Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: The Latency and Mutations of Christianization in Various Regions of Northern Europe

Women in the Baltic region in the late middle ages might be seen as thralled in a catch-22. If they tried to live freely, practicing their rites under no institutionalized guard, they could easily fall prey to the booming slave trade of the times, when word had gotten out that there was a great demand for blond girls in other parts of the world as far away as the Middle East. Trade in blond girls during this time proved very lucrative.
The choices for protection weren't many: from the East, the Eastern Orthodox Church; from the West, the Roman Catholic Church often administered under the auspices of the Hanseatic League; from the South limited protection once came from such tribes as the Kumon, who practised shamanism/Tengrism, but even these were branching out and forming alliances with Christianized states; or these women could try their luck hiding out in caves and relying on their own canniness and extensive reputation as sorceresses. The pressures to conform and seek protection must have been intense when many parts in Europe were staging witch hunts in the latter part of the 15th century. By then the Hanseatic League was losing its power.

Above: Hungarian King Ladislaus I of Hungary (left) fighting a Cuman warrior (right), from the Székelyderzs (Dârjiu) Unitarian Church, Romania. Most info centers around the two men fighting with identification of the woman holding the halberd with a star as simply a girl. She could be a reference to protection from the slave trade or protection of an old women-centered belief system, i.e., paganism.

What often happened was that the woman-centered part of belief systems were subsumed under safer cults of the Virgin Mary, with the more pagan vestiges either dying out or becoming clandestine.

Proof of a Booming Slave Demand for Finns

Finns were especially valuable on the slave trade market because they were neither Christian or Muslim, and because of their light skin colour. Korpela explains:
The most expensive slave on the Caffa register was a 14–year-old white boy referred to in the source text as “Jarcaxius” (“Circassian”?), who was sold for 750 aspers, and there were other slaves with good colour qualifications that seemed to carry an above-average price. One four-and-a-half-year-old Rus’ian “white” boy cost 185 aspers, although such young children were usually very cheap on account of their high mortality rate. “White” Saracen slaves were also overpriced in the Genoese registers, and blond boys and girls were expensive on the Italian markets, too.
The slave trade in Eastern Europe gradually faded, as the control exercised by the emerging structure of European states became stronger. The spreading of Christianity also caused a decline in slave trade during the medieval period. Slave trade within Europe declined already in the early medieval period, but in regions bordering on Islamic countries, slave trade continued up until the pre-modern period. Source: Why did Medieval Slave Traders go to Finland? APRIL 17, 2014 BY MEDIEVALISTS.NET

Estonia a last stronghold against Christianization

Estonia has the distinction of being a nation where Christianity was held at bay the longest. For example, in 1261, warfare continued as the Oeselians (Estonians inhabiting the island Saaremaa) had once again renounced Christianity and killed all the Germans on the island. A peace treaty was signed after the united forces of the Livonian Order, the Bishopric of Ösel-Wiek, the forces of Danish Estonia including mainland Estonians and Latvians defeated the Oeselians by conquering the Kaarma stronghold. Soon thereafter, the Livonian Order established a stone fort at Pöide.

Livonian latency and mutations

Saints’ cults played a crucial role in medieval society. Although we know very little about the beliefs and rituals of the indigenous peoples of Livonia, either before or after the thirteenth-century conquest, we may assume that the process of Christianization must have caused major changes in their religious practices. How quickly these changes took place, and how deep they were, is a question which is difficult to answer, given the scarcity of sources describing the attitudes of the indigenous peoples towards the Christian faith, or dealing with their religious customs. This is valid not only for the thirteenth century but also for the rest of the medieval period. There exist, of course, brief complaints in documents such as church statutes about the ignorance and superstition of the ‘non-Germans’, but these texts were written by and from the point of view of the ruling elites and not that of non-Germans themselves, who did not possess a written culture before the nineteenth century. One may also assume that complaints about such matters were a commonplace in other newly Christianized countries as well. Source: Saints’ Cults in Medieval Livonia, AUGUST 3, 2014 BY SANDRA ALVAREZ

