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Monday, March 27, 2006

Arab Chronicle of Crusades

Ibn Al-Athir, from The Perfect History
Ibn Al-Athir (1160–1233) wrote a history of the Moslem world from its beginnings to 1231. His is the most authoritative account, from the Moslem point of view, of the first three crusades. He was an eyewitness to the Third Crusade.

[The Franks Conquer Jerusalem] >> note 1
After their vain attempt to take Acre by siege, the Franks moved on to Jerusalem and besieged it for more than six weeks. They built two towers, one of which, near Sion, the Muslims burnt down, killing everyone inside it. It had scarcely ceased to burn before a messenger arrived to ask for help and to bring the news that the other side of the city had fallen. In fact Jerusalem was taken from the north on the morning of Friday 22 sha'ban 492/15 July 1099. The population was put to the sword by the Franks, who pillaged the area for a week. A band of Muslims barricaded themselves into the Tower of David and fought on for several days. They were granted their lives in return for surrendering. The Franks honoured their word, and the group left by night for Ascalon. In the Masjid al-Aqsa [mosque near the summit of the city] the Franks slaughtered more than 70,000 people, among them a large number of Imams and Muslim scholars, devout and ascetic men who had left their homelands to live lives of pious seclusion in the Holy Place. The Franks stripped the Dome of the Rock >>

note 2 of more than forty silver candelabra, each of them weighing 3,600 drams, and a great silver lamp weighing forty-four Syrian pounds, as well as a hundred and fifty smaller silver candelabra and more than twenty gold ones, and a great deal more booty. Refugees from Syria reached Baghdad in ramadan, among them the qadi Abu l-Muzaffar al-Harawi. They told the Caliph's ministers a story that wrung their hearts and brought tears to their eyes. On Friday they went to the Cathedral Mosque and begged for help, weeping so that their hearers wept with them as they described the sufferings of the Muslims in that Holy City: the men killed, the women and children taken prisoner, the homes pillaged. Because of the terrible hardships they had suffered, they were allowed to break the fast.
* * *
It was the discord between the Muslim princes * * * that enabled the Franks to overrun the country. Abu l-Musaffar al Abiwardi >> note 3 composed several poems on this subject, in one of which he says: -->

We have mingled blood with flowing tears, and there is no room left for pity.To shed tears is a man's worst weapon when the swords stir up the embers of war.Sons of Islam, behind you are battles in which heads rolled at your feet.Dare you slumber in the blessed shade of safety, where life is soft as an orchard flower?How can the eye sleep between the lids at a time of disasters that would waken any sleeper?While your Syrian brothers can only sleep on the backs of their chargers or in vultures' bellies!Must the foreigners feed on our ignominy, while you trail behind the train of a pleasant life, like men whose world is at peace?When blood has been spilt, when sweet girls must for shame hide their lovely faces in their hands!When the white swords' points are red with blood, and the iron of the brown lances is stained with gore!At the sound of sword hammering on lance young children's hair turns white.This is war, and the infidel's sword is naked in his hand, ready to be sheathed in men's necks and skulls.This is war, and he who lies in the tomb at Medina >> note 4 seems to raise his voice and cry: "O sons of Hashim!I see my people slow to raise the lance against the enemy:I see the Faith resting on feeble pillars.For fear of death the Muslims are evading the fire of battle, refusing to believe that death will surely strike them."Must the Arab champions then suffer with resignation, while the gallant Persians shut their eyes to their dishonour?

Count Steven of Blois to his wife Adele

Many letters relative to the crusades have been preserved. Undoubtedly, the most valuable are those which were written by eye-witnesses of the events recorded, and which have come down to us in epistolary form. "These are in general the most precious documents for the history of the crusades. For in their day they played the part of the dispatches and military bulletins of our day, and they transmit to us faithfully the impression which the events themselves made upon those who had taken part in them." Of these a few have been selected for translation here. All but two were written by persons high in rank, and all furnish information which cannot be obtained, with equal accuracy, elsewhere. The selection of letters has been controlled to some extent by the fact that adequate translations of some of the most important already exist in English.

The third letter was probably the most widely read of all those written about the first crusade. It has been regarded with great suspicion, but is now recognized as genuine. Several versions have been preserved. Another translation can be found in Michaud's History of the Crusades (London, 1852), Vol. III, p. 362 ff.
Count Stephen to Adele, his sweetest and most amiable wife, to his dear children, and to all his vassals of all ranks--his greeting and blessing.

You may be very sure, dearest, that the messenger whom I sent to give you pleasure, left me be before Antioch safe and unharmed, and through God's grace in the greatest prosperity. And already at that time, together with all the chosen army of Christ, endowed with great valor by Him, we had been continuously advancing for twenty-three weeks toward the home of our Lord Jesus. You may know for certain, my beloved, that of gold, silver and many other kind of riches I now have twice as much your love had assigned to me when I left you. For all our princes with the common consent of the whole army, against my own wishes, have made me up to the present time the leader, chief and director of their whole expedition.

