematic and in 1290 the Carmelite monks complained that the offal deposited in the river by butchers at a nearby market (the delightfully-named Shambles, at Newgate) was constantly blocking what was, at this point, a stream.

Copperplate_map_Fleet

The southern end of the Fleet, 1550s.

Although all manner of industries poured waste into the Fleet, it was the offal and dead animals in various forms which seemed to catch the imagination of early modern satirists of the capital. Ben Jonson’s (c. 1612) mock-epic poem which lends its title to this article was a litany of classical references intertwined with toilet humour and social satire and described the diverse pollutants of the river with considerable gusto:

Your Fleet Lane Furies; and hot cooks do dwell,
That, with still-scalding steams, make the place hell.
The sinks ran grease, and hair of measled hogs,
The heads, houghs, entrails, and the hides of dogs:
For, to say truth, what scullion is so nasty,
To put the skins, and offal in a pasty?
Cats there lay divers had been flayed and roasted,
And, after mouldy grown, again were toasted,
Then, selling not, a dish was ta’en to mince them,
But still, it seemed, the rankness did convince them.
For, here they were thrown in with the melted pewter,
Yet drowned they not. They had five lives in future.

Jonson’s influence and the continued assault of the Fleet upon the senses continued into the eighteenth century: Jonathan Swift’s “Drown’d Puppies” and “Dead Cats” of 1710’s A Description of a City Shower, floating amongst the offal and turnip-tops, were echoed by Alexander Pope’s “large tribute of dead dogs to the Thames” in 1728’s Dunciad.

The enthusiasm of these men for describing the sewage, of which the Fleet’s waters seemed largely comprised, was hardly less. Jonson’s ‘voyage’ was taken down a river where “Arses were heard to croak, instead of frogs”. His Fleet contained the contents of every ‘night-tub’ from an overcrowded metropolis, where “each privy’s seat/ Is filled with buttock” and the very “walls do sweat Urine”. This state of affairs is compounded by the diet of a city where “every clerk eats artichokes, and peason, Laxative lettuce, and such windy meat”. In 1700, Thomas Brown has his narrator, an ‘Indian’ revealing the strange “Manners, Customs, and Religions” practiced by the various “Nations” of London to his readers, shove an impudent rag-seller into the kennel [1] in the centre of the street with the words:

Tho’ I want nothing out of your Shops, methinks you all want good Manners and Civility, that are ready to tear a New Sute (suit) from my Back, under pretence of selling me an Olde one; Avant Vermin, your Cloaths smell as rankly of Newgate and Tyburn, as the bedding to be sold at the Ditch-side near Fleet-Bridge, smells of Bawdy-House and Brandy.

Brown’s tone is lighthearted and playful, but some of the associations he makes are telling. The visceral nature of these accounts certainly reflected a literal reality but they also had a metaphorical dimension in which it was the excesses and vices of London itself which were clogging up its abused waterways. The writers were playing, not just on the Fleet’s role in waste disposal, but also on the reputation of those who occupied its banks. In Jonathan Swift’s A Description of a City Shower, in particular, a storm washing through London links the different areas and strata of the city together through its flow.

The Fleet flowed past Bridewell and the Fleet prisons and through areas such as Clerkenwell, notorious for sheltering heretics, thieves, and prostitutes from the arms of the law. Here the bodies floating downstream alongside the unfortunate cats and dogs might be human. The industries around the river were messy and disease was known to cling to its slums. The Dunciad plays on the Fleet’s use as an open sewer by having the hack-writers, who are one of the principal subjects of Pope’s ire, swim in it. The implication was as clear as Pope’s Fleet was ‘muddy’. Much later, Charles Dickens’ child-warping pick-pocket, Fagin, would have his den alongside the Fleet.

From the early attempts by the Carmelites to keep the river unblocked to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century attempt to make it serve as a canal, the smell and the constant need for dredging could not be overcome. So impossible was it to contain the flood of effluent that, even after the river was paved over during the later part of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries, the build-up of trapped gas exploded near Blackfriars in 1846, taking out three posthouses and a steamboat in the process. It must have seemed as though the truth would not be hidden beneath the streets. Eventually, however, the Great Stink of 1858 preceded a concerted effort to enclose the city’s sewers and a London more familiar to us today emerged.

Dr. J.V.P. Jenkins is a historian and freelance editor from London. He earned his BA, Master’s, and Doctorate at Swansea University. He is the new co-editor of Dirty, Sexy History and sometimes tweets @JVPolsomJenkins.

