Testing Witches with Water

There is an old story about how medieval people used to test whether or not someone was a witch, and it goes like this: Throw them in a pond. If they sink into the water and drown, that means they weren’t a witch. If they float, that means they are a witch, so you haul them out and burn them to death. Either way, just getting accused of witchcraft was a death sentence, but medieval people were too dumb to realize it.

This story is wrong. It was popularized by Victorian writers who spread many false stories depicting people of the European middle ages as ignorant, illogical, and stupid. At best, we might attribute this story to the intellectual laziness of Victorians who didn’t bother to distinguish between the use of ducking victims in water as punishment or torture and the use of immersion in water to test those accused of witchcraft or other crimes. At worst, we can see it as part of a concerted effort by Protestant English and American writers to paint contemporary Catholics as the benighted heirs to an age of barbarity and unreason. The truth about testing witches in water is more complicated, though in some ways even worse.

Here’s how the water test actually worked. In some places, a person accused of witchcraft, heresy, or a variety of other offenses was lowered into a small body of water like a pond or a still river, generally with a rope tied around their waist or something similar for lifting them out again. They were allowed to float for a moment and a jury selected from the surrounding community (or sometimes a priest) observed whether their body seemed to float on the surface or sink into the water. It was believed in some places and times that water would reject an unholy person, so their body would float high, while a blameless person would sink into the water. Once the jury had had a chance to observe the result, the accused was pulled out again and the jury gave its judgment.

No one was supposed to drown, neither the innocent nor the guilty. They were not left in the water for long, and whatever device was used to lower them in could quickly pull them up again. No doubt there were sometimes mishaps, as there can be whenever people are around the water, but being cleared of suspicion did not require drowning.

Trial by ordeal, which included not only the water test but other tests including carrying heavy stones or hot metal, reaching into a boiling cauldron, and similar challenges to physical endurance, was common in the legal traditions of some peoples in early medieval Europe. Such tests were an attempt to create objective tests for complicated questions about an accused person’s character, morals, and other hard-to-quantify qualities.

Trials by ordeal largely disappeared from European custom by the thirteenth century, but there was a revival during the witch-hunting hysteria of the early modern period when variations of the trial by water were used along with other methods of torture to extract false confessions from victims. In those cases the accusation alone was, for most people, a death sentence, since the point of the various “tests” was to compel a confession, not to arrive at a judgment.

The important element in a trial by ordeal is the community jury. Someone had to judge whether the accused was floating or not, which is not as obvious as it may sound. Human bodies are naturally buoyant, but not so much as to float on top of the water like a pool noodle. In the water, everyone kind of floats, and everyone kind of sinks. Distinguishing between how much floating is enough and how much is too much is no simple task. Those who were called for the jury were typically members of the accused’s village, extended family, or social network. They did not go into the test with an unbiased opinion but took with them all their knowledge, history, and feelings about the accused.

The floating ordeal gave the jury an objective external event to lodge those existing prejudices in. Those who went in with a poor opinion of the accused were likely to think that they floated too much, while those who went in well-disposed to the accused were likely to think they had adequately sunk into the water. Attaching those preexisting prejudices to an external event like the water test allowed the members of the jury to treat those prejudices as if they were objective facts and condemn or exonerate the accused with a clear conscience, as they own leanings dictated.

It is this fact about trials by ordeal that makes them, in some ways, even more horrible than the foolish heads-you-drown/tails-you-burn legend. If you were condemned by the water test it didn’t mean you just randomly floated too much. It meant that your own neighbors hated you so much they wanted to see you dead, they just didn’t feel comfortable saying so until the trial gave them permission to.

Image: Illustration of a trail by water via Wikimedia (late 12th c.; manuscript illustration)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Quotes: The Templars, Who Were My Friends

The following story is related by Usamah Ibn Munqidh, a twelfth-century Muslim writer who lived during the time of the early Crusades, about his interactions with some of the Knights Templar who occupied Jerusalem in his day.

Whenever I visited Jerusalem I always entered the Aqsa Mosque, beside which stood a small mosque, which the Franks had converted into a church. When I used to enter the Aqsa Mosque, which was occupied by the Templars, who were my friends, the Templars would evacuate the little adjoining moseque so that I might pray in it.

One day I entered this mosque, repeated the first formula, “Allah is great,” and stood up in the act of praying. Then one of the Franks rushed to me, got hold of me and turned my face eastward, saying, ‘This is the way you should pray!’