Local Traditional Folk Knowledge Was Subsumed Under Church Institutions

The old tradition of monasteries as healing centres continued throughout the late Middle Ages. In particular, the ancient learning of herbal tradition was preserved and transmitted in monastic manuscripts," as is exemplified in the chapter of Niiranen, in which the herbal recipes of the monastery of Naantali is analysed. Such learning was not a monopoly of monks and nuns and herbal guide books were used in lay settings as well. During the last centuries of the Middle Ages lay settings became increasingly important in the field of healing, as monasteries lost a lot of their former importance after the birth of universities. From the fourteenth century on, new types of sources such as health books and personal health guides, texts produced mainly for the upper middle class, increased in number. Guide books were composed also by the elite, as McClecry's analysis of the Portuguese king Duarte's (1433-1438) texts, Loyal Counsellor and Book of Advice, reveals. Not only living well but also dying well was in the interest of medieval people; these moral issues were also emphasised in artistic representations, as Sophie Oosterwijk argues in her chapter "This Worlde is but a Pilgrimage': Mental Attitudes in/to the Medieval Dante Macabre." 
SourceMental (Dis)Order in Later Medieval Europe 

Curiously, despite common beliefs regarding the maladies and generally recommended therapeutic measures, there are not many similarities at the individual recipe level between the five recipe collections, for example the systematic use of a certain plant for a certain ailment. This is due to the fact that medieval materia medica is a very broad tradition, embracing various cultural layers and apparently plenty of regional or even local knowledge. Based on this limited survey, it seems that Hildegard's Physica contains the most divergent sources, probably local in origin and perhaps founded on her personal empirical experience. One suggestion is that she received support from persons who visited her monastery. One such individual was the Swedish Bishop Siward from Uppsala, whose impressive library may have enhanced her medical knowledge. In spite of this possible Swedish-German network, it is hard to see any closer ties between Physica and the Naantali monastery book, though for a more definitive view this topic would require further investigation. Many monasteries did produce and copy various texts, but they could also receive and heal patients in hospices and infirmaries. Medical knowledge was also needed by cloister inhabitants for their own use, especially when physicians were not available, as was the situation in Naantali. The first university-educated doctors apparently did not come to Finland until after the Catholic Era in the sixteenth century. In addition to monasteries and physicians, who increasingly took over the responsibility for curing and healing from monks and priests after the emergence of universities, other professionals, such as apothecaries, appeared on the medical market. All these groups of professional, semi-, quasi- or even unprofessional healers participated in practising, teaching and conserving the art of healing by copying, writing and compiling medicinal texts. To sum up, medieval recipe books from both the South and the North show that when institutional care was limited, recipes provided information, therapies and prevention for men and women regardless of their social group and in the most intimate areas of life too, such as sexuality.
Source: Infirmity in Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Social and Cultural Approaches by Christian Krötzl, Katariina Mustakallio, pages 239-240

The Latency of Orthodox Christianity to Russia and outlying lands

In the following passage, an Orthodox missionary, apparently based on Archbishop Nil of Irkutsk (1799-1874), is bemoaning the laxity of nineteenth-century Siberian converts in a tale by Nikolai Leskov:
In fact some of the baptized went back to their former belief — in lamaism or shamanism; while others made out of all these beliefs the most strange and absurd mixture: ... Double-belief was maintained not only among the nomads, but almost everywhere among my flock .. . 


