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Middle Ages

Here Lies Matilda, The Daughter, Wife, & Mother of Henry

Here Lies Matilda, The Daughter, Wife, & Mother of Henry

Long ago, people weren't so creative when it came to naming their kids. If it wasn't Louis, then it was a Henry, or a George. Marys, Elizabeths, and Annes were everywhere. You couldn't throw a rock in a crowd without hitting a William or two. And among all these unoriginally named people was one woman who refused to let any kinship with similarly named people stop her from claiming what was hers and denied from her. She may be a Matilda in a sea of Matildas, but she's a Matilda like no other- she's Empress Matilda.

An Ode to Love - Medieval Europe


Love. This subject has never lost its popularity throughout history and even up till today. But have you ever wondered how men and women went 'steady' during the Dark Ages, the time of Knights and other honorable things? For this last post, we'll look through how courtly love shaped relationships during medieval times, and listen to one of my favorite songs (of all time!!) that I personally think gives a modern interpretation of the old-fashioned way of love :) -

There are 9 stages in the art of courtly love.

  1. Attraction to the lady, usually via eyes/glance.

  2. Worship of the lady from afar.

  3. Declaration of passionate devotion.

  4. Virtuous rejection by the lady.

  5. Renewed wooing with oaths of virtue and eternal fealty.

  6. Moans of approaching death from unsatisfied desire (and other physical manifestations of lovesickness).

  7. Heroic deeds of valor which win the lady's heart.

  8. Consummation of the secret love. (*smirk emoji*)

  9. Endless adventures and subterfuges avoiding detection.

Even though #8 says that it's a "consummation", courtly love wasn't really about sex. It was more like a playground romance, full of giggles and adoration. Sex was considered to be something of a duty in a marriage.

Speaking of marriage, courtly love did not necessarily lead to marriage, nor did a marriage mean that you were in love with your spouse. Back then, marriages were arranged, and the prosperity of the marriage was based on the material wealth that both involved parties could get from matrimony.

But wait! Does this mean that infidelity was commonplace during these times? Well, yes. Since marriage was more for political gain, that didn't mean there was love present in this union. Why else would there be a stage #9 that required them to be discreet about their affairs? Ah... everything should click by now.

All in all, courtly love (as it was practiced) was a very passionate way of falling in love. The men faced an enigmatic balance between the pleasure of love and being in pain (which they felt because no matter how strong their feelings were for the woman, they could never have her). So now I'll bring you to one of my favorite songs of all time, Edge of Desire by John Mayer!!!

If you closely at the lyrics (it's at the bottom!), you'll notice that there are certain elements that I can personally relate to carry these same emotions that the people who practiced courtly love felt- the strong desire to want to be with someone, the intense emotions felt in the heat of passion... You get it. Alright, it's time to press play. Enjoy!




Young and full of running tell me where is that taking me? just a great figure eight or a tiny infinity?

love is really nothing but a dream that keeps waking me for all of my trying we still end up dying how can it be?

don't say a word just come over and lie here with me 'cause I'm just about to set fire to everything I see

I want you so bad I'll go back on the things I believe there I just said it I'm scared you'll forget about me

so young and full of running all the way to the edge of desire steady my breathing silently screaming I have to have you now

wired and I'm tired think I'll sleep in my clothes on the floor Or maybe this mattress will spin on its axis and find me on yours

don't say a word just come over and lie here with me cause I'm just about to set fire to everything I see

I want you so bad I'll go back on the things I believe there I just said it I'm scared you'll forget about me

don't say a word just come over and lie here with me cause I'm just about to set fire to everything I see

I want you so bad I'll go back on the things I believe there I just said it I'm scared you'll forget about me

Link Love: (Almost) No One Thought the Earth Was Flat.


Per our conversation in L02 today, a history of the people who knew the earth was round from Today I Found Out: "People in Columbus' Time Did Not Think the World Was Flat." (I should apologize, though, for overstating my point in class today. Some people before the 6th century BCE did think the earth was a round, flat disk. So, it isn't that no one thought the earth was's just that humans have know it was round for a really, really long time.)

Get this, though. Pythagoras and Aristotle and a bunch of people without spiffy telescopes or satellite images knew the world was a sphere, but there are still people TODAY who think the world is actually flat because there's a horizon. Thank goodness Neil DeGrasse Tyson is around to set things straight.

Magna Carta: The First Step Towards Liberty

Memorial at Runnymede, where King John signed the Magna Carta. Photographed by Brian Slater CC 2.0
Memorial at Runnymede, where King John signed the Magna Carta. Photographed by Brian Slater CC 2.0

The Magna Carta, which means “the Great Charter” in Latin, was a charter of baronial rights granted by King John Plantagenet to the barons of England in 1215. This historical document was initially conceived as a peace treaty but it significantly changed the way how England was governed by kings, eventually becoming the foundation that led to constitutionalism in Europe.

