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Saints, Pilgrimage, and the Healing Powers of Belief
By Robert A. Scott
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Life in the Middle Ages
The German sociologist Max Weber once wrote: "The most elementary forms of behavior motivated by religious ... factors are oriented to this world." He identifies one of religion's most important functions as offering the hope of protection and relief from suffering and distress. The historian Michael Goodich identifies one of the key implications of Weber's insight when he writes: "The supernatural tends to intercede when human mechanisms, such as the state, prove unreliable or flawed, and the brutalization of human relations demands outside intervention to achieve equity." These views imply that the appetite for divine protection and miracles among large segments of the populace is whetted when conditions of daily living are especially harsh and when society's institutions fail to protect people from the resulting dangers. Such insights offer a useful framework for discussing the role of religion and saints among Western European Christians during the medieval and early modern periods.
Modern Westerners sometimes describe medieval life as "nasty, brutish and short," a phrase borrowed from the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes to describe life as it would be in a state of nature, without law, order, or government. This pithy phrase is accurate in many respects, but it obscures an important point. When we look back on medieval times from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, we tend to focus on the things that we have that were lacking then: amenities, technologies, conveniences, public services, and civic institutions that most of us take completely for granted and consider essential to our existence. From this perspective, it is inevitable that medieval life will appear bleak, harsh and dreary. But in the absence of any notion held by medieval people about what twenty-first century life might be like, things may not have seemed so bad to them. (Historians writing in the year 3010 might be similarly perplexed at how we could possibly have enjoyed life in the early twenty-first century, which might strike them as quaint and deprived.)
The Hobbesian depiction of medieval life also discounts features of communal and religious life that served as buffers against adversity, like the comfort and reassurance afforded by religion, the certain belief that divine beings could provide protection, the powerful experience of community (a major benefit of communal existence), and the sense of mutual support and obligation toward other people. These are things that gave meaning to medieval life and helped cushion people against the burden of uncertainty and the precariousness of day-to-day existence. If life was at times frightening and dangerous, it also offered sources of comfort and solace.
The first section of this chapter explains the conditions during the medieval period that made life so difficult. The second describes how community and religion together offered buffers against these harsh conditions. These aspects of medieval life help us understand the roles saints played as protectors and healers of the sick.
CHALLENGES OF MEDIEVAL LIFE
Economic historians estimate that until about the late fifteenth century, more than 90 percent of the population lived by the planting, tending, and harvesting of crops. Subsistence farming entailed constant devotion to producing the food necessary for survival, and to meeting farmers' obligations to landowners.
The amount of land available to peasant families for cultivation varied markedly. In the early fourteenth century, as the population grew, agricultural lands were repeatedly subdivided (a process known as morseling), but after the Black Death the process was reversed, and lands were once again consolidated into larger allotments. The most fortunate, known as yardlanders or virgaters, farmed ten to forty acres of land, with average allotments being about twenty acres. A typical household consisted of five people: husband, wife, and three children ages 5–12. Yardlanders grew grains, legumes, and perhaps a few vegetables. On average, a third of the land was planted with wheat, half with barley, and the remainder with oats, peas, and other crops. The family's basic food needs for a year, mainly bread and pottage (a starchy stew made of vegetables, mainly peas and beans, and sometimes bits of meat or fish) could be met with 53 bushels of wheat, barley, and oats, plus another 24 bushels of barley for brewing ale. A good wheat harvest might yield 8 to 12.5 bushels of wheat per acre (the comparable figure today is 47 bushels). However, 2.3 bushels of that yield had to be set aside for planting next year's crop. Thus, the effective wheat yield per acre in a good year was in the range of 5.7 to 10.2 bushels. The average yardlander planted a little over six acres of what, with a total yield of 38 to 68 bushels.
Bread was the main food staple, constituting an estimated 82 percent of daily caloric intake. It is estimated that a single bushel of wheat, mixed with other grains, provides enough flour for 73 one-pound loaves of bread. Thirty-eight bushels of wheat per harvest would produce enough wheat to make about 2,774 one-pound loaves of bread; a higher yield might produce enough for nearly five thousand loaves.
A family of five needed approximately 11,000 calories per day. The adult male in the family, doing the hard work of farming, needed an estimated 2,900 calories. His wife would need at least 2,150 calories, and each of the children would need at least 2,000 calories per day. A one-pound loaf of bread contained about 1,000 calories, so a typical family needed a minimum of nine loaves of bread per day (i.e., 82 percent of 11,000, or 9,020). In a good year, the land would provide enough grain for this quantity of bread and perhaps even leave a small surplus to sell. But a poor harvest would leave the family going hungry if other sources of food could not be found.
