The most horrific disease at the time of the Knights Templar

Imagine a disease that results in you losing your fingers and toes, your nose collapsing and going blind – just because somebody sneezed over you. By the time the Knights Templar were formed in the early 1100s, Europe was in the grip of a leprosy epidemic. Villages all over England saw poor unfortunates excluded and shunned for bearing the tell-tale signs of Hansen’s disease.

leper monks
A bishop confronted by several monks in the 1300s who have got leprosy

You had to come into close contact with an untreated leper and be exposed to their nasal droplets but clearly this happened as more and more people succumbed. In the period in which the Templar order existed – 1118 to 1314 – over 300 leper houses were established across England. Some believed that if they were kind to lepers, then God would shorten their time in purgatory after they died for their acts of charity to the afflicted.

But many more medieval folk simply wanted lepers shunted away and unseen. They even insisted that they carry a bell around their neck to announce that they were in the vicinity. You can imagine the terror that some superstitious and ignorant peasants felt when they heard that bell coming towards them. They might have hidden behind a bush until the sad, bedraggled figure limped past.

The bacteria that causes leprosy – Mycobacterium leprae – is slow growing and today very treatable. But of course with no modern medicine in the medieval period, an infected person could expect a long period of painful suffering before death. And I’m talking years here.

Greensted-Church-Essex-Lepers-Squint
The leper squint at Greenstead

So in my book Quest For The True Cross – I have a village leper called Jake, once a respected member of the community and now an outcast. Somebody like him would have been a familiar figure. Villagers might have remembered him as a fixture down the local tavern but now reduced to being treated like a dog with scraps thrown to him while he watched holy mass through a hole in the church wall – called a “leper squint”. There is one such squint in a Saxon church at Greenstead near where I grew up.

When somebody was identified as having succumbed to leprosy, they had to undergo an unusual religious ritual where they were officially excluded from the community. The priest would lead the leper to the local church telling him or her on the way that while they were sick in body, their immortal soul might still be pure. In life the leper would endure pain but in death, the invalid could ascend to heaven with a body free of disease.

Once inside the church, the leper had to kneel under a black cloth – almost as if he was dead already – while the priest set out the rules by which he or she would now have to live:

I forbid you ever to wash your hands or even any of your belongings in spring or stream of water of any kind and if you are thirsty, you must drink water from your cup or some other vessel.

The leper was told by the priest, in no uncertain terms, to wear the designated clothes, carry the bell; never to touch things they wanted to buy but point; never to enter taverns again; to only have intercourse with their own husband or wife; never go down a narrow alley in case they infected somebody; not to touch fences or posts; avoid infants and to only eat and drink in the company of other lepers.

And know that when you die you will be buried in your own house unless it be by favour obtained beforehand in the church.

The most famous leper known to the Knights Templar was the young King of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV – featured with a silvery mask in the movie Kingdom of Heaven. In spite of the debilitating condition and the appalling attitudes towards leprosy in the Middle Ages, Baldwin was able to rule for eleven years and fought the Saracens bravely in the Holy Land.

Here is a tribute to the leper king of Jerusalem:

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The medieval roots of Halloween

It's that time of year once again, Halloween u...
It’s that time of year once again, Halloween ushers in the best holiday of the Holiday season! Taken at La Mesa Oktoberfest in 2007 but still relevant every Halloween. 

Pumpkins, trick or treat and witch costumes. We all know about modern Halloween – but how might a Templar have celebrated the same day? Back in the early Middle Ages, the day we now call Halloween was more commonly called All Hallows Eve. It was the day before All Saints Day – a major Catholic feast.

Hallow came from an Old English word for holy or sanctified. The day was a liturgical vigil where the faithful were required to attend church, fast and pray. But there was always a hangover from pre-Christian practices. This was the transition from summer to winter – a time when peasants gathered in the harvest and into November, the ‘blood month’, where animals were killed and salted. Having an abundance of food – hopefully, famine permitting – there was a perfect excuse to feast and drink.

From the moment Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church had to deal with pagan rituals that involved dancing, singing, drinking and gorging on food. What to do? Ban them – which the church attempted – or co-opt them into the church calendar, trying to draw out the pagan sting. That was the route the church gradually adopted.

So, around October 31st the Christian community was faced with a festivity where bonfires were lit to propitiate the sun god – who was now in retreat to the darkness. The sun was thanked for its good work, nourishing the fruits of the earth. Peasants hoped for its glowing return in the spring.

Some believe that in ancient Britain, the people at this time hailed a deity called Samhain, the lord of death, who gathered up the souls of the evil imprisoned within the bodies of animals. It’s said that this was altered by Christians to create a day in the Middle Ages where the souls of those in purgatory were prayed for. The bonfires continued and people would go to their neighbours’ houses in the village offering condolences to the bereaved – did this morph into trick or treat?

Dressing up in outlandish costumes had always been a part of pagan festivities and this element of Samhain worship could have trickled into All Hallows Eve. One idea is that the souls of the Christian dead wandered the earth until All Saints Day on November 1st. So, Halloween was their last chance to exact mischief on the living. Those not wishing to be recognised by the dead as they committed their last wicked deeds would wear masks and disguises – hence dressing up on this day.

Comparisons are also made to the Roman festival around the goddess Pomona. Her symbol was an apple and it’s been posited that the origin of apple bobbing at Halloween comes from Pomona related rites. It’s hard to deny that Christians reworked Roman festivals into the new religion, giving them new meaning. There’s evidence that the church actively discussed the dilemma of winning over converts who were attached to the old pagan ways. The solution seems to have been to let the common people carry on with their superstitions but direct their gaze to the Christian god instead.

The 31st October comes right before All Saints Day – November 1st – a feast called Hallowmas. Therefore Halloween was the eve before this important event in the liturgical calendar. It’s a Christian feast day believed to date back to the seventh century AD when the Pantheon, a vast and still standing temple built by the emperor Hadrian, was re-dedicated to all the saints. It had previously been dedicated to all the gods – but there was only one god now!

That was followed in the eleventh century with the introduction of All Souls Day on November 2nd. In case you’re confused – All Saints Day celebrated those who had succeeded in entering heaven while All Souls Day involved lots of praying for those who had not – lingering instead in purgatory (God’s waiting room). So a lot of attention was paid to the fate of the dead at this time of year, which has obviously informed the modern Halloween. Even our use of scary spiders, toads and bats reflects creatures within whom the souls of those in purgatory were sometimes thought to inhabit while they waited for their ticket into heaven.

I realise there is a terrific amount of soul searching – pardon the pun – over the Christian meaning of Halloween. I’m happy to hear your views and have some discussion about this ahead of the big day!

How children died in medieval England

deathPlague, hunger and war carried off lots of medieval kids – let alone not making it past childbirth due to unsanitary conditions or botched medical care.

Truth is that children were in a very precarious position – especially in a predominantly rural society. In May 1322, a sow bit the head off a one month old child! The baby was in her cradle unattended in a shop when the animal came over, feeling a bit peckish.

Trawling through English coroner’s Rolls for the early 14th century, a number of fatalities involving children crop up. Drowning was exceptionally common given that youngsters would be sent to draw water at rivers, ponds and lakes only to fall in and sink. Heavy clothes, muddy banks and not being able to swim combined to end many a young life.

There was a boy called Richard, son of John le Mazon, who was only eight years old and after a meal was making his way to school, walking across London Bridge – in the year, 1301.  On a sudden impulse, he decided to grip a beam on the side of the bridge and just hang there by his finger tips. Regrettably, he couldn’t keep his grip and fell down in to the river Thames and drowned.

In 1322, on the Sunday before the feast of Saint Dunstan, a group of boys were laying on a pile of timber. One was a seven year old called Robert, son of John de Saint Botulph and they continued to mess around until a heavy piece of wood tumbled on to Robert’s leg.  His mother, Johanna, arrived and managed to release her son’s leg which was fractured. Now, breaking a leg is not the end of the world in our modern age, but in the 14th century, this was a medical disaster. The child lingered on until the Friday before the Feast of Saint Margaret, at which point he died.

This is a rather odd story – in 1324, a five year old called John, son of William de Burgh, was at the property of Richard Latthere when he got it in to his head to steal a small amount of wool and try and hide it in his cap.  Richard’s wife, Emma, saw what he did and cuffed him hard round the ear.  He clearly made quite a din as a result and bawled his eyes out.  John’s mother raised the hue and cry – that is, she alerted other townsfolk to her plight by screaming her head off – and the boy was carried away.  At around the curfew bell of the same day, John died.  Emma fled though subsequently surrendered herself to the prison at Newgate.

Monsters in churches – a medieval protest

gargoyleBernard of Clairvaux was an odd chap.  From an aristocratic background, he rejected earthly gains in favour or a very severe asceticism that won him more influence on account of his stern piety.  In spite of his saintliness, he was renowned for having a short temper and wasn’t shy about dabbling in papal politics.

He had retreated to a place called Clairvaux with a group of Cistercian monks to form a monastic group that would reject the ostentation that could now be seen in most medieval churches.  He believed places of worship should be minimally decorated – and in this he anticipates the protestant backlash against Catholic showiness by about four hundred years.

In his writings, Bernard talks about churches in the twelfth century – and a lot were being built at this time – having “immoderate length”, “superfluous breadth” and “strange designs which attract the eyes of the worshiper, hinder the soul’s devotion”.

Though Bernard did not condone the crusade era pogroms against Jews, he does say that the glittering designs now cropping up in churches reminded him of “the old Jewish ritual” – which one assumes he did not think was a positive development.

All those aspects of gothic cathedrals we are used to and like, gargoyles pulling faces and smiling saints – were complete anathema to Bernard when they were being constructed.  Pack it in, was his simple message to the masons and the clerics who employed them.

Bernard believed that if it was beautiful to the eye then it was “dross and dung”.   He beheld the “great trees of brass” that had replaced plain candlesticks and asked: “What do you suppose is the object of all this?  The repentance of the contrite or the admiration of the gazers?”

Put the paint pots down was one of his regular shouts.  Whether it was gaudy illumination in bibles or saints richly coloured on church walls.  The insertion of griffins and other fantastical animals in to sacred imagery was abhorrent and pagan in his view.

“Again, in the cloisters, what is the meaning of those ridiculous monsters, of that deformed beauty, that beautiful deformity, before the very eyes of the brethren when reading”

He railed against “disgusting monkeys”, “ferocious lions”, “monstrous centaurs”, “spotted tigers” and other things littering the gospels and peering from walls.  “You may see there one head with many bodies or one body with numerous heads”.

Quadrupeds with serpent tails and a fish with a beast’s head might seem enchanting and mysterious to us but to Bernard the ascetic, it was absolutely repellent.

“Good God! If we are not ashamed of these absurdities, why do we not grieve at the cost of them!”

Night of the Templar – the missing movie

It looks hilarious with an angry Templar knight resurrected and off to take vengeance against the church in the twenty first century.  Gregoire is the name of the aggrieved knight who is lured in to a trap back in the Middle Ages and killed – though with his dying breath says he’ll be back to do a bit of slaying from the grave.  It seems Gregroire was betrayed by some Judas of a knight called Renault, yep like the car.  Other silly names include Menas and Melkon and a steward called Koko (not a clown apparently).

Renault would enjoy “ten lifetimes of excess” before Gregoire would return to drag his soul to hell. And so it comes to pass that a descendant or reincarnated Renault (who knows, I don’t), organises an orgy at a secluded mansion house – cue thunder and rain.  The guests at this orgy include an “alluring and promiscuous Eastern European” and the bit I had to laugh at, a character called Japoniko, who is described as an “uninvited and mysterious Asian minimalist” (sic – WTF?).

The director, writer and main star of the film is a chap called Paul Sampson whose IMDb database entry notes that he ran a “40 yard dash at college” in 4.65 seconds.  Another star of this movie is the late David Carradine – of Kung Fu fame in the 1970s – who plays “a shopkeeper”.

Anyway – this movie was to appear in September this year then November and as I do have a soft spot for complete horror shlock, I wondered when it might see the light of day.  It is a shame that cinemas don’t show B-movies anymore because this sounds like an idea one.  I’d crunch on my popcorn through this guff.

Any inside information gratefully appreciated.