Contents of the Magna Carta

Although the Magna Carta was not the first charter of rights signed by a monarch, it was the most significant. Most of the 63 initial clauses in the Magna Carta dealt with the feudal, judicial and church rights, as well as the management of lands and the regulation of trade & taxes. However, the most important clause was clause 39 which promised protection against royal oppression of civil and noble rights. It stated that: “No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or deprived or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined … except by lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land”. Originally, the free man referred only to a select group of people which included the barons and knights but it was later extended to the commoners as well. Another important clause was clause 40 which promised: “To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.” Both clauses assured that trials will be fair, timely and incorruptible.

1868 woodcut by Joseph Martin Kronheim depicting King John signing the Magna Carta.
1868 woodcut by Joseph Martin Kronheim depicting King John signing the Magna Carta.


The Magna Carta was the result of various events that caused widespread unrest in England (A Short History of England, “Magna Carta”, pg. 65-71). In 1189, after the death of the successful King Henry II, his son Richard I the ‘Lionheart’, succeeded him and brought the kingdom to chaos as he overtaxed the population for his crusade in Jerusalem. In 1199, John I succeeded to the throne when Richard died. He was already unpopular before his coronation as he had sought French support to steal the throne while Richard was away fighting in the crusade. He raised taxes further and extorted money from the barons to fund his military campaigns. He would lose many territories during a series of unsuccessful wars, earning him the nickname “Softsword”. Moreover, he was briefly excommunicated by the Pope over a dispute about the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The final straw was the failure of his 1214 campaign in France, which caused the barons to revolt against John. John was powerless to stop the rebellion so he was forced to negotiate with the rebel barons to make peace. The demands of the barons were written in the Magna Carta and officially sealed by John.

1626 painting of King John held at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Artist unknown. [Public Domain]
1626 painting of King John held at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Artist unknown. [Public Domain]

Revisions to the Magna Carta

The first Magna Carta was short lived as King John went back on his words and tried to get the Pope to annul it (A Short History of England, “Henry III and Simon de Montfort”, pg. 72-79). The Pope did annul the charter, this caused a civil war between John and the barons. John soon fell ill and died in 1216. His successor Henry III was only 9 years old when he was coronated and the regency council reissued the Magna Carta again to make peace with barons. During the regency, England saw a period of relative prosperity while being at peace with France compared to the reign of Richard and John. This may had contributed to the initial belief that the government is better without royal influence. The revised version of Magna Carta issued during Henry III’s adulthood in 1225 is regarded the definitive version that is most well known today.

1225 version of Magna Carta with King Henry III’s seal kept in the British Library Photograph by British Library. [Public Domain]
1225 version of Magna Carta with King Henry III’s seal kept in the British Library Photograph by British Library. [Public Domain]


From the disastrous reign of King John, the rights of the English people took a step forward. For the first time, the king could not simply act as he wished and became subjected to the law.

One way of interpreting the whole ordeal is to see it as a decline of royal authority in England. Obviously the monarch had less dictatorial powers after Magna Carta, but that did not necessarily meant a weakened throne. In fact, it might have increased the legitimacy of the throne and created a stable kingdom. By having a codified set of laws regarding the social contract between the crown and its subjects, a monarch can justify continued reign as long as laws were upheld, decreasing the risk of unrest and revolt from the people. A more cooperative nobility is more likely to assist the monarch with issuance of royal ordinance in their fiefs, this was extremely important to centralization efforts. However, this possibility was not evidently exploited by medieval English monarchs, they most likely saw the Magna Carta as nothing more than a shameful slight to their authority and continuously tried to nullify the charter (A Short History of England, “Magna Carta”, pg. 79).

The Magna Carta also promised that no widows can be forced to remarry, this guaranteed that a dead noble’s assets cannot be robbed by other nobles through marriage. This can also be interpreted as an increase of rights for women in medieval England, as they were able to choose who or whether to marry after their husbands have died.

Statue of Simon de Montfort on the Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower in Leicester, England. Photograph by NotFromUtrecht. [CC 3.0]
Statue of Simon de Montfort on the Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower in Leicester, England. Photograph by NotFromUtrecht. [CC 3.0]


The Magna Carta marked the beginning of greater power sharing in governing England. It influenced the creation of the Provisions of Oxford in 1258 which the revolutionary leader Simon de Montfort forced King Henry III to obey. He created a periodical parliament that would meet three times a year to discuss public policies under the provisions, regardless of the king’s will, which shifted political influence to municipalities from the king’s court; this parliament would operate in accordance to the clauses of the Magna Carta (A Short History of England, “Henry III and Simon de Montfort”, pg 76). The first English parliament would also include the commoners, for the first time a political body that consisted of lesser men had been assembled in a feudal monarchy. The Magna Carta would become the most important document that was repeatedly cited throughout constitutional politics as a symbol against tyranny.

