The Fickle Hand of Fate

  • Thomas A. Fudgé
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Much of life in the Middle Ages is no more explicable than contemporary society. Issues of fate and chance appear to dominate daily life in the medieval period and questions around cause and effect flounder on the shoals of coincidence and luck. The wheel of fortune continued to turn and the literary demon Titivillus recorded every event and every word while maintaining comprehensive records for the day of judgement. Beneath the shifting sands of fate and fortune were ideas of order, divine will, religious conviction, and practice. Fear and anxiety were not allayed by the church and this book has argued that metahistorical explanations cannot suffice. Churches and religious houses were in fact only one facet of religious beliefs and practices in medieval Europe.


Literary Career Divine Intervention Canterbury Tale Heavy Stone Medieval World 
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Long ago, when the writing and recording of history was yet in its infancy, a Greek poet noted that of all the terrors, marvels, and wonders in the world, none was more terrifying or stranger than the men and women who occupied its pages. 1 In the Bodleian Library at Oxford, there is a medieval manuscript bearing an inscription: “This book belongs to St Mary of Robertsbridge; whosoever shall steal it, or sell it, or in any way alienate it from this House, or mutilate it, let him be anathema-maranatha. Amen.” Just below that inscription we find another. “I, John, Bishop of Exeter, know not where the aforesaid House is, nor did I steal this book, but acquired it in a lawful way.” 2 The other Middle Ages, like so much of the rest of human history, is filled with the follies and foibles of men and women and there is much that remains inexplicable, curious, possibly even meaningless, but all of that reflects to some extent the nature of medieval mentalities and its anxieties.

Medieval theologians sometimes spoke of divine providence in world events and daily life but perhaps time and chance happened without plan and fate intervened to change the course of history more often than not. “One should not multiply explanations and causes unless it is strictly necessary… Everything is explained, using a smaller number of causes.” 3 In Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the poems comprising the Carmina Burana, and in numerous other medieval works, we encounter the Rota fortunae, or the idea of a wheel of fortune. 4 There are numerous iconographical representations of this concept in medieval sources. The wheel perpetually turns and each person rises on the arc of the wheel but eventually falls off. The historian struggles with notions of causal factors and the unsolvable “what ifs” of the past. What if William the Conqueror had not injured himself in battle? What if Frederick Barbarossa had not fallen from his horse into a Turkish river? What if Humphrey of Bohun had not led the assault on a heavily guarded bridge in northern England? What if the gate had not closed so suddenly behind Joan of Arc at Compiègne? Were these happenings acts of God or random turns on the wheel of fortune?

The death of William the Conqueror occurred on 9 September 1087. The victor of the famous 1066 Battle of Hastings died six weeks after being seriously injured at the Battle of Mantes fighting the French during the last week of July 1087. During the battle, the extremely corpulent William fell heavily against the pommel of his saddle, seriously injuring his intestines. A contemporary chronicler records the mayhem that followed the king’s demise. Pillagers looted the royal residence, stealing almost everything and leaving the corpse practically naked on the floor. During the funeral, a fire broke out and almost all the mourners left to help fight it. Only a few monks remained behind. The stone sarcophagus into which the decedent was to lie unfortunately had been ill prepared by the masons and could not contain the king’s girth. When the desperate monks attempted to squeeze the body into the coffin, “forcibly doubled up,” the king’s bloated bowels burst and an “intolerable stench assailed the nostrils” of all those present. 5 Various perfumes failed to mask the offensive odour so the putrid mess was quickly interred in the abbey of St. Stephen in Caen, Normandy. Had William not been violently pitched into his saddle horn, how different might the later eleventh century have looked? There is no way to tell and all hypotheses are exercises in speculation.

During the third crusade in 1190, and unwilling to wait in the congestion to cross a narrow bridge, Frederick Barbarossa elected to ford the Goksü River (known then as the Saleph). Unfortunately, his horse stumbled and the heavily armoured Barbarossa was thrown into the water. “The veins of his body opened, and he drowned.” 6 The death of the charismatic leader threw the crusading forces into chaos. If Frederick had been more patient, had taken his turn in the queue, and proceeded on, would his presence have altered the outcome of the crusade? The question is unanswerable. His men put the body of Barbarossa into a vat of vinegar in hopes of preserving it, his exploits passed into legend, but the German king was no more. 7

A century and a half after William the Conqueror, some of the English barons were in open revolt against their king, Edward II. Humphrey of Bohun, the fourth Earl of Hereford, was among them. Fighting on a small wooden bridge, on 16 March 1322 during the battle of Boroughbridge, Hereford was felled by an unworthy skulker lurking beneath the bridge who either deliberately or by sheer chance thrust a spear into Hereford’s anus, immediately disembowelling him. 8 Humphrey of Bohun “led the fight on the bridge, but he and his men were caught in the arrow fire. Then one of de Harclay’s pikemen, concealed beneath the bridge, thrust upwards between the planks and skewered the Earl of Hereford through the anus, twisting the head of the iron pike into his intestines. His dying screams turned the advance into a panic.” 9 While this version of events claims more than the sources allow, the death of the Earl altered the struggle against King Edward. What if the wheel of fortune had afforded Humphrey another day or another year? What if he had evaded that spear and won the Battle of Boroughbridge?

