Guest Post by Patricia Bernstein –

In the 12th century in England, there were no carriages, no fireplaces, very few actual chairs, no beer, and possibly no underwear for women! These are just some of the surprises I encountered when I switched from researching the early 18th century, the setting for my debut novel, to exploring the late 12th century, the setting for my current project.

I was also surprised by what I did find in the 12th century.

In the 1100s, sophisticated bills of exchange were already being developed to support a thriving international trade. These bills of exchange permitted merchants to travel and trade in a dangerous time without carrying large sums of cash. Here’s an article about the practice.

I also learned that, as early as the late 12th century, “fast food” was available in medieval English towns, from alewives and commercial bakers who produced ale and daily bread, and from sellers of meat pies and pasties, hot cakes, pancakes and wafers. Purveyors of “fast food” were often open all hours, serving townspeople who either had no room or implements for cooking in their lodgings or were exhausted at the end of a workday and had no energy to prepare a meal. See this article for more information.

One of the most interesting and unexpected surprises I found was the possibility that a kind of anesthesia called “dwale” was used by healers during the Middle Ages. According to one recipe, dwale involved a mixture of bile, opium, lettuce, bryony, henbane, hemlock and vinegar. A sponge soaked in this or a similar mixture would be held under the patient’s nose during a procedure. Afterwards, the patient would be awakened by rubbing his or her cheeks with salt and vinegar. Click here for more information.

Some of the ingredients mentioned above can be extremely dangerous. Who knows how many patients treated with dwale never awoke? Over the centuries, it seems, the details of the process were forgotten. What an intriguing notion—that anesthesia was used to ease the sufferings of the ailing back in the Middle Ages but was not available, for instance, to soldiers wounded in our Civil War in the 19th century.

But even the aspects of medieval society briefly referenced here make it very clear that we cannot think of the 12th century in terms of a primitive people living heedlessly and chaotically amid the utmost squalor, although they may have lacked what we consider basic amenities. The medieval world in England in the 1100s was a complex society, intricately ordered in its own way. The challenge is to understand as much of it as we can from such a distance of time without excessive condescension from our exalted, modern position.

When we writers of historical fiction research medieval life, we lack entirely many of the sources that are available for later periods. Unlike professional historians of the Middle Ages in England, we are probably not going to spend months delving into the minutiae of the administrative records of the English monarchy (close rolls, patent rolls, pipe rolls, fine rolls, and the like). We are trying to tell a story, not settle some argument between academics over the taxes collected on a certain day in a certain city in 1157. But thank goodness for the fine efforts of those same academics in the many papers and books they write that summarize their more interesting findings. These are wonderful sources for novelists.

The churchmen who wrote the great chronicles of the Middle Ages don’t always agree on exactly what happened, much less on how to interpret or understand what happened. In any case, they are concerned almost entirely with the doings of the very great. Novelists are concerned with the great, but also the less great and even the peasants and merchants and common folk whom the chroniclers would have regarded as insignificant.

We also lack the rich trove of secular art from later periods that tell us so much about the details of daily living in those times. In studying the 12th century, we must glean what we can from such sources as manuscript illuminations and the intricate sculptures that adorn medieval churches and cathedrals. For instance, the wearing of the bliaut in the late 12th century–a long formfitting gown with full skirts and long, hanging sleeves, laced on the side and loosely cinched by a low-slung girdle–is depicted both in manuscript illuminations and in figures sculpted on certain churches. If we can date the creation of the manuscript or the time period when a certain part of a church was being built or sculptures added, perhaps we can identify when a particular fashion was popular.

One source, however, argues that descriptions of clothing in the romantic chansons of the period are more reliable than church sculpture, because sculptors were more likely to create clothing that fit the artistic demands of the images they were creating than by any effort to accurately depict current fashion. This article provides more information.

For the purposes of my medieval novel, I was particularly interested in what I could find out about the lives of Jews in England during the late 12th century. Here we have both a substantial amount of information and large blank areas to contend with. We know the Jews came to England from Rouen in Normandy in the wake of William the Conqueror because he thought Jewish capital and moneylending skills would be useful to him. We also know that Edward I expelled all the Jews from England in 1290. They did not return in any numbers until they were invited back by Oliver Cromwell in 1656, again because he thought the Jews, who had been successfully expanding trade in Amsterdam, would bring similar benefits to England.