Replica of the Magna Carta displayed in the United States Capitol at Washington D.C Photographed by Jorfer. [Public Domain]
Replica of the Magna Carta displayed in the United States Capitol at Washington D.C Photographed by Jorfer. [Public Domain]


The Magna Carta continued to influence the world even centuries after it was created. It paved the way for the development of human rights in the future. It had a huge influence on the constitution of the United States as it inspired the colonists in America who were educated in English law to fight against the oppressive rule of Britain. We also owe much of our justice system today to clauses 39 and 40 of the Magna Carta. It is no exaggeration to say that our modern values of democracy, freedom and justice were shaped by the Magna Carta.

Sugar (Oh, Honey Honey)


Sugar is ubiquitous. It has become so essential in our lives that we produce and consume on average around 170 million metric tons a year! We use it in our food and drinks, use it as a form of medication (seriously), and even use it in the production of essential materials from fabrics to cement. In fact, sugar can be found in up to 74% of products at your local supermarket. Such is its prevalence that it is no wonder that (in America at least) the average individual consumes about 66 pounds of the stuff annually!

But what do we really know about where it comes from (and I don’t mean from the supermarket), how it got shared and introduced to just about anyone and everyone on the third rock from the sun? In this post we’re going to take a trip back in time to see how sugar made its debut on the world stage.

Sugar, derived from the sugarcane plant was first discovered and subsequently domesticated in New Guinea around 10 000 BCE. Natives consumed sugar (or more accurately, the sugarcane’s juices) by chewing on raw sugarcane stems, and primarily during religious occasions or rituals. Through trade and exchanges, sugarcane began to proliferate across Southeast Asia, India and China. During this time, the primary form of sugar came in the form of a liquid extracted from the sugarcane plant, somewhat limiting its ability to be exported in raw form other than by shipping large amounts of sugarcane. Sugar earned its status as a prized commodity thanks to the discovery of crystallization methods developed in India c.350 CE* during the Gupta Dynasty through the boiling of sugarcane stalks and extracting the resulting concentrated solution. Indian traders (and some Buddhist monks) transported sugar with them across trade routes into China, and consequently introduced to the Chinese empire methods of sugar cultivation and processing by the 7th century at the behest of the Emperor Tai Tsung.

The lucrative sugar trade in India caught the interests of Middle Eastern traders, who subsequently introduced sugar to the Mediterranean (i.e. Persia) and began to cultivate and refine the crystallization method into one that closely resembles modern techniques, creating purer products by including lime and egg whites to remove impurities, and carefully washing the resulting sugar crystals. They also created large plantations and refineries, taking advantage of the hot climate, abundant and fertile land (Egypt, for instance) and advanced irrigation techniques, allowing for large amounts of granulated sugar to be produced and consumed or exported by the 6th century CE. Such was the popularity of sugar that it even became used to entertain guests in the form of various sweet treats like marzipan (in fact, a marzipan mosque was commissioned by a caliph for the poor to admire, pray in, and eventually consume). At the height of the Persian Empire’s expansion, the conquering armies brought sugar as part of their supplies, leading to a rapid proliferation of sugar across the lands they had won.

Sugar could be found in Medieval Europe (made available in limited quantities through trade with Muslim traders (aka Saracens) , though not for as long a time as compared to the Persians and pretty much the rest of Asia, depending instead on honey as a natural sweetener. Sugar initially began to make inroads to Medieval Europe around the 12th century CE, thanks to nations that were proximate to the Persian Empire (notably Italy) importing the stuff from Egypt. While this meant that people like the Venetians were able to establish dominance of the sugar market in Medieval Europe, it also meant that for everyone else north of them, sugar was still considered rare and valuable enough to be considered a spice that only the rich could afford to consume in a form other than medicine (i.e. as food). During this time, Pope Urban II had declared the First Crusade to retake the Holy Land from an expanding Muslim empire and while Medieval Europe was engaged in epic battle, the Crusaders came into contact with sugar (which they referred to as ‘sweet salt’) through conquered land and merchants crossing the Holy Land (roughly where modern day Israel is) confiscating and returning to Europe with significant quantities of it.