  1. Very interesting post. I would point out that medicine - that is, the making of medicines - was more analogous to gardening than to the study of medicine as such. That is, it was very largely independent of matter set down in books, and the development of recipe-books and nicely illustrated books of heath etc. was (as you say) a phenomenon that occurred among the upper middle classes, possibly as a fad but which became of greater interest after the arrival of plague. To as late as the end of the seventeenth century we have formally-trained pharmacist-physicians complaining that they remained largely dependent on women who by then were the chief 'root-cutters' who knew the plants and their properties, grew or gathered them and then sold them to the pharmacists. This situation - where control was not in the hands of book-learned males or members of the upper classes - is one important reason for the establishment of the various botanical gardens. Well after the time the Voynich manuscript was made, of course. And - in my opinion - the plants in the Vms would have been of considerable interest to such people, though they are not plants from the older Mediterranean herbal corpus. In fact, my conclusions agree with the open statement by Georg Baresch that the plants were exotics. It has not pleased many to treat that statement with respect, but I found it justified.

    1. I agree with this overall historical context. Three examples immediately come to mind where knowledge was appropriated from older sources and then the sources forgotten so that when the knowledge is thought of today, it conjures the names solely of a few male scholars. First, Carl Linnaeus owes much of his botanical scholarship to the Sami people, who were his guides during his 1732 expedition. Second, Elias Lönnrot is best known for creating the Finnish national epic, Kalevala, (1835, enlarged 1849), from short ballads and lyric poems gathered from the Finnish oral tradition during several expeditions in Finland, Russian Karelia, the Kola Peninsula and Baltic countries. Third and probably most famous are the Brothers Grimm, who together collected and published folklore during the 19th century. While the names and biographies of these men live on in history, the names and biographies of their sources have fallen into obscurity.

      I would add that during the middle ages onward, events in the north did not correspond with events in the south of Europe. Northern Europe has several extremely powerful queens and noblewomen that changed the course of entire regions, and I don't think this was coincidental by any means. Karelia was known as the Land of Women. Lithuania was the Land of Mary. Estonia's isles were havens for matriculture, and on the mainland was the great cult of Saint Birgitta. In Finland, women had their own boats and boat landings. And the ancient Kven dynasty gave birth to a star-studded cast of female royalty that negotiated with finesse alliances with the male-dominated south while keeping their culture, albeit often in enclaves, intact. Russia was so latent in coming full-swing into orthodox Christianity that the intellectuals spoke of the people having a "double-faith," where they would keep to the old ways even while regularly attending church, and if you look at the lives of pioneers such as St Stefan, a major question he was faced with by the villagers was just how good of a sorcerer he was. That is, it didn't matter so much the doctrine espoused by one's divinity but what one's divinity could do through an earthly agent. A priest might see that as an ideological wilderness, certainly, but that is not to say the people did not have their own systems of belief and practice.

      So I think in the north we have a better chance at tracing bygone traditions, especially if we do not lump southern Europe with northern Europe. I hold that in fact northern Europe's was a very different story, so much so that we need an entirely different lens through which to see this history, one that puts Zeus and his ilk as well as Yahweh and his ilk far in the background, if there at all. Even the "heroic" ventures of the Vikings color our approach to northern Europe's past and obscure a tremendous lot that was going on in trade, knowledge, culture, art, and exploration. All of this makes for a far more quiet tale but one that needs to be told.

    2. One deciding question about the plants is this: do you think they are meant to be a realistic representation or a stylized one? My opinion is that they are rendered in the highly stylized manner of embroidery and therefore have very little in common with the illustrations of contemporary botanical texts, which were striving for scientific identification and cataloging. I think, rather, that the plants are rendered such that folk herbalists would be able to identify them, and this in turn would have nothing to do with later taxonomic methodologies. Women knew how to sew a cornflower by its outstanding physical traits, which very often ended up radically stylized. I don't think that take on herb collection and documentation would have dissipated, and in fact the Voynich may be a bridge of sorts...the last guide book stemming from older ways of inquiry. As such, it appears far more naive than what was being written in southern Europe. So, are the plants exotic? Or are they exotically (naively) drawn? Or perhaps both? I don't think we'll get very far pinning down an origin if we make the plants a fulcrum of study; I don't believe they'll yield those answers. But one question I'm left with is: has there been any expert in medieval folk embroidery who has studied these plants for the language used to render flowers in textile arts? That, to my mind, might yield some very interesting insights.