The Templars came up to him and expelled him. They apologized to me, saying, ‘This is a stranger who has only recently arrived from the land of Franks and he has never before seen anyone praying except eastward.’

– Usamah Ibn Munqidh, Autobiography

 

Ibn Munqidh’s experience is certainly not typical of Christian-Muslim relations in the Crusade period, but it is a useful illustration of the kinds of friendly and respectful relationships that could be forged between individuals of different backgrounds, even in times of war.

From another point of view, it is useful to note that the Templars were effectively enforcing an anti-harassment policy on their own members. If a militant religious order in a war zone could do that, then there’s no excuse for modern fan conventions not doing the same.

Translation from Philip K. Hitti, An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000, 160.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Building a Castle From the Ground Up

An unusual and ambitious project in experimental archaeology has been under way in France since 1997 and will soon reach completion: the construction of a castle entirely using the technology and techniques available in the thirteenth century.

Castle Guédelon is an attempt to recreate the work of medieval castle construction from the quarrying of stone and cutting of timber to the finishing of the completed structure. The construction materials come from local sources and are brought to the site using only the technology available in the thirteenth century where they are assembled according to plans for a typical small French castle of the period. Laborers on the site even wear recreations of period clothes for a fuller immersion in the historical realities of building.

A full fictional backstory has been created for this castle, conceiving it as the home of a local minor noble. Work is imagined to have begun in 1229, and this imaginary timeline helps guide the details of the plan and its construction. The project is expected to be complete in 2020 (or 1252, in the castle’s imaginary timeline).

The site is open to the public. Revenue from visitors helps finance the construction project. This is an extraordinary piece of experimental archaeology with the potential to provide valuable insights into the practical realities of large building projects in the pre-modern world.

Images: Towers and wall under construction, photograph by Christophe.Finot via Wikimedia. Great hall near completion, photograph by Paul Hermans via Wikimedia. Blacksmith at work, photograph by Francois de Dijon via Wikimedia.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Medieval Realism: Holding a Distaff Under One Arm While Feeding Chickens

As usual, some days ago while doing something quite different I found an intriguing detail I wanted to look into. Finally I had the time to chase it down.

So: I was struck by this scene from an English illuminated manuscript.

British Library Add MS 42130 f166v Feeding Chickens
Add MS 42130, f.166v via British Library (England; 1325-1340; illuminated manuscript)

The way the woman in the image is holding a distaff under one arm while she feeds chickens from a bowl feels incredibly authentic. I may not have to spin my own yarn nor feed chickens in 2018, but I have often held a thing under my arm momentarily while taking care of a small, short task. Such a lovely, realistic detail.

I do have one question for the artist, though: what on earth is that chick doing, standing on top of the hen and pecking her? (“Mom, look, I’m up here! Mom? Mom? Mooom!”) LOL!

The manuscript is from England and known as The Luttrell Psalter. Fortunately for us, British Library has digitized the whole manuscript. In addition to the chicken-feeding one above, the illuminations include a slew of other everyday scenes, like a miller in his windmill, bear-baiting(!), a wattle pen full of sheep, and various stages of tending fields and preparing food.

Being a textile nerd, I enjoyed the image of two women preparing fibers into yarn: one is using a spinning wheel, the other is carding.

British Library Add MS 42130 f193r Spinning Carding
Add MS 42130, f.193r via British Library (England; 1325-1340; illuminated manuscript)

The coloring is quite lovely. I do wonder, however, what’s with the awkward poses. The chicken-feeding image felt much more natural in that respect, too.

Images via British Library

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Stockholm University: Research Reveals Half of Viking Age Sigtuna Residents Were Immigrants

I’ve been meaning to share this for a while now, but something or other was always supposedly more important or interesting. No more! 🙂

The Viking Age Sigtuna, Sweden, was formally founded around 980 AD, and it was a much more cosmopolitan city than thought before. According to new DNA analysis, approximately half of city’s population were immigrants.

Flickr Guillen Perez Sigtuna Viking Rune Stone

The study looked at the remnants of 38 individuals who lived and died in Sigtuna between the 900s and 1100s CE, and included other scientific approaches as well (like analysing the strontium isotope contents of the residents’ teeth).