However sugar production never really caught on in Medieval Europe, given the tropical climate and abundance of water needed to grow sugarcane, leaving only a few small areas in Mediterranean Europe (e.g. Italy, Greece) to attempt to profit from local production. Even these producers had to acknowledge difficulties, particularly in finding labour to work on the plantations and refineries. Refinements in processing techniques by the 1400s enabled the proliferation of sugar (though not sugarcane itself) across Europe, with sugarcane grown in Mediterranean European states transported and refined as far North as Antwerp. However, demand still exceeded the ability to produce enough supplies, and given the rise of the Ottoman Empire, trade became increasingly scarce, leading to a further strain on supplies. This scenario effectively caused the rulers of Medieval Europe to consider what few options were available: wage war with the Ottoman Empire and claim land and sugar (costly and needlessly destructive), put pressure on sugar-producing nations like Italy, Portugal, and Greece (all of whom were already struggling to produce more thanks to a plague ravaging Europe), or find new lands and develop more sugar themselves. This led to the first expeditions overseas to establish colonies where sugar (and possibly other spices) could be produced in greater amounts than was readily available back home.

The expansion and high demand for sugar quickly meant that it had become a very valuable commodity that became heavily involved in the rise and fall of empires post-1500 CE. In fact, European expansion into establishing colonies in Africa, Asia, and the New World was partly spurred on as a means to gain lands that were more suitable to cultivate even more sugar. Unfortunately, we’ve reached the maximum time period to discuss this topic, but do feel free to check out the links below to find out more about the glitz, glamour, and scandals of sugar after the 16th Century CE!

National Geographic

Aramco World

*Disclaimer:, while the information does corroborate with other sources, it does lack proper citations, so tread (the information) with care!

Extreme Makeover: Medieval Dungeons Edition


Hey everyone, think fast!

When you think dungeons, what three words would you pick?

Mine would’ve been creepy, torture and dark and if yours is somewhere close, I wouldn’t be surprised. Because with literary works like Richard III to modern day TV shows such as Game of Thrones to popular games such as Dungeons and Dragons, we see dungeons as this important, sinister, underground facility to a castle - when, in fact, it’s not exactly true.

are you serious

Aye, that I am - because while dungeons are popularised to be the quintessential dark and twisted underground labyrinths of pain and torture (we'll get to that), there is so much more to the history of medieval dungeons that we should know.

A Brief History Contrary to popular belief, dungeons were not always a part of the castle infrastructure. It only became a much more common feature in the late Medieval Ages (c. 14th-15th century). But before we get to that, let’s break down the semantics of ‘dungeon’.

The word ‘dungeon’ originates from the french word ‘donjon’ which refers to the main tower of a castle or the Great Keep. Interestingly, during the early to middle Medieval Ages (5th - c. 13th century), the ‘donjon’ used to be occupied by royalty since it was considered the safest part of the castle.

Remains of the Rouen Castle donjon @ Larissa Taylor

It was only during the late Medieval Ages, when the royalty started to move to more comfortable rooms in the castle, did the donjons start to house political prisoners. One example would be The Rouen Castle donjon in France that held and trialed Joan of Arc.

The Makeover So wherever did we get the idea that dungeons were underground?

Well, in the years towards the later Medieval Era, castle infrastructures began to change to reflect the kings and the prevailing culture of that time. And it just so happens that the kings of the later Medieval Era really loved two things - you've guessed it -  fighting and partying.


As wars raged on, the prisoners grew and thus begin the culture of imprisoning them in dungeons. Concurrently, as the royalty begin to revel in decadence and luxury, they started to capitalise on the castles they had to host huge banquets and glamorous balls for distinguished guests. Dungeons were, thus, shifted underground to the least desirable locations in bid to cater to these ornate events.


After all, I’d reckon, no one would want to look at their castle in all of its turreted glory only to be reminded by the lowlives placed in the pinnacle of their accomplishments. It would’ve been such a party pooper.

The Makeover 2.0: Oubliettes Unleashed As dungeons grew in it’s popularity by the 1300s, structural changes to make the worst place in the castle a much more horrendous nightmare had begun.


Medieval Oubliette @ Return to Zero: Oubliette

A notable change would be the creation of oubliettes. Derived from the french term oublier, the oubliette is french for 'the forgotten place'. And true to its name, oubliettes became the worst place to house prisoners who were often forgotten and left to die.

Build to be a deep cylindrical shaft, prisoners had to be lowered in by guards. These oubliettes were often only large enough for prisoners to stand throughout their stay; they could neither move nor sit as they await death.

Escape was impossible because the oubliette is without windows and the only exit is inaccessible by the prisoners.

Moreover, while bread and water may be provided for the prisoners, they were often forgotten and left for death.

Diagram of alleged oubliette in the Paris prison of La Bastille from Dictionary of French Architecture from 11th to 16th Century (1854–1868), @ Eugène Viollet-le-Duc

Bell-Jar Oubliette

Variations of the oubliette included a funnel-shaped oubliette and a bell-jar prison where prisoners had more space and could, at the very least, be lying on the cold hard ground (oh, trouble, trouble, trouble!).

No matter, prisoners were often left for a gruesome death; never to see the light of day again. Fun Fact: there are stories that suggest two men made it out after two and a half years only to die weeks later. We wouldn't know the validity of the story for sure but that sounds really tragic.

