Tough being a woman in the Middle Ages

Women as warriors helping to defend the city f...
Women as warriors helping to defend the city from attack. 

In her excellent book Medieval Women – Oxford University research fellow Henrietta Leyser uncovers some astonishing nonsense that people believed about women in the medieval period. She also finds that women could exercise real power and influence but they really had to climb a mountain of very odd prejudices.

It seems Aristotle has to take a big part of the blame. The great Greek philosopher was hugely influential at the height of the Middle Ages. Having been dead for nearly two thousand years that was quite an achievement. Not only was he Alexander the Great’s tutor – he was a massive misogynist. Aristotle just didn’t like women. And that seems to have chimed with another big influence in the medieval period – the Roman doctor Galen. Both Galen and Aristotle wrote some complete nonsense about females that remained unchallenged until the modern era.

Galen believed that men and women both produced “seed” for reproduction. Male seed was precious but female seed was dangerous. In fact, as Leyser notes, women had to purge themselves of “excess seed” through menstruation. Or if that didn’t work – lots of exercise! If they didn’t expel the overproduced seed, these wretched women might find it difficult to breath and suffer from a condition called “uterine suffocation”. One academic in the fourteenth century even described how a midwife could assist in unwanted seed removal – but I’m going to spare you the details!

Pliny – another Roman – was also influential and he issued dire warnings about the effects of menstrual blood. Apparently, it could turn wine sour, make crops barren, fruit fell from trees, bee hives died and dogs who tasted it got rabies! If, heaven forbid, a man was silly enough to have intercourse with a menstruating woman then the child was likely to have red hair (a bad thing it would seem) and go down with leprosy (definitely a bad thing).

An older woman who was still menstruating could “poison” a child in its cradle just by looking at it. The vapors from below exuded through her eyes to whatever she was looking at. So concerned were clerics in the thirteenth century about the evil effects of periods that they even debated whether the Virgin Mary could possibly have ever menstruated. With deep regret, they were forced to conclude that she must have done.

Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a ...
Bust of Aristotle. 

The Holy Sepulchre – sacred to the Knights Templar

Crucifixion site
Site of the crucifixion – photo I took during my visit

In 2012, I visited the church of the Holy Sepulchre several times in the heart of Jerusalem. It’s a church that inspired the construction of Templar places of worship from London to Tomar with its distinctive circular shape. The dome of the Holy Sepulchre also appeared on Templar seals

The Holy Sepulchre was originally built by the Romans after they converted to Christianity in the early fourth century CE. It was, they believed, the site of both the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus. How did they arrive at this conclusion?

Well, the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine, authorised the demolition of a temple to the goddess Venus in order to venerate the place where Christ died to save the sins of humanity. As the temple came tumbling down, a tomb was revealed. All those present decided that it had to be the resting place of the Messiah.

The first church erected by Constantine was a richly decorated affair with brilliant mosaics and a garden with the rock of Golgotha as its centrepiece. From there, the pilgrim would have entered another open space where a rock cut tomb was exposed to the elements. This church was damaged massively by invading Persians in the seventh century CE and then all but flattened by the volatile Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim in 1009. It’s more than likely that Al-Hakim had the tomb of Jesus hacked to bits.

Holy Sepulchre
Photo I took in the crypt 

The Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachus began funding of a new church decades later but it was never completed.

In fact, when the crusaders invaded Jerusalem in 1099, the church had no roof. It was left to the newly victorious crusaders to put up a new building that would enclose the site of the crucifixion and the tomb, giving the latter it’s own little chapel. This was consecrated in the mid-12th century. The crypt is possibly the most evocative of the Middle Ages and its walls are covered in carved medieval crosses.

Up until the 19th century, you could have seen the tombs of Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin I, the first rulers of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. But they were removed by Greek monks doing repairs. I assume that the ill feeling of the Greek church towards the Latin crusaders had continued from the 12th century to the 19th!

The tomb of Jesus was excavated in 2016 and it revealed the existence of an older tomb under a marble slab placed on the spot where Jesus was said to have been buried. The slab dated to 1555 when the Franciscans carried out major renovation work.

Ethiopian monkOne oddity of the Holy Sepulchre is that the church is divided up between different Christian denominations. Since the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic have been custodians. In the 19th century, the church was divided up again to include the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox. The relationship between these different groups is often competitive and unfriendly.

Priests riot in 2011

Things got ludicrous in 2011 when priests rioted and beat each other with broom handles in a vicious row over who controlled which bit of the church. When I visited, I saw a Coptic Orthodox priest sitting on the roof. Apparently, there is always a Coptic at that spot staking a claim against the Ethiopians. There is also a ladder that has been propped up against a window since 1852 and nobody has moved it because of similar aggro about who can go where and do what.

The tomb of Jesus
Photo I took within the chapel covering the tomb of Jesus


Holy Sepulchre – unholy row – where Jesus died

You would think that the site of the death and entombment of Jesus (the same church covers both areas) would be a place of quiet contemplation and prayer. You’d be mistaken. For the last hundred years, it’s been a place of factional strife between different Christian groups that claim ownership of their bits of the church and are very territorial about alleged encroachments.

The worst has been a dispute over who owns the roof! As you leave the leave the Via Dolorosa, you enter the Coptic part of the Holy Sepulchre – in fact, you basically find yourself on a flat rooftop with a dome and some monastic cells – only the monks you see aren’t Coptic, they are Ethiopian.  And these Ethiopians have been accused by the Egyptian Copts of having expanded their area of control.  The Copts have even said that the Ethiopians have colluded with the Israeli authorities to grab a bigger share of the Holy Sepulchre – something the Israelis hotly deny.

The BBC has reported on this and has some helpful diagrams of how the church is currently divided up.

