Originally posted 5th April 2024

The town of Lucera in southern Italy has been an attractive location for settlers since the Bronze Age and was a key strategic site in both the Roman and Medieval eras, boasting one of the largest Roman amphitheatres in southern Italy as well as a castle built by Emperor Frederick II in the 1200s. However, another trait of medieval Lucera was that - also thanks to Fredrick II - it spent eighty years as an entirely Muslim enclave just 240 miles from Rome. This status was, unfortunately, not voluntary as most of the Muslim inhabitants were deported to Lucera from Sicily and many native Christians were removed to make way for them, but the people of Lucera preserved their language, culture and religious practices and enjoyed a diverse economy with options for social mobility; some Muslim soldiers from Lucera rose to be knighted and given their own fiefs and tax exemptions. Overall, the story of Lucera is an interesting insight into the lives of Muslims living in a Christian-majority country during the height of the Crusades.

The deportations to Lucera took place in the aftermath of a major rebellion in Sicily led by the Muslim leader Muhammad ibn ‘Abbad, which was such a serious threat to Frederick’s sovereignty on the island that ibn ‘Abbad had started minting his own coins. According to legend, the rebellion ended after a group of ibn ‘Abbad’s men defected to Frederick and opened the gates of the Muslim stronghold. Ibn ‘Abbad agreed to meet with Frederick, but in Frederick’s eyes he was a traitor and he had him executed. According to another account, ibn ‘Abbad was supposed to have been given safe passage to North Africa, but never made it and his daughter then took over the rebellion, succeeding in luring 300 of Frederick’s knights into a trap before she was finally defeated. Regardless of whether that particular story is true, the rebellion continued until 1225, five years after deportations to Lucera began and possibly fuelled by those deportations.

Forced population relocation as a response to rebellion wasn’t uncommon during this period and, in fact, Frederick was being unusually merciful when he decided to deport the Muslims of Sicily rather than massacring them; he may have done this for diplomatic reasons as he was in negotiations with prominent Muslim leaders at the time over the ownership of Jerusalem. These leaders do seem to have taken an interest in Lucera and may have insisted on the people deported there being allowed comparable freedoms to their Christian neighbours, but never seem to have had an issue with the relocation itself. Alternatively - or additionally - Frederick may have had economic reasons to preserve the Muslim population; many of the people in question were skilled artisans and the deportations resulted in significant economic damage to Sicily as well as hardship for those deported and the local Christians who were displaced. However, once things had settled Frederick went out of his way to implement economic policies that benefited the Muslims of Lucera such as setting up a fair to bring in trade; archeological investigations have found imported pottery from as far away as China. At the time, Frederick’s treatment of the Muslims was considered so preferential that he was accused of heresy, but his actions were not entirely altruistic; Lucera was also heavily taxed.

Originally posted 12th April 2024

John Buridan was a noted medieval philosopher who was especially influential in the nominalist school of philosophy during the 1400s, though he himself worked during the 1300s. Nominalism is the philosophical doctrine that universals (such as “human” as opposed to “Richard”, Richard being an individual example of the universal “human”) are names without any reality in themselves, i.e. abstractions. It was the opposite of the philosophical doctrine of realism, which originated with Plato and held that apparently-abstract concepts such as “human” or “green” have an existence as real things beyond individual examples. This debate polarised medieval universities from the 1300s onwards.

Buridan was an arts master at Paris University from the 1320s until about the 1350s; he was probably dead by 1361. His career as a teacher was unusually long, since the norm was to seek a doctorate in theology or law (and to join a religious order, which he did not), but his long career gave him significant influence and he is credited with condensing nominalism into a framework that could be used as an approach to logic, metaphysics, and natural philosophy - early science.

In his role as an Arts Master, Buridan taught on logic and the writings of Aristotle. He wrote extensive commentaries on Aristotle as well as the Summulae de Dialectica (Compendium of Dialectic), one of the most influential logic textbooks of the medieval period. His writing was circulated around universities across northern Italy and eastern Europe, continuing to influence the way philosophy was taught for centuries. Relations between the arts faculty and the theology faculty were often fraught, especially after some parts of Aristotle were condemned by the Bishop of Paris in 1277 because they contradicted Christian teachings and this meant that Buridan sometimes had to tread carefully, but he squared the circle by carving out seperate spaces for philosophy and theology, saying that theology took precedence over philosophy but was mostly concerned with truths that are believed independent of evidence such as articles of fair, while philosophy dealt with other sciences and was above them.