What Happens in the Dungeons, Stay in the Dungeons Now that the kings have set up their dungeons, they put it to work. It is in these deeply entrenched enclaves that imprisonment and subsequent torture is carried out. Torture can occur for a myriad of reasons which include punishment to the extraction of information.

The most common forms included:

1. The Strappado has 3 different variations where the common basis of torture lies in having a rope be passed over a pulley so as to hang the prisoner from their arms until their limbs were dislocated.

An example of a strappado device used in the dungeons @ NewsRepublic, 2013

2. The (Spanish) Donkey where the executed is made to straddle the device. Weights attached to the feet of victims will lead to a slow and painful slicing of the genital region.

The Spanish Donkey where the executed is made to straddle the device. Weights attached to the feet of victims will lead to a slow and painful slicing of the genital region @ History Rundown, 2013

3. Torture Rack where prisoners would have their ankles and wrists fastened to the device and be slowly pulled apart until joints are dislocated.

And there were many more as well.

Despite the pervasiveness of terror in torture, “torture did have some guidelines” as highlighted by Makena Bennett in her thesis Medieval Torture: A Brief History and Common Methods (p. 2). For example, during the Medieval Inquisition, bloodshed, mutilation or death weren’t allowed, but, as always, rules were meant to be broken.

Notable Dungeon: Pontefract Castle Dungeons

Location: Yorkshire, England Time Period: c. 13th century

While all dungeons, in general, have a dark reputation, there were a few in history that stood out above the rest. One of them would be the Pontefract Castle dungeons.

Occupying 35 feet (approx. 11 metres) of space underneath the castle, the network of Pontefract dungeons illustrate some of Medieval history’s darkest moments. The brutality of the place has led it to be immortalised by history as one of the most notorious dungeons with executions, imprisonments and torture being carried out especially during the Wars of the Roses. In fact, it was nicknamed 'Bloody Pomfret' for that. Prisoners included royalty such as Thomas Earl of Lancaster who was beheaded and King Richard II whose supposed brutal murder inspired Shakespeare’s play, Richard III. 

Considering the number of royals executed, I guess you can say it was probably such royal pain to be convicted there (ba dum tss).


Okay, I know that's cold but it probably isn't as cold as the dungeons so... (I'll stop now). Anyway, it really is interesting to have shed some light on these medieval dungeons (okay last one) and I hope you had fun traversing its history with me. Perhaps, if you're interested, you can always tour some of these dungeons if you're ever in Europe and share your experience!

Thanks for sticking around and till next time then!

Link Love: Medieval Medicine

So, remember how I told you medicine wasn't so hot in medieval Europe? Well, I love when I'm proven wrong. Check out this recent Radiolab podcast episode in which the hosts interview microbiologist Freya Harrison and historian Christina Lee about "the best medicine" recommended by Bald's Leechbook. Harrison and Lee look at a surprisingly effective medieval recipe for (potentially) killing staph infections like antibiotic resistant MRSA.

You can listen via the embedded player below or click here for more info about the episode.

Not That Dark for the City of Canals

Remember we learned in class that the Dark Ages were not always dark? It depends on the context and the country itself. Venice, also known as the “City of Canals”, actually prospered during the Dark Ages, then faced some setbacks during the Renaissance period when it lost some territories and faced competition in trade, before being defeated by Napoleon in 1797. Just like Singapore, the Republic of Venice (as it was known during its heyday) is a city-state. Although Venice is about half the size of Singapore, yet it had a great maritime power and a flourishing arts scene.

Venice was founded in the 5th century A.D. and comprises of 118 islands. when barbarians from the north such as the Germanic and the Huns, attacked the former territories of Rome. In order to escape these attacks, the inhabitants of Roman cities near the coast escaped to the nearby, low-lying islands in the Adriatic, such as Torcello, Jesolo and Malamocco. These islands were protected by the sea, and the people also had access in their boats and barges to the river mouths that led to inland cities. During that period, Venetians were mainly peasants or fishermen.

Venice’s place on the Adriatic Sea made it possible for it to develop a strong and nearly unbeatable naval force and trade systems with other city states and countries. This navy eradicated pirates along the east coast of the Adriatic, making Venice into one of the most flourishing trade cities on the Mediterranean between Western Europe and the growing Ottoman empire.

In 1081 CE, the Normans tried to besiege the city of Durazzo. The Byzantium Emperor, Alexius I Comnenus, sought help from the Venetians, which the Venetians managed to defeat the Normans at sea by shooting missiles and throwing stones at the Normans in order to capsize their ships. In 1082 CE, Alexius I thus rewarded the Venetians with a Golden Bull for their victory. This allowed the Venetians to be exempted from tolls and tariffs in the Byzantium Empire. They could also enter and leave all Byzantium ports and transfer cargo for free in cities such as Durazzo and Constantinople. The Venetians were also allowed to maintain commercial docks and warehouses at Constantinople. As such, Venetians had an advantage over other nations in terms of trade and commerce.