You have certainly heard that after the capture of the city of Nicaea we fought a great battle with the Turks and by God's aid conquered them. Next we conquered for the Lord all Romania. And we learned that there was a certain Turkish prince Assam, dwelling in Cappadocia; thither we directed our course. All his castles we conquered by force and compelled him to flee to a certain very strong castle situated on a high rock. We also gave the land of that Assam to one of our chiefs and in order that he might conquer the above-mentioned Assam, we left there with him many soldiers of Christ. Thence, continually following the wicked Turks, we drove them through the midst of Armenia, as far as the great river Euphrates. Having left all their baggage and beasts of burden on the bank, they fled across the river into Arabia.

The bolder of the Turkish soldiers, indeed, entering Syria, hastened by forced marches night and day, in order to be able to enter the royal city of Antioch before our approach. The whole army of God learning this gave due praise and thanks to the Lord. Hastening with great joy to the aforesaid chief city of Antioch, we besieged it and very often had many conflicts there with the Turks; and seven times with the citizens of Antioch and with the innumerable troops coming to its aid, whom we rushed to meet, we fought with the fiercest courage, under the leadership of Christ. And in all these seven battles, by the aid of the Lord God, we conquered and most assuredly killed an innumerable host of them. In those battles, indeed, and in very many attacks made upon the city, many of our brethren and followers were killed and their souls were borne to the joys of paradise.

We found the city of Antioch very extensive, fortified with incredible strength and almost impregnable. In addition, more than 5,000 bold Turkish soldiers had entered the city, not counting the Saracens, Publicans, Arabs, Tulitans, Syrians, Armenians and other different races of whom an infinite multitude had gathered together there. In fighting against these enemies of God and of our own we have, by God's grace, endured many sufferings and innumerable evils up to the present time. Many also have already exhausted all their resources in this very holy passion. Very many of our Franks, indeed, would have met a temporal death from starvation, if the clemency of God and our money had not saved them. Before the above-mentioned city of Antioch indeed, throughout the whole winter we suffered for our Lord Christ from excessive cold and enormous torrents of rain. What some say about the impossibility of bearing the heat of the sun throughout Syria is untrue, for the winter there is very similar to our winter in the west.
When truly Caspian [Bagi Seian], the emir of Antioch-that is, prince and lord-perceived that he was hard pressed by us, he sent his son Sensodolo [Chems Eddaulah] by name, to the prince who holds Jerusalem, and to the prince of Calep, Rodoam [Rodoanus], and to Docap [Deccacus Iba Toutousch], prince of Damascus. He also sent into Arabia to Bolianuth and to Carathania to Hamelnuth. These five emirs with 12,000 picked Turkish horsemen suddenly came to aid the inhabitants of Antioch. We, indeed, ignorant of all this, had sent many of our soldiers away to the cities and fortresses. For there are one hundred and sixty-five cities and fortresses throughout Syria which are in our power. But a little before they reached the city, we attacked them at three leagues' distance with 700 soldiers, on a certain plain near the "Iron Bridge." God, however, fought for us, His faithful, against them. For on that (lay, fighting in the strength that God gives, we conquered them and killed an innumerable multitude--God continually fighting for us-and we also carried back to the army more than two hundred of their heads, in order that the people might rejoice on that account. The emperor of Babylon also sent Saracen messengers to our army with letters and through these he established peace and concord with us.
I love to tell you, dearest, what happened to us during Lent. Our princes had caused a fortress to he built before a certain gate which was between our camp and the sea. For the Turks daily issuing from this gate, killed some of our men on their way to the sea. The city of Antioch is about five leagues' distance from the Sea. For this reason they sent the excellent Bohemond and Raymond, count of St. Gilles, to the sea with only sixty horsemen, in order that they might bring mariners to aid in this work. When, however, they were returning to us with those mariners, the Turks collected an army, fell suddenly upon our two leaders and forced them to a perilous In that unexpected flight we lost more than 500 of our foot-soldiers--to the glory of God. Of our horsemen, however, we lost only two, for certain.

On that same day truly, in order to receive our brethren with joy, and ignorant of their misfortunes, we went out to meet them. When, however, we approached the above-mentioned gate of the city, a mob of horsemen and foot-soldiers from Antioch, elated by the victory which they had won, rushed upon us in the same manner. Seeing these, our leaders sent to the camp of the Christians to order all to be ready to follow us into battle. In the meantime our men gathered together and the scattered leaders, namely, Bohemond and Raymond, with the remainder of their army came up and narrated the great misfortune which they had suffered.
Our men, full of fury at these most evil tidings, prepared to die for Christ and, deeply grieved for their brethren, rushed upon the sacrilegious Turks. They, enemies of God and of us, hastily fled before us and attempted to enter their city. But by God's grace the affair turned out very differently: for, when they wanted to cross a bridge built over the great river Moscholum, we followed them closely as possible, killed many before they reached the bridge, forced many into the river, all of whom were killed, and we also slew many upon the bridge and very many at the narrow entrance the gate. I am telling you the truth, my beloved, and you may be very certain that in this battle we killed thirty emirs, that is princes, and three hundred other Turkish nobles, not counting the remaining Turks and pagans. Indeed, the number of Turks and Saracens killed is reckoned at 1,230, but of ours we did not lose a single man.

While on the following day (Easter) my chaplain Alexander was writing this letter in great haste, a party of our men lying in wait for the Turks, fought a successful battle with them and killed sixty horse-men, whose heads they brought to the army.

