History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

11 May 2007

Things That Went Bump in Charlemagne's Night

Things That Went Bump in Charlemagne’s Night

Every age has its bugaboos, and the Carolingian era is no different. But what frightened people in the 8th century weren's monsters from outer space or hard disk crashes or global warming or even tainted catfood. Eighth century fears were more basic. What scared Charlemagne (crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day in 800 A.D., in Rome) and his people were the products of Mother Nature–natural catastrophes: the Forest; Night; Winter; and Plagues.

The Forest. Ermold the Black, an 8th century chronicler, described the forest as “wooded haunts of savage beasts and swampy wastes.” Forests were dense, deep, dark places of mystery where otherworldly spirits dwelt and getting lost could cost you your life. Oaks, beeches, maples, birches, ash, chestnut etc. formed an impenetrable tree-webbed place full of imagined trolls, forest folk, dragons, enchanted springs, etc. as well as actual savage animals (bears, ferocious wild boar, ravenous wolves). So threatening were hungry wolves in the winter of 813 that Charlemagne dispatched hunters to track down cubs and poison them and hunt their full-grown parents using dogs, traps, and pits.

Winter’s Discontents. Winter’s freezing weather stopped most activities, including military campaigns (except for a few notable instances when soldiers or refugees crossed over a river that was frozen solid. Traveling during winter was rare. Enemies often attacked; the Normans, for instance, attacked Paris during the winter of 861. Floods washed away crops and houses and stone walls.

An unusually cold winter signaled a scanty harvest, and that meant starvation. Famine killed thousands in some years. In Burgundy in 868, not enough men were left in one area to bury the dead. In 874, one-third of the population of Gaul and Germania (roughly the areas of France and Germany) died of hunger. Starving people in Gaul ate earth mixed with flour shaped like loaves of bread; horses; and occasionally each other.

Night. Charlemagne feared little, but darkness terrified the Carolingians, their emperor included. Thieves and bandits roamed at night; malevolent forces were set free; spirits of the dead disturbed the living. Even people who were rich enough to have rushlights to dispel the darkness risked death from accidentally set fires. Night was when terrifying dreams were taken as omens, and witches brewed their magic potions.

Plagues. In the days before antibiotics, before bacteria and germs were “discovered,” when home or folk remedies could be more superstitious misinformation than effective symptom relievers, a plague which settled on an unsuspecting populace was thought of as a scourge of God. Its mysterious source went unidentified; people sickened and died by the thousands and churches filled with the prayerful survivors.

Smallpox, typhoid, cholera, to say nothing of bubonic plague and malaria were not the only killers; a warrior with an infected wound could die of septicemia (blood poisoning) or gangrene or a clumsy un-anaesthetized limb amputation with a crude, unsterilized saw. Infections, even small ones, could be life-threatening despite a “wise woman’s” application of clotted cobwebs or moss or bathing with nettle-leaf infusions or cauterization with a hot iron.

Add to this the natural process of childbirth, which (because of malnutrition, overwork, etc.) often went awry, and home-made birth control methods (banned by the Church) and herbal potions that were often fatal to both mother and fetus and you have a picture of 8th century life: dangerous; scary; unforgiving.

Charlemagne, however, lived a long and happy life with no illness; he died at age 72.
Primary source: Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Pierre Riché (U. of Pennsylvania Press)


Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Gah! This is scaring me and I don't even have to face it!

Seriously, I can't imagine living in a time when you could accidentally cut yourself and think, "Well, I hope I don't die from that."

7:44 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I read there was actually utility in the application of clotted cobwebs to wounds...cobwebs often bore the mold Penicillium!

What a way to to get your antibiotics.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great post, Lynna! I love the fact that many home remedies really did work, and it’s interesting to see just what the daily fears of people were (because aside from the wolves, they hadn’t really changed by the 18th century when my books are set).

9:09 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Re childbirth (from my hooked on classics side), I recently learned that Euripides' Medea says that she'd rather go to battle three times than give birth once. And she was probably right, in terms of the odds.

9:14 AM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Well, gosh, Lynna. My first manuscript was romanticizing the English on the 9th century. Heh. To be sure, I glossed over a lot of this terrifying stuff.

A great post to revisit for Halloween. :)

When you raise a child you realize how much of the fear is taught. For the first couple years, she was fine to wake up in the winter mornings in the dark and play and chat to herself in the dark by herself. Once she started going to school, then she started needing a night light. She adored dragons, till a children's book read to her by one of her teachers talked about dragons as scary monsters.

Kalen, a roundabout way of saying that no wonder the things people feared had not changed even a millennium later. Fear gets passed down.

Electricity was a big jump up, and suddenly scary stories had to be modified. :)

11:45 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I've always wondered how much the Church -- which sought to keep people in line in so many ways then, not least of which was because the clergy were often the only literate ones in a town -- fostered these folkloric superstitions. Because of the lack of good hygiene, I imagine the ills and diseases that could fell someone were indeed frightening. And the clothes were often as filthy as the people. When I was studying stage combat, I remember learning that in later centuries men would strip to the waist before a duel because the germs from their dirty shirt could infect any wound they received. I think that literature has romanticized this era ever since Chretien de Troyes whipped up his tales of the Arthurian legends. Thanks for the reality check and the treasure trove of information on life as it really was.

6:42 AM  
Blogger Gretchen Craig said...

Two of your scary elements really strike me. One if the fear of the dark. Hadn't thought much about taht, but with windows being paltry and few, often no candles, etc. the dark was a different placed from what most of us have known. The other was about starvation. I can't really get my head around seeing people die from lack of food. Not that I don't know about it even now -- intellectually -- but to imagine it. Can't? Don't want to?
It's really really scary.

12:18 PM  

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