Oracle of History

Guiding you through the ages

Archive for the category “Medieval History”

Her-Story Heroes: Joan of Arc

If you are a reader of my blog, you know that my last post made a promise to shine light on more female stories since our history is so often written and starring men.

I am a woman of my word.

To start out this series, I decided to begin with an old favorite: Joan of Arc

As someone who grew up in France, Joan of Arc was always introduced as a strong female role model. It doesn’t hurt that France is a catholic country and she was a martyr for the faith as well.

But what’s real and what’s religious folk tales? It’s difficult to say since most of our written sources from the middle ages comes from the Church and not many regular folks could read or write at the time (don’t even get me started on women!).

Here’s what we know:

Brought up in a very religious Catholic household, Joan started hearing voices at the age of 13. She claimed that it was God and Saints giving her the mission to save France from its enemies at all cost. This meant installing the future Charles VII as King.

She also was thought to have special powers because she had convinced a local magistrate to nullify an arranged marriage.

In May 1428, she made her way to Vaucouleurs, the stronghold of Charles, and convinced him in a private meeting that she was the one to save France. She apparently revealed information only someone who was conversing with God would know.

In the meantime, she had amassed a huge amount of followers as news of her quest made the rounds. This is when she famously cut off her hair and wore mens clothes.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In 1429, she goes to Orléans with an army and defeats the Anglo-Burgundian troops, putting Charles VII on the throne. Bolstered by her success, she then pushes to Paris, but fails to take control of the city. She was finally captured in Compiégne when she was thrown from her horse.

Thus started her downfall! She was tried for such things as heresy, witchcraft, and “dressing like a man.” She ended up signing a declaration saying that she made up God talking to her and that she would stop this heretic behavior.  She ended up defying this declaration by continuing to wear men’s clothes in prison. Some historians suspect this was to prevent being assaulted by the guards. This decision ultimately led to her being burnt at the stake.

What a world, huh? I wonder what those people would make of gender neutral clothing today…

So what’s the truth? 

Some historians have attributed her visions to an undiagnosed form of schizophrenia. In her trial, she cited seeing things, hearing voices, and bright lights following her around. Others have thought that she may have contracted bovine tuberculosis, which can cause seizures and dementia, from drinking unpasteurized milk and tending cattle as a young girl.

We can debate for hours whether or not God actually spoke to her, but what we can agree on is that she was a pioneer, especially as a female. As a peasant girl it seems even more unlikely.

Women were more likely to die in childbirth than in the battlefield in the middle ages. Funnily enough, there’s evidence to suggest that Joan never actually fought on the battlefield. She was more of a mascot, meant to boost morale. She did get hurt twice, but that was most likely because she was a target. She was also known for having a temper!

Either way, there’s enough evidence to suggest that she was a real person and an impressive one at that. Mental health issues aside, she died at the age of 19, having made someone King of France. What did you accomplish at that age?

As a bonus, here’s the video that inspired me to write this post:

Painting Through Time

I’ve always been fascinated by paintings. Sometimes it feels like a portal into another world or time period. From an academic stand point, it makes sense, especially if they are paintings from a time when there were no photographs. It’s important to remember, however, that these paintings are what these people want us to see.

Can you imagine someone 100 years from now, judging our society from the memes we leave behind on the internet? Perish the thought!

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Go support the artist on Tumblr here

That being said, paintings can be an amazing source of knowledge about a time period. It gives us a visual reference of how they want to be portrayed. Here, I will list some of my favourite paintings and the historical importance behind it.

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula, 1641, by Claude 

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Seaport with Embarkation of Saint Ursula, 1641 by Claude. Downloaded from the National Gallery website for non-commercial purposes. 

As someone who has studied the conversion of the Roman Empire from Paganism to Christianity, I love the retelling of Saintly stories. Religion is a very common theme in paintings, especially Christian stories in a Western world that relied on it for many of its values and morality.

The story of Saint Ursula is interesting because there is no confirmation of her even having lived. Unlike many male saints, there isn’t a collection of written work that we can point to as proof that she existed. The legend is based on an inscription at the Church of Saint Ursula in Cologne. What is even more interesting is that her martyrdom was taken out of the General Roman Calendar after it was revised in 1969. Maybe because it couldn’t be verified?

The story goes that the British Princess Ursula left to join her future husband, a pagan governor in Gaul (now modern-day France). She came across the channel with 11,000 virginal handmaidens, but before she married she decided to conduct a pilgrimage to Rome by traveling across Europe. According to legend, she met her untimely death in Cologne where the Huns, who were not known for the Christian charity, beheaded her along with all her handmaidens. The Church of Saint Ursula is supposedly located where some of these beheadings happened.