These which I write to you, are only a few things, dearest, of the many which we have done, and because I am not able to tell you, dearest, what is in my mind, I charge you to do right, to carefully watch over your land, to do your duty as you ought to your children and your vassals. You will certainly see me just as soon as I possibly return to you.
Farewell.(Before Antioch, March 29,1098)

The First Crusade

The Barbarization of the Northerners as a result of the First Crusade

(Revised version 2002 of paper read at the Fifth International Congress of Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East, Jerusalem 14. July 1999)
Kurt Villads Jensen
I Pope Urban II's sermon
II Response in the North
III Modern Danish historiography

The first crusader to enter the wall of the Holy City of Jerusalem on 15th July nine hundred years ago was not a Dane, nor an Englishman, a Norwegian, or a Scot. Nor was he a Frenchman, although he could easily have been. On the 14th July, Raymond of St. Gilles had had his siege tower pushed to the wall, but the defenders here were too strong and he could not enter. The first one to set foot on the wall became instead a Flemish knight by name of Letold from Tourney, and he was immediately followed by Gottfried of Bouillon and by Tancred. In the forefront of the crusading army in 1099 were Flemish and French and Norman-Italian knights. This is important to keep in mind because what I shall try to argue in this short presentation is that especially the French crusaders have been give far to much prominence in historical literature for political and theological reasons. This does not mean, however, that the French crusaders were of no importance at all or did not participate in the First Crusade, but it simply means that I want here to discuss the role of other participants.

I shall talk first about some of the crusade chronicles till about 1120, second about other evidences for Northern European and Scandinavian participation in the first Crusade; and third about modern Danish historiography and its dependency upon the medieval chroniclers.

I Pope Urban II's sermon

The question is simply: who participated in the First Crusade? The answer to that question was elaborated upon and given different formulation during the first generation of crusading historians. Maybe the earliest chronicle was the anonymous Gesta Francorum, written by a member of the contingent of the Norman ruler Bohemund before 1100. According to him, the crusade began as a major movement in all regions of France, initiated by the sermon of pope Urban II in Clermont. When the words of this sermon spread through the patrias, the duchies and counties, of France, the French began to have crosses sewn on their shoulders and wanted to follow Christ. They formed three major groups taking three different routes to Constantinople and to the Holy Land - and here it becomes complicated as regards terminology. The franci of the chronicle first designates the inhabitants of France, but they then formed three groups consisting of people from France, from Southern France - Raymond of St. Gilles - and of people from Flanders and Southern Italy. The anonymous author here changes the meaning of the word franci to cover not only those from France, but also those following these French. Later in his narrative, the author distinguished between French and for example Normans, so he was, of course, aware of the difference between these groups which must led to the conclusion that the shift in the use of the word franci in the opening chapters is deliberate. It reflects his concept of the crusade as being a French movement, which was joined by Norman and Flemish princes. Other participants are not mentioned in the introduction. This is also the case with the other chroniclers who had participated in the First Crusade themselves or came immediately after the conquest as Fulch of Chartres, Peter Tudebode, and Raymund of Agiler.

Albert of Achen, however, who wrote shortly after the First Crusade, had a considerably broader concept of the crusade. According to him, it began after the sermon of Pope Urban in France where the magnates made a conjuration and swore with their right hand to go on the holy way to the sepulcher of the Lord. In divine confirmation of this oath happened a big earthquake that was nothing but the marching legions form different kingdoms, not only France, but also Lothringen, Germany, England, and Denmark. So although the initiative was originally French, Albert already in his opening chapter emphasizes that the movement from the beginning attracted followers from other countries. Why were these mentioned specifically?
One reason is of course that it is true, that they actually participated. Another and more important is that the whole understanding of the First Crusade must have changed very much after the actual conquest of Jerusalem. Modern crusade historians have argued, that the crusaders had had no plan and no idea about what to do with Jerusalem before the conquest. The factual possession of the Holy City seems to have come as a surprise to the crusaders. And this led to speculations about why the crusaders had succeeded in such a holy expedition, which had never been undertaken by anyone before in history. The answer of contemporaries was that "God wants it", that the crusade was a war of God through all Latin Christians. Theologically speaking, the crusade could not have been a French expedition, but must have been a mass movement including all Christians. This is an important reason why chroniclers began to include more and more people among the participants in the First Crusade.
This is the case in the chronicle of Baldric of Bourgeuil, written 1108. Baldric is much dependant upon the anonymous Gesta Francorum, but his introduction is very different from this work. Baldric begins in high rhetorical style: "Who ever heard about so many princes and dukes and nobles and foot soldiers fighting without a king, without an emperor." This could only be explained by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit who is now introduced as the driving force behind the crusade. Baldric continued that the sermon of Urban had inspired the great princes of France and Flanders to launch the crusade, and that he intends to describe their great deeds later in the chronicle. This is actually also what he does: His story is concerned with the French and Flemish leaders; but before he concentrates upon them, he concludes his introduction by describing, how the rumor of Urban's preaching spread to all Christianity. "It came to England and the other maritime islands separated from France by the abyss of the wave-sounding sea"; it came to Bretagne, to Gascogne, to Galicia in Spain, and it came to the cities of Venice, Genua and Pisa which provided ships for the army. What we see in the introduction of Baldric's is an understanding of the crusade as having a center - in France - but also as being a mass movement including the peoples of the periphery of Christianity - along the shores of Western Europe. This dichotomy between center and periphery is mentioned only by Baldric, it is not explained or analyzed, as it was to be by other historians.