Before the 13th century, the Republic of Venice conquered many territories mainly for trade reasons; they needed raw materials to manufacture items and also to gain easier access to overland trade routes. By the end of the 13th century, Venice had conquered some territories to the north and many islands in the Aegean and Adriatic seas such as Crete and Cyprus.

Venice was involved in the trade of glass, silk, spices, sugar, book production, and other goods with Asia and Europe. However, Venice's trade was later impacted by Portuguese production of sugar and spices, and also trade restrictions imposed by the Ottoman Empire.

Overland trade routes (p. 227)

In 1204 CE, the Venetians and the crusaders captured Constantinople. Most of the plunder and riches of Constantinople were brought back to Venice, including bronze statutes of horse from the Hippodrome of Constantinople. After the fall of Constantinople, the Venetians and the European crusaders established the Latin Empire. The Latin Empire was the division of the city of Constantinople and the rest of the Byzantine territories throughout the Mediterranean region among the Venetians and the other crusader-nations. The majority of territories in the Latin Empire were held by the Venetians, and the ports that could continue trade throughout the Latin Empire also came under Venice’s control.

However, in 1347, Venice was hit by the plague. The Great Council of Venice tried to minimise damage by closing down the city’s waters, isolating incoming ships, until they could be certain that its passengers were healthy, and affected victims were quarantined on an island, Lazzaretto Vecchio, Still, 60% of the population died within an 18 month period (p. 48).

Despite being hit by the plague, facing competition in trade, and losing and gaining some territories over the next few centuries, trade such as glass was still exported to Germany, Dalmatia and other places (p. 175). Venetian art and music also started to flourish during the Renaissance.


Murano Glass


Skip to 2:36 and 7:48 to see how Murano glass is made, and 12:01 for Murano glass for sale in shops.

Glass that is made on the Venetian island of Murano are highly prized and contributed to Venice's economy. As such, glassmaking techniques were closely guarded and were only restricted to the elite (p. 176), and glassmakers held a high status in society (p. 144). The glass furnaces are on the island of Murano instead of Venice itself because in 1291, the Great Council feared that a fire would occur and cause destruction to Venice. Hence, they ordered all glass production to occur on Murano (p. 175).

Women were not allowed to be master glassmakers not only because it was a high status job, but also because glassmakers are usually assisted by male apprentices. To allow males to be subordinate to female glassmakers would mean a threat to gender hierarchy. Instead, women tend to be involved in bead manufacturing or stringing (p. 144).


Venetian School of Art and Music (15th Century onwards)

Since this happened after the Dark Ages, I'll just provide a brief explanation.

Due to venice's location as a cluster of islands away from the mainland, the Art and Music that developed in Venice is so distinct from other places that it is called "Venetian School".


The Bellini family: Jacopo, the father, Giovanni and Gentile, his sons, and Andrea Mantegna, a brother-in-law, are the most prominent painters during the Renaissance in Venice.

Venetian painters make use of oil and expensive pigments to achieve paintings that have subtle gradation in colour and can reflect light. The Venetian School later influenced Spanish art, especially in the area of colors.


Music also started to grow and become an art form that is unique to Venice, such as the Polychoral style. It started when, in the 1540s, Adrian Willaert, a composer and choirmaster of St. Mark's Cathedral, wrote antiphonal music where opposing choirs would sing successive, often contrasting phrases of the music. By placing choral members in various positions across the chapel, the Venice choirs created the first ‘surround sound’ experience.

That's all for this post! I hope you enjoyed reading about Venice and know that it was not entirely a dark period during the Dark Ages and even continued to prosper after that!


Sir Henry William, Knight of Windsor

Medieval knights were courageous, dedicated to God and love. They were known to rescue damsels in distress and gave chivalry its name. At least, that's how we picture the Knights as fairy tales have shown us. But were they like that? Today, we hear the recounts of Sir Henry William, Knight of Windsor.

Disclaimer: This is a work of contemporary fiction, based on historical facts. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Accolade (Dubbing/Adoubement)

“I dub thee, Sir Henry William, Knight of Windsor.”

Knights on Horses

In the year c. 1200, I was appointed as a Knight of Windsor. I remembered it clearly. The journey to becoming a knight was not easy. There were a lot of challenges I had to face. I must say; I was lucky to be the son of a nobleman, an advantage from birth. The sons of the nobles, including me, were sent to live in the castle of the Lords. This commenced our education of learning the skills required to be a Knight. For me, training began when I was only 9 years old. Combat training includes archery and hand to hand combat using swords and other weapons. These were part of the training to prepare my comrades and I to become a skillful Knight, and to prepare us for future jousting tournaments. At that time, as a mere nine-year-old, I was petrified. I was afraid that I would execute a wrong move and endanger my comrades. But God has been good. Not only were we taught about combat fighting, but we were also taught about Christianity and our Heavenly Father Himself.

