Fantastic History #71: The Early Modern Globe by Michelle Herder

The emeralds adorning the Mughal rulers of India came from the mountains of Colombia.

The deep blue pigments of Renaissance paintings came from Afghanistan.

A bright red dye, highly sought after for carpets, uniforms, and ceremonial robes, came from insects living on Mexican cacti.

These are only some of the valued rarities that made their way around the world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Imagine the journey of many of these items: from miners or growers or makers, often in rural areas, over land to larger markets and ports; from there over seas to trading hubs like Havana, Antwerp, and Manila; and from there spreading outward to buyers in middling-size communities. Along the way, goods might be taxed, counted, sold and resold, stamped by government authorities, or hidden away to conceal them from such officials. This period, often called by historians the early modern age, was one of ever-increasing connections across long distances, a growing web in which people making goods and people buying goods became ever more entangled with other people halfway around the globe.

Not only rare and luxurious goods moved across long distances in the pre-industrial age. Cotton textiles woven and dyed by Indian artisans – by hand – were in demand throughout the world for centuries. Indian cloth-makers intentionally made their goods to appeal to the tastes of diverse markets (European, African, Chinese), and merchants bought richly colored cottons in quantity, often to trade for other highly valued materials. Cotton and other products such as porcelain became more affordable and available, and spawned imitations which could be even cheaper.

In many cases, goods became detached from their original cultural context and adopted into new ones. Tobacco, for example, was grown and smoked by indigenous Americans for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Europeans who encountered tobacco valued its medicinal uses as well, believing tobacco to be beneficial for health, but tobacco rapidly became known from Europe to the Ottoman Empire to China. Tobacco’s stimulant properties made it especially popular among soldiers and others who needed to stay alert for long hours. Tobacco smoking made its way around the world so swiftly that seventeenth-century Chinese writers had no idea where it had originally come from, associating the product only with the European traders from whom they obtained it. Chocolate, similarly, had been a lavish and high-status drink among Mesoamericans, as well as a form of currency. Spanish people who encountered it often found the foamy drink off-putting, but it nevertheless gained popularity in Europe, especially when mixed with additional sugar. Other stimulant beverages, coffee and tea, would eventually supplant chocolate as a drink, but chocolate and sugar would become staples of European confectionery.

In some ways, there’s nothing new about this kind of trade and adaptation of goods. Human beings have always traded objects across long distances. Jewelry, coins, and other items from early burial sites attest to that. But from 1500 on, the world became interconnected as never before. People moved across oceans and continents in unprecedented numbers, transporting enormous quantities of goods as they went. People around the world developed tastes for new kinds of products – cotton cloth, porcelain, sugar, tobacco, chocolate, tea – and cultivators, merchants, and artisans sought to fill the demands of those new markets.

The results, of course, were calamitous for huge numbers of people: for the indigenous peoples of the Americas who died, suffered, and became forced labor for European conquerors, for the Africans forced into slavery and transported across oceans to work in brutal conditions for the profit of others. That is the bitter foundation underlying the mass production of cotton, sugar, silver, and many other objects. These products required intense labor to mine, grow, and process, and the vast majority of that labor was coerced and unpaid. When we think about the early modern age, we need to keep that reality in mind.
That reality, however, existed as part of a tangled and complex web of connections that linked people around the globe. The early modern world was full of extraordinary journeys and possibilities. It was an era in which it could be easy to pick up stakes and run away (as the well-documented Martin Guerre did) – to sea, to the army, to anonymity somewhere well away from one’s origins. Extraordinary individual stories surface from the period, including the tale of Catalina de Erauso, who fled from a Spanish nunnery, adopted masculine clothing and worked as a soldier in Spain’s American colonies, and subsequently wrote a dramatic memoir. Lives like these were fantastic enough; how many more people crossed boundaries and transgressed norms, without leaving as much of a mark in the historical record? There’s enormous potential for fantasy in studying, imagining, and re-imagining the history of this era.


Professor Michelle Herder teaches courses covering the range of European history from the early Middle Ages through the end of the 17th century. Course themes include religion, violence, and the relationship between powerful groups and less powerful groups in medieval European society. She is exploring the use of simulations to study history in several of her courses. Her research interests revolve around women and religion in late medieval Spain.

Fantastic History #65: Miracles by Dr. Michelle Herder

Stories of miracles occur in countless medieval European manuscripts. They were told in sermons and collected in their own right: cures, impostures, rewards, punishments, story after story of the workings of divine power in the lives of ordinary people. Fantastical stories, presented as true.

I teach medieval history at a small college, and miracle stories always present obstacles for students. They respond, understandably, with skepticism. Few of my students are believers, or at least they don’t believe in that particular way. So they ask: did medieval people really believe in miracle stories? Sometimes they try to find a rational explanation for the supposed miracle, speculating about how some real-life coincidence might lie behind a story. Sometimes they think that the medieval clergy who wrote down these stories must have been deliberately committing fraud. Often they conclude that people in medieval Europe must simply have been extremely gullible.