One of these was Guibert of Nogent, who also used the Gesta Francorum extensively, who also wrote around 1108, who also wrote in Northern France as did Baldric, and who should also describe the crusade as both a mass movement and as a specific French expedition. Guibert entitled his work Gesta dei per Francos, The deeds of God by the French, and they are the heroes of his narrative. He sums up neatly in conclusion that the conquest of Jerusalem was not due to military tactic as victories were in Antiquity, but to faith and strength and to French audacity and bravery. But in his introduction, Guibert emphasized how the crusade began as a mass movement without leaders. The crusaders were like grass hoppers that have no king but cover the whole earth with their crowds. When it is cold they do nothing, but when they are warmed by the sun - in this context the sun of justice, they begin to swarm. The exhortation of the pope to go on crusade came to the French people alone; but the heath of the French attracted all other peoples who swarmed towards the French, tried to imitate them and to communicate with them. People came from the remotest confines of the Ocean. You would see groups of Scots coming from their damp and marshy border regions, barelegged and with filthy cloaks, wild and ferocious at home but peaceful elsewhere, carrying their ridiculous old-fashioned weapons in great quantities, but they would give help to the French by their piety and devotion. Guibert himself had heard numbers of men from barbarian peoples who had no known language but could only cross their fingers to show that they were joining the crusade.
What Guibert was doing was not only to operate with a French center and a common Christian periphery of the crusading movement. He also introduced a new distinction between a French center that militarily conquered Jerusalem and a barbarian periphery or a barbarian north that participated and gave spiritual help, but which meant nothing in military terms.
This barbarization of the northerners became a success in the sense, that the distinction of Guibert was taken over and elaborated on by later historians, also those writing outside French territory. Just a single quotation from one of these must suffice. William of Malmesbury wrote around 1120: "Not only the Mediterraneans, but also those on the farest away islands and the barbarian nations were moved by love of God". Fields were left without farmers, houses without inhabitants. The Welsh left their poaching, the Scots their familiarity with flies, the Norwegians their gorging in fish, and the Danes their continuous drinking to participate in the crusade. So the northerners participated, but they were depicted as barbarians.

William of Malmesbury had a scientific explanation for this, which he attributed to Urban II. In the long rendering of the pope's sermon in Clermont, William let the pope say that nations live under different climates. In the south under the burning sun, the peoples are dried out and have little blood, but know a lot. They are wise, but not fighters, as attested by the Turkish tactic of fleeing and avoiding open battles. The Turkish success in Spain ad Northern Africa is caused by their cunningness and their use of poisoned arrows. In the cold north, in contrast, people are remote from the warmth of the sun, they are un-reflective, but fight willingly because they are filled with blood in abundance. "But you - and here Urban is addressing the French audience - you live in the temperate zone, you do not lack prudence, and you have enough blood to show contempt for death and wounds, our are outstanding in both knowledge and strength, you go on this glorious expedition". With William of Malmesbury, the barbarization of the northerners is made not only a question of cultural difference, but also an unavoidable and unchangeable scientific fact.

II Response in the North

Is it true then that the crusading appeal was directed primarily to the nation or the people of the French, as medieval authors claimed more and more insistently throughout the twelfth century.

Maybe not.

A very different picture has been presented recently, by John France and by J. Riley-Smith in his book on the first crusaders. Those responding to pope Urban's sermon were vassals of the pope - vassalli sancti Petri - or they belonged to families with a strong tradition for such vassalage. The personal loyalty towards the pope was the driving force, not the belonging to an ethnic or linguistic group. This is confirmed by the fact that in certain areas, members of one family would go on crusade, while members of the neighboring family would not. A great number of such vassals of St. Peter actually lived in France, but many also lived in the periphery - perhaps more than we can realize now, because the sources from the peripheral countries are much fewer than from France.

One such vassal of St. Peter was the Danish King Sven Estridsen who died 1076. Among his many sons, one was married into the ducal family of Flanders that played a decisive role in the First Crusade. Another son actually participated in the crusade, according to Albert of Achen accompanied by 1500 Danish knights and by his fiancé, the daughter of the Duke of Burgundy. A third son went on a crusade in 1103, but died on his way on Cyprus. A fourth son was engaged in a crusade-like war against Slavs in 1108. One grandson went crusading to the Holy Land in 1101 and was even offered the crown of Jerusalem in 1123, which he prudently refused. Other grandsons and great grandsons took the cross - to the Holy Land or during the twelfth century to the campaigns in the Baltic against Slavs.

These informations can be extracted from brief references in charters or annals or from later sources, but put together they indicate that there must have been a very strong crusading tradition in the Danish royal families and probably also among Danish magnates. One narrative from about 1191 refers to such a tradition, but we have no other sources left to confirm that.
If this claim is true - that Denmark and probably also other countries on the northern periphery were actively engaged in crusading, why do we not know more about it; why has it not become part of our common understanding of crusade history?

