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What We Learned about the Middle Ages This Week

We at Medievalists.net read through a lot of books and articles, and we often come across many great pieces of information that we think are worth sharing. Here are five things we read this week, including about the Black School in Wittenberg, a ransom demand of pepper, what Vikings carved into the walls, what ivory can tell us about medieval walrus hunting, and strange ideas about skin colour in the Middle Ages

The Wizard of Iceland – Sæmunder the Wise (1056-1133)

Sculpture by Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893–1982) in front of the main building of the University of Iceland.  Photo by Alarichall / Wikipedia

From Wisdom: A History, by Trevor Curnow :

Although he is most definitely a historical figure, a great deal of legend has grown up around him. Many stories are told of how he outwitted the devil on numerous occasions. It is said that he studied at a mysterious place called the Black School in Wittenberg. The school acquired its name from the fact that it had no windows and was always dark inside. ‘There were no teachers, either, the students learned from books written with fiery letters that could be read in the dark.’ Those who studied there were not allowed outside again until they had finished their course, which took at least three years. The truth is a little more prosaic, in the Sæmunder left his native Iceland for France in order to study for the Church. When he returned to Iceland he became a priest at Oddi. He was evidently a man of some learning and wrote a book in Latin about the kings of Norway. Later legend, however, turned Sæmunder into something of a folk hero, and an Icelandic symbol of resistance to Danish rule. His magical exploits sometimes resemble those of a trickster.

The Importance of Spices

From The Triumph of Seeds, by Thor Hanson:

Tracing that story reads like a history of commerce, exploration, and civilization itself. In ancient Egypt, for example, peppercorns from India’s Malabar Coast somehow made their way up the nostrils of dead pharaohs – they were the royal embalmers’ most prized preservative. When Rome found itself surrounded by Visigoths in AD 408, the barbarians demanded 3,000 pounds of pepper as part of their ransom to end the siege. King Charlemagne issued a decree in 795 that called for cumin, caraway, coriander, mustard, and a host of other flavorful seeds to be grown in gardens throughout the Frankish Empire. Paying feudal tithes with spices became common during the Middle Ages, and the practice still persists: when the current Duke of Cornwall (alternatively known as the Prince of Wales), England’s Prince Charles, officially accepted his title in 1973, he was presented with a pound each of pepper and cumin.

Viking Graffiti

Runes from the Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, Orkney - photo by islandhopper / wikipedia

From Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story, by Michael Rosen:

A vision of the popular culture of Viking warriors comes from some graffiti they scratched on the walls of a prehistoric stone grave-chamber at Maeshowe in the Orkneys, where they sheltered or held their meetings:

Úfamr Sigurðarsonr cut these runes

Ingibjorg the lovely widow

It’s true what I say, the treasure was moved out of here. The treasure was taken away three days before they broke into the mound.

Happy the man who can find the great treasure

Thorni fucked Helgi carved.

You can learn about this site and its runes from the documentary video Maeshowe Mound of Wonders

Skin Colour and Fear of the Other

From Muslims in the Western Imagination, by Sophia Rose Arjana:

As early as the fifth century, black skin functioned as a symbol of the devil and other menacing religious frights. Dark skin was understood a theological consequence of sin. Gregory the Great claimed that Ethiopia was a sign of the fall of mankind, and other Christian writers followed suit, tying dark skin to sin and perdition. Jeremiah surmised that the Ethiopian’s skin could change like a leopard – one of many examples in which Africans were likened to animals. Muslims were often depicted with black, blue, or purple skin. Muslims reportedly worshipped Venus, a black goddess, “dressed in a gold robe with a striking red blob for its hellish tongue.” Islam has, from the beginning, been an identity situated in racial, ethnic, and cultural difference.

Was it for walrus?

In their article, ‘Was it for walrus? Viking Age settlement and medieval walrus ivory trade in Iceland and Greenland’, a team of scholars led by Karin M. Frei of the National Museum of Denmark have made preliminary findings into understanding where ivory in the Middle Ages came from. Using isotopic analysis of archaeological walrus ivory, they believe that they will be able to understand if the specimens came from Iceland or Greenland, and what parts of Greenland the hunting took place. The article, which appears in World Archaeology, Volume 47:3 (2015), states:

In Iceland, walrus hunting rapidly declined as farming expanded and when later medieval trade increased in the thirteenth–fourteenth centuries it was fuelled by the bulk goods of dried fish and woollen cloth. In contrast, in Greenland current evidence suggests that walrus hunting may have always played a central role in economy and society, requiring substantial re-alignment of the subsistence economy to support both local and increasingly distant and large-scale walrus hunting and processing activity. Despite the realities of geography, by the end of the Viking Age c. 1050 CE, Greenland may have been paradoxically more tied to distant markets than was Iceland. Continuation of the Viking Age market production strategy of low-bulk/high-value exports in the high Middle Ages is one major point of contrast between the Greenlanders and their Icelandic kin and may well represent a critical point of pathway divergence.

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