Sources

Brown, Thomas. Amusements serious and comical, calculated for the meridian of London (1700)
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist (1839)
Jonson, Ben. On The Famous Voyage (c.1612)
Pope, Alexander. Dunciad (1728)
Swift, Jonathan. A Description of a City Shower (1710)
Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography (Anchor; New York, 2003)
Brown, Laura. Fables of Modernity: Literature and Culture in the English Eighteenth Century (Cornell U.P., 2003)
Gray, Robert. A History of London (Taplinger; New York, 1979)

[1] An open gutter, running down the middle of the street. The 1671 Sewage and Paving Act had prescribed moving the kennel from the center of the street to an open side drain set off by a raised pavement. The main thoroughfares were also to be cambered (built up in middle for drainage and paved) but these measures were not instantly applied to all streets.

History Carnival 163: Around the World in Fifteen Blog Posts

cherokee_country_1900

A map of Cherokee country from History Imagined

Good morning, everybody! Today on DSH, we are thrilled to be hosting this month’s History Carnival, a moving showcase of some of the best new history posts from the previous month. We have a lot of great stuff for you from the ancient world to modern Britain, so grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and travel around the world with us in fifteen fascinating history posts.

China

On History in the Margins, Pamela Toler has a timely post about defensive walls in history, in particular, The Great Wall of China. While The Great Wall we know today was mostly constructed by the Ming dynasty in the Middle Ages, the walls’ first defenses were actually erected some fifteen hundred years earlier to keep out “barbarians” from the steppes.

Constantinople

On Military History and Warfare, Alexander Clark has an excellent review of Peter Frankopan’s The First Crusade: The Call from the East. While there are many history books about the Crusades, Frankopan adds to the discussion by considering the Byzantine perspective through analysis of Anna Komnene’s The Alexiad, a history of Alexios’ reign through the eyes of his daughter. The review is an informative history post in itself, and I will be adding both Frankopan’s book and Military History and Warfare to my reading list.

England

Theresa Phipps has a fantastic post on law as it was applied to violent women in medieval England on The Dangerous Women Project. While it is still surprisingly difficult to find solid resources on the legal status of women in the Middle Ages, Phipps uses primary legal documents and court records to examine specific cases of women misbehaving and explains why women were viewed as particularly dangerous. “Law, Violence, and ‘Dangerous Women.’”

In “The Otherness of Now: Contemporary History via Berger & Sontag,” George Campbell Gosling continues the discussion of storytelling and the particular challenges of writing modern and contemporary history started by John Berger and Susan Sontag on Channel 4 in 1983. Where do we as historians start, if we don’t know how the story ends? How do we analyze events that are still taking place? https://gcgosling.wordpress.com/2017/01/30/berger-sontag/

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Mucha, La Dame aux Camelias (1896)

Berlin

Ever wonder where the SS went for their vacations? No, me either. However, the story of the Wannsee villa is not just a bizarre look at a former Nazi holiday resort. The history of the villa is also intertwined with the fortunes of the Nazi party, from failed Putsch, to Final Solution, to Holocaust museum and archive. Sometimes walls can talk… The Wannsee Conference on Art and Architecture, Mainly

Paris & Prague

Brand new art blog Vermillion Goldfish made a splash (sorry) this month with its first post, an in-depth look at In Quest of Beauty, the latest exhibition of Alphonse Mucha’s work that explores the theory of beauty that inspired the artist’s iconic portraits that still grace stationary and paper the walls of dorm rooms the world over. So much more than a teaser, this post offers valuable insight into Mucha’s work and explains his personal perception of beauty. We may associate his models with theatrical costumes and gravity-defying hair, but for Mucha, beauty was all about idealized femininity and serenity of expression.

Spain

J.K. Knauss stopped by Unusual Historicals with the story of Maria de Padilla, the mistress of King Pedro of Castile. While Pedro was obliged to marry for political advantage, Maria was the love of his life. Often overlooked by historians due to her (ahem) position as mistress, Maria gave Pedro four children during his two failed marriages and spent her time founding convents and monasteries before she died of plague at the ripe old age of twenty-seven.