One explanation is the very basic that people in the maritime periphery sailed to the Holy Land, they did not walk. In contrast to the French and German crusaders, they would meet few people and would not pass through cities, and their presence would not be noted in the city-annals.

Another reason is the uneven distribution of sources. There are fewer sources left from the North because of an unlucky mixture of Lutheran reformation during which much of the parchment from popish time simply was thrown out, and later, extremely centralized governments that collected all archival material in one place where most of it disappeared if the place burned as happened in Copenhagen in 1728. Also, there are no contemporary great narrative sources from the north that could have described the crusaders' expedition and praised their heroic efforts.

A third reason is, as indicated above, that the crusade historical tradition was formulated in the early twelfth century in Northern France which deliberately distinguished between French, and barbarians of no importance. This explains, I think, why modern crusading historians have paid little attention to the countries in the periphery. It does perhaps also explain, why national historians in e.g. Scandinavian countries to a large extent seem to have neglected crusading history totally. But there are more reasons for this neglect, and I would like, in conclusion, to point to a few of them.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Black Death

By Fritz Gerlich
Posted in Slate's Fray

You learned in school, as I did, that the Black Death, now known as bubonic plague, ravaged Europe in the 14th century, killing a third of its population. You also learned that the people of that time were helpless to contain the spread of the disease because they did not realize that the source of the infection was fleas carried by rats.

This has been, for about a century, the standard view of the greatest natural disaster in history. It has been increasingly questioned during the last 25 years, and I would judge that the critics have the stronger side of the argument.

The critics, whose views are conveniently summarized in Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan's Return of the Black Death, maintain that (1) the Black Death was not bubonic plague, but most likely a viral hemorrhagic diease similar to Ebola, Marburg and similar viral illnesses observed in Africa in this century, and (2) that it was not spread by rats and fleas, but by "droplet" transmission from one person to another--i.e., by coughs and sneezes, possibly by other body fluids as well.

As to the first issue, bubonic plague has been extensively studied in modern times. Its pathogen is the bacterium Yersinia pestis, first identified during an outbreak in India at the end of the 19th century. The plague is unquestionably a serious illness, causing high fever, terrible thirst, and the formation of "buboes," or swollen, painful lymph nodes. Before the advent of antibiotics, it was lethal to about 20% of sufferers. It is easily cured with the right antibiotics.

The "reservoir" of Yersinia, the place in nature that it survives between epidemic outbreaks that kill large numbers of its hosts, is wild rodent populations, many of whom do not seem to be affected by it. The standard theory is that fleas bite infected wild rodents, then are transfered to rodents that interact with people, as on farms or the edges of cities. When the flea bites the "domestic" rodent, it transfers the bacterium to it, thus moving the disease within range of man. Eventually another flea transfers the infection from the domestic rodent to a human victim. If this happens on a large enough scale, an epidemic results.

With this mode of transmission, bubonic plague is not especially contagious between people. Sufferers are typically not quarantined but are treated in open hospital wards. The plague is known, however, to have a somewhat uncommon communicable form, called "pneumonic plague." This occurs when the bacterium is widespread inside a patient and damages his lungs sufficiently to be expelled with his breath. (This cannot happen as long as the pathogen remains blood-borne; it can then be transfered only by a transfer of blood.) If it is then inhaled by someone else, it establishes itself in that person's lungs, and an extremely swift, destructive and invariably fatal illness follows. Modern studies indicate that bubonic plague turns pneumonic in about five per cent of cases. Those cases, of course, must be quarantined.

Why has this well-characterized and easily-contained modern disease been thought to be identical with the pandemic disease that killed a third of Europe in the 14th century (and continued to appear in more localized epidemics until the late 17th century)? The reasons surprisingly slender. The principal reason that the identification was made a century ago was simply that buboes are seen in the modern disease, and buboes were described as one of the most prominent symptoms of the historical plague. Buboes, however, are merely grossly swollen and discolored lymph nodes. Some swelling of lymph nodes happens in most infectious illnesses, and full-fledged buboes are observed in serious infectious illnesses besides bubonic plague. They are observed, for example, in some of the African hemorrhagic fevers.

As the controversy over the pathogen of the historical plague heated up, researchers sought to answer the question by biochemical analyses of samples thought to come from old plague victims. The results have been inconclusive. Some samples, it is claimed, did indeed contain DNA associated with Yersinia. But in other studies, not a single sample was found that could be confidently identified as Yersinia. (Some of the difficulty of analyzing ancient DNA is illustrated by a study that extracted DNA from a Viking tooth: DNA of over 20 different individuals was detected.) The critics raise sampling issues as well. It is not terribly easy, hundreds of years later, to be sure that a given skeleton belonged to a victim of the Black Death, either in its debut appearance or a later one. Some of the sites studied had been used as burial sites for almost a thousand years. There were other infectious illnesses that caused epidemics and led to mass burials. Some of the localities under study are known to have suffered localized outbreaks of bubonic plague--the modern illness--at later times; possibly upper levels in a burial site contaminated lower levels.

