Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

5 How-To Manuals from the Middle Ages

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

From dying to being a king, these manuals had people in the Middle Ages covered.

1. How to Die Well

The Middle Ages was a good time to learn how to die. If you avoided the Black Plague and survived the 100 Years War, you still might get some of your disease-laden drinking water on a hangnail and die of septicemia. It was during this time that an instructional pamphlet, Ars Moriendi: The Craft of Dying (top photo), started making its rounds among the population of Europe. Appearing sometime in the early 1400s, the Ars Moriendi was a small book of six chapters, each one written to help a dying soul and those attending him to ease the passage into death. As the book grew in popularity and became widely translated, a second, shorter version, which had more pictures and less writing, became available.

The book was written with the idea that in a man’s desperate last hours, he becomes a target for Satan like never before. Ars Moriendi teaches how to withstand that battle. As the first chapter says, death need not be feared. In fact, the book gives a “commendation of Death, and the cunning to die well.” Other chapters help a person avoid despair in their final hours, pose questions to be asked of him to make sure his eternal soul is in order, and offer comforting prayers to say by his bedside.

2. How to Battle

Historical Fencing

Gunpowder slowly began having a say in European warfare between the 14th and 16th centuries. Before that, combat (and there was a lot of combat) was sword to sword.

Well, that’s not exactly true. There were swords, both long and short, spears, maces, pole-axes, daggers, messers, bucklers, bows, crossbows, and lances. Not to mention the art of using any of the above while on horseback, wrestling, fighting two against one, shield use, and how (Plate 242) to fight a woman (the man must stand in a pit with a wooden mace, the woman above him with a 5 pound stone tied into her veil. Presumably these instructions were for judicial battles or other organized fighting.) If this seems like a lot to learn, it was. The scribes of the time produced many manuals, largely pictorial, to help soldiers learn their craft. The woodcuts above are from a popular series of books written by Hans Talhoffer.

3. How to Punish Sins

Having your priest give you a private penance for your sins was a new idea in the early Middle Ages. Before then, people confessed their sins publicly, and maybe only once in their lifetime. In the 6th century, Irish monks begin making extremely detailed lists of possible sins, called Penitentials, along with the punishments to pay for committing them. Some of the punishments (fasting for 4 years for fornication with a virgin) are likely the result of muddled translation or a variable definition of “fasting.” Other sins and precise punishments from the Penitential pamphlet Corpus 190 of the Canons of Theodore include:

-He who desires to fornicate (with) himself (i.e., to masturbate) and is not able to do so, he must fast for 40 days or 20 days.
-If he is a boy and does it often, either he is to fast 20 days or one is to whip him.
-Whoever fornicates with another man's wife must fast for 4 years, 2 wandering in grief, 2 (years) more (fasting) during the 40-day periods and 3 days each week.
-Whoever fornicates with an effeminate male or with another man or with an animal must fast for 10 years

4. How to Care for the Sick

Art Bin

The Fasciculus Medicinae was the first illustrated medical manual to be put into print, in the late 1400s. Actually, it wasn’t so much a manual as a bound collection of separate works about medicine and anatomy. The anatomy was, shall we say, very interpretive in some cases, such as The Zodiac Man. Or in the case of The Incised Man, rather scary, giving detailed directions for where it was best to cut and bleed patients for whatever particular ailment they suffered (“Incisions in the two veins behind the ears, on both sides, are useful for improving memory and cleansing the face of pustules, and against all other spots on the face”). The book widely added to medical knowledge, for good or ill, in the Middle Ages, and the woodblock illustrations influenced the art of the period.

5. How to be a King

Only a small fraction of the population of Medieval Europe read or wrote. Because of this, most books either concerned the church, the wealthy, or the nobility. Often all three of these attributes would be found in the same person. One of the most popular genres of “advice books” during this time was called “Mirrors for Princes.” They were often written by noble relatives, respected scholars, or religious leaders to be presented to new nobility as they came to power. These books were meant to instruct young royalty of their duties and their history. Most of these books, alongside records of battles and studies of other monarchies, instruct on the need for piety, benevolence, and the important of a praiseworthy life. A famous exception is the book The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli taught that it was better to be feared than loved, better to be stingy than generous (so as not to encourage greed in your subjects), and how to avoid contempt and hatred while adhering to the rest of his suggestions. Unlike most Mirrors, Machiavelli’s book is still widely read today.

College Board Wants to Erase Thousands of Years From AP World History, and Teachers Aren't Happy

One would be forgiven for thinking that the Ides of March are upon us, because Julius Caesar is being taken out once again—this time from the Advanced Placement World History exam. The College Board in charge of the AP program is planning to remove the Roman leader, and every other historical figure who lived and died prior to 1450, from high school students’ tests, The New York Times reports.

The nonprofit board recently announced that it would revise the test, beginning in 2019, to make it more manageable for teachers and students alike. The current exam covers over 10,000 years of world history, and according to the board, “no other AP course requires such an expanse of content to be covered over a single school year.”

As an alternative, the board suggested that schools offer two separate year-long courses to cover the entirety of world history, including a Pre-AP World History and Geography class focusing on the Ancient Period (before 600 BCE) up through the Postclassical Period (ending around 1450). However, as Politico points out, a pre-course for which the College Board would charge a fee "isn’t likely to be picked up by cash-strapped public schools," and high school students wouldn't be as inclined to take the pre-AP course since there would be no exam or college credit for it.

Many teachers and historians are pushing back against the proposed changes and asking the board to leave the course untouched. Much of the controversy surrounds the 1450 start date and the fact that no pre-colonial history would be tested.

“They couldn’t have picked a more Eurocentric date,” Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, who previously helped develop AP History exams and courses, told The New York Times. “If you start in 1450, the first thing you’ll talk about in terms of Africa is the slave trade. The first thing you’ll talk about in terms of the Americas is people dying from smallpox and other things. It’s not a start date that encourages looking at the agency and creativity of people outside Europe.”

A group of teachers who attended an AP open forum in Salt Lake City also protested the changes. One Michigan educator, Tyler George, told Politico, “Students need to understand that there was a beautiful, vast, and engaging world before Europeans ‘discovered’ it.”

The board is now reportedly reconsidering its decision and may push the start date of the course back some several hundred years. Their decision will be announced in July.

[h/t The New York Times]

Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Sylvia Plath's Pulitzer Prize in Poetry Is Up for Auction
Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Nate D. Sanders Auctions

A Pulitzer Prize in Poetry that was awarded posthumously to Sylvia Plath in 1982 for her book The Collected Poems will be auctioned on June 28. The Los Angeles-based Nate D. Sanders Auctions says bidding for the literary document will start at $40,000.

The complete book of Plath’s poetry was published in 1981—18 years after her death—and was edited by her husband, fellow poet Ted Hughes. The Pulitzer Prize was presented to Hughes on Plath’s behalf, and one of two telegrams sent by Pulitzer President Michael Sovern to Hughes read, “We’ve just heard that the Collected Plath has won the Pulitzer Prize. Congratulations to you for making it possible.” The telegrams will also be included in the lot, in addition to an official congratulatory letter from Sovern.

The Pultizer’s jury report from 1982 called The Collected Poems an “extraordinary literary event.” It went on to write, “Plath won no major prizes in her lifetime, and most of her work has been posthumously published … The combination of metaphorical brilliance with an effortless formal structure makes this a striking volume.”

Ted Hughes penned an introduction to the poetry collection describing how Plath had “never scrapped any of her poetic efforts,” even if they weren’t all masterpieces. He wrote:

“Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity. So this book contains not merely what verse she saved, but—after 1956—all she wrote.”

Also up for auction is Plath’s Massachusetts driver’s license from 1958, at which time she went by the name Sylvia P. Hughes. Bidding for the license will begin at $8000.

Plath's driver's license
Nate D. Sanders Auctions


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