Category Archives: Medieval

Weird Middle Ages: Templars and the Origins of Friday the 13th


By Paula R. Stiles


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On this day in October 1307 (and yes, it was a Friday), almost every member in France of the military religious order the Knights Templar was arrested in a pre-dawn raid by agents of King Philippe IV, known as “Le Bel” (“The Fair,” mostly because he was blonde). Philippe claimed that the arrests had been motivated on the spur of the moment by distressing allegations that the Templars were devil-worshiping heretics. As the confessions piled up to include weird things like ritual kisses on the buttocks, spitting on the cross, and denying Christ, it appeared he was right.

Of course, all was not as it seemed. In fact, the raid had been carefully planned and the charges written up in detail a month before the arrests by Philippe’s sinister head minister and Keeper of the Keys, Guillaume de Nogaret. Guillaume was already pretty notorious for having beaten up a pope (the Templars’ boss) a few years before and had used the same charges with great success in 1306 against Jews and Lombard bankers, resulting in a mass expulsion of both groups and a general crash of the French economy.

At the same time he was trying the Templars, Nogaret was busy suppressing a harmless group of poor mendicants known as the Beguines and the Beghards, led by a woman whom the King had burned at the stake for heresy. Nogaret was also notorious for suing his poorer neighbors and (reputedly) engaging in a bit of black magic, himself. He was a thorough scoundrel.

All of this skullduggery was intended to gain the perpetually cash-strapped Philippe some money. Philippe was a stern, autocratic, unpopular fanatic, obsessed with power and avid for ready cash to fill the coffers depleted by his sainted grandfather Louis IX’s crusade. Though he was eventually able to force his new, hand-picked pope to suppress the Order in 1312, the landed property eventually went to the Templars’ sister order, the Hospitallers. It also turned out that the Templars themselves were cash poor.

Fate had not yet had the last laugh on Philippe. Months after having the last Grand Master of the Order burned as a relapsed heretic in 1314 (and in the middle of an adultery scandal centered on his daughters-in-law, no less), Philippe died, suddenly and in his prime, as did the Pope. Nogaret had mysteriously died the year before.

Philippe left three strong sons, but by 1328, after three centuries of an unbroken line of male succession in the French royal family, all three had died with no heirs. The royal Capetian line was extinct. Rumors abounded that the parties involved had been cursed by God, root and branch.

Philippe did have one grandson, who claimed the throne through his mother, Philippe’s daughter. Problem was, that grandson was already King of England. The scandalized French nobility decided to give the crown to Philippe’s brothers rather than become subjects of their traditional enemy across the Channel. The King of England objected. This resulted in the Hundred Years War, which devastated the French nobility and nearly destroyed France.

To add posthumous insult to fatal injury, in his famous Divine Comedy, Dante put Philippe in Hell for his crimes against the Templar Order and even stuck Philip’s ancestor Hugh Capet in Purgatory just for having been his forefather.

Moral of the story: Don’t be a royal creep on Friday the 13th.

Philippe_le_Bel_famille


Curious about the Knights Templar? Check out my book, Templar Convivencia: Templars and Their Associates in 12th and 13th Century Iberia, available on Amazon.


Templars Are to Blame: Dating the Shroud of Turin


By Paula R. Stiles


Today is the 709th anniversary of the arrest of the Knights Templar in France in a pre-dawn raid. Let’s explore one of the artifacts and legends that have been connected to them after that date.

I’ve long been fascinated by the story of the Shroud of Turin. I’m a medievalist and most medievalists find the period of the Black Death (starting with the latter half of the 14th century) compelling in a ghoulish sort of way. It was a huge world-wide demographic change, the best-recorded example of one of Nature’s rare attempts to wipe us humans completely out.

It’s therefore equally intriguing that in the middle of this huge societal eruption, one of the most unique, strange and controversial relics of the Middle Ages appears — a piece of linen almost fifteen feet long and over three feet wide with an image of a naked dead man superimposed on it, front and back. In other words, a shroud. Since the late 14th century, this shroud has been linked to Jesus Christ.