On 23 May 1430, at the height of her influence, the tide turned rather dramatically for Joan of Arc. She and her men were fighting at Compiègne. The fight was hot and when reinforcements appeared for the Burgundians the French withdrew towards Compiègne. Joan protected their retreat. Suddenly and without warning the drawbridge to the city and to safety was closed and Joan was left outside with a few of her men. Guillaume de Flavy, the military captain in charge of that town, shut the gate ostensibly to prevent the Burgundians and English from taking the town. There are two versions of events. Either Flavy betrayed Joan or she was overwhelmed by enemy forces. There are suspicions that Joan was betrayed: the gate that was closed was not the main gate and one not essential to the defence of the city and its closing was premature. Her fear was fulfilled. She fell into the hands of the hostile Burgundians. A careful study of the city’s defences indicates there was no imminent danger to the city if the gate had been left open for Joan to gain refuge. Even if the gate was taken, the city could have remained secure. It is an historical puzzle, but it appears that she was deliberately betrayed. 10 What if the gate had remained open a few more moments? How might the Hundred Years’ War have been altered had Joan survived? The question cannot be answered. The fickle hand of fate intervened.

If the wheel of fortune turned against William the Conqueror, Frederick Barbarossa, Humphrey of Bohun, and Joan of Arc, it may have rewarded Pope Clement VI as well as the Hussite military commander Jan Žižka. Clement VI survived the horrific ravages of the Black Death in Avignon in 1348–1349 by sitting between two roaring fires in the heat of summer while many of his staff died along with countless citizens of the town. About 400 died each day and in one six-week period a single cemetery received 11,000 corpses. Two thirds of the Avignon population was affected and nearly all of those died. The graveyards could not hold the dead and so the survivors took to throwing the bodies of plague victims into the Rhône River. 11 Why did the pope survive? How might the fourteenth century church have been different had a different pontiff taken the See of St. Peter? In the summer of 1420, armed soldiers from three dozen nations marched on Prague in a crusade directed at Christian heretics. The fight should have been over in short order with a victory for the crusaders. Žižka’s army was small by comparison and while he had selected a strategic vantage point for defence, it was guarded only by two women, one girl, and twenty-six men. During the main onslaught, Žižka himself was nearly killed and we are told that the entire city of Prague was certain the crusaders would overwhelm the Hussites. All were praying with tears and lamentations, asking God for divine intervention. What happened next was extraordinary. A priest came out of the city holding a monstrance. The crusaders paused. Seeing the sacrament and hearing the tolling of a small bell, the crusaders took fright and fled. Žižka’s men pursued and slaughtered them. 12 What if the priest had not ventured out past the city walls? What if the crusaders had taken no note of him? Why were seasoned military men put on their heels by a relatively common occurrence? How might the history of central Europe at the end of the Middle Ages been different had the crusaders stuck to their mettle? We have no way of knowing.

In addition to the wheel of fortune, there were other factors in the conceptual Middle Ages thought to be responsible for otherwise inexplicable acts. A thirteenth-century Cistercian prior referred to an unnamed demon as the agent of scribal faux-pas who was thought to haunt monastic scriptoria and was to blame for scribal errors in manuscripts. 13 This demon was considered the cause of annoying inkblots, the almost obligatory line skipping associated with medieval copyists, and the reason why certain letters looked different to various scribes, thereby creating otherwise inexplicable errors and variant readings in manuscript sources. We learn this demon’s name was Titivillus and the earliest use of this name occurs in the work of the thirteenth-century Franciscan John of Wales. 14 The literary curriculum vitae of Titivillus has been carefully compiled. 15 The efforts of Titivillus can be illuminated by means of a modern example. A joke of uncertain origin tells the tale of a young monk arriving at the monastery. He is given the job of assisting other monks in copying manuscripts. After a time, he notices that the copies are all being prepared from earlier copies, not from original manuscripts. The new monk tells the abbot that such practices may perpetuate scribal errors. The abbot agrees and goes off to the monastic archive to retrieve the original manuscript that no one had studied in hundreds of years. Hours pass and finally one of the monks goes to see what has happened to the abbot. The visibly distraught abbot is revealed to have discovered that the word transcribed “celibate” was actually “celebrate” in the original text. There are legitimate historical precedents. There is an iconographical tradition within Christian art depicting Moses with horns. In preparing the Latin Vulgate at Exodus 34:29, Jerome translated the Hebrew word qeren, that can mean either “horns” or “rays of light”, as the Latin cornuta that can only mean “horned.” Thus, instead of his face reflecting rays of light, or glowing, Jerome’s Moses has horns! It is thought that this translation error is responsible for the iconographical tradition of Moses with horns. 16 Some medieval writers, had they commented on the matter, might well have ascribed the horned Moses to the nefarious work of Titivillus. What if Jerome had chosen another Latin word?