The painting fascinates me because, Claude, the artist, would have painting this over a thousand years later. It shows that not only the legend was thought valid, but it must have been part of the stories of martyrdom told in Church at the time. The painting itself is laced for foreboding since anyone familiar with the story will know that Ursula and her handmaidens would meet an unfavourable end.

Picture Gallery with View of Ancient Rome, 1757, by Giovanni Paolo Panini

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This painting was commissioned by Count Étienne François de Choiseul, the Ambassador of the French King Louis XV to Rome.  It is one of four paintings, meant to show the glory and beauty of Rome. The other paintings show St Pete’s Basilica as well as views of “Modern Rome” (well, modern for the 1750s).

I like this one because it shows the value that people put on the ancient monuments, even then. It makes me wonder if the history of Rome would have been harder to uncover if it hadn’t been for society’s obsession with the Ancients. The painting also shows how little these ancient monuments have changed since this was painting. A testament to historical preservation and priorities.

It’s also a testament to the artist who not only had to paint an art gallery, but had to create many smaller pieces of artwork in great detail. The longer you stare at it, the more is revealed.

A Regatta on the Grand Canal, about 1740, by Canaletto

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Canaletto was famous for his paintings of Venice, mostly sweeping tableaus of life in the city. One of the great events of Venetian life was (and still is!) the Carnival, but did you know that there is also a regatta that starts the festivities? This painting shows us just that.

It’s part of a series of twelve paintings about the Grand Canal, the Carnival being a very popular subject for painters. This painting showcases a race with colourful banners demonstrating people’s support for a particular team – not much different than how we show support for sports teams today. It also gives us a glimpse of what Carnival might have been like all those years ago. The Carnival regatta has been an institution since 1315. I wonder what it was like the first time they raced?

I particularly love this painting because it brings the Grand Canal to life, showing a colourful and joyous moment in Venice. It makes you want to jump right through the frame and join the celebration. On a personal note, one of my life goals is to be in Venice for Carnival and this certainly gives me the itch to travel.


Bonus Painting 

After looking at these paintings, I can’t help but think how strange it must have been to live in a different country and only know the world through paintings. What happened when they heard about a big international event? Maybe they said something like this….

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Medieval Manners 101 – Ignoring the giant monkey in the room

Every once in a while I decide to explore a museum by myself and it always leads me down a rabbit hole of adventure.

That’s because history = FUN

The lucky winner today was the Musée de Cluny!

It’s a medieval museum on the grounds of an old abbey in the middle of historic Paris.

What I love about the middle ages is that this period in history was like Game of Thrones, but so much better because it’s real.

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My trip to the museum reminded me of how crazy those lords and ladies could be. So I thought I would share the crazy.

Lady of the Unicorn 

The Cluny Museum is actually famous for having this mysterious tapestry of a woman with a unicorn. There are 6 panels – 5 of which actually illustrate the 5 senses.

The sixth is, however, a mystery. The label reads “A mon seul désir,” which basically means “This is my only desire.” The woman is leaving a tent and giving away an expensive looking necklace.

What does this mean? Nobody knows! Investigations must be made, I think.

What struck me the most, however, was the fact that the tapestries featured many different animals that you don’t normally see in medieval imagery.

The unicorn is an obvious one, but each panel also featured a monkey!

I was listening to an audio guide while I was looking at the Lady (and her menagerie) when I noticed that the guide completely skipped over the fact that there are monkeys in the tapestry!

No mention of symbolism or significance – nothing!

So let’s play a game.

I’m going to show you pictures of the tapestry. Let’s see how many you can find.

Bonus if you can tell me the significance 😉

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Sense of Touch

My only desire

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Sense of hearing

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Sense of smell

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Sense of sight

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Sense of taste

Monks are people too!  

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Have you ever had to stand and pray for hours at a time?

I’m guessing not.

Those poor medieval monks did though…

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised to see that they cheated!

Yes, as you can see, they had a very small ledge on the underside of their folding chairs so that they could rest, while still looking like they’re standing up.

Genius!

Where old meets….old (?!)

One of the cool things about this museum is that it actually takes up three buildings. One of which is an old Roman bath!

Note : The French are very picky about their ancient Roman history and say “gallo-romain,” which specifies to the roman province of gaul. It’s their equivalent of saying Roman Britain.

There is actually a room where you can see the divide in between the medieval abbey and the Roman baths.

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Roman Wall

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Medieval fortifications (Roman wall behind me)

I think it’s very cool that you can see the fluidity of change and how we reuse urban space over time.

Bonus picture! 

There was a part of the museum that showcased tapestries that are meant to represent the daily life of the nobility. 

I came across this gem :

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Sorry for the poor quality, but as you can see it’s a woman taking a bath with a bunch of people around her, including musicians.

All I could think when I saw this was how awkward it must have been like this :

Farewell Lords and Ladies, until next time!

  

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