Roughly half of the population grew up in the near-by region Mälardalen (the Mälaren Valley, or Stockholm-Mälaren Region). The other half arrived either from southern Scandinavia (including Norway and Denmark) or further away. The long-distance immigrants came from the British Isles, Ukraine, Lithuania, northern Germany, and other parts of central Europe, and were more likely to be women than men (approx. 70 percent of women vs. 44 percent of the men).

Read more on the Stockholm University research news page: article in Swedish / article in English.

I guess I’m by far not the first woman to fall in love with a Viking and to move far away with him. 🙂

Found via Yle uutiset.

Image: section of a Viking rune stone from Sigtuna by Guillén Pérez on Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Two Black Amazons from 1400s

Oh, goodness! An illumination from a 15th-century French manuscript shows two black Amazons. Have a look:

Le secret de l'histoire naturelle fol 2r Cropped
Le secret de l’histoire naturelle, France, ca. 1480-1485, BnF, Français 22971, fol. 2r; via discarding images on Tumblr.

This image has clearly been cropped and edited. My source, discarding images on Tumblr, says the two women are Amazons but gives no more details.

Being an early history nerd, I did some additional digging. Below is the whole page via Gallica, the digital library for the national library of France (Bibliothèque nationale de France, or BnF).

Le secret de l'histoire naturelle fol 2r Full Page
Le secret de l’histoire naturelle, France, ca. 1480-1485, BnF, Français 22971, fol. 2r.

The full title of the manuscript is Le secret de l’histoire naturelle contenant les merveilles et choses mémorables du monde. It was created between 1401-1500, and is currently stored at BnF. The illumination comes from the first part of the book, which presents the great countries and the great provinces of the old world.

Unfortunately, my French isn’t good enough anymore to be confident in my reading; I can understand a word here and there, but not the whole. However, it does look like the first word below the illumination is Amazon.

I’ve cropped into a separate image the bottom left corner of the illumination with the text following immediately after it:

Le secret de l'histoire naturelle fol 2r Amazons
Le secret de l’histoire naturelle, France, ca. 1480-1485, BnF, Français 22971, fol. 2r; cropped.

I just cannot make out the full spelling of the first word due to the ligatures that squish up the last two or three letters. It definitely looks like it’s inflected, though. The sequence ma definitely follows the capital A, with most likely a z and o further along.

It also looks there’s a sigil marking an abbreviation on top of the o, which was very common in handwritten Medieval documents to mark inflectional endings, among others. (Unless it’s a diacritic like in modern French – were they even used in Medieval French? If so, maybe Amazonye? Amazònye? Amazónye?? Amazônye???)

Anyway, it seems that Amazons are indeed talked about on the same page. The larger block of text above the illumination mentions the word affricà, too. (Again, not sure whether that’s a sigil or diacritic on the final a.)

In any case, if the two women aren’t Amazons, at the very least they are heralds of some sort leading a column of warriors. The image details, like the mi-parti dresses, are really neat, too.

Found via MedievalPOC on Tumblr.

And speaking of MedievalPOC, I’ve found it a truly valuable source for types of art imagery that’s not usually included in the canon from the Middle Ages onwards. The site is sometimes a little too interesting: on several occasions, I’ve spent much longer than intended there, happily chasing intriguing details down the rabbit hole. If you’ve got the time to spare, I wholeheartedly recommend it. 🙂

P.S. You can also follow MedievalPOC on Twitter. Happy browsing!

Crossposted from the Playfully Grownup Home blog.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

 

Medieval Fantasy City Generator

Creating medieval(esque) city maps just got a lot easier: Oleg Dolya (watabou) made an automated generator to do it.

Medieval Fantasy City Generator Small

Choose size of city with the click of a button, and color scheme and line or shading types from the options. You can export the image either as png or svg. Unfortunately the ward names (temple, merchant, crafts, etc.) aren’t saved on the exported map, though.

Watabou also built a 3d-visualiser to support Medieval Fantasy City Generator called Toy Town. Although I haven’t played with that, it sounds like both should be a great help to storytellers—unless you enjoy the process with paper and pen, of course!

Found via N.K. Jemisin on Twitter.

Image: screenshot from a map created by Eppu Jensen with Medieval Fantasy City Generator by watabou

In Making Stuff occasional feature, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.

Global Medieval Sourcebook Brings More Manuscripts Online

Stanford University’s Global Medieval Sourcebook (GMS) now brings English versions of previously untranslated Middle Ages literature to everyone’s fingertips for free.