Perhaps even more pertinent than introducing scribal errors, the work of Titivillus seems to have been one of keeping records. John of Wales noted that Titivillus gathered up the fragments of misspoken words and filled a sack with them a thousand times every day. 17 In other words, Titivillus was associated with acedia (sloth), one of the seven deadly sins. As the recording demon, he made notes about practically everything he heard or saw. These notes were submitted to his higher authorities in hell to await Judgement Day when they would be used against the guilty parties. Both Caesarius of Heisterbach and Jacques de Vitry (the latter in his Sermones Vulgares of the 1220s) point out that Titivillus made note of all prayers that were mumbled or said improperly and these errors were recorded and placed into a sack and likewise conveyed to storage to await the end of time. 18 In an anonymous fifteenth-century English devotional treatise, Titivillus introduces himself and outlines explicitly his daily work: “I am a poure dyuel, and my name ys Tytyuyllus …I muste eche day … brynge my master a thousande pokes full of faylynges, & of neglygences in syllables and words … else I must be sore beten.” 19 The demon was characterized as bearing a heavy sack “full of the syllables cut off, syncopated, or skipped over” by careless clerics in the practice of religion. 20 Étienne de Bourbon claimed that Titivillus recorded the foibles of careless priests who “truncated verses, evacuated them of their sense, skipped pronunciations and obliterated letters”. 21 Clearly, Titivillus was a hard taskmaster. But had not even the meek and gentle Jesus warned that every careless or idle word would be taken into consideration on the day of judgement? 22 Later, St. Ambrose made it even more stringent by suggesting that not only would men and women be held accountable for every idle word but also for every idle silence. 23 According to some medieval sources, Titivillus was a horrible and deformed creature who kept both eyes riveted on his target so as not to miss a single slip. 24 Others claimed he carried an inkhorn over his shoulder, held parchment in his left hand, and a pen in the right as he went about recording. 25 Literary sightings of Titivillus in the Middle Ages are numerous, including one wherein a monk happened on a demon scribbling away. The religious asked: “What are you writing?” To this the demon replied, “your sins.” 26 What if people had not believed in such things?

The persistently revolving wheel of fortune, the unpredictable appearance of the fickle hand of fate, and the incessant errors caused by the recording demon are examples of constructs within medieval mentalities that sought to explain the mysteries of the Middle Ages. If Titivillus caused monks to introduce errors into manuscripts, might he not likewise be responsible for prompting the beetles of Saint Julian and the woodworms of Mamirolle to eat away certain crucial parts of judicial records as noted earlier? What was the real reason behind the unfinished coat of arms in a Latin Gradual of 1552 prepared by Jan Táborský of Klokotská Hora? The coat of arms had been drawn but not coloured. Below the drawing, written in Czech, we find these words: “I was not able to finish it because I was very busy. I intend to complete it at some other time.” Jan Táborský never found the time.

The wheel of fortune sometimes made unexpected revolutions producing outcomes no one could predict. In late May 1424, Jan Žižka and his men were trapped along the Labe River near the Czech village of Kostelec, fifteen miles northeast of Prague. Backed up along a small bend in the river on an escarpment, the only escape route was blocked by a superior military force. The siege lasted a week. On the morning of 5 June, just when the armies loyal to King Sigismund were prepared to pounce, they awoke to discover that Žižka and his men had vanished, seemingly into thin air. Somehow, in the middle of the night, they had managed, with considerable stealth, to move their wagon fortress, supplies, horses, weapons, and personnel down the embankment and across the previously considered uncrossable Labe River. 27 Had the crusaders waited too long? Charlemagne certainly had. The great medieval monarch of the ninth century, for all of his accomplishments, could not write. Later in life he made a concerted effort. His biographer tells us that Charlemagne attempted to learn to write and we read that his pillows were covered with notebooks and tablets and when he couldn’t sleep he would practice. “But he met with little success in these efforts for he had started too late in life.” 28 What if he had learned to write at a young age?