What about descriptions of the disease itself? How do they tally with the modern one? They tally in some respects and not in others. Fever and buboes have been mentioned. Another is spots, which may be red, purple, black, or mixed in color, that appear across portions of the body of most victims. Another is violent vomiting, sometimes of blood. But these symptoms are not unique to bubonic plague--all four may be found in other illnesses, including some hemorrhagic illnesses. There are also discrepancies between the historic plague symptoms and those of modern bubonic plague. One is a difference in lethality. As noted, modern bubonic plague kills about 20% of its victims; others may have a case so light as not to require any medical attention. The historical plague appears to have been much more lethal--something closer to 90% of its victims did not survive. Also, modern autopsies of bubonic plague victims indicate some, but not extensive, degradation of the internal organs. The few descriptions of autopsies of historical plague victims, however, indicate a shocking degree of internal damage--the whole viscera "rotten," "stinking," "full of pus and black fluid," etc. (These descriptions are from 17th century outbreaks.) This tallies better with modern hemorrhagic disease, in which victims die a ghastly death from literal decomposition of their organs.

The greatest discrepancy, however, lies in the factors pertaining to the transmission of the diseases. Modern bubonic plague is documented to have a very short incubation period--i.e., the interval between exposure and first symptoms--of two to six days. This is not consistent with what can be deduced about the spread of the Black Death and its aftershocks.

To begin with, the Black Death overwhelmed all of Europe in an incredibly short time--less than three years. It first appeared at Messina, in Sicily, in October, 1347. From there it radiated northwestwards, reaching Scandinavia and Ireland in 1350. It is possible to draw arc-like lines on a map of Europe, centered on Italy, that show roughly where the plague had been reported by a given date. Of course the actual transmission was more complicated than that. In some places the disease clearly traveled by land and in others by water, and so traveled at different rates. There were also areas that were never touched, or touched only lightly. But the plague kept its basic south-to-north and east-to-west directionality throughout, and it conquered Europe with a relentlessness and a speed that are amazing for times before any kind of automated travel. In fact, most people in the 14th century wouldn't have traveled farther than a few miles from their homes in their lives.

A short incubation period is not consistent with such reach, speed and lethality. A victim who became deathly ill within six days after exposure could not travel that far in the 14th century, when most people walked and even a rider not in a hurry would typically cover perhaps 20 miles per day. Sea voyages under some conditions might be faster, but then they might also be long and arduous, also. The ship that is supposed to have brought the Black Death to Europe had sailed from the Crimea, where some type of plague was reported raging. The voyage could not have taken less than four weeks. Yet the sailors were reported as asymptomatic when they arrived.

What is consistent with reach, speed and lethality is a much longer incubation period, during which the victim is infected and infectious, and does not know it. He, or she, may travel much farther and expose many more people, before succumbing. The effect multiplies geometrically as the chain of transmission lengthens. The greatest single reason that AIDS became a world-wide epidemic is its extraordinarily long incubation period--about 10 years. By the time the first cases were identified, literally millions of people were already infected. There was very little hope of getting on top of the disease by then, except by some type of cure, which has not yet been found.

Scott and Duncan present a fairly convincing argument that the historical plague had an incubation period of slightly more than 30 days. Their data come from English parish records of the 15th and 16th centuries. These records, in some places, meticulously recorded every single case of plague, the date the individual became ill, and the date s/he died (or recovered). In some places, they contain other information, such as who nursed whom, and who lived near whom. (There are no comparable data for the Black Death itself, but the symptoms of the disease were the same, and the later chroniclers seemed to have no doubt that they were witnessing the same disease.) By an extensive (and tedious) drawing of timelines, family relationships, and placement of homes, it is possible for them to show that people in all probability had to be exposed to the illness around a month before they themselves became ill.

Scott and Duncan note an interesting correspondence of their conclusion about incubation with historical fact. When the Black Death first hit Europe, some Italian cities imposed quarantines on suspected persons of 30 days. Fairly rapidly, this was changed to 40 days--and at 40 it stayed, not only in Italy but throughout Europe, and not only during the original plague but for three centuries after. While no contemporary source gives a specific reason for 40 days, it is a reasonable assumption that authorities observed that 40 days worked, 30 did not. Scott and Duncan compute that the average duration of the illness, from first symptom to death, was five days. Added to the 32 days they allow for incubation, the whole course of the illness would be 37 days, which would render the original 30-day quarantine ineffective, but fall within the 40-day quarantine. It also fits the anecdote about the Crimea-Messina connection. With a 32-day incubation period, the disease would have permitted the ship to make the voyage and the sailors still to look well when they arrived.

The short incubation of bubonic plague helps explain why, in well-documented modern appearances, it has been a disease of ports, and has rarely spread more than a few miles from the site of its initial appearance ashore. The disease appears too soon for infected people to get very far and infect very many others.

Both the speed of the Black Death and its universal reach are inconsistent with something else: the alleged transmission by rats and fleas. Epidemiologists know that a disease is spread fastest by person-to-person infection, and that air-borne or droplet-borne diseases will be the most infectious and the swiftest to spread. Bubonic plague, however, is spread chiefly by fleas carried by infected rats. Modern studies have been done on the movement of rodent-borne infections, including bubonic plague. Typically, they spread at the rate of somewhere between one and 12 miles per year. At that rate it would have taken the Black Death about a century to spread all the way across Europe. One reason for this slow movement is that rats, unlike the reservoir rodent species for bubonic plague, are sickened and killed by Yersinia. Given its short incubation period, an infected rat does not have long to pass it to someone else, including a man, depending as it does on its fleas to make the actual transfer. And, in fact, huge rat mortality has been noted in some bubonic outbreaks. None was ever mentioned by observers of the historical plague.