We started our duties as a Knight at the age of 16. Practicing in heavy armor, tending to my horse, and cleaning my weapon were all part of my daily activities. This was before I was dubbed as an official Knight of the Land. At the age of 20, I was then made a Knight in a ceremony.

The Vigil

I had to go through a ritual bathing before my formal entry to Knighthood. My body was thoroughly cleansed as a symbol of purification. We were told to wear a white vesture that represented purity, covered by a red robe that symbolized nobility. The black shoes and hose stood for death.  A sword and shield were placed on the altar.  I, then knelt at the Chapel altar, in silent prayer for ten hours. Following the next morning, I was joined by others to hear Mass and a lengthy sermon on the duties of a Knight. A sponsor then took possession of the sword and shield that had been blessed by the priest and was passed to the Lord who was to conduct the Knighthood ceremony. Finally, my comrades and I swore an oath of allegiance to the Lord.

Knights’ Armor

My armor was part of what made me a Knight. It showed the people how I was always prepared to serve my Land, my people, and to protect them from vice. With the armor being made up of many different parts, it was not the easiest thing to put on daily.


My fellow comrades and I began to follow the practice of chivalry. We were expected to have not only the strength and skills to face combat, but also a chivalrous heart to accompany this aggressive side of ours. I was expected to follow morals and virtues, such as:

  • Live to serve his King and his Country
  • Avoid Lying
  • Cheating or Torture
  • Believe in Justice for All
  • Respect Women
  • Avenge Wrongs

Courtly Love

As a Knight, I fell in love with someone I should not have. I sworn to secrecy, a relationship that only two of us could share. It was because her life belonged to a King, but her heart was mine. Her marriage did not deter my undying love for her. My lady and I would exchange tokens of gifts. I would write her poems, and serenade her in the gardens. I’d give her flowers and make grand gestures. Everything I did, I had her in mind. She made my world beautiful. 

As I ponder of the lives that will come after me, I can only hope that the Knighthood can continue its glory and importance in the future. With the progress of the Kingdom, our society could become very different from what we have now. Knighthood, with all possibility, could be abolished in the coming future. If it is continued, it might not have the same meaning or purpose anymore.

Shades Of Trade: The Black Plague

Everyone would have thought that the world population had always been on increasing trend. True enough, the general trend was as such. However, look at the following graph.

Global Population Trend
Global Population Trend

The general trend is obviously an increasing trend – but do you see a sharp plummet in 1400s CE?

Yes, the world population dropped by around 20% - from 450 million to around 350 million. In fact the population in Europe continent decreased by nearly 60%.

Wow, such a huge ‘wipe-out’. What happened?

It wasLa mortalega grande – “the great mortality” as the Italians called it, or more familiarly, “The Black Death”.

As learnt not too long ago, The Silk Road has enabled the spread of goods, ideas, culture and intellect in the ancient world. It has, one way or another, improved the lives of many. Yet, it also had ruined and took away countless lives as well. This is because the Silk Road had the capability of spreading almost anything, including diseases. One disease that the Silk Road played a key role in was the Black Death. Let’s unravel this topic, which would be interesting and relevant to our recent themes – Silk Road (trades) and European civilizations.


The Black Plague or The Black Death (or the bubonic plague as it is known today) plagued through towns and villages, taking millions of lives in a short period of time. Then, it was called ‘the Pestilence’ or ‘the Great Disease’. It killed 1.5 million people out of an estimated of 4 million people between 1348 CE-1350 CE in Medieval England. The Black Death started in China and Asia in about 1346 CE but had spread to Europe in less than a year later. Bubonic plague, the most common form, is associated with painful, swollen lymph nodes, called buboes. After an incubation period of two to six days, symptoms appear, including severe malaise, headache, shaking chills and fever. Plague can also infect the blood or lungs. The latter form, pneumonic plague, can be transmitted person to person. They had different symptoms but the outcome was the same: almost inevitable death. Not only that, it’s a very quick death. Someone who got infected could just die overnight.


  • The plague was caused by Y. pestis bacillus, spread via rats and fleas that travelled with the livestock, food and spices on the Silk Road from Asia to Europe.
  • First contact of Black Death in Europe was in October 1347, when 12 Genoese trading ships docked at Sicilian port of Messina after a long journey through the black sea.
  • Most sailors were found dead or were gravely ill. Strangely, they were all covered in mysterious black boils that oozed blood and pus, which gave rise to the name of the illness ‘Black Death’.

For interactive maps of the spread, click here.