Sometimes medieval people failed to take things seriously enough. King Berengarius I, though aware of threats against his life, in the year 924 chose to sleep one night in a little cottage near the church in Verona and posted no guards since he did not think he was in harm’s way. During the night he was murdered on the instigation of a scoundrel named Flambert. 29 On other occasions, it appears that potential threats may have been taken too literally and too seriously. Once more, crusaders invading Bohemia in 1431 seeking to suppress heresy came out wanting, having been weighed in the balances. Prepared for battle, the formidable crusade force heard the approach of the Hussites, perhaps a mile away, and were filled with fear, broke rank, and ran pell-mell through the Bohemian forest for the relative safety of the German territories. 30 In an epic song of victory written immediately after the debacle at Domažlice, we find this account. “They completely forgot their honour, both poor and rich, abandoned their battalions and did not wait for the attack of our army. They were so afraid, they did not see us and they ran – even though our enthusiastic fighters were three miles away. The Germans were startled by the rattling of the wagons and the neighing of the horses, and the rumble that sounded all over the region. When our people were noisily getting ready for the fight, they [the crusaders] were frightened by the sound of the bugles, as well as by the song of our brotherhoods.” 31 What if the crusaders had held firm? They outnumbered the Hussites by a two or three to one ratio. How are we to explain their desperate flight?

An old Middle Eastern tale of unknown origin, but possibly either from a ninth-century Sufi source or the Babylonian Talmud, compiled in the third to fifth centuries, sets out the idea of the Rota fortuna admirably. There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions. Shortly thereafter, the servant came back, pale and shaken, and reported that while in the marketplace he had been jostled by a woman in the crowd and when he turned he saw that it was Death. The ominous woman looked at the man and made a threatening gesture. The servant asked his master to borrow a horse in order to escape and thereby avoid his impending fate. He determined to go to Samarra, about seventy-eight miles north of Baghdad, hoping to evade Death. The merchant lent him a horse, and the servant rode away as fast as the horse could gallop. Later, the merchant went down to the marketplace and saw Death. He asked why she had made a threatening gesture to his servant that morning. Death replied, the gesture had not been threatening but instead a bit of surprise seeing him in Baghdad, for they had an appointment that night in Samarra. 32

The other Middle Ages in many ways was not terribly different from the mainstream of medieval history. Rich and poor, young and old, men and women were subject to the same vicissitudes of life. They had similar concerns and fears, and were as quick to accept many of the same explanations and remedies. At the dawn of the Middle Ages the bombastic and disagreeable Bishop Cyril of Alexandria died. In a controversial letter attributed to Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus, and addressed to Bishop Domnus of Antioch, found among the Acts of Chalcedon, we read that “at last and with difficulty the villain has gone.” The gravediggers were advised to place “a very large and heavy stone” on the grave of “this wretch” lest he provoke the dead to such extent and they being “annoyed at his company” seek to return him to the land of the living. 33 If heavy stones could prevent the dead from returning to the material world, then the idea of Titivillus causing an ink smear on vellum was not thought ridiculous. Mentalities ranged from a consciousness of the demonic in the rhythms of everyday to a preoccupation with the foolish. Hence, when a ring was dropped on the stone floor of a German church during a wedding, the priest might loudly tell the devil to stay out of the matter while in an English church in 1330 the vicars laughed and amused themselves throughout the service by dropping melted candle wax on the bald heads below in the choir. 34 How can we reconcile such divergent approaches to religion?

We find strict concern for law and order as well as unlikely evidence indicating the hatred and fear of heretics. In the former, we read that in 1499 a French woman who had committed suicide by hanging was ordered taken down and rehanged properly by the executioner of Évreux. 35 Elsewhere we read that the will of John Werke, drawn up in 1463 in the Parish of SS Anne and Agnes in London, included a specific bequest of 6 s. 8d. for the purchase of faggots to be used for the burning of heretics. 36 Even in the midst of the utterly mundane, we encounter evidential bits of hostility towards outsiders. For example, in the Annals of Xanten we read that in 838 the winter was very wet and windy. On 21 January there was thunder. On 16 February there were loud thunderclaps. Five days before Christmas, during the night, there was a great crash of thunder. Yet in the midst of these unremarkable meteorological observations the chronicler recorded, without explanation, that “in the same year a wicked heresy arose.” 37 At other times, we find the sympathizers of dissenters recording their disdain for the establishment. In a medieval Czech manuscript we find in a capital letter a caricature of a monk bound in fetters and shouting in pain. A second example is a drollery of a monk beneath a capital letter on a lower margin with the inscription “Ha Ha Monachus veritas vincit” (ha ha, monk, truth will prevail) while a third image depicts a monkey wearing a tonsure walking away from another capital letter carrying Czech bagpipes. 38 Elsewhere, the medieval religious establishment is inexplicably portrayed by a monk lifting his habit to reveal his backside [see frontispiece]. His right hand spreads his buttocks to reveal his asshole, huge testicles, and long, dangling penis. All the while, he looks over his shoulder at the viewer. 39 Here is the perfect depiction of medieval religion and its anxieties.

Critics of the Middle Ages maintain that “the Gothic cathedrals exist for the shame of those who made them”. 40 That is opinion, nothing more. And yet, the parody “holy gospel according to the Mark of Silver,” which exults greed, opulence, and wealth to the highest levels of the church promised salvation to those who were not led astray with empty words but who practiced the gospel of greed to the extent of refusing to allow the Son of Man to enter unless he was able to make generous gifts to the doorkeepers, chamberlains, cardinals, and popes. Though this was never official ecclesiastical policy, it appeared to be practiced in certain times and places. 41 At least that was the opinion of the church’s critics.

As the wheel of fortune turned inexorably, there was magic, or at least a semblance thereof. A sermon preached somewhere between 1415 and 1420 tells a story about a Lollard heretic living near Oxford. The fellow went to church to mock and during fifteen celebrations of the Eucharist that day, the man placed a small stone in his pocket each time he observed the consecration of the sacrament. Later he ran into a fellow heretic and told him the tale and asked if he would like to know how many gods he had seen that day. Reaching into his pocket, where he expected to find fifteen stones he discovered but one. Amazed and shaken out of their stubborn disobedience to God and the church, the two heretics promptly reconverted. 42 Was it divine intervention to save these erring souls? What if the heretic had found fifteen stones in his pocket?

The story can be contrasted with the problems of the thirteenth-century papacy. The papal throne lay vacant for twenty-seven long and acrimonious months. Finally, a pious hermit sent word that should the cardinals fail to elect a pope, divine judgement was likely to occur. The hermit turned out to be the 85-year-old Pietro del Morrone who was then promptly elected pope without the usual conclave. Morrone vigorously protested, and attempted to flee, but in the end was persuaded to become Pope Celestine V. His pontificate was an abysmal failure and a study in ineptitude. Administratively incompetent and politically naïve, Celestine blundered about in much apparent confusion and even appointed more than one applicant to the same benefice. After five disastrous months he resigned. He desired to return to his former life as a hermit but was imprisoned by his successor Boniface VIII and died seventeen months thereafter. 43 What if he had never sent that letter of admonition? Celestine’s later life was a tragedy. An unwilling pope, a reluctant pawn of powerful forces, and a gloomy prisoner, the fickle hand of fate surely played a key role in the downfall of Morrone.

Aspects of the Middle Ages, especially in terms of religious reform and renovation, can be illustrated to some degree by the well-known twelfth-century tale of how a council of mice decided to deal with their sworn enemy the cat. 44 The wisest mouse suggested they place a bell on the cat that would signal the cat’s approach and being warned, the mice could better avoid the snares set by their feline enemy. The mice agreed. It was a splendid plan. But then the question arose: who would volunteer to put the bell on the cat? One by one each mouse demurred. The tale’s recorder, Odo of Cheriton, drew out the metaphorical implications noting that many priests, monks, and ordinary people who wished to rise up against their prelates on account of irregularities or abuses, or misuses of power, could all agree that something should be done to eliminate whatever problem existed. But no one was willing to file charges, confront the prelate, or otherwise lead a proper revolt. In the end, the prelates continued as always. Undoubtedly, Titivillus made copious notes and filed reports in hell on all these perfunctory councils to await the day of judgement. Those depicted in the Last Judgement fresco at Albi each carry a book clutched to their chests. The books of the damned are filled with notations of their sins, crimes, and faults. 45 Could these be the records made by Titivillus? What if there had been no consciousness of sin, punishment, or salvation?

The Middle Ages are filled with ghosts. Alfred the Great died on 26 October 899 and was buried in Winchester Cathedral. According to legend, his ghost wandered the cathedral precincts and distracted the priests during their nightly prayers. At length, Alfred’s mortal remains had to be moved elsewhere. 46 Most former residents of the Middle Ages were more benign, having been dispatched by the wheel of fortune or subjected to the vanity of vanities and went silently and whose passing caused neither a ripple nor made a sound. From a religious or theological perspective, existing in the Middle Ages meant living life in eschatological time. The world hastened onward to its pre-determined Christian consummation. The lives, thoughts, hopes, and perspectives of these men and women were shaped by the forces of the medieval world. Yet even in the hallways of the other Middle Ages were the seeds of change. Indeed, there can be no such thing as motionless history. 47 Despite the randomness, violence, human striving, and questing throughout the medieval period, and the apparent thrusts of the fickle hand of fate, the hopes, humour, and histories of those fascinating times remain right up to the present. Traces of it are found in the unlikeliest places. On 5 October 1904, Dr. Samuel F. Upham, a theologian at Drew Theological Seminary in New Jersey, lay dying. Friends and family had gathered around the bed and at length the question arose if Upham was still alive. The suggestion was advanced that someone feel his feet on the assumption that no one ever died with warm feet. At that precise moment, Upham opened one eye and drily said, “Jan Hus did.” Those were his last words. 48