This was life for the typical yardlander. But nearly half of all holdings in the Midlands and south of England through the High Middle Ages were considerably smaller, consisting of perhaps five to ten acres of land. Farmers on these lands, known as half-yardlanders, could not hope to produce sufficient food to live on. Even in good years, a ten-acre allotment, one-third of which was planted in wheat, would yield enough grain for only eight loaves of bread per day, leaving the household 12 percent short of its estimated daily calorie requirement. Thus many poor people were chronically undernourished.
Daily existence, then, was highly uncertain, often unnervingly so. The production and consumption of food overwhelmed all other matters. The economic historian Carlo Cipolla explains: "The poorer the country, the greater the proportion of available income its inhabitants have to spend on food.... [T]he lower the income, the higher will be the percentage spent on 'poor' items such as bread and other starchy foods." He estimates that between 60 and 80 percent of total income was spent on food.
The figures for crop yields that I have cited apply to harvests during good years. But even slight seasonal variations—a single storm, an unexpected dry spell, a late frost after spring planting, or an early frost at harvest—could plunge an entire community into an economic tailspin. Such events were unsettlingly common. Discussing the Chronica Majora, by Matthew Paris, which covers the years 1236–59, the historian Malcolm Barber comments: "No year passes ... without some comment on rain and floods, on drought, on wind and storms, on frost, hail and snow, on the state of the air and atmospheric disturbances, on the tides, on earthquakes ... [and] ... on disease among humans and animals." Another source, describing the years 1086–1348, speaks of the "precariousness of life, deriving ... from man's dependence on the weather and his vulnerabilities to disease."
Though few people seem to have actually starved to death, malnutrition was endemic. Chronic malnutrition, of course, heightened susceptibility to disease. Thus fevers, flu, and even the common cold were widespread and often life-threatening. Even worse, to stay alive during periods of extreme food shortage, especially in winter, peasants might be forced to consume foods that put their health further at risk. Grains stored in damp indoor areas were prone to proliferation of the ergot fungus, which is poisonous when eaten. It attacks the muscular and circulatory systems, causing painful spasms and impaired blood flow to the extremities, which can lead to paralysis. It can also affect the brain, producing hallucinations and erratic behavior, and can eventually be fatal.
Compounding this misery was the fact that, at least until the fifteenth century, the agricultural economy in which most people lived was local. There were no reliable systems for shipping surplus goods from one region to another that was experiencing shortage. Nor were there reliable ways to preserve foodstuffs, except by drying and salting them. In times of need people might be forced to consume the fodder they had set aside for animals—meaning that the livestock would starve or have to be slaughtered for food.
Daily life during the long winters was especially harsh. Cold weather forced people indoors to spend the long hours of darkness huddled around whatever sources of heat they could find. The typical peasant's hovel consisted of one or two rooms, one with an open hearth for heat, and an inner chamber for sleeping and storage. There were few windows to let in light, and those were small and unglazed. The rooms were unventilated, unsanitary, cold, and damp. More fortunate people lived in longhouses, so called because they accommodated animals and family members under one roof but at opposite ends of the building. In the homes of the less fortunate, swine, cattle, and other farm animals were brought indoors to protect them from the elements. In most cases, houses had floors of mud, loosely covered with straw or rushes, or cobblestones. Houses were subject to flooding and chronically damp and moldy. The open hearth was an inefficient source of heat and poorly vented. The thin walls of the houses made them highly permeable to wind and weather. Rats were a constant menace, feeding on grain stored inside the house. Bathing and laundering under these conditions were virtually impossible, and the typical winter diet—salted meat and fish, bread made from coarse, poor-quality grains, and watery ale—virtually guaranteed illnesses caused by dietary deficiencies, infectious agents, and indigestible or toxic foods.
Given the challenges of eking out a living by farming, some were forced or tempted to move to an urban area, but they could expect to find little relief or improvement in living standards there. Instead, town dwellers faced many of the challenges characteristic of life in the country, along with others. During the medieval period, only about a tenth of the population lived in urban settlements (with a population of two thousand or more). The typical medieval urban environment was a toxic mix of filth, noise, rats, flies, and the terrible stench emanating from streets filled with raw sewage and garbage. In the beginning stages of urban development in the tenth century, town dwellers typically lived on plots of land about a quarter or half an acre in size, with room to build houses and outbuildings and to plant gardens. But because most medieval towns were enclosed within city walls, as urban populations grew, the towns soon become overcrowded. As peasants migrated to towns, lots were subdivided, so that by the twelfth century, people were often living in suffocating proximity to one another. Living quarters were placed adjacent to privies, or next to butchers' shops where animal entrails were simply dumped out onto the street, next to mounds of manure. Water supplies were polluted by sewage from privies running into open drains, contributing to the spread of dysentery. As those who have studied urban life during the Middle Ages are fond of pointing out, the only real sanitation laws involved ordinances requiring homeowners to shout, "Look out below!" three times before emptying chamber pots out of their windows and onto the streets.
These urban environments were breeding grounds for diseases of every kind. Archeological analyses of the contents of cesspits in urban areas show high concentrations of intestinal parasites, and though epidemic diseases could strike anywhere, in towns they could spread more rapidly and with far more devastating effects than in rural areas.
Urban dwellers' diets were much like those of rural subsistence farmers. Bread and watery ale were the dietary staples, perhaps supplemented with milk, eggs, and fish. However, fish was scarce in inland areas, and during the winter months the low quality of feed available for livestock led to a progressive decline in concentrations of vitamin A available from milk and eggs. In urban areas, regardless of season, certain foods, milk especially, were difficult to obtain and impossible to store for long periods. The winter diet of the average medieval citizen was essentially devoid of fruits and vegetables, except perhaps for small crops of carrots and cabbages that helped alleviate vitamin deficiencies; even then, the acreage available for such crops was small, and yields were poor. Not surprisingly, illnesses associated with vitamin deficiencies were endemic.
Under these nutritional and sanitary conditions in rural and urban areas, death was omnipresent. It is difficult to state with precision the life expectancy of someone who had survived childhood, but a reasonable guess is that those who managed to remain alive until the age of twenty-five might survive into their early fifties. One source states that although "evidence for infant mortality in the medieval countryside is wholly lacking.... [i]t is almost inconceivable that rates of infant mortality in the late Middle Ages were low, and ... life expectancy at birth was less than thirty-five years, possibly less than thirty years." One reliable source estimates that in the early fourteenth century, life expectancy at birth may have been as low as twenty-five.
Many children died in early childhood. Some authorities estimate that more than one-third of all infants born during the Middle Ages died before reaching the age of five. By comparison, infant mortality (death in the first twelve months of life) for 2005 in the United States was 29.4 per 100,000 live births. Infants died from an array of conditions we would know today as influenza, respiratory diseases, whooping cough, measles, smallpox, accidents, tuberculosis, rashes, dehydration, urinary tract disorders, infections of the stomach and bowel, kidney stones, tumors and swellings of various kinds, hernias, ulcers, carbuncles, sores that would not heal, bone diseases, epilepsy, and even toothaches.
When these high infant mortality rates are combined with deaths among the rest of the population, the result is a very short average life expectancy. According to Carole Rawcliffe, in Florence in the late 1420s life expectancy among laypeople was 29.5 years for women and 28.5 years for men.
Death rates varied among different segments of the population. Those living in urban settlements were at greater risk of premature death. Excavations of urban cemeteries provide vivid evidence of the short and uncomfortable lives of urban dwellers. One such study found that 36 percent of men and 56 percent of women living in urban areas died before age thirty-five, and that only 9 percent of people lived to age sixty or later. Examinations of skeletal remains find extensive evidence of malnutrition. Archeological excavations of one medieval cemetery, St. Nicholas Shambles in London, produced 234 skeletons dating from the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Of the individuals whose bodies were exhumed, 94 percent had died before reaching the age of forty-five. Other studies point to a variety of other kinds of illnesses, including typhoid fever, smallpox, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, and dysentery. Skeletal remains show signs of crippling rheumatism and poor dental health.
Those who sought escape in the quietude of a monastery in fact faced even higher odds of dying prematurely. According to one source, a young adult (age 16–20) who joined the monastic order at Westminster Abbey could expect to survive for only about ten years. Between 1395 and 1505, the monastery at Canterbury experienced a major crisis in mortality on average every four years. John Hatcher's study of the monks of Durham Priory in the years 1395–1529 shows similarly high mortality rates. During outbreaks of the plague, mortality rates in monasteries were astronomically high. Among those who entered the Dominican monastery at Montpellier in France in 1347, only 5 percent of the monks in residence survived the plague of 1347–51; and in the Franciscan convents of Carcassonne and Marseille, every member of the community died.
Excerpted from Miracle Cures by Robert A. Scott. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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