But if we can suspend our disbelief, miracle stories open a door. Perhaps not a literal door to a long-gone world in which divine power could heal the sick or punish the wicked directly and dramatically – but perhaps instead miracle stories can shed some light on the beliefs and mindset of the people who told them, wrote them down, and passed them around. Many stories were well-known; clergy used them as examples in sermons, artists depicted them in church decoration. The book of saints’ lives known as the Golden Legend contains numerous stories of miraculous deeds, adventures, and violence, and was one of the most widespread texts of medieval society, translated into numerous languages. (In contrast, many medieval tales that are better-known to modern people, such as Beowulf, survive in only a single manuscript.) Though European Christian clergy wrote down most of the miracle tales that survive, the stories give us glimpses of the lives of a wide range of people, including, poor, ill, and disabled people.
Around the year 1000, Bernard of Angers recorded a number of miracles attributed to Saint Foy, or Faith, according to legend a young girl martyred long ago. Bernard knows his readers might not believe in Foy’s holy influence. In fact, he presents himself as a skeptic, only recently converted into a devotee of this particular saint. Eager to demonstrate Saint Foy’s bona fides, he takes care to assure readers that he heard all these stories from people who had seen them firsthand.

Saint Foy’s miracles are shockingly punitive. People who denied her monks their donations were killed by a collapsing roof. An unfortunate fellow named Vuitbert, blinded through a mentor’s cruel betrayal and reduced to poverty, received his sight back through his devotion to Foy. But, Bernard tells us, the miracle turned out to be conditional: when Vuitbert succumbed to worldly temptations and paid less attention to his saint, his sight once again dimmed, and only a performance of penitence and devotion to Foy restored his sight again. Though the stories praise Foy for her beauty and purity, she evokes a jealous fey rather than a holy martyr. But this does not appear incongruous to Bernard, who takes these stories as examples of Foy’s great power.

In some stories miracles compensate for personal failings. In one, a young nun flees her cloister and embarks on a life of sin, retaining only her devotion to the Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Much later, the woman regrets her choices and returns to the monastery… where she finds that Mary herself had taken her place, adopting the runaway nun’s appearance and living an entirely virtuous life. The runaway could therefore resume her place without confessing her adventures outside the cloister to anyone. This admittedly begs the question of how the story came to be known at all – but the point is that Mary rewards devotion, even from those who might seem unworthy of her favor. Like Foy, Mary blesses those who are loyal to her.

Miraculous cures are the perhaps the kind of miracle story we would most expect to see, and at the same time the hardest for a modern reader to believe without reservation. Take, for example, the case of a boy born deaf and mute; at the age of eight he had been taken in by a blacksmith, who taught him to help around the forge. The smith also took him to church with his family, where the boy learned the movements and gestures of prayer, though presumably without understanding. By age twenty he had moved on to other work, and then followed along with the massive royal entourage conducting the body of King Louis IX to its burial place near Paris. At the tomb, so the story says, the boy had a revelation: during a Mass he suddenly acquired the ability to hear and speak. Frightened by the unfamiliar noises of the world, he made his way back to the blacksmith, who took him in again and began teaching him words. Eventually, the formerly deaf young man took the name Louis, in honor of the saint whose miracle had cured him.

In another story from the same collection, a widowed laundress named Nicole suffered a paralysis at age forty-two. Unable to work, and able to eat only soft foods, she relied on her friend Contesse, who cared for her and took her to the public baths in hopes that the hot water would help her recover. Another friend, a woman called Perronele the Smith, paid for a cart to take Nicole to the tomb of Louis IX. There she was cured of her ailments, and walked home with her friends.

It sounds as though Nicole experienced a stroke, something from which people do recover. But a person born deaf suddenly gaining the ability to hear? That scenario sounds far less plausible to a modern reader.

In that case, however, Louis himself testified to this miracle before the investigators who were collecting miracles for Louis’s saintly portfolio, just as Nicole did. In documenting cures, the investigators noted details of the witnesses’ lives and experiences, to make their case for Louis IX’s sainthood convincing. Those details themselves show how people helped friends and neighbors who had become disabled, and how a deaf boy found work, and a place in the world. Fantastical though they are, miracle stories give us glimpses of mundane details and motivations that bring the medieval past to life.

Further reading:

Sharon Farmer, Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris, Cornell University Press, 2002.

Sherry Reames, The Legenda Aurea: A Reexamination of its Paradoxical History, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Pamela Sheingorn, The Book of Sainte Foy, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.


Dr. Michelle Herder Professor Herder teaches courses covering the range of European history from the early Middle Ages through the end of the 17th century. Course themes include religion, violence, and the relationship between powerful groups and less powerful groups in medieval European society. She is exploring the use of simulations to study history in several of her courses. Her research interests revolve around women and religion in late medieval Spain.