What if one of the greatest theological minds of the Middle Ages had yielded to temptation? Or what if another towering figure had been a poor gambler? In the case of the former, the 19-year-old Thomas Aquinas was locked in a room with a beautiful prostitute. His family hoped to dissuade him from taking holy orders and becoming a Dominican friar. The Italian whore used her beauty, caresses, and enchantments to no avail. Thomas chased her from the room with a burning firebrand in hand and went on to become the “angelic doctor” of the medieval church. 49 What if the fair courtesan had succeeded in seducing Thomas? Presumably, there would have been no Summa theologica. In the latter case, a man challenged Bernard of Clairvaux to a game of chance. The bet was either Bernard’s horse or the man’s soul. Bernard won. The fervent gambler set aside his material pursuits, took up the spiritual path, lived a life of great sanctity, and ended his days in heavenly reward. 50 But what if the winning bet of the day had been the horse? The fickle hand of fate played an imprecise role in the shaping of the medieval centuries and in the determination of what I have elaborated as the other Middle Ages. What if the wheel of fortune had turned in different ways?

Peter of Blois declared in the twelfth century that he relied on the past in the sense that he was really just a dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants and from that elevated position was able to see farther than they could. 51 Even earlier, using the same metaphor, Bernard of Chartres claimed the dwarfs could not only see farther but could see even more. 52 What did they see? What if the giants were looking the wrong way? And what determines right and wrong, either now or in those Middle Ages? What if the ancients pointed mainly to errors, misconceptions, and ideas no longer useable? But by what calibration are such judgements decided? Thompson was right. We must be wary of the tendency to condescend. From the end of the European Renaissance, we find the suggestion that wherever there was desire for learning there would be much arguing and opinions. Yet there was only one viable response: Let truth and falsehood grapple together. Who ever knew truth to be put to the worse in a free and open encounter? 53 As students of the medieval world, one way to learn from the past is to take seriously the inexplicable factors that form the other Middle Ages. This includes paying attention to visual images, heretics and deviants, laws and lawbreakers, mentalities and anxieties, as well as religious practices, along with the likes of Titivillus and the wheel of fortune too. Only in this way can the past be empowered to speak once more.


  1. 1.

    Sophocles, Antigone, Scene 2, lines 332–3 in Diane J. Raynor, ed., and trans., Sophocles’ Antigone: A New Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 17.

  2. 2.

    Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 132. The house in question may well have been the twelfth-century Cistercian abbey of St. Mary while the episcopal signatory belongs to John Grandisson, bishop of Exeter from 1327 to 1369. I cite the inscriptions from G.G. Coulton, Life in the Middle Ages, 4 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), vol. 2, p. 118.

  3. 3.

    Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), p. 91.

  4. 4.

    Bothius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. V.E. Watts (London: The Folio Society, 1998), book 2, Chap. 1, p. 59, F.N. Robinson, ed., The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 2nd ed (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 195 and for the Carmina Burana see the poems Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi and Fortune Plango Vulnera. Benedikt Konrad Vollmann, ed., Carmina Burana: Text und Übersetzungen (Berlin: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 2011).

  5. 5.

    Orderic Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History, ed., Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), vol. 4, pp. 78–109. The battlefield injury was recorded by William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum, 2 vols, ed., Thomas Duffus Hardy (London: Sumptibus Societatis, 1840), vol. 2, book 3, § 282, p. 460.

  6. 6.

    The Old French Continuation of William of Tyre, in Peter W. Edbury, The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), pp. 87–8.

  7. 7.

    Another source says that Frederick drowned while attempting to swim across the river. Ansbert, Historia de expedition Friderici imperatoris, in Quellen zur Geschichte des Kreuzzuges Kaiser Friedrichs I, ed., Anton Chroust in MGH, SRG, n.s. (Berlin: Weidmann, 1928), p. 91.

  8. 8.

    Friedrich W.D. Brie, ed., The Brute or the Chronicles of England (London: Early English Text Society, 1906), part 1, p. 219.

  9. 9.

    Ian Mortimer, The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, Ruler of England 1327–1330 (London: Jonathan Cape, 2003), p. 124.

  10. 10.

