About

The Medieval Notary, making salsa in Mexico

That’s me, your medieval notary: Jolanta N. Komornicka.

For my first name: In Polish, Js are pronounced as Ys. Hence Jolanta is pronounced like Yolanta. The As are like the vowel sound in aunt, when you’re not suggesting she’s a bug. Please don’t make my name sound like a heartburn medication.

Here’s the handy rebus puzzle I give my students to help them pronounce my last name:

Did I mention students? That’s because I’m a medieval historian by training. I received my PhD from Boston University in 2013, but my love for the Middle Ages started when I was just a little kid. Perhaps it was getting to go to Europe and see castles. Maybe it was all those fantasy books I read, starting with Tolkien.

I have a variety of distinct memories about my love for the Middle Ages as a kid. My parents have others. I’ll give you two of mine and one of theirs.

Theirs:

When Jola first entered a castle, she always wanted to know where the armory was and go there first, and then stay put. We never figured out how she knew what an armory was at six years old.

Mine, #1:

I can still feel how agitated I got when I learned that all kinds of cool things had been invented in the Middle Ages (eyeglasses, mechanical clock, stirrups, tidal mills, astrolabe, spinning wheel… I could go on), yet people insisted on calling it the Dark Ages, as though nothing useful had happened. I became bound and determined at age 8 to prove the world wrong.

Mind you, at about the same age I became convinced that fire was alive, because it seemed to have all the necessary components for life, as taught in science class: Movement (just look at a forest fire); Feeding (wood, oxygen); Respiration (smoke); Excretion (ash, charcoal); Reproduction (sparks); Sensitivity (not really sure how my young self explained this one — I’m not even sure it was part of our list; I remember there being five items, not six).

Look, I was a kid, okay?

And on that point of being a kid, but a slightly older one at age 12, here’s my second definitive memory of by budding medievalist nature:

Mine, #2:

I went to an antique book fair with my parents, because my parents are awesome. Among the lovely smell of book must (probably the only perfume I could ever imagine wearing — has anyone bottled that yet?) and the dust of dry ink sloughing gently off pages, I came across one book that just called to me. It was beautiful. Leather bound, hard back, older than anyone I’d ever met in my life. It smelled like late nights huddled under the blankets with a flashlight (though I quickly found that trick for reading late into the night too stifling, so I’d stuff a blanket along the door crack so my parents couldn’t see my reading light; oh, the fire hazard!). It felt like I imagined all those lovely old tomes did that my heroes in fantasy novels poured over (Gandalf reading through manuscripts in Minas Tirith, anyone? And yes, on dress as your hero day, I dressed up as Gandalf).

But it was $110. Far more money than I had saved up from my allowance. I asked my parents to loan me the money, and they could withhold future allowances until I had repaid them.

No go.

Why not?

Well, you see, this book had some absolutely lovely original woodcuts.

Of medieval torture.

I desperately wanted that book. I mean, look at me as a 6 year old!

In the stocks and loving it!

I did not get that book.

My mother feared I’d talk about torture at the dinner table.

So, I finished high school, went to university, then graduate school, and set off to the archives in Paris to research medieval torture for my dissertation.

Unfortunately, while I had determined when and where medieval torture was used (late Middle Ages, France, for serious felonies), the records were not forthcoming.

I had chosen to examine trial records. This was not, in itself, a bad idea. The problem, however, is that medieval scribes for the Parlement of Paris (the royal judicial court, nothing like England’s Parliament — there’s no I in it) almost never directly stated if torture had been used. Even when they did, the type, duration, etc. was not recorded.

Yet I had three months in Paris to work and I needed to write a dissertation. The more I read and photographed the manuscripts, the more intrigued I became by the use of the term “lèse-majesté” (lese majesty, because English is great at translating, n’est pas?).

Several years later, I finished and defended my dissertation concerning these crimes of high treason. Turns out, they truly run the gamut: killing the king’s obviously in there, but so is forgery, counterfeiting, murder, any crime committed on the king’s roadway, and even heresy will end up showing up down the line. Since I wrote a whole dissertation on this, you’ll be very surprised to learn that there’s more to it than that one sentence. But don’t worry, that’s what the blog’s for.

Come to that, what is the blog for?

I’d been a university instructor in one form or another (graduate teaching assistant, instructor, visiting instructor, lecturer, assistant professor), before COVID19 hit (right when I was teaching a course on the Black Death — that was surreal!). Fast forward, and I’m no longer a university professor, though I still have affiliations, go to conferences, work on grants, talk to students, read new research, do my own research. Really, except for not being in front of a classroom of students every week and not getting paid, it’s not so different.

That said, I love the Middle Ages and I want to share my passion for it with others. Especially my passion for the criminal side of it. The murderers, thieves, forgers, and just unlucky schmucks who went afoul of the law at one point or another.

This blog is my way of continuing to live my medieval passion. I read medieval court cases, then tell you their stories through ridiculous comic panels. Along the way, I sneak in that yummy medieval history by commenting on what’s happening in the case, what’s interesting, or weird, or totally mundane. I also snark a bit. It’s a thing I do.

Read the blog, and you’ll learn cool things like what happens when you cook fish for bandits, or get struck by the evil of Saint Aignan, or why William Lost-His-Pants.

Actually, I don’t know the answer to that last one. I really, really, want to though. I mean, the guy’s last name was actually Lost-His-Pants (in French, mind), and he had to declare that in the courtroom and everything! I’m amazed the notary didn’t make a nasty doodle in the margin. You know, like this:

Maybe this boar got his pants?

All I can say is the notary missed out on a real opportunity with that one.

Speaking of notaries…

I chose the blog name Medieval Notary in large part because the records I deal with (and draw upon for this blog) were written by notaries. Feel free to also call them scribes or clerks. There are distinctions, but we’re not going to worry too much about them.

Instead, let’s worry about something more vital, like how to avoid the hangman’s noose. On to the Stories!

Before you go, follow me on Twitter @medievalnotary!

Oh, and for the record, my mother was right: I do talk about medieval torture at the dinner table. I still think I should have been allowed to get that book.

The Medieval Notary’s mark, inspired by but hardly rivaling those of medieval notaries long gone.
Yes, that’s a Barnacle Goose. I’ll talk about it at some point.