The Codex Manesse is a collection of ballads and poetry compiled between 1300 and 1340 in Zurich. Among many other illustrations in the Codex is this image representing a Jewish poet Susskind von Trimberg. The Codex includes poems allegedly written by him between 1250 and 1300. I have chosen this image because, although Susskind is identified by what was by then considered his “Jewish” hat and beard, there is nothing negative about this image. He is shown conversing with a group of clerics.

Between 1066 and 1290, some Jews made enormous fortunes in England, but, at the same time, hundreds were brutally massacred in the aftermath of the coronation of Richard the Lionhearted. In 1144 in Norwich, England, the infamous blood libel got its start—the vicious lie that Jews murdered Christian children in order to use their blood in Jewish religious rituals. The story seems to have been concocted by a Jewish convert to Christianity and then was then seized on by a monk who was trying to promote a cult surrounding a martyr that would attract pilgrims and riches to the Benedictine Abbey in Norwich in the manner that the cult of the martyr-king Saint Edmund attracted pilgrims to the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds.

The tragic stories of Jewish martyrdom, and evidence that a few Jews were fabulously wealthy are part of the historical record, recounted in the chronicles and other official records of the time, including Jewish sources. But what was life really like for Jews in England on a day-to-day basis during this period?  That’s harder to clarify.

We know that during the 12th century in England, Jews were not required to wear special identifying clothing or badges. That indignity came later, after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, and even then was adopted slowly in England and in varying degrees in different cities. At the time my story takes place, in the 1190s, the Jews in England dressed just like everyone else.

One treasured source of original work on the history of the Jews in England was the pioneering Jewish historian Cecil Roth (1899-1970). His highly detailed and comprehensive studies reveal that, despite popular stereotypes, not all the Jews in England during the Middle Ages were moneylenders. Roth identifies Jews who were physicians, goldsmiths, merchants in cloth and wine, painters and even a ladder maker and a fencing master! There must also have been Jews who were ritual butchers versed in the laws of kashrut. The homes of wealthy Jews were often staffed by Jewish servants.

According to Roth’s A History of the Jews in England, during the 12th century, Jews occasionally entertained Christians in their homes with wine that “was prepared according to the Jewish rite.” They rode together with Christians on journeys, invited Christians to Jewish weddings, and sometimes stored their valuables in Christian monasteries and churches. There were even cases of intermarriage and of the conversion of Christians to Judaism which did not end in catastrophe.

Cecil Roth enlivened the tables of statistics and sometimes rather dry data that fill his histories, with his own imaginative glimpse of a moment in the life of Jews in a medieval English town, which, by my reckoning, would have taken place in the 13th century, when Jews were required to wear identifying badges. This is a passage from Roth’s The Jews of Medieval Oxford:

From time to time an exotic, bearded figure, marked off all the more clearly by the coloured badge in the traditional form of the Ten Commandments which he was forced to wear over his heart, would thread his way nervously through the throng on his way to the synagogue or House of Study, or the womenfolk would go from stall to stall buying choice delicacies in honour of the Sabbath, seemingly indifferent to the jeering of the mob. But they stirred out of doors as little as possible. Oblivious to the shouting and chaffering, they sat in their houses conning the traditional literature and awaiting their clients; the traditional sing-song of the Talmudical students would sometimes blend with the chanting of a religious procession as it passed between the kneeling townspeople.

How much I appreciate glimpses such as that passage of what the daily life of a medieval Jew might have been like in England, devised by a beloved and erudite historian who was in a position to conjure up such imaginings with authority.

Image sources:

Patricia Bernstein grew up in Dallas. After earning a Degree of Distinction in American Studies from Smith College, she founded her public relations agency in Houston. She is the author of three nonfiction books including Ten Dollars to Hate: The Texas Man Who Fought the Klan which The Austin American Statesman included in a list of 53 of the best books ever written about Texas. Patricia lives in Houston with her husband, Alan Bernstein, where she pursues her other great artistic love, singing with Opera in the Heights and other organizations. A Noble Cunning is her debut novel.

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