    There are several accounts of the event including Joan’s, Perceval de Cagny, Chronique des ducs d’Alençon, Engerrand de Monstrelet, Chroniques, and Georges Chastellain, Chronique de ducs de Bourgogne, in Jules Quicherat, ed., Procès de condemnation et de rehabilitation de Jeanne d’Arc dite la Pucelle, 5 vols (Paris: Société de l’histoire de France, 1841–9), vol. 1, pp. 207–8 and vol. 4, pp. 34, 401–2, 446–7.

  11. 11.

    Information on the particulars come from two papal physicians Gui de Chauliac and Raymundus Chalmelli de Vinario. Noted in Hans Zinsser, Rats, Lice and History (New York: Little Brown, 1935), p. 89 and Ole J. Benedictow, The Black Death 1346–1353: The Complete History (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2004), pp. 97–8.

  12. 12.

    Vavřinec of Březová, Historia Hussitica, pp. 383–91.

  13. 13.

    Caesarius of Heisterbach, Dialogus miraculorum (c.1230) in Strange, ed., Caesarii Heisterbacensis monachi ordinis cisterciensis Dialogus miraculorum, dist. 4, Chap. 9, vol. 1, p. 181.

  14. 14.

    Johannes Galensis, Tractatus de penitentia, c. 1285 in London, British Library MS Royal 10 A. ix, fol. 40v, also MS Royal 4 D. iv, fol. 257r; Paris Maz 295, fol. 86v; and Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 402, fol. 336v. I owe the references to Margaret Jennings, “Tutivillus: The Literary Career of the Recording Demon” Studies in Philology 74 (No. 5, 1977), p. 16.

  15. 15.

    Jennings, “Tutivillus: The Literary Career of the Recording Demon”, pp. 1–95. See also Paula L. Pressley, “The Revenge of Titivillus” in Robin B. Barnes, ed., Habent sua fata libelli, or, Books Have Their Own Destiny: Essays in Honor of Robert V. Schnucker (Kirksville: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1998), pp. 111–120.

  16. 16.

    Ruth Mellinkoff, The Horned Moses in Medieval Art and Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970).

  17. 17.

    Johannes Galensis, Tractatus de penitentia, London, British Library MS Royal 10 A. ix, fol. 40v.

  18. 18.

    Thomas Frederick Crane, ed., The Exempla or Illustrative Stories from the Sermones vulgares of Jacques de Vitry (London: Folk-Lore Society, 1890), p. 100 (Latin text) and pp. 233–4 for comment. This appears to be the earliest discernable literary appearance of Titivillus.

  19. 19.

    John Henry Blout, ed., The Myroure of Oure Ladye, reprint (London: Early English Text Society, 1898), pt. 1, Chap. 20, p. 54.

  20. 20.

    Jennings, “Tutivillus: The Literary Career of the Recording Demon”, p. 8.

  21. 21.

    Marche, Anecdotes historiques, légendes et apologues, tirés du recueil inédit d’Etienne de Bourbon, p. 184.

  22. 22.

    Matthew 12:36.

  23. 23.

    “Deinde si pro verbo otioso reddimus rationem, videamus ne reddamus et pro otioso silentio.” Ambrose, De officiis 1.9, in PL, vol. 16, col. 26. The critical edition is Ivor J. Davidson, Ambrose: De officiis, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), vol. 1, p. 122.

  24. 24.

    Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum historiale, book 7, Chap. 118, vol. 4, p. 265.

  25. 25.

    Caesarius of Heisterbach, Dialogus miraculorum, p. 181.

  26. 26.

    Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Laud. misc. 315, fol. 91r for which I rely on Jennings, “Tutivillus: The Literary Career of the Recording Demon”, p. 24. There are many variant spellings of the demon’s name in medieval sources while Jennings notes the numerous medieval texts in which Titivillus appears. See pp. 86–7, 90–1.

  27. 27.

    Windecke, Denkwürdigkeiten zur Geschichte des Zeitalters Kaiser Sigmunds, pp. 197–8.

  28. 28.

    Einhard, Vita Karoli Magni, ed., G.H. Pertz in MGH SRG, vol. 25 (Hannover: Hahn, 1911), p. 30.

  29. 29.

    Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis, in MGH SRG, vol. 41, ed., Joseph Becker (Hannover: Hahn, 1915), p. 69.

  30. 30.

    There are several accounts of the fifth crusade which was engaged near the Czech town of Domažlice in southwestern Bohemia. These have been translated in Thomas A. Fudge, The Crusade against Heretics in Bohemia, 1418–1437: Sources and Documents for the Hussite Crusades (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 314–319. See also Mark Whelan, “Walter of Schwarzenberg and the Fifth Hussite Crusade reconsidered (1431)” Mitteilungen des Instituts für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung 122 (No. 2, 2014), pp. 322–35.

  31. 31.

    FRB, vol. 5, p. 545 and a newer edition in Bohumil Ryba, ed., Vavřinec z Březové: Píseň o vítězství u Domažlic (Prague: Orbis, 1951), pp. 48–9 with Latin and Czech versions.

  32. 32.

    The Muslim source is Fudail ibn Ayad, Hikayat-I-Naqshia and the Jewish story is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah, 53a. The story was popularized in W. Somerset Maugham, Sheppey: A Play in Three Acts (London: Heinemann, 1933), p. 112.

  33. 33.

    Theodoret, Ep. 180, in PG, vol. 83, cols. 1489–90. There is a new edition in Théodoret de Cyr, Correspondance, vol. 4, ed., Yvan Azéma [Sources Chrétiennes, vol. 429] (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1998) which I have not consulted.

  34. 34.

    The Register of John de Grandisson, vol. 1, pp. 586–7. Grandisson was the bishop of Exeter.

  35. 35.

    Noted in Esther Cohen, The Crossroads of Justice: Law and Culture in Late Medieval France (Leiden: Brill, 1993), p. 142.

  36. 36.

    William McMurray, ed., The Records of Two City Parishes: A Collection of Documents Illustrative of the History of SS. Anne and Agnes, Aldergate, and St. John Zachary, London (London: Hunter & Longhurst, 1925), pp. 199–200.

  37. 37.

    Annales Xantenses, in MGH SRG, vol. 12, ed. B. de Simson (Hannover: Hahn, 1890), p. 10.

  38. 38.

    Mladá Boleslav, Regional Museum MS 1/70 olim II A 1, now referenced as 091.885.223/1. Latin Gradual from the third quarter of the fifteenth century, fols.109v, 115v and 176r.

  39. 39.

    Gorleston Psalter (14th century), London, British Library MS Additional 49622, fol. 61r.

  40. 40.

    Jean Jacques Rousseau quoted in Mâle, La Cathédrale d’Albi, p. 32.

  41. 41.

    Mark of Silver, from the Carmina Burana, a thirteenth-century manuscript collection of some 254 poems gathered in Austria possibly near Steckau. Preserved in the Benedikbeuren Abbey in Bavaria until 1806 and since that time kept at Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS clm. 4660/4660a. The text, translation, and commentary of poem 44 appears in Jill Mann, “Satiric Subject and Satiric Object in Goliardic Literature” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 15 (1980), pp. 63–86, at pp. 75–7.

  42. 42.

    Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 649, fols. 89v–90r. I owe the reference to Anne Hudson.

  43. 43.

    Francesco Petrarch, De vita solitaria in Opere Latine (Turin: Unione tipografico-editrice torinese, 1904), pp. 110–112 and Jon M. Sweeney, The Pope who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation (New York: Image Books, 2012).

  44. 44.

    Odo of Cheriton, Parabolae, c. 1200, in Les Fabulistes Latins, vol. 4, ed., Léopold Hervieux (Paris: Libraire de Firmin-Didot, 1896), pp. 225–6. Odo was previously thought to have been a Cistercian or Praemonstratensian monk but this has been an unproven assumption and it is more likely he was never a religious.

  45. 45.

    Mâle, La Cathédrale d’Albi, p. 33.

  46. 46.

    William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum, vol. 1, book 2, §124, p. 194.

  47. 47.

    Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, “L’histoire immobileAnnales ESC 29 (1974), pp. 673–92 and reprinted in Ladurie’s Le Territoire de l’historien, 2 vols (Paris: Gallimard, 1973–8), vol. 2, pp. 7–34.

  48. 48.

    Editorial, The Christian Century 71 (7 July, 1954), p. 817.

  49. 49.

    William of Tocco, Hystoria beatii Thomae, Chap. 2, in Acta sanctorum quotquot toto orbe coluntur, ed. J. Bollandus, vol. 1 (Antwerp, 1643), col. 659. The history was written between 1316 and 1321.

  50. 50.

    Charles Swan and Wynnard Hooper, eds., Gesta Romanorum (New York: Dover, 1959), pp. 321–2.

  51. 51.

    Letter 92 in PL, vol. 205, col. 290.

  52. 52.

    This according to John of Salisbury, Metalogicon, iii, 4. The best edition is J.B. Hall and K.S.B. Keats-Rohan, eds, Ioannes Saresberiensis, Metalogicon [Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis, vol. 98] (Turnhout: Brepols, 1991).

  53. 53.

    John Milton, Areopagitica, ed., John W. Hales (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1875), pp. 51–2. Originally published in 1644.


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Authors and Affiliations

  • Thomas A. Fudgé
    • 1
  1. 1.School of HumanitiesUniversity of New EnglandArmidaleAustralia

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