Malta

Catherine Kullman looks at the extraordinary notebook of British naval Commander Charles Haultain R.N. on My Scrap Album. Over a twelve year period, Haultain filled the book with newspaper clippings, pop up pictures, poetry, and personal stories of his adventures in the Mediterranean from ages twenty-four to thirty-six, such as the time he thought he found the grave of Hannibal in Malta…

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Psyche at Venus’ feet from “Love is a Monster”

Rome

Zenobia Neil guests on Writing the Past with “Love is a Monster,” a delightful post about love in the ancient world. Love in Rome was anything but romantic, where marriages were made and ended for the sake of political alliance and love was a debilitating madness. She uses the story of Cupid and Psyche from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass to argue that the dual love/fury aspects of Venus were effectively the same thing to a society that did not view love as a benevolent force, but rightly feared its potentially devastating power.

Sardinia…and Cherokee Country

On History Imagined, Caroline Warfield traces the Jacobite succession following Bonnie Prince Charlie to the House of Savoy in Sardinia. On the same blog, Linda Bennett Pennell writes about the daily lives of the Cherokee during the colonization of the United States in “When Being Civilized Was Not Enough.” History Imagined has years’ worth of fascinating social history archives and it’s well worth having a browse.

New York

If you’re out and about in upstate New York, you might consider stopping by Johnson Hall State Historic Site in Johnstown. Chris Clemens has an interesting post on Exploring Upstate about Sir William Johnson’s life from his position as British Superintendent of Indian Affairs and his relations with the Mohawk tribe (he learned their language and married a Mohawk woman) to his being awarded a baronetcy and constructing Johnson Hall. Lots of great photos of a lovingly preserved Colonial mansion.

Chicago

Michelle Cox is writing the history of Chicago, one person at a time. Her latest post, “I Wanted to Be With People,” tells the life story of Erna (Hager) Lindner, an Austrian woman who immigrated to Chicago in 1925 at the age of nineteen. Erna moved to America on her own in pursuit of a boy from her church she had fallen in love with; three months after arriving in Chicago, she found him and married him. Michelle Cox’s blog is packed with compelling stories of the everyday people that make up Chicago’s colorful past and is a goldmine for anyone interested in early twentieth century social history, and may also be useful for those tracing their family history through Chicago. elizabeth_russell

Just for Fun

Anna Castle takes a look at the postures of monarchs throughout history from an ergonomic perspective in “How to Sit on a Throne.” See right, Elizabeth Russell looks a bit too comfortable with that footstool she has found…

“A Cesspool in the Palace”: Prostitution and the Church in Medieval Southwark

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London Bridge, from Southwark facing north. Southwark Cathedral is in the foreground. Claes Van Visscher, 1616.

Prostitution flourished in medieval London, and in the 12th century, Southwark became the city’s official red light district by order of Henry II. His ‘Ordinances touching the gouerment of the stewhoulders in Southwarke under the direction of the Bishop of Winchester’ (1161) gave control of the Southwark brothels to the ecclesiastical authorities, which would allow the church to draw untold sums of money from them through the sale of licenses. At the time of the ordinance, there were eighteen licensed brothels in Bankside employing about a thousand prostitutes at any one time. As a result of the church taking control, most of London’s churches built during this period were largely financed by prostitution.

Why Southwark? By the 12th century, Southwark had already been a hot spot for prostitution since the Romans built the first known brothel in England at what was then an obscure military outpost. Southwark itself grew out of a brothel. More than that, Southwark had been a privileged borough for most of its history, its many churches creating a place of asylum that extended to protecting criminals and prostitutes from the full extent of the law. Southwark served as a “bastard sanctuary,” offering a kind of asylum to those rejected by society: prostitutes, criminals, lepers, and the poor lived among brothels, jails, rubbish tips, and the smellier trades, just far enough away from London that they could not be seen without a boat ride or a long walk across London Bridge.

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The Last Hour. Florence Harrison.

While the church officially condemned prostitution and sexual promiscuity, they had no reservations about profiting from it. St. Thomas Aquinas himself compared it to “a cesspool in the palace; take away the cesspool and the palace becomes an unclean evil-smelling place.” Southwark already smelled pretty evil; it was the perfect place for a ‘cesspool.’ Prostitution was accepted as a necessary evil, and from the end of the 12th century onward, regulated to maximize revenue for the church.

As E. J. Burford explains:

“By this act of recognition, the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury gave certain advantages to the licensed brothelkeepers or stewholders. It was much easier for them to carry on business in a protected premises in a protected area. The regulations and penalties, although set out in great detail and with seemingly terrifying (or at least terrifyingly expensive) punishments, were of little practical consequence. Most infractions would be hard to prove, and all could be nullified with a little judicious bribery.”

