Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Celts and Anglo-Saxons

Many in Britain today are looking forward to leaving the European Union, wanting to retreat to some (imagined) past when England was just for the English, and there weren't any of those pesky immigrants.  In fact, England has experienced waves of conquest, where the newcomers weren't just immigrants who blended in with the locals but conquerors who decided they were in charge now.

This of course is not a uniquely English situation, though since I'm blogging today about Celts and Anglo-Saxons, Great Britain is my focus.  After all, the US, a nation of immigrants, is also a nation full of people saying that just because Grandpaw arrived in this country poor and unable to speak English, we shouldn't allow in any more poor people who can't speak English.

The earliest people in Britain who know much about (and it's not a lot) are the megalith builders who built Stonehenge, pictured above.  Then around 500 BC came the Celts, though there were various people like Picts who still lingered around the margins.   Then came the Romans under Caesar.  Then the Angles and Saxons.  Then the Vikings.  Then the Normans in 1066.  Things have been a bit quieter, invasion-wise, since then, but it's clear nobody British is "pure" anything.

Earlier I discussed the Romans in Britain.   Today I want to focus more on the ways that the Romanized Celtic population dealt with and merged with the Anglo-Saxon conquerors.

Because the original Anglo-Saxons didn't write, we know about them primarily through archaeology, digging up things like their pottery.  The Romans had had mass-produced pottery, thrown on wheels, fired in kilns, distributed from what were in essence factories.  One quickly stops seeing this kind of pottery after about the year 500, although a few examples seem to have survived as precious possessions.  (We find most of the earlier ones in graves or in pieces.)

The assumption has been that the rougher-looking, hand-shaped pottery that came into use instead was therefore Anglo-Saxon pottery, pots baked in open fires rather than in kilns (and therefore less durable).  But a lot of this pottery looks in overall style just like Roman pottery, even if not as professionally made.  It does not have the style of the pottery found along the lower Rhine, where the Angles and Saxons originated.

So the question is, were the Anglo-Saxon invaders trying to copy the local pottery?  Or were there local Celtic populations still trying to make the kind of pots that seemed right to them, but the centers that had produced them were gone?  After all, the conquerors went after the rich lords, not the ordinary people.  If ordinary people couldn't buy their pots from the shop at the villa because it no longer existed, then they would have to make it themselves, as best they could.

This is much more likely than that the Celts completely disappeared overnight (caught up in the rapture?), and the Angles and Saxons found examples of their pottery Left Behind, grunted, "Ugh.  Good," and tried with their crude techniques to copy it.  This kind of thinking can lead too easily to assuming that if one finds supposedly "Anglo-Saxon" pots, then all the people buried with them must have been Anglo-Saxon, and everything else in the graves must be a marker of Anglo-Saxon culture, even though it looks weirdly like Roman-Celtic material goods.  In fact, it is far more likely that Romanized Celts and Anglo-Saxons intermingled and intermarried, as well as trading bits of their culture, just as the Anglo-Saxons did with the Normans 500 years later.

Prof. Robin Fleming of Boston College has done a great deal of work on this subject.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Middle Ages and Whiteness

There is a low-level but increasing tendency to see Europe's Middle Ages as a golden age of Whiteness.  As a medievalist, I must strongly disagree.

Of course I love my guys who lived in the Middle Ages.  But that doesn't mean that I admire them, want to be like them, or think they should be anyone's model.  (As the preachers say, "Love the sinner but not the sin.")  As I've said before, they were ruthless, violent, and intolerant of religious diversity—and those were the good guys!

But there's another side to it, that should be understood by those who like ruthless intolerance.  In spite of everything negative you can say about the Middle Ages, there was never a dominant white and Christian culture that excluded all else.

For starters, medieval people weren't racist in terms of skin tone.  A lot of this was just naïveté, they hadn't for the most part seen people of color and couldn't therefore work up any sort of antagonism against them.  In the Parzival story in which Parzival had a half-brother whose mother was an Ethiopian, the half-brother was spotted black and white, because it seemed that that's what you'd get crossing a black person and a white person.  The spots were considered intriguing.

And then there are the so-called black Madonnas of the Auvergne, very dark wooden figures of the Madonna, found all over southwest France, dating to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  No one tried to whiten them up.  Black was fine.  (The image below is of the one at Rocamadour.)

Medieval Europe had large minority populations of Jews and Muslims.  Sometimes they'd be persecuted, sometimes not.  In Spain especially everyone had to work out a way to get along with each other, at least some of the time.  When the first wave of fighters on what became the First Crusade (1095) got to the Rhineland, they decided they'd get a head start on killing the infidel by killing Jews, and the Jews were protected by, get this, the local bishops.

Now of course when the Crusade actually got to the Muslim Middle East, they were in slaughter-mode.  At the time the story was that the streets of Jerusalem ran ankle-deep in blood.  But as the westerners settled down to rule their newly-established Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, they got along most of the time with local Muslims—who were, after all, in the majority.  This was upsetting to those newly arrived from Europe.  It was mostly the new arrivals who kept the fighting going, until the westerners were driven back out in 1187.