I went on the roof to take a closer look and peeked round the Ethiopian church – here’s what I saw.

Trip to Israel – more on historical Jaffa

Jaffa is now part of what is called Tel Aviv-Yafo in modern day Israel. A city with a long and historic past, it changed hands in ancient times between ancient Egyptians, conquering Greeks and of course the Romans. From the reign of Constantine to Heraclius in the seventh century AD, it was part of the eastern Roman empire – or Byzantine if you prefer. Then in 1099, as Jerusalem fell to the crusaders so did Jaffa – which was termed the ‘port of Jerusalem’. From 1291, the Mamelukes invaded from Egypt and it would remain under their control until 1515 when the Ottoman Turks swept in and they would rule it until 1917 when General Allenby took it for the British Empire. There’s still a main avenue in Tel Aviv named after Allenby.

Most of Jaffa is in a state of what one might term genteel ruination. It’s being tarted up and I saw luxury flats being built in to the old walls. Many of the fortifications were damaged by Napoleon and then the Ottomans who took down a lot of the walls in the 1870s and then the British in the 1930s. It’s now part of Israel though retains a distinctive Arabic flavour to the rest of neighbouring Tel Aviv.

Paganism in Europe at the time of the Templars

Ancient Roman anti-Christian graffiti depicting Jesus as a crucified donkey

We imagine that at the time of the Knights Templar, the whole of Europe was long converted to Christianity. Well, think again. Paganism was persistent for centuries after the Romans adopted the cross under the Emperor Constantine in the year 313.

When Constantine embraced Christianity, it’s estimated about 10% of the population of the empire were on board with the new religion. Many of those were among the elite with local peasant populations holding fast to the old beliefs.

The first century of legalisation saw Christians at each other’s throats over what their faith really meant. Was Jesus truly human? Was he purely spiritual? Could the son really be equal and co-existent with the father? Was there a god of good and a god of evil? Was Jesus a Jew come to fulfil prophecy and the law or something completely new who spoke to gentile and Jew alike?

Blood was spilt over these questions.

Jupiter – didn’t go quietly

But worse for the new religion was the pagans were not prepared to give up quietly. There’s often the impression given that Romans switched peacefully and totally from paganism to Christianity overnight. Simply not true.

The state had to cajole, coerce and threaten capital punishment to bring over the population across the empire. There were even tax breaks for becoming a priest and career opportunities if you just signed on the dotted line!

By the end of the fourth century, an impatient and pious (some might say bigoted) emperor Theodosius began a full-blown programme of temple demolition to enforce Christianity. And not just any old version of the faith. He and successive emperors were determined to root out both non-orthodox variants of Christianity and to stamp out the still very prevalent paganism.

And pagans were not just ignorant rustics. There were aristocrats in Rome and philosophers in Athens and Alexandria who found Christianity vapid, illogical and vulgar. Conservative opinion wanted to retain allegiance to the gods that had brought victory to Rome. They lobbied the emperor strenuously to retain the statue of Victory in the Roman senate.


So resilient was paganism that by the sixth century after Christ, the emperor Justinian was still trying to stamp out non-belief in his court and empire. He threatened both non-orthodox Christians and pagans with capital punishment. And it was Justinian who shut down the famous Athenian academy that had produced the greatest philosophers humanity has ever known.

Eventually, most of western and southern Europe, north Africa and the near Middle East converted – until the arrival of Islam changed the religious dynamic again. But pockets of pagans continued to worship old gods – not least in the Baltics and what is now Russia.

ironlordIron Lord is a Russian movie that depicts Christian conversion in Russia as the Prince of Rostov takes on a pagan cult based around a violent bear!  He kills the bear and the tribe converts.  They convert to what one pagan calls the ‘Greek God’ – namely the version of Christianity that was being promoted by the Byzantine empire, what we now call the eastern orthodox church.

But astonishingly, in the early 13th century, the ‘Old Prussians’ of what is now northern Poland and the Baltic state of Lithuania had still not converted.  Indeed they held out so vigorously that the papacy mounted a full crusade against them, spearheaded by the Teutonic knights – an order not entirely dissimilar to the Templars.

The Teutonic Knights also turned their attention to the Russians, who had adopted the Byzantine version of Christianity, much to the pope’s disgust. However – the knights came a cropper in what is called the Battle of the Ice where the Russians let the ice do the talking.

So, in spite of what you might have thought before, it took nearly a thousand years from the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to finally bring Europe under Christian domination.  And not everybody bowed willingly to the cross.

Dogheads – the medieval belief in half man/half canine

christopheryHow on earth did anybody in the Middle Ages come to believe that Saint Christopher was a doghead?  But believe some people did.  Dogheads were nothing new in the history of mythology.  The ancient Egyptians had, after all, worshiped a dog headed god Anubis – god of the dead.

As with many Egyptian religious beliefs, this had been transmitted to the rest of Europe via the Greeks.  By the Middle Ages, baptism was being held up to be a cure for the doggish aspects of these canine creatures miraculously transforming them in to whole human beings.  After all, if frogs could become princes – why couldn’t dogheads become human through divine intervention?

The German 10th/11th century bishop Walther von Speyer is widely credited with being the first person to write that Saint Christopher was a giant doghead.  This would explain his strength when he carried the child Jesus across the stream but found himself enduring an enormous weight – the weight of the world and its sins of course.  Once Jesus had revealed his true identity to Christopher and he had repented of all his sins, he was baptised and became a human.

Here is a depiction of Saint Christopher as a doghead in the Middle Ages.

It should be pointed out that Pope Paul VI – architect of Vatican II in the 1960s – removed Saint Christopher from the list of saints as being somebody who probably never existed.