Brothels or “stews” had been traditionally run by bawds, but Henry’s ordinance put their management into the hands of (mostly male) brothelkeepers licensed by the church. Single women were not allowed to own brothels with exceptions being made for those who had inherited one from a relative or left one by a husband.

The ordinance was devised both to protect the women employed in the sex trade and to limit certain behaviors. One of these protections was freedom from accusations of consorting with the devil. It sounds obvious to us (and convenient for them), but at the time, witchcraft and prostitution had been almost synonymous in the public mind since King Edward the Elder linked them in the 10th century.

Prostitutes were no longer individually licensed as they had been in Roman times and did not have to wear special clothing to set themselves apart. They could not be bound to or enslaved by bawds or brothelkeepers, with limits placed on how much they were allowed to borrow from their employers at any one time (six shillings and eightpence) to prevent them from being imprisoned for debt or obliged to remain in the employ of their moneylender.

Brothels became boarding houses that rented rooms to prostitutes without board. Like the provisions preventing women from borrowing large sums of money from the brothelkeepers, this was designed to protect them from those looking to take advantage of them through inflated food prices, keeping them in poverty and confined to the precinct where they worked. Brothels were closed on holy days to encourage the women to attend services. They were refused Christian burial, but could still receive Holy Communion.

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“No grabbing!”

In return for these protections, prostitutes were ordered to refrain from aggressive soliciting on penalty of imprisonment. They were not allowed to grab or call out to potential customers, or curse or throw rocks at them if refused or cheated. As Burford puts it, Southwark “was a dockside area with dockside manners” and prostitutes were known not only to throw stones but chamber pots at any customers who thought to make a run for it without paying their fee.

Quarterly inspections were ordered to ensure no women were working unwillingly and to reduce the spread of venereal disease. Gonorrhea and “burning sickness” (likely chlamydia) were common and even expected; those found to be infected were fined twenty shillings and sacked. Symptoms were treated by washing in white wine, animal piss, or a mixture of vinegar and water. Many cases of gonorrhea are asymptomatic in women, so it would have been impossible to remove all infected parties, as evidenced by the epidemic of 1160.

In his Compendium Medicine (1190), physician Gilbert Anglicus described another kind of sexually transmitted disease resembling leprosy. If what he saw was syphilis, this would have been one of the earliest documented cases of it in Europe, three hundred years before Columbus is thought to have brought it back with him from the Americas.

Bizarrely, the harshest punishment was reserved for prostitutes who had lovers on the side. Men were permitted to whore out their wives and married women could sell themselves to their hearts’ delight, but any prostitute discovered to have a lover not paying for her services would be fined six shillings and eightpence, imprisoned for three weeks, and subjected to the humiliating punishment of the cucking stool – being tied to a chair and publically immersed in filth. Naturally the woman’s lover would not receive any punishment for his involvement with her; the rule would seem to have been in place to maximize profits while cutting down on her leisure activities.

Another interesting rule is that for the last customer of the day, once the woman had taken his money, she was obliged to lay with him all night. Brothelkeepers were prohibited from keeping boats and the boatmen that worked the Thames were not allowed to moor their boats on the south side of the river after dark. Once customers were in Southwark for the night, there was no leaving until morning. Burford suggests the reasoning for this is that political plotters or criminals were easier to monitor with reduced traffic on the river. Anyone needing to cross would have to go via London Bridge and they would be seen on the way.

While the Bankside brothels flourished with Henry II’s statues, Southwark’s reputation for vice was cemented when Edward I cracked down on those he deemed undesirable* a century later. He believed that these “women of evil life” attracted criminals, so prostitutes were no longer allowed within the city of London at all. Any woman found breaking this rule was subject to forty days in prison. This effectively forced any and all prostitutes well south of the river where they would stay for centuries. Although Covent Garden became something of a red light district with Harris’ List in the 18th century, the vast majority of London’s prostitutes lived south of the river through the 19th century.

Jessica Cale

* Prostitutes, Jews, the Welsh, the Scottish…how long have you got?

Further reading
Arnold, Catharine. The Sexual History of London. St. Martin’s Press, 2012.
Burford, E.J. Bawds and Lodgings: A History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100-1675. Peter Owen, 1976.