Global Medieval Sourcebook The Gosling

The open access, open source teaching and research tool offers manipulable scans of the manuscripts alongside transcribed texts in their original language and in new English translations. Also a brief introduction for each text is included, providing a commentary on the text’s cultural context and transmission history, its content, and the scholarly conversation around it.

The texts come from Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia between the years 600 and 1600. The current selection of languages is impressive: Old and Middle High German, Middle Low German, Medieval Dutch, Old and Middle French, Old and Middle English, Medieval Italian, Medieval Latin, Old Spanish (including Aljamiado), Medieval Hungarian, Chinese, Arabic, and Persian.

Texts are searchable by genre, author, period, language, and keyword. The GMS also includes a few audio files of specialists reading the texts in their original language.

Sounds like a fascinating resource! I’m especially intrigued by the audio files, since that’s not a typical resource in medieval text databases. Stanford seems just to be getting started, however, since at this writing only some dozen or so texts are included in the sourcebook. I also encountered some glitches, hopefully to be fixed shortly.

Image: The Gosling / daz genselin from British Library MS Harley 4399 f.37 via Global Medieval Sourcebook / Stanford University (Middle High German, c. 13th, illuminated manuscript)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna

Medieval Advice: No One on Their Right Mind Should Sleep Lying on Their Back

Advice books are nothing new. Here’s an example from late Medieval Europe:

“Those who have weak stomachs should sleep face down, for it will aid digestion and will not allow phlegm to accumulate through the increase of natural heat which stiffens the harmful humors. Moreover, it is extremely helpful to sleep at first on the right side, then on the left. No one on their right mind should sleep lying on their back.”

– Bartolomeo Platina, De honesta voluptate et valetudine (c. 1474)

(Translation by Erik Jensen)

Screencap Lancelot-Grail BLib Add MS 10293 f283r

This rather strongly worded hint is found in a Latin-language cookbook De honesta voluptate et valetudine by Bartolomeo Sacci (1421-1481; better known as Platina). Platina’s work was published c. 1474, and is often called the world’s oldest printed cookbook. It’s more than a collection of recipes, however; it also included his reflections on health, healthy habits, and physical activity, for instance.

A scanned version in Latin (with full record) is available through the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.

As a side-sleeper, I (very non-seriously!) agree that sleeping on your back can’t be good for you. All of those wicked humors must then be free to wander around your body, you know… 😉

Image: Lancelot-Grail (The Prose Vulgate Cycle), Lancelot sleeping in a pavilion having killed the owner who lies outside, screencap of Add MS 10293, folio 283r via British Library (northern France; early 14th c.; illustration on parchment)

Some things are just too silly not to share!

Temporary Exhibition: a Viking Age Village in Finland

The Viking age apparently is a bit of a thing in the Nordic countries this year: in addition the brand new museum in Stockholm, Vapriikki museum centre in Tampere will host an exhibition on Viking-age life in Finland starting this summer.

The exhibit covers village life in 1017. It’s based on the discovery of and archaeological finds from a whole Viking-age village called Tursiannotko in Pirkkala at the shores of lake Pyhäjärvi.

Birckala 1017 runs from June 09, 2017 to August 19, 2018. The exhibit description (from their 2017 brochure) reads:

“It was the time of the Vikings. In the village of Tursia, people cultivated the land, traded, made sacrifices to the gods, and ate large amounts of pork. Both the Vikings and the Novgorodians sought the riches of the Häme wilderness; however, one small village of indomitable Häme folk still held out against the enemy…

“To celebrate the centennial of Finnish independence, the Birckala 1017 exhibition allows visitors to travel through time and visit a village in Northern Häme a millennium ago. You will get to know smithing skills, about cooking outdoors, and the principles that guided life for the Finns of the past […]”

On display will be, for example, bone arrowheads, decorated spoons, beads, tools, and a sword dated to 1050-1200 and its replica. Many items are being shown to the public for the first time.

Yle Birckala 1017 Swords

Apart from the exhibit indoors, a yard with replicas (and non-replica sheep!) is available for trying out some of the iron age skills.

Yle Birckala 1017 Tursiannotko Cottage

Vapriikki in housed in an old factory hall whose oldest parts date back to the 1880s. All the exhibits are covered by a single entry ticket. More info on the Vapriikki website.

Images: Swords by Antti Eintola / Yle; Cottage interior by Jussi Mansikka / Yle