It’s interesting to note that the first confirmed record of the Shroud is a report to the Pope in 1390 stating that it was a fake relic and the creator of it had confessed. Since then, the provenance (also known as “chain of custody”) of the Shroud has been remarkably solid. “Provenance” is the documentary history of where an object has been and what’s happened to it. For example, we know that the Shroud was in the middle of a church fire in 1532 that burned so hot it melted holes in the silver reliquary, singing holes right through the folded-up Shroud in a line down each side. Subsequently, a small and dedicated group of nuns patched these holes with new cloth.

The trail grows a lot more iffy prior to 1390. We have some documentation of it in either 1353 or 1357 related to the display of the Shroud by the widow of Geoffroi de Charny, a French knight who died at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. Geoffroi has been more tentatively linked to a possible uncle, Geoffroi de Charney, the last Grand Marshal of the Order of the Knights Templar, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1314. Even more tentatively, some have speculated that the Shroud fell into Templar hands after it was pillaged from a famous Byzantine collection of crucifixion relics during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. This theory was put forth by popular Templar historian Ian Wilson in The Turin Shroud in 1978. Academic Templar historian Malcolm Barber thoroughly examined these claims in a 1982 article, “The Templars and the Turin Shroud,” and came up with a verdict of inconclusive.

The Pray Codex
The Pray Codex

The Byzantine relic, known as the Mandylion (or the Image of Edessa) was a cloth upon which Christ’s face had miraculously appeared. It was part of a collection of crucifixion relics such as wood and nails from the Holy Cross. The record trail for it goes back to the sixth century and a tradition goes back to the early fourth century. After that, even the spottiest provenance goes cold.

The Mandylion is also related to an acheiropoieta (icons or other holy images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary not made by human hands) tradition in which a pious woman known as St Veronica wiped the face of Jesus while he was carrying the cross to Golgotha. His image was then impressed on the cloth by miraculous means. Images related to this tradition began to appear in the 14th century. The Shroud is unique in that it is a full-body acheiropoieton image rather than just a head and appears to reflect older traditions such as that in the late-12th century Pray Codex from Hungary.

The main problem with the Shroud of Turin is that even though it has excellent provenance back to the Middle Ages, its origin point (known as its “provenience”) remains unknown. All we know is when it was first displayed and even that’s in the murk before 1390. The Pray Codex and the St Veronica tradition give us some hints, but again, don’t really date it. And that’s important because if it does date to the early 1350s (or earlier), the story of the forger’s confession starts to fall apart. It’s unlikely that person had survived to 1390.

And that brings us to the iffy science. Numerous tests have been done on the Shroud, giving it a date ranging all the way back to two thousand years ago. The most famous one, of course, is the carbon dating of sampling from 1988 that dated the Shroud to between 1260 and 1390. Much ink has been spilled and shouting done over the test. Its proponents (who were basically debunkers and people anxious to promote carbon dating, which was then still rather a young science) insisted it was the best possible way to date the Shroud and everyone else doing other tests was biased. Its critics complained that the science was faulty, the sample too small, the Shroud was contaminated by extra carbon (remember that fire?), the sample had been taken from a smaller patch, and so on.

The basic science, all things considered, was pretty solid, but the other criticisms have validity. It was only one test done 28 years ago. Carbon dating has moved on and that one test did not account for things like the fact the Shroud has been handled a great deal over the past six hundred years, and that yes, there have been patches, as well as that it has been subjected to a major fire. And there is one other major issue.

Now, I want to say that while I lean toward the romance of the Shroud really going back to ancient times, I don’t think it can ever be anything but a matter of faith whether it was the shroud of Jesus Christ. Even if we could date it to the first century CE, let alone from Palestine, there’s no real way to prove that it was wrapped around the Son of God.

But it would be good to know a fairly solid origin point so we could get that provenience and establish some other things about the Shroud’s origins, especially the alleged Templar connection. I mean, we’re still trying to figure out how it was made (assuming you don’t buy the acheiropoieton theory). Was an actual bleeding dead body involved (and how chilling is that idea, especially if it was created in 1353, during the first wave of the Black Death)? Was it a standard shroud or was someone killed to make it? Or was it very cleverly painted, which would make it an amazing masterpiece of medieval art?

Also, what about the story of the Widow de Charny? While early medieval women had a pretty strong influence on Church cultic practice, this was largely frowned upon by the 14th century. A secular woman, especially an unmarried/widowed one, creating a cult center involving a major relic (or icon, as the Church officially terms the Shroud), especially during the initial period of the Black Death, was highly unusual.