Another fact disfavoring the rat idea is that the people who faced the Black Death and the later attacks of the same disease were very aware that they had to avoid the presence of infected persons. This appeared in such shocking form as husbands abandoning ill wives and parents abandoning sick children, so terrified were they of getting the disease themselves. Medieval and later people could not make a scientific analysis of the plague, but they made common-sense observations to help them avoid it. Their unanimous testimony, by their deeds, is that close personal contact with an infected person put one at greatest risk. Why would they have thought so, if people who had had zero exposure regularly came down with the disease, as would have to have happened if fleas really posed the risk?

Some bubonic defenders point to the pneumonic form to explain the plague's spread. Certainly, pnuemonic plague is a much closer fit with the historical facts than classic bubonic plague is. But its usefulness as an explanation is limited. First, the pneumonic form is uncommon; only five per cent of people would have been infectious under this hypothesis. Both the plague's rapid spread and the universal fear of infected persons it inspired argue against pneumonic plague's being the villain. Furthermore, pneumonic plague does not appear by itself; it is observed only in the context of a wider bubonic epidemic. One reason for its inability to stand alone is its extraordinary lethality: 100% of victims die, and they die within an average of three days after exposure. A disease that does that to its victims simply ensures its own demise, since its hosts die before they can efficiently spread the pathogen.

There is a final bit of evidence against rat-borne bubonic plague causing the Black Death. The plague touched Iceland in the 15th century, killing an estimated 60% of its population. Yet Iceland is known not to have harbored any rats at that time. And fleas do not live in a cold climate. In Alaska, we don't deflea our dogs because we just don't have that problem.

Scott and Duncan are just guessing when they attribute the historical plague to "something very like" the filoviruses of Ebola and Marburg. There is no direct evidence of that, but it is suggested by the symptoms. It appears that the incubation period for these diseases is highly variable, ranging from a few days to over a month, which allows for one of them to have caused the plague, but does not prove it.

Today scientists speak of "emerging diseases," or diseases that either are new or re-emerged after a long time, at least several generations, of dormancy. AIDS was an emerging disease in the 1970's and early 1980's. SARS is another example, and the much-watched avian flu could prove to be another, if it jumps to humans and becomes contagious. The Black Death was the mother of all emerging diseases. No one who lived through it had ever seen anything like it. And while the plague was recognized when it returned in the succeeding centuries, those outbreaks were often spoken of in similar apocalyptic terms, so distinctive and so frightening was the disease. The study of the origins of the Black Death is a major part of how we should understand emerging diseases. Identifying Yersinia as the historical pathogen could lead to preparations that are useless if the Black Death was really something else, and it returns once again.

Saturday, March 11, 2006


Scholasticism comes from the Latin word scholasticus, which means "that [which] belongs to the school", and is the school of philosophy taught by the academics (or schoolmen) of medieval universities circa 11001500. Scholasticism attempted to reconcile the philosophy of the ancient classical philosophers with medieval Christian theology.

The primary purpose of scholasticism was to find the answer to a question or resolve a contradiction. It is most well known in its application in medieval theology but was applied to classical philosophy and other fields of study. It is not a philosophy or theology on its own, but a tool and method for learning which puts emphasis on dialectical reasoning.

Scholastic method
The scholastics would choose a book by a renowned scholar, called auctor, as a subject of investigation, for example the Bible. By reading the book thoroughly and critically, the disciples learned to appreciate the theories of the auctor. Then other documents related to the source document would be referenced, such as Church councils, papal letters, anything written on the subject, be it ancient text or contemporary. The points of disagreement and contention between these multiple sources would be written down. For example, the Bible contains literal contradictions for Christians (ie. kosher laws) and these contradictions have been examined by scholars ancient and contemporary, so a scholastic would gather all the arguments about the contradictions, looking at it from all sides with an open mind.

Once the sources and points of disagreement had been laid out, through a series of dialectics the two sides of an argument would be made whole so that they would be found to be in agreement and not contradictory. This was done in two ways.

First, through philological analysis. Words were examined and it would be argued they could have more than one meaning, that the author could have intended the word to mean something else. Ambiguity in words could be used to find common ground between two otherwise contradictory statements. Second, through logical analysis which relied on the rules of formal logic to show contradictions did not exist, but were subjective to the reader.

Scholastic genres
Scholastics developed two different genres of literature. The first is called questiones or "questions" which is basically as described above, except rather than being confined to a single scholar, or auctor, the scholastic method would be applied to a question. For example, "Is it permissible to kill for self-preservation?" From there any number of sources could be referenced to find the pros and cons of the question. The second genre was called a summa. A summa was a system of all questions so that it would answer every question about Christianity one could ever have. In this way any question could be found in the summa and would reference any other question that might arise. The most famous summa is by Thomas Aquinas called Summa Theologiae, covering the "sum" total of Christian theology.