As well as the very few historical facts we have about Buridan, he was a sufficiently famous figure to have attracted a number of colourful - if unlikely - stories. According to one legend, he hit the future Pope Clement VI over the head with a shoe, and another claims that he died because the King of France had him thrown into the Seine in a sack after discovering that he’d had an affair with the Queen. While not as well-known as his fellow medieval philosopers Thomas Aquinas and William of Occam (mostly remembered for Occam’s Razor), Buridan is credited with shaping the medieval understanding of knowledge itself into something approaching a modern concept and being a key figure in the history of both philosophy and science as a result.

Originally posted 19th April 2024

Spinning and weaving have been a major occupation of women of every class in all ancient and medieval societies for which we have evidence, associated with women to the point where the modern words ‘spinster’ and ‘wife’ for unmarried and married women refer to the craft of spinning: the relation to ‘spinster’ is obvious, but ‘wife’ may originate in a proto-Indo-European word meaning “to twist”. In Anglo-Saxon England every home would probably have included a loom where lower-class women made fabric to clothe their families and upper-class women practised weaving as art. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath describes God’s gifts to women as “deceit, weeping, and spinning”.

However, despite its clear practical purpose, weaving was seen as magical and potentially threatening; the Penitential of Burchard of Worms, written in 1010 by the bishop of Worms in modern Germany to provide guidance on the correct penances for various sins, describes “women … who when they begin their weaving hope to bring it about that with incantations and with their actions that the threads of the warp and of the woof become so intertwined” that the magic incorporated into the cloth will be fatal to anyone who doesn’t use a counter-incantation. Others were less threatened by the possibility of magic cast by weaving; an Anglo-Saxon remedy for jaw pain called among other things for “the spindle with which a woman spins”, to be worn around the sufferer’s neck.

Throughout the medieval period, the various stages of cloth-making remained on of the chief occupations for women. This included as wool merchants: a woman was listed as a Merchant of the Staple (an established exporter of wool) during the reign of Edward IV. However, for the most part women worked in the preliminary stages of clothmaking: preparing and spinning the wool. By the later Middle Ages weaving, especially on a quasi-industrial scale, was mostly done by men, possibly because the complex treadle looms required for the more complicated cloth designs that were now fashionable were extremely expensive. Despite that, weaving was still associated with women and was part of the arts practised by courtly ladies, who were expected to be accomplished in weaving as well as embroidery and hunting.

Originally posted 25th April 2024

The Golden Haggadah is one of the oldest surviving Spanish haggadot, dating from the 1300s. It is believed to have been made in Barcelona, though the illuminations show French influence in details such as the gold backgrounds that give the book its name and the appearances of the human figures. These influences may come from French manuscripts imported to Spain but the artists - there were at least two - may have been a refugee from the expulsion of Jews from France in 1306. There are also Italian elements in the drapery and architectural style of the illuminations, reflecting artistic influences current in early 14th-century Barcelona. The Golden Haggadah was probably taken to Italy during the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and was certainly there by 1603, when it was given to Eliah Rava by his new wife Rosa, an event commemorated by a specially-added title page and a copy of her family’s coat of arms.

A haggadah is a copy of the liturgy used during the Passover Seder and the Golden Haggadah is divided into three parts: 14 full-page miniatures of episodes from Genesis and Exodus; a decorated copy of the Haggadah text itself; and a collection of over 100 liturgical poems written for Passover. Many of the scenes in the miniatures have captions containing elements of contemporary Midrash: Jewish interpretations of sacred texts. Another textual influence came from the Catholic Church, which from 1589 onwards required material contrary to its teachings to be censored out of Jewish books. The Golden Haggadah was amended three times: in 1599, 1613, and 1629.

While it is a particularly beautiful example and believed to be the oldest, the Golden Haggadah was one of a group of spectacular illuminated Haggadot produced in Spain in the early 1300s. A second example, known as the Sister Haggadah, was created at around the same time with similar artistic subjects, though the art is cruder. It is also more clearly influenced by Italian art, with greater awareness of perspective and a different colour scheme. The existence of these two similar books with different artistic influences suggests a trend for such illuminated books among wealthy patrons from the Spanish Jewish community and a lively community of artisans to produce them.