The World is a Haystack

“The world is a haystack, and each man plucks from it what he can.”

This is a Flemish proverb that is famously illustrated in Hieronymous Bosch’s Haywain. In the central panel of this triptych the Haywain is being pulled by demonic characters – half beast half man – towards hell.

The Haywain by Hieronymus Bosch (1450 – 1516)

People from all walks of life are scrabbling to grab hay from the haywain, oblivious to how it is moving them inexorably towards damnation. All manner of human weakness is portrayed by Bosch: fighting, killing, gluttony and lust. People are being crushed under the wheels of the haywain; lovers and musicians on the top of the hay are so self absorbed that they cannot see what’s happening. The rich and powerful from church and state follow on their horses. An angel gazes towards Heaven where Christ looks down with what might well be interpreted as a gesture of despair at the foolishness of mankind.
What is striking in this picture is the depiction of the clergy. On the bottom right hand of the central panel a group of nuns are busily filling a large sack with hay, watched over by a fat abbess who is comfortably seated and drinking while overseeing the work. One of the rich followers behind the haywain is clearly a bishop on a white horse.

Detail from The Haywain – Nuns filling a sack with hay, watched over by the abbess

In another of Bosches works ‘Ship of Fools’ the priest and nun are very prominent. The ship (life) drifts aimlessly while the occupants are preoccupied with their own desires and diversions.

The Ship of Fools by Hieronymous Bosch (1450 – 1516)

This view of the clergy is not uncommon in medieval times.

William Langland, in his great allegorical poem, PiersPlowman, is scathing in his portrayal of of the contemporary church(14th century). He depicts friars as fraudsters and liars given to greed, drunkenness and promiscuity with courtesans and concubines.

Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales is equally cynical with his portrayal of the “fat and personable priest” who loves hunting, expensive clothes, jewellery and “a fat swan, and roasted whole.” His description of a friar is equally damning:

“He kept his tippet stuffed with pins for curls
And pocket-knives, to give to pretty girls.

He knew the taverns well in every town
And every innkeeper and barmaid too
Better than lepers, beggars and that crew,
For in so eminent a man as he
It was not fitting with the dignity
Of his position, dealing with a scum
Of wretched lepers; nothing good can come
Of dealing with the slum-and-gutter dwellers,
But only with the rich and victual sellers.”

Apart from the clergy’s hypocrisy, what irked and infuriated the peasant class in respect of them was the imposition of tithes on what little wealth they could glean from their labours. The church demanded a tenth of their crops and livestock each year. If they did not pay they could be punished by incarceration and excommunication. It is little wonder that peasants were attracted to some of the heretical teachings and their promoters who railed against the greed and mendacity of the established church.

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Money in the Middle Ages (l. s. d.)

Charlemagne (747 – 814), King of the Franks and later Holy Roman Emperor, set up a new monetary system based on a system introduced by his father, Pippin. Pippin’s system, in turn, was based on the old Greek and Roman Libra, Solidus and Denarius (l. s. d.) This old system was based on gold which became scarce after the conclusion of peace with Byzantium and the resulting loss of trade routes to Africa and the East.

Denier from the era of Charlemagne

Charlemagne’s new standard was based on silver. The livre (pound) which was worth 20 sous (like the solidus, and later the shilling) or 240 deniers (like the denarius, and eventually the penny). Initially the only coin minted was the denier; the livre and sou were simply counting units. This system was introduced into Charlemagne’s empire, which was most of Europe. England also adopted it.

Charlemagne’s Empire

After Charlemagne’s death, his empire and his reforms in the monetary system, accounting and education began to disintegrate. Continental coinage became totally degraded and the high quality English coinage became the chosen standard up to the 12th century

The Faddan More Psalter

Faddan More Psalter 8th Century from a bog in Tipperary

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If we don’t have our history, we are orphans. I don’t know where I heard that phrase, or something similar, but it struck me as being a very profound statement.

The idea came to the fore this evening as I watched a replay of a documentary on the Fadden More Psalter. This psalter was discovered in a bog in Tipperrary, Ireland.  It dates from the 8th century and is an incredibly important find.

It has always been recognised  that Irish Christianity in the Middle Ages was different from the European or Roman Christianity: it was based on a monastic model as opposed to the hierarchical Roman model of Pope, Bishops, Priests and lay people.

This monastic model was, in fact, more akin to the Coptic Church and the Desert Father’s who sought isolation in the deserts in order to get closer to God. The similarity to the Coptic Church was not based on any hard evidence or concrete connection.

However, after painstaking restoration work, a remarkable discovery was made which points to a very tangible connection to the Coptic Church. On the inside of the leather cover of the psalter, the restorer found a pattern, the weave of which reminded him of ancient papyrus. Papyrus was not a material that had ever been cited in ancient Irish studies, nor was it a material that one would ever expect to see in Irish latitudes. After tests, however, the page on the inner part of the leather cover was confirmed as being papyrus: a material widely used in early Coptic manuscripts.

The connection between the Irish and Coptic Christianity is now even more intriguing. How did the papyrus get to Ireland?  How and why did it end up in a bog.

These are the fascinating questions raised by the discovery of the Fadden More Psalter. With regards to how it ended up in a bog, one theory is that it was hidden in the bog by a monk to save it from being destroyed by Viking raiders and that the monk himself did not survive to reclaim it. This seems like a plausible explanation.

Whatever the real story is, science and future treasures from the bogs will help us piece together the remarkable lives of our ancestors and their great love for the written word which has always been a notable feature of the Irish culture, right up to the present day.

The video about the Fadden More Psalter is at http://xrl.us/bmyn2p