Scholastic school
Scholastic schools had two methods of teaching. The first is the lectio. A teacher would read a text, expounding on certain words or ideas, but no questions were allowed, it was a simple reading of a text, the instructors explained, and silence for the students.
The second is the disputatio which is at the heart of the scholastic method. There were two types of disputatios. The first was called the "ordinary" in which the question to be disputed was announced beforehand. The second was the quodlibetal in which the students would propose the question to the teacher without any prior preparation. The teacher would then have to come up with a response. The teacher would cite authoritative texts such as the Bible and prove his position. Students would then rebut the response and this would go back and forth. During this exercise someone would be keeping notes on what was said, the teacher would then summarize the arguments from the notes and present his final position the next day, answering all the rebuttals.

Scholastic philosophy usually combined logic, metaphysics and semantics into one discipline, and is generally recognized to have developed our understanding of logic significantly when compared to the older sources.
In the high scholastic period of 1250 - 1350 scholasticism moved beyond theology into the philosophy of nature, psychology, epistemology and philosophy of science. In Spain, the scholastics also made important contributions to economic theory, which would influence the later development of the Austrian school. However all scholastics were bound by Church doctrine and certain questions of faith could never be addressed without risking trial for heresy.

During the humanism of the 1400s and 1500s, scholastics were put to the background and somewhat forgotten (though revived in Spain in the School of Salamanca). This has been the source of the view of scholasticism as a rigid, formalistic, outdated and improper way of doing philosophy. During the catholic scholastic revival in the late 1800s and early 1900s the scholastics were repopularized, but with a somewhat narrow focus on certain scholastics and their respective schools of thought, notably Thomas Aquinas. In this context, scholasticism is often used in theology or metaphysics, but not many other areas of inquiry.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Notes on Booze in the Middle Ages

Here's some short excerpts from various sources on alcohol during the Middle Ages

Drunken Adolescents at War:

The Hundred Years’ War between England and France during the Middle Ages was fought by adolescents whose primary beverage was wine. In fact, there was one campaign in which England was raiding and advancing into France which turned into a precipitous retreat back to England. Because the French turned them back, stopped them? No. There was little resistance to their advance. However, they did run out of wine! Unable to acquire the needed wine in France (for what reason, I do not know), they could not continue. History also reports that The Hundred Years’ War was ordered and commanded, oftentimes, by royalty and kings in their teens, who considered a daylong, somewhat intoxicated state to be normal; and it was fought by drunken adolescents and teenagers for the most part.

Booze as Nutrition

Distilled spirits have their origin in China and India in about 800 BC. Alcoholic drinks such as wine and beer are produced primarily through fermentation of a fruit or grain of some kind. Drinks such as Brandy, Cognac, and Sake are created by distilling these ferments yielding what is often a more potent drink. The distillation process did not make its way to Europe until the eleventh century.

When the Greeks and the Romans took up the mantle of being the greatest civilizations on earth, other than wine, the majority of their drink was often flavored with herbals like balsam, dandelion, mint, and wormwood seeds, and even crab claws & oyster shells for flavorings. The Greeks worshipped the god Bacchus, the god of wine. The Romans worshipped the same god under the name of Dionysus. The form of worship usually took the form of an orgy of intoxication, and their literature is full of warnings against intemperance. There is writing, which tells how Caesar toasted his troops after crossing the Rubicon, which began the Roman Civil War. It was the Roman legions who around 55 BC introduce beer to Northern Europe.
The beers and ales of Medieval Europe were actually rich in proteins and carbohydrates, making them a good source of nutrition in that society. It is theorized that hops, which are now a universal ingredient in beer making, date back to Babylonians in the eighth and ninth centuries BC. In Europe hops were primarily medicinal plants which were added to beer to make both the drink and the medication taste better. This process soon became standard in the production of the beverage.

But alcohol consumption continued to grow and by the middle ages many monasteries made beer to nourish their monks and to sell to the people. (The reason the monks were so intensively concerned with making beer was because they wanted a pleasant tasting, nutritious drink to serve with their meals, which were frugal at best, especially during the fasting periods. As the consumption of liquids was not considered to break the fast, beer was always permitted.) The consumption of beer in the monasteries reached astounding levels: Historians report that each monk was allowed to imbibe 5 liters of beer per day. Before the Middle Ages brewing was left to women to make since it was considered a food. During the middle ages the emphasis began shifting from family tradition to centralized production, providing hospitality for travelers and pilgrims. Home breweries became Inns, Taverns and Public Houses as beer remained at the heart of almost every culture and subculture. The middle ages were a superstitious time and occasionally distilling/brewing failures were blamed on "brew witches" or even the devil. The last known burning of a "brew witch" took place in 1591. By the end of the middle ages most of Europe and in fact most of the world were beginning to master the art of brewing and distilling.

Alcohol and Health in the Middle Ages

In places and eras with poor public sanitation, such as Medieval Europe, consumption of alcoholic beverages (particularly weak or "small" beer) was one method of avoiding water-borne diseases such as the cholera. Though strong alcohol kills bacteria, the low concentration in beer or even wine will have only a limited effect. Probably the boiling of water, which is required for the brewing of beer, and the growth of yeast, which would tend to crowd out other micro-organisms, were more important than the alcohol itself. In any case, the ethanol (and possibly other ingredients) of alcoholic beverages allows them to be stored for months or years in simple wood or clay containers without spoiling, which was certainly a major factor in their popularity.