Religious intolerance reached new heights in the thirteenth century, but the special focus was Christian heretics, not other religions (though those too came under attack).  Christianity, as those who have been reading this blog know, was never a single, unified religion, and although the persecution of heretics was an attempt to make it so, it was not successful.  Then, in the disastrous fourteenth century (famine, Black Death, Hundred Years War), religious difference became much less of an issue.  People had other things to worry about, like staying alive.

And of course Europe was not sealed off from the broader world.  A lot of their philosophy, science (think astronomy and Arabic numerals), and architecture was heavily influenced by the Arabs.  If one wants to find a time when everyone was white and Christian and therefore everything was swell (and I must say I think such a time is imaginary), it is not the European Middle Ages.

Thursday, March 8, 2018


Everybody sort of knows about alchemy and rejects it--turning lead into gold, let's not get silly!  But in the Middle Ages it was a major branch of philosophy.  This is why the first Harry Potter book was entitled (in the UK) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

As you doubtless can guess if you've been reading this blog, I'm not about to say, "Ha, how dumb can they get in the Middle Ages?  Lead into gold indeed!"  Rather alchemy, which in fact became the ancestor of what we consider chemistry, started as a theoretical musing on the nature of the universe.  Medieval Europe got it from the Arabs (as the prefix al- should have told you),  from the eighth or ninth century onward.  The Arabs in turn had gotten a lot of it from ancient Greek philosophy.

The starting point was the question of what was the basic "stuff" of the universe, the assumption that everything, if reduced to its smallest bits, might be the same.  We actually believe this now.  Everything is composed of atoms, whether it's a rock or a tree or a person or a drop of water.  And if everything is composed of the same smallest bits, just rearranged differently, then it makes sense that one substance can be turned into another.  We don't turn lead into gold, but we are happy to think that hydrogen and oxygen combine to make water.

Medieval people actually didn't concentrate on the lead-to-gold thing until the end of the Middle Ages (and they didn't worry about some magical "stone").  Their main interest was copper-to-gold, or even gold-to-copper, and this wasn't an issue about creating wealth.  Rather it was seeing two shiny metals as metaphors.  Copper started by looking like gold, like the sun, then turned green with verdigris to look like natural growing things.

 Human action, it was understood, turned one thing into something else.  So as copper was smelted or hammered by humans, it was considered to undergo an alchemical change.  What had once been a nugget of ore was now a coin, or an oil lamp, or a door knocker.  There were methods that would turn copper green faster than natural weathering.  So alchemy was a way to ponder the relationship between nature and human.

Alchemy was considered a good Christian science.  After all, in transubstantiation, the Communion wafer became the body of Christ.  Now it also at the same time remained a wafer, and finding actual blood in one's wafer was considered unorthodox at best, but it did change its substance (that's what transubstantiation means), by what was considered an example of divine alchemy.

Modern people tend to draw distinctions between "real" sciences, like chemistry and astronomy, and "fake" sciences, like alchemy and astrology, conveniently leaving out the detail that the former derived from the latter.  And in fact medieval people were very aware of the danger of charlatans promising that they could make you rich if you just gave them money for their alchemical experiments, or tell you which decisions to make depending on the phase of the moon or stars.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018


To a western medievalist, Byzantium is something of an outlier.  It's that place over there, in what is now Turkey, and they used Greek rather than Latin, and maybe we shouldn't think of them as "really" medieval.

But this does the Byzantines a disservice.  The original Roman Empire had extended all the way around the Mediterranean, including the area of Anatolia, the "Asian" part of modern Turkey, east of the passage from the Mediterranean into the Black Seaas well as the western or so-called European part of what is now Turkey.  They called the whole area Byzantium.  In this end of the Mediterranean, Greek rather than Latin was the dominant language.

In the fourth century AD, the Roman emperor Constantine moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium.  For another century and a half, there were sometimes two emperors, one in Rome and one in Constantinople, the "new Rome" (guess who it was named for).  Sometimes they got along, sometimes not.  In 476 the eastern Byzantine Roman emperor had the western one, a barbarian general, assassinated, and there were no more western Roman emperors until Charlemagne in 800.  But the line of Roman emperors in Constantinople continued for another thousand years.

The Byzantine region was a highly cultured, wealthy place.  Its Christianity was Greek-speaking, following the original version of the Bible and earliest theologians, whereas in Europe and the western Mediterranean things had to be translated into Latin (on which see more here).  Religious art developed icons, images of the saints, as well as gorgeous mosaics.  The church of Hagia Sophia ("Holy Wisdom"), built in Constantinople in the sixth century, was the largest church in Christendom.

It is pictured above.  (The four minarets on the corners were added during its later time as a Muslim mosque.  Now it is a museum.)

The economic