Cotton Mather’s American Ghosts

The Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather (1663-1728) is one of the boogeymen of early American history. Among his many sins, he helped fuel the Salem witch trials that executed 20 people for witchcraft. In the trials he successfully argued that the contents of magical visions should be considered legally admissible evidence. Mather was a prolific writer. […]

The Secret Peasant Book Club

In the countryside near 1500s Venice, most people were illiterate – but not all. A small number of literate peasants swapped books amongst themselves. Some of the books were forbidden. One miller was hauled before the Inquisition, not for reading banned books, but for developing his own theology from them that existed outside the bounds of Christianity. […]

NPCs from Christine de Pizan’s City of Ladies

Christine de Pizan was a 15th-century French feminist author. Her work The Book of the City of Ladies (~1405) is a full-throated defense of the spiritual and moral worth of women in a society that viewed them as base, lustful, and inferior. The largest part of the City of Ladies is a collection of short […]

“No, I’m the Real Martin Guerre!”

In 1548, Basque peasant Martin Guerre disappeared from his village in southwest France, abandoning his wife and child. Eight years later, he returned. Life improved; he was a better husband, father, and member of his community. But Guerre’s uncle brought a lawsuit against him claiming this peasant wasn’t the real Martin Guerre, but a similar-looking […]

The Politics of the First Witches’ Sabbaths

Today, a standard component of the European myth of the witch is that witches are organized. They maintain heretical Satanic sects or covens and form a vast conspiracy to undermine the Christian order. From Faust to The Witch (2015), the idea is almost taken as a given. But it’s actually a pretty new concept. The […]

Professional NPCs from the Medieval Joke Book

Last month, we looked at some jokes from the earliest known printed joke book, the 15th-century Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini. This month we return to the Facetiae for more late Medieval/early Renaissance Italian jokes, each of which has at its heart a character who makes a great professional or tradesman NPC. Some readers of last […]

Apostolic Succession, Donatism, and the Hidden Pope

We got a weird one this week, folks! This time, we’re going to look at the principle of apostolic succession in the Catholic Church, how it underpins the authority of the pope, how that triggered a revolt in the fourth century, how it impacted the Western Schism of 1378-1429 when there were three rival popes […]

Lord Thomas of Marle, the Wickedest Man of His Generation

Thomas of Marle (1073-1130 A.D.), the Lord of Coucy, was a Medieval French nobleman so evil that the King of France, the Catholic Church, and his own father all tried to destroy him. The era’s chaotic politics gave Thomas the opportunity to rampage across the landscape – and sometimes threw him a lifeline when the consequences […]

Scholarly NPCs from Aubrey’s Lives

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The Olympic Spirits of Arbatel’s Grimoire

Arbatel de Magia Veterum (Arbatel: Of the Magic of the Ancients) is a 16th-century Swiss grimoire: a book of magic. It purports to be the revelations of an angel named Arbatel “concerning the greatest secrets which are lawful for man to know, and to use them without offense unto God”. It may contain the earliest […]

The Heretic Vendetta

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Montaillou: The Spy-Infested Anthill Village

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The Trans Conquistador, Lieutenant Erauso

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The Florentine Architecture Feud

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The Court of the Khan

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