Saturday, July 30, 2011

Medieval Tulips, Turks & Terror

Talking about tulips on a medieval blog? Well, yes! Although tulips did not appear in the general medieval garden in Europe, the flower actually became part of the fabric of the later/post medieval period in history.

Tulips are believed to have originated in the high mountains of central asia such as the Pamirs, brought west by the soldiers and traders of the Ottoman empire. According to reference sources, the rules of Islam prohibited any worship of physical forms and tulips were regarded as a possible way around this. Initially, they were woven into undergarments but later started to be seen on armour and clothing. To the Ottomans the tulip became a symbol of nobility and privilege. Indeed the years between 1718 and 1730 were known as the Tulip period.

It was from the Ottoman court at Istanbul (previously Constantinople) that the first bulbs came into western Europe. We are talking about the end of the 16th century when recreational gardens were rare or virtually unknown. Tulips are susceptible to a virus called the mosaic virus and this is said to break the plant which changes from being a breeder to being a cultivar. It was the virus which weakened the plant and produced the exquisite colours which became so sought after during the financial bubble which developed in the Netherlands.

One of the earliest and greatest botanists, Carolus Clusius, was instrumental in spreading the knowledge about tulips. A lot of his work was done at the University of Leiden. This is the same town which played such a key role in holding off the Spanish forces during the 80 Years War.

To go back to the title of this blog the reference to "terror" is to remind us of the fear and distrust shown towards the Ottomans. Europeans did not understand them and the Turks were greatly feared after the Seige of Constantinople in 1453.

Here a picture of the most prized of all Dutch Tulips.

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Benefits Of The Black Death, A Medieval Catastrophe

When the Black Death started to sweep across medieval Europe in 1347 it seemed as if the whole structure of the world was collapsing. The mortality rates were horrific and there was no ready explanation as to what caused this plague. When you then add in the confusion and superstition common to these years you can start to get a feel for the panic and confusion which must have covered the land.

However, albeit hard to believe, there were benefits and the plague introduced or increased the speed of social changes across Europe. Let's look at some of the changes ,,,

1. From these years came the glory of the Renaissance. Starting in Florence and often associated with the works of Dante it represented a flowering of art which was the perfect opposite from the great death.

2. With so many people dead labour became scarce and this helped to bring an end to serfdom. Simple facts like the shift from earthenware cooking pots to ones made of metal are a reflection in the growing wealth which came to the working class.

3. The role of women in medieval society became more important. In particular they became vital for the beer and brewing industries.

4. The impact on the church and medieval worship was substantial. At one level it could be seen in the lowering of the age when a man could become a priest. It created plenty of opportunity for young priests with new ideas to flourish but it had another and largely unexpected impact. That was the "privatisation of the church". Basically wealthy people started to build their own churches and private chapels.

5. There was a growth in activism and religion. Heresies such as that preached by the Lollards started to spread and this was also fuelled by the start of early European Universities.

6. The Hundred Years War between England and France was curtailed when the English Plantagenets, so dependent upon their infantry, found that 40% or so of the fighting men in the population were dead. Read more about King Edward III one of the last Plantaganet kings.

So in conclusion we can indeed look back on the horror of the plague years but we must also remember that it instigated many changes for the better in society and heralded the start of the Renaissance.

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