Darkness Visible: Dante’s Clarification of Hell in the ‘Divine Comedy’

Dante primarily intended to explain biblical justice through his contrapasso. By Joseph KameenArtist and Educator Contrapasso is one of the few rules in Dante’s Inferno. It is the one “law of nature” that applies to hell, stating that for every sinner’s crime there must be an equal and fitting punishment. These punishments, however, are rarely[…]

The Life and Legacy of Medieval Italian Poet Dante Alighieri

Dante’s written works are a heady mix of philosophy, politics, and literature. Introduction Dante Alighieri (1265-1321 CE) was an Italian poet and politician who is most famous for his Divine Comedy (c. 1319 CE) where Dante himself descends through Hell, climbs Purgatory, and arrives at the illumination of Paradise, meeting all sorts of historical characters along the[…]

Oleg of Novgorod: Setting the Stage for the Rise of Medieval Kievan Rus

According to East Slavic chronicles, Oleg was supreme ruler of the Rus’ from 879 to 912. Introduction Oleg of Novgorod[1] was a Varangian prince (or konung) who ruled all or part of the Rus’ people during the late 9th and early 10th centuries. He is credited by Rus’ Chronicles with moving from either Staraya Ladoga[…]

Rurik of Rus: Varangian Rule in Early Medieval Russia

The Rurik dynasty (or Rurikids) went on to rule the Kievan Rus’, and ultimately the Tsardom of Russia, until 1598. Introduction Rurik (c. 830 – 879), according to the 12th-century Primary Chronicle, was a Varangian chieftain of the Rus’ who in the year 862 gained control of Ladoga, and built Novgorod in the same year.[…]

How the Needs of Monks and Empire Builders Helped Mold the Modern-Day Office

The needs of the times have always influenced office space – whether for the colonial empire or a growing commerce. Introduction The coronavirus pandemic has forced most people to create an office space of their own – whether by devoting a room in our homes for work, sitting socially distanced in common areas or just[…]

Medieval Monastic Cistercian Architecture

Most Cistercian abbeys and churches were built in remote valleys far from cities and populated areas. Introduction Cistercian architecture is a style of architecture associated with the churches, monasteries and abbeys of the Roman Catholic Cistercian Order. It was headed by Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), who believed that churches should avoid superfluous ornamentation[…]

The Development of the Church in Medieval Christianity

Christianity had developed as a religious idea in Roman Palestine and slowly spread throughout the Empire. By Fr. Chad J. Stumph, D.D. Christianity transformed from a persecuted, unorganized group of believers into a hierarchical, dominating Church over the course of seven centuries, developing alongside the changing political environment of post-Roman Europe. The development of the[…]

Monsters and Mythical Beasts: An Introduction to the Medieval Bestiary

A bestiary, or “book of beasts”, was an attempt to describe the world as it was known (or imagined) in combination with allegory. In the Middle Ages, animal stories were immensely popular throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. The people of the time were, of course, dependent on wild and domestic animals for[…]

Medieval Bookbindings: From Precious Gems to Sealskin

These deluxe bindings are known as treasure bindings, because of their lavish and high-quality materials and craftsmanship. We tend to focus on the inside of the Library’s collection items, on their varied texts and remarkable illustrations. But the physical outside of a manuscript can be just as intriguing. Most medieval and early modern manuscripts no[…]

The Social and Legal Status of Women in the Middle Ages

The very concept of “woman” changed in a number of ways during the Middle Ages. Introduction Women in the Middle Ages occupied a number of different social roles. During the Middle Ages, a period of European history lasting from around the 5th century to the 15th century, society was patriarchal and this type of patriarchal[…]

Bologna as the Law School Model in Medieval Europe

Bologna remained a preeminent center for legal study and training for many centuries. Introduction The origins of modern universities can be traced to the 11th century, when the formal teaching of Roman law began at Bologna, Italy. The city became the center of a great revival of legal scholarship rooted in the study of the[…]

The Imperial Diet at Regensburg during the Holy Roman Empire

All Imperial Estates enjoyed immediacy and, therefore, they had no authority above them besides the Holy Roman Emperor himself. Introduction The Imperial Diet was the deliberative body of the Holy Roman Empire. It was not a legislative body in the contemporary sense; its members envisioned it more like a central forum where it was more[…]

Sequestration: The Long Consequences of Stealing a Medieval Papal Election

During the sede vacante in 1241, Frederick II blocked the arrival of some cardinal electors known to be hostile to his interests. Introduction The 1241 papal election (21 September to 25 October)[1] saw the election of Cardinal Goffredo da Castiglione as Pope Celestine IV. The election took place during the first of many protracted sede[…]

A History of the Anti-Semitic ‘Blood Libel’ Hoax since the Middle Ages

This hoax has resulted in the arrest and killing of Jews throughout history. Introduction Blood libel or ritual murder libel (also blood accusation) is an antisemitic canard which accuses Jews of murdering Christian children in order to use their blood as part of religious rituals. Historically, these claims—alongside those of well poisoning and host desecration—have[…]

‘The Blue Sickness’: Impacts and Consequences of the Medieval ‘Black Death’

Medieval people called it “the blue sickness”, “La pest” (the pestilence), and “the Great Mortality”. NOTE: Hover mouse over highlighted text for further information. Introduction Beginning in 1347 and continuing for a full five years, a devastating plague swept Europe, leaving in its wake more than twenty million people dead. This epidemic now known as[…]

Comets, Omens, and Fear: Understanding Plague in the Middle Ages

In medieval times natural phenomena, such as comets and eclipses, were regarded as portents of natural disasters, including plagues. Introduction On August 30 2019, a comet from outside our solar system was observed by amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov at the MARGO observatory in Crimea. This was only the second time an interstellar comet had ever[…]

A Brief Historical Overview of Death Masks since the Ancient World

Not until the 1800s did such masks become valued for themselves. Introduction A death mask is a likeness (typically in wax or plaster cast) of a person’s face after their death, usually made by taking a cast or impression from the corpse. Death masks may be mementos of the dead, or be used for creation[…]

The Medieval Livonian Confederation and War

The Confederation was an imposition from the outside onto the Baltic people. Introduction The Livonian Confederation was a loosely organized confederation in present day Estonia and Latvia ruled by the Order of Teutonic Knights of Livonia which existed from 1228 to the 1560s. It contained five small states: The Livonian Order, Archbishopric of Riga, Bishopric[…]

The Little-Known Role of Slavery in Medieval Viking Society

The institution of slavery had long antecedents in Scandinavia, probably going back thousands of years before the time of the Vikings. One of the most enduring components of the Viking image is the notion of freedom—the adventure of a far horizon and all that went with it. But for many, this was an unattainable hope.[…]

The Rus’ Khaganate in the Early Medieval Era

The Annals of St. Bertin refer to a group of Vikings, who called themselves Rhos (qi se, id est gentem suam, Rhos vocari dicebant). Introduction The Rus’ Khaganate was a polity that flourished during a poorly documented period in the history of Eastern Europe (roughly the late eighth and early to mid-ninth centuries C.E.).[1] A[…]

Medieval Factors That Set the Stage for the Renaissance

Exploring some changes in European life that led to the Renaissance. Introduction Much of the power in Europe from the 1300s to the 1600s lay in three major areas: the city-states of Italy, the Papal States, and the Holy Roman Empire. During these years, Italy was not the unified country it is today. Instead, it[…]

Life in Medieval Towns and Villages

Exploring trade and commerce, homes and households, disease and medicine, crime and punishment, and leisure and entertainment. Introduction At the start of the Middle Ages, most people lived in the countryside, either on feudal manors or in religious communities. But by the 12th century, towns were growing up around castles and monasteries and along trade[…]

Common Misconceptions about Medieval Arms and Armor

Some misconceptions are due to lack of education and experience, and some are utter nonsense and historically vapid. Introduction The field of arms and armor is beset with romantic legends, gory myths, and widely held misconceptions. Their origins usually are to be found in a lack of knowledge of, and experience with, genuine objects and[…]

Infantry in the Middle Ages

The relative inexpensiveness of the infantryman, combined with a shortage of manpower, provided incentives for expanding their use. Introduction Despite the rise of knightly cavalry in the 11th century, infantry played an important role throughout the Middle Ages on both the battlefield and in sieges. From the 14th century onwards, there was a rise in[…]

The Roman Catholic Church in Medieval Europe

Exploring the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe during the High Middle Ages, from about 1000 to 1300 C.E. Introduction The Church was the center of life in medieval western Europe. Almost every community had a church building. Larger towns and cities had a cathedral. Church bells rang out the hours, called people[…]

Innovations and Adaptations in the Medieval Islamic Renaissance

They improved ways of doing things that influenced the Scientific Revolution in Europe centuries later. Introduction In the Middle Ages, Muslim people developed a rich culture. Here are many contributions made by Muslims to world civilization. By 750 C.E., Muslims ruled Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, and much of central Asia. Over the next[…]

Medieval Christian Saints and Magical Charms as Protection from Animals

Saints were sometimes associated with protecting animals, particularly in magical texts or ‘charms’. St Francis of Assisi (1181/82–1225) is traditionally known as the patron saint of animals and the natural environment. During the Middle Ages, however, other saints were sometimes associated with protecting animals, particularly in magical texts or ‘charms’. One such charm is found[…]

The Fake Medieval Donation of Constantine

The document’s validity had been contested since 1001 CE until finally proven to be a forgery. Introduction The Donation of Constantine is a forged Roman imperial decree (Diplom) by which the 4th-century emperor Constantine the Great supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the Pope. Composed probably in[…]

The Decline of Feudalism in the Medieval World

Exploring the key events that contributed to the decline of feudalism in Europe from the 12th through the 15th centuries. Introduction In England, several political changes in the 12th and 13th centuries helped to weaken feudalism. A famous document known as Magna Carta, or Great Charter, dates from this time. Magna Carta was a written[…]