The carbon dating doesn’t answer any of these questions. In fact, despite their claims of having no bias, the proponents of the carbon dating test knew perfectly well that any dating post-1390 would have no legitimacy in light of the very strong documentary provenance from that point, and even the more-iffy dating to the middle of the 14th century. It’s not just the issues with the possibility of contamination from other sources. These could be resolved (albeit the Church is not thrilled by the idea of allowing testers to rip up the Shroud, especially in order to debunk it as an ancient relic) by more testing. The problem is that the century the 1988 test gave is precisely the century that requires the most clarification in the Shroud’s history. If testing makes it older than the 14th century, and especially the 13th century, that gives some solidity to the proposed chain of evidence involving the Charnys and the Templars. But by just saying it’s somewhere in the 14th or late 13th century, the carbon dating test gave us absolutely no new information. Thanks to the provenance, we already knew that.

Unfortunately, those engaged in the carbon dating project didn’t care. They wanted to “prove” that the Shroud was no older than its documentary provenance. They wanted to debunk, to shut down the debate. They most certainly had a bias there. The problem was that they didn’t prove anything (the dating range went back 130 years before the confirmed documentary trail) and they didn’t help with confirming any of the previous stories. And they certainly didn’t shut down the debate. Even if the carbon dating was accurate, it wasn’t accurate enough.

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Unusual History: Urraca, Badass Queen of Castile


By Paula R. Stiles


Even a cursory delve into the Middle Ages brings up queenly badassery along the lines of a Daenerys Stormborn and Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones, but some of these tough medieval queens are less well-known than others. Urraca (c.1079-1226), first ruling queen of Castile, León, Galicia, and Portugal in Spain, is one of them.

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                              Queen Urraca

Urraca’s reign of badassery didn’t start out in roaring form. Her father Alfonso, seeking more northern alliances than his ancestors, married her off to a French adventurer named Raymond de Bourgogne (c.1065-1107) when she was about eight. By age fourteen (when she had her first miscarriage), the marriage had been consummated. Her husband was either nine or fourteen years older than she. Urraca then found herself engaged in a grueling series of pregnancies that resulted in her standing at her husband’s bier in 1107, not yet 30, with a daughter Sancha and a son Alfonso.

Daddy Dearest betrothed her to his main rival Alfonso el Batallador (the Battler), King of Aragon, a year later. Yes, Spain had a lot of Alfonsos in power during the Middle Ages.

Her father’s decision was prompted by the death of his illegitimate son (by a Muslim noblewoman) and designated heir, Sancho, in 1108, and by the demands of at least some of his nobles. As with the first marriage of Urraca’s younger and more famous contemporary Eleanor of Aquitaine, Urraca’s father and his nobles apparently felt his daughter couldn’t handle the job as a reigning queen, despite her already edging into the medieval version of early middle age and having a legitimate and healthy heir in her own son, who was a toddler. And as with Eleanor’s marriage, Daddy Dearest’s attempt to bolster his daughter’s position via bringing a man in to do the job just created extra problems for the realm and the female ruler who was quite capable of running it on her own.

It’s a first sign of greatness in a woman who, to that point, had been little more than a broodmare that Urraca decided to go ahead with the marriage, even after her father died suddenly in 1109. She did this, despite voicing repeated misgivings to her father, because she apparently agreed that the marriage was a political necessity to keep her older and ambitiously scheming, illegitimate half-sister Teresa and Teresa’s husband Henry, left in charge of Portugal, from seeking independence. Unfortunately, her misgivings turned out to be right and Urraca’s life soon began to resemble a particularly juicy medieval telenovela.

Though he looked great on paper – and great on the battlefield – El Batallador (c.1073-1134) was severely lacking as a husband. He reportedly disliked women and greatly preferred the company of men. Though he was six years older than Urraca, it was his first (and only) marriage. He had no mistresses and later Muslim historian Ibn al-Athir (1166-1234) remarked that he didn’t even sleep with female war captives (a very common practice of the time). No mention is made of his dallying with any young boys either, so there’s that, but whether he was gay, asexual or sterile, he had no known children of any kind.

It’s often stated how important bearing children was to a queen’s security and power base, but having an heir was equally important to a king. Establishing your dynasty was a crucial part of cementing your reign. My friend Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who has a strong interest in the history of Tudor England, has often remarked that Henry VIII’s queens were no passive victims. They had their own power bases, hence why noble families vied to profer the next woman in line and so many of these candidates were strong and smart (with the young and unready Catherine Howard a disastrously instructive exception). How much more so a queen ruling suo jure, by blood not marriage, like Urraca, who also not only had a son but a daughter who could rule after her. Indeed, as Urraca’s son ruled over the State part of his mother’s realm, her daughter Sancha came to rule over the Church portion as a very powerful, unmarried infanta. Even her illegitimate children married well.

During a monarch’s lifetime, even minor (underage) heirs, like Urraca’s son, Alfonso Raimundez, had power bases formed around them, full of court intrigue, long before they came of age. For example, Eleanor’s restless sons all rebelled against their father, Henry II of England, at some point. Eleanor herself was imprisoned for years because she fomented the revolt against their father as part of her ongoing conflict over Henry’s tyrannical attempts to coopt her realm of Aquitaine into his own. She ended up choosing her own heir, Richard, who also eventually became Henry’s heir due to a process of attrition over the years. She also ended up outliving Henry.

In Alfonso Raimundez’s case, the main court intriguer was the oily Bishop Diego Gelmirez of Santiago de Compostela, who eventually grew so wealthy and ambitious that the Pope himself slapped him down in 1124. Whoever controlled the child heir controlled the current monarch, though Urraca would soon close this loophole quite firmly. Urraca’s heir and her second husband’s lack of one showed her strength versus his weakness.

Alfonso Batallador also seemed to lack any tact whatsoever. What he gained on the battlefield he quickly lost to his soon-to-be-ex-wife because she was every bit as skilled a diplomat as he was a warrior. In the short term, the marriage itself had the opposite effect intended, since Alfonso Batallador made his intentions to dominate Urraca’s realm of Castile, León and Galicia in favor of his home kingdom of Aragon very clear. That just gave Teresa and her husband the excuse to break away for real.

Theresa of Portugal
              Teresa of Portugal

Later historians have lamented the “chance” lost during Urraca’s reign to unite Spain under one realm, but those historians lived four or five centuries later, in a period after Spanish kings had brutally united the various kingdoms through force and considerable bloodshed. Urraca and Alfonso lived during a time when the united Muslim kingdom of Al-Andalus had just broken up into numerous — though still-powerful — taifa kingdoms, and the previously tiny Christian kingdoms were rapidly expanding by picking them off. Urraca’s own grandfather had followed the Carolingian custom of dividing his kingdom among his children. It was only the death of her uncle, the elder son, that had given her father the chance to put the recently conquered Christian realms of her grandfather under one heir. So, it seems likely that uniting into a new Christian version of Al-Andalus was actually the last thing Urraca’s subjects had in mind, especially if they weren’t the ones in charge of it.

Alfonso Batallador may have been the only one shocked when the marriage broke down in 1110. Even so, Urraca next did some very surprising things for a medieval queen. For one, when she sought a divorce (technically, an annulment based on consanguinity) from the Pope, she did so partly based on the accusation that her new husband was beating her. At this time, it was perfectly acceptable for husbands to beat their wives and even ruling queens were expected to obey their husbands as their lords. Urraca’s accusation was startling in the assumption that her husband had no right to beat her, to the point that this was grounds for divorce. What was even more startling was that she was able to persuade the Pope to give her the divorce that same year. Popes were pretty accommodating about royal annulments in the 11th and early 12th centuries, but even so, that may have been a speed record.

And then, on top of that, she took a lover, Gómez González. While still legally married to Alfonso. And had a son with him.

Alfonso remained in denial for four more years, deciding in the meantime to take back “his” kingdom by force. There were several things in his favor. He was arguably the greatest Christian warrior of his generation and easily beat Urraca’s forces on the battlefield, even once putting her under siege at Astorga, León in 1112. Meanwhile, her lover was killed in the Battle of Candespina against her husband and her brother-in-law in 1111 (she promptly took another, his cousin Pedro González de Lara, and had at least two children out of wedlock with him). The Leonese nobility also was split into four factions. One was with the Queen. One was with her son, but sought to usurp her as his regent. One was with the King of Aragon. And one was helping Teresa and her husband break off to become the first Countess and Count of Portugal.

Urraca was able to fend off her older half-sister (who began to style herself Queen after being widowed in 1112), then defeated and forced her to re-swear fealty in 1121, temporarily reuniting all of their patrimony until after her death. Also, when the opportunity presented itself after Bishop Gelmírez fled the Battle of Viadangos in 1111 with young Alfonso Raimundez, seeking refuge with the boy’s mother, Urraca got full custody over her son. She retained control over young Alfonso (who was 20 before he became King) until her death, even staving off any possible rebellions such as the one Teresa’s son later employed to depose his mother in 1128. Meanwhile, she gained back in diplomacy what her ex had won in battle. Eventually, in 1114, Alfonso Batallador was forced to concede defeat and withdraw. Urraca spent the rest of her reign consolidating her kingdom against all comers Christian and Muslim, in preparation for turning it over to her son, before she died suddenly, probably in childbirth, at the age of 45.

The contemporary chronicle Historia Compostelana acknowledges Urraca’s intelligence and prudence, while sourly criticizing her as a “Jezebel” for her lovers and taking potshots at her fitness to rule solely due to her gender. Early Modern writers like Jerónimo Zurita y Castro (1512-1580) and Enrique Flórez (1701-1773) were more vicious, referring to her as Urraca the Reckless (la Temeraria) and writing lurid scenes (which may never have occurred) in which she was attacked and half-stripped during a negotiation-gone-wrong and a peasant revolt. It’s more likely that the peasants, for the most part, quite liked her, since she brought them peace and independence from Aragon. In addition, she had a greater reputation for showing mercy than her ex-husband, stemming from an incident early in their marriage when Alfonso Batallador executed some rebels Urraca wished to pardon.

In light of her many pregnancies and political use of sexual liaisons, there seems little doubt Urraca liked sex quite a bit. It also seems that she saw no reason not to use sex and sexual alliances as a weapon, just like her father, seeing as how Daddy Dearest was married five times and had at least two mistresses. She appears to have simply taken the same prerogatives that any king of her time would have done.

What’s interesting (and an indication of how powerful and skillful a ruler she truly must have been) is that she was able to do this, just like a king, to strengthen her rule, rather than be forced to live in celibate widowhood to avoid harming her and her son’s power base. For example, her two known lovers were both unsuccessful suitors for her hand before her father betrothed her to Alfonso Batallador. In addition, they were rivals against him along the border with Aragon, so she was able to exploit their natural animosity toward her second husband in her favor. It’s not just that Urraca didn’t care what a few cranky old monks and priests said about her. It’s that she was able to turn that scarlet reputation into a political advantage and make strong allies out of it. Having children with these men only cemented those alliances further.

It’s also interesting that the attraction she held for men probably had nothing to do with her looks and everything to do with her being Queen. We have no surviving description of her appearance and when she was married off the first time, she was very young. The one near-contemporary (a century later) portrait of her from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela very interestingly portrays her with medium-brown skin (or even slate gray in another photograph). Urraca’s father and son are also portrayed in the same illuminated document as dark-skinned. This supports the idea that her father’s marrying her to Raymond counteracted centuries of marrying locally (and his liaison with a Muslim princess that resulted in a male heir), which could well have also meant marrying into Andalusian nobility.

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                                          Eleanor of Aquitaine

 

Still, it is a surprise in medieval iconography, where female nobility to the north in this period were portrayed as very pale (even Teresa gets this treatment in a surviving illumination). Younger contemporary Eleanor is also portrayed in effigy on her tomb as having medium-brown skin, as well as being tall and wide-hipped. Possibly, this was an artistic convention of the time applied to women from Southwestern Europe, even though noblewomen in general were not expected to go out in the sun and pale skin was prized in other parts of the region.

It’s one more way in which Urraca stands out as nothing like the traditional 19th century image of the dippy, passive Gibson-haired girl who just can’t rule without a strong knight by her side. Urraca didn’t need any man to dominate her and she spent most of the latter half of her life ensuring that no man ever would again.


Further Reading

Pallares Méndez, María del Carmen and Portela, Ermelindo. La Reina Urraca. Nerea, 2006.

Reilly, Bernard F. The Kingdom of León-Castilla under Queen Urraca, 1109-1126. Princeton University Press, 1982.


Interested in more Spanish medieval history? Check out my book, Templar Convivencia: Templars and Their Associates in 12th and 13th Century Iberia.