Medieval People

Michael Prestwich has compiled sixty-nine interesting biographies of people who lived in the Middle Ages. He writes:

Many of the popular characterizations of the Middle Ages have little validity. Much that is often thought of as ‘medieval’ was nothing of the sort. People in the Middle Ages did not believe the earth was flat. Torture was far less common than in subsequent centuries. Accusations of witchcraft were rare; The Thirty Years War in in the seventeenth century saw much more brutality than the Hundred Years War of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Medieval scholars may have considered alchemy a valid science, but so did Isaac Newton. Nor was the Middle Ages lacking in innovations. The list of technological advances includes mechanical clocks, guns, printing, blast furnaces, spectacles, stirrups and the compass. My hope is that this book will provide an indication of the richness and complexity of the centuries from 800 to 1500.[1]

Blincoe: Our interest in these biographies is the author’s occasional tribute to some of the men and women who lived in monasteries or convents during the Middle Ages. Monks and nuns “with faults and failings like our own,” had the best chance to heed our Lord’s words, “Greater works than these will you do.” This idea, that the world might be better tomorrow, together with the Golden Rule, compelled some among them to change the world for their fellow men and women. Thus, Thomas Aquinas, the greatest religious teacher of the Middle Ages, and a Dominican monk. The abbot Richard of Wallingford was a clockmaker without parallel and the abbess Hildegard of Bingen made innovations in music and herbal medicine.[2] While the imperial courts of Europe were full of self-important royal families, monasteries such as Corvey and Reichenau formed the intellectual and artistic powerhouses of western Europe. Magnificently illustrated manuscripts demonstrate the wealth and confidence of these institutions. The deep classical learning to be found in them is displayed by the plays and other writings of the canoness of the abbey at Gandersheim, Hrotsvit.[3] Many times the Catholic Church realized that their most able scholars and their proven leaders were residing in the monasteries. Five popes were Franciscan, 13 were Benedictines, 2 Augustinian, 2 Cistercian and 4 Dominican. Pope Francis (1936-) is the first Jesuit pope.

Guibert de Nogent (1060-1124) was abbot of a small monastery in Nogent-sous-Coucy in France. “There, he wrote prolifically. He produced a history of the First Crusade that was largely a reworking of the Gesa Francorum (The Deeds of the Franks), which was probably written by a soldier who, unlike Guibert, had taken part in the expedition. Among Guibert’s works on religious questions was a treatise on relics, in which he displayed unusual scepticism. How could a church in Constantinople and one in Angers both claim to possess John the Baptist’s head? What was saintly about St. Pyro, when all that Guibert could discover about him was that he fell down a well when drunk? How could a church possess one of Christ’s teeth, when he had been resurrected? Other relics, which he considered authentic, were proper objects of contemplation.[4] Guibert’s autobiography draws a vivid portrait of life in this period. It also provides insight into the mind of a monk who is both sceptical and credulous in an intriguing and complex mix.[5]

A woman named Anna Komnene (1083-1153) has become known as the first notable female historian. Anna was the daughter of Alexios Komnenos, emperor of the Byzantine empire. When her husband died Anna, in the palace intrigue that found different sons vying to seize the throne, was sent to monastery. There she wrote the life story of her father, Alexios Komnenos (1048-1118). Anna was in a superb position to write the history of the times in which she lived. In 1071 Emperor Romanos IV had been defeated by the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert. He was captured and ransomed at a cost that nearly bankrupted the Byzantine empire. In 1095 the First Crusade brought the threat that the Crusaders from Western Europe might encamp permanently in Constantinople. The fear was substantially realized when the Crusaders took Antioch, a capital city of the Byzantine empire.[6]

Anna’s work has its problems. Personal prejudice did much to provide the book with its heroes, and its villains. There is little understanding of the world beyond the Byzantine Empire; for Anna, it was inhabited by barbarians. Yet the life of Alexios is one of the most remarkable works of history written in the Middle Ages, for it has a rare vivid quality and a striking depth of detail.[7]

Cathedral of Saint-Denis in Paris

Abbot Suger (1081-1151), from his monastery in Paris, guided the complex project of building one of the first great cathedrals, the church of Saint-Denis. The main monastery buildings, such as the refectory and the dormitory, were also rebuilt under his leadership. A new west front with two tower was built, in the likes of a castle. Inside features included a splendid array of sculptures and an innovative rose window. Masons found ingenious solutions for the problem of constructing the wooden rafters. He was a man with one great fault; he forged many documents that enabled him to get his way with powerful members of the clergy and the royal family. Still, the work he supervised at Saint-Denis marked a milestone in European architecture.[8] It would be another century before architectural triumphs such as Louis IX’s Sainte-Chapelle and the Notre Dame would be constructed.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a theologian, a botanist, a visionary, a composer, a creator of a secret language and correspondent of popes and emperors. She was the tenth child of a well-to-do family. She began to have visions at an early age, and perhaps for this reason she was sent in 1106 to a monastery at Disibodenberg. In about 1150 she moved the convent some forty miles to a new site at Rupertsberg. Music was intensely important to Hildegard; she saw it as an expression of her theological ideas. Her ability to use musical notation was, she believed, a God-given gift. Hildegard’s melodies are characterized by an extraordinary range, difficult for most singers to reach.[9] She also wrote a book on plants and another on medicine. Quite exceptionally for a woman in the 12th century she preached throughout Germany on the need for Church reform. She left no mark on history after her death; however, in the 21st century, her fame has suddenly grown large and she has gained a remarkable following.[10]

Since the twelfth century, the Church had felt increasingly threated (sic) by the growth of heretical movements, particulary in northern Italy and southern France. The appalling brutality of the crusade agains the Cathar heretics in southern France has helped give the Middle Ages a bad name. The new orders of the friars, Dominicans and Franciscans, particularly the form, were another weapon against heresy. With their dedication to preaching and poverty, the friars were in some ways not dissimilar from the heretics they opposed.[11]

Meanwhile, difficult philosophical and theological ideas aroused fierce arguments in the thirteenth century. The Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas, with his voluminous writings, played a leading role in the process of integrating Aristotelian concepts and those of Islamic writers with traditional Christian teachings.[12]

Dominic de Guzmán (1170-1221) was founder of what became the Dominican religious order. In 1191, at a time of acute famine, Dominic gave away his possessions and became a Benedictine canon. When confronted with the Church’s inflexible policy toward the Cathar heresy, Dominic urged a new approach: Heresy should be combated with preaching and by matching the austere lifestyle of the Albigensian heretics. Dominic believed in debating the “good men” among the heretics, but he was present at many of the sieges. He may not have participated in the slaughter and the horrific burnings, but he accepted and surely encouraged the actions of Simon de Monfort and his enforcers.[13] When Dominic died in 1221, his new order was on the brink of an astonishing expansion. By the 1270s there were some 400 Dominican houses in Europe.[14]

An exemplary chronicler of the mid-13th century was the English monk Matthew Paris (1200-1259). His great work is his Chronica Majora, which includes much information about European affairs. He also wrote a short history of England. He knew a number of royal officials personally, and this gave him eyewitness evidence for his writings. He provided regular information about the weather and the state of the crops. In 1258, for example, mild autumn weather continued to the end of January, but from then to the end of March a north wind brought freezing weather and frost and snow. He was critical of the papacy, which he regarded as exploitive. He was a self-taught artist of considerable skill, illustrating his books himself. The four maps of England and Scotland in his chronicle are far more accurate and detailed than any previous ones. Gossipy, inquisitive, sometimes careless, always readable, Matthew stands beyond compare among medieval chroniclers.[15]

Jacques de Molay (1244-1314) was the last master of the Templars. In the years following the First Crusade, the Latin Kingdom along the eastern Mediterranean coast saw the establishment of several military orders—brotherhoods of knights who took monastic vows of service. The two greatest were the Hospitallers, whose original function was to care for the sick, and the Templars, created in about 1120 to protect pilgrim routes in the Holy Land. One hundred seventy years later, we meet Jacque de Molay. Muslims had retaken all of the Holy Land, the crusader castle at Acre being the last to fall in 1293. De Molay’s fame was not from battle but for banking. By 1300 the network of Templar houses and properties across Europe put it in an excellent position to transfer money across Europe and beyond. The French crown made much use of the financial services the Templars provided. King Philip had fought an expensive and inconclusive war with the English in the 1290s and suffered a costly defeat at the hands of the Flemings in 1302. Philip contracted with the Templars to collect taxes, an unpopular and difficult task. The Templars became wealthy in the process, and this made them a tempting target for a needy king. On 14 September 1307, orders went out in France to prepare for the arrest of all the Templars in the realm. Once arrested, the Templars were tortured until they confessed to crimes. De Molay appealed to the pope, who was not about to confront the French king or give in to him. In 1312 the pope suppressed the Templars and transferred their assets to the Hospitallers. De Molay and the head of the Temple in Normandy, Geoffroi, were promptly taken to an island in the Seine and burned as heretics, king Philip being all too eager to believe every accusation brought against them.[16]

We meet Richard of Wallingford (c. 1292-1335), inventor of a reliable clock whose design could be copied and widely adopted. Richard was ten when his father died. The prior at Wallingford, in Oxfordshire, raised him and schooled him at Oxford. Richard then entered the monastery at St. Albans. Further education at Merton College revealed Richard’s proclivity for mathematics. He designed a series of interfacing disks, which, when turned, predicted the position of the planets to one another. Extremely sophisticated mathematics under lay this device, which he called his “Albion.” Richard hoped that if the movement of the stars and planets could be observed and calculated accurately, it would be possible to produce reliable astrological predictions and weather forecasting.[17] He returned to the abbey where he was elected abbot. Richard faced tough challenges there; the monks were lax, the abbey’s estates were run down and the local townspeople hostile; Richard was not a man for compromise. A stringent financial regimen was introduced. Townspeople would have to pay to have their grain milled in the abbey’s mills.[18] In an extreme measure, 32 volumes from the library were sold.

Despite the pressures of administration, Richard continued his scientific work, writing a treatise on the mathematics of gears and designing and supervising the construction of an extraordinary astronomical clock. Unlike a modern clock it had no hands, but it struck a bell every hour. “The way he carried on his work, when afflicted with leprosy, half blind and barely capable of speech, marks him out as truly heroic.”[19]

Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) attacked the clergy, demanding reform and an end to corruption and warfare between Christian nations. But there can be a narrow line between insanity and sanctify. Catherine had visions from the age of six, and vowed chastity at seven. As a teenager, she gave away her clothes and became a vegetarian, passing her meat to her cats. She eventually joined a group of Dominican women, the Mantellate, whose mission was to look after the poor and sick. She claimed that, in 1366, she entered into a mystical marriage with Christ. She asked her secretaries “to hear and commit to writing what she would say during her ecstasies.” The result was her Dialogo, a book taking the form of a dialogue between God and the human soul. There were suspicions that Catherine was a heretic, but in 1374 her opinions were declared orthodox. This gave her confidence to start travelling through Italy, attempting to start a new crusade and to advance Church reform. Her efforts had little effect. One reason for her influence was that her visions gave her a special mystical authority, as was also the case with Bridget of Vadstena, her contemporary in Rome. A Dominican, Raymond of Capua, wrote her biography, and this is how Catherine is known to us today.

This book contains many more biographies, beginning with Charlemagne and including Marco Polo, Ghengiz Khan, Dante, Chaucer, the kings of France and the popes of Rome. Our interest this book review is concentrated in the lives of monks and nuns who lived in the Middle Ages, but the rest of the sixty-nine biographies are thought-provoking as well.  


[1] Michael Prestwich, Medieval People : Vivid Lives in a Distant Landscape : From Charlemagne to Piero Della Francesca (London ; New York: Thames & Hudson, 2014). 12-13

[2] Ibid. 14

[3] Ibid. 17                                                

[4] Ibid. 47

[5] Ibid. 49

[6] Ibid. 49-50

[7] Ibid. 51

[8] Ibid. 57-58

[9] Ibid. 72

[10] Ibid. 73-74

[11] Ibid. 98

[12] Ibid. 99

[13] Ibid. 108

[14] Ibid. 108

[15] Ibid. 116-118

[16] Ibid. 138-141

[17] Ibid. 159

[18] Ibid. 160

[19] Ibid. 161