Crowded cities with huge populations and terrible sanitation problems those days, as well as large human-to-human interaction (mainly due to trades) had caused the disease to be spread more rapidly.


(which made matters worse)

Sadly, due to lack of knowledge, the people then actually related the outbreak to witchcrafts, superstitions, religions and other strange things; instead of searching for scientific accounts (like how we would have done it today.)

  1. They thought it’s Jews’/Muslims’ fault. Christians started accusing the Jews (and also the Muslims) for spreading the plague. They alleged that the Jews wanted to eradicate Christianity. (Although in reality both Jews and Muslims were as badly affected by the plague, so why would they do that?)

As a result, many Jews were actually tortured. They eventually ‘admitted’ that they poisoned different water sources including wells to help spreading the plague. Thousands of Jews were either killed or expelled. Also, they were forced to convert to Christianity.

2. God’s wrath 

Because they did not understand the biology of the disease, many people believed that the Black Death was a kind of divine punishment–retribution for sins against God such as greed, blasphemy, heresy, fornication and worldliness. So to them, the way to overcome the plague was to seek God’s forgiveness. Some people believed that the way to do this was to get rid of heretics and other troublemakers (such as the Jews).

  1. They thought bad smell could drive the disease out. When the plague reached its peak, the ‘doctors’ suggested treatments using urine, dung and other weird stuff, which actually catalyzed spreading of the disease!

There were several other suggested practices during those days, which they believed pretty strongly would help cure and prevent the spreading of the plague, namely:

Eating and drinking in moderation.

Maintaining a household as per a person’s status.

Refraining oneself from abusing the poor people.

Avoiding lechery.

Adding aromatic herbs in beverages.

Not eating fruits.

Drinking good wine.

Avoiding bad thoughts.

Staying happy.

The list isn’t exhaustive.

Also, things couldn’t get any worse – bathing was actively discouraged during the plague. There were two reasons for this:

First, it was believed that bathing would open up pores which would in turn allow easy entry and exit of polluted air into and from the body, which would help the spreading of the disease.

Secondly, bathing (and hence changing clothes) was deemed as a disrespect to the gods, which had invited the wrath of the gods as a punishment and that the plague was one of the weapons used by God for punishing people for such vanity.

Are you not rolling your eyes now?



A very significant population decrease. 50 million people died in Europe within 3 - 4 years.  The population was reduced from some 80 million to 30 million. It killed at least 60 per cent of the population in rural and urban areas.


The economy experienced high inflation, mainly because of shortages of manpower which led to rise in wages, and as it was so risky and hard to procure goods through trade and to produce them, the prices of both goods produced locally and those imported from afar hence hiked up drastically.

  • Animals were also affected by the Black Death. Chickens, pigs, goats, sheep and even cows. The number of sheep deaths was so high that it led to what's known as “European Wool Shortage”. 


People started losing their trust in the Church and their faith was somehow shaken, as they thought God could not help them to get out of the plague.


Medical historians today have established that there is somehow higher resistance to AIDS in populations whose ancestors were exposed to the Black Death.

So, in a way, the Black Death might help some communities fight AIDS.

- In attempt to fight the epidemic, the whole idea of quarantine came about! City of Ragusa (Italy) began the earliest ‘quarantine’ and increasingly developed measures to isolate the infected and control its borders during 14th and 15th centuries. Then, many Italian regions followed Ragusa’s lead, and after them, other regions of western and central Europe.


The black plague has taught us (or should make us ponder on) a few things:

  1. We should not be too engrossed with progress that we forget what matters most; lives
  2. History apparently repeats itself. If the black plague has taught us anything at all, it will be that diseases will spread between nations if not contained. SARS, Ebola, Mers etc are clear examples
  3. Could it be that plague’s and diseases are Mother nature’s way of healing herself? In the sense that humans are overpopulating the earth, and killing her by depleting her resources etc..

Yeah, when we look back to history, we’ll laugh. We’ll laugh at the (now we realized) past stupidity – which we used to confidently call ‘truths’ (and this false confidence could result in unnecessary chaos or fights).

This thus got me wondering: in future, would we laugh at some of today’s famous phenomenons? Will our children and grandchildren laugh at this era we’re living in?

Well, we’d never know. Only one thing is certain: now we know things may not be the way they seem and there are just zillions of new possibilities and truths that have yet to unfold. That’s why keeping an open mind is crucial. Don’t be too surprised when current good things produce bad things or, conversely, current bad things give birth to goodness. What doesn’t kill you make you stronger – what makes you stronger could also kill you.

How shall we live? The answers would vary. But for sure, we shall live better than the past. After all, (other than to clear this module) isn’t that precisely the point of studying history?


Some say, The Black Death was where nursery rhyme ‘Ring Around A Rosy’ came about. Scholars said ‘Ring Around A Rosy’ was about the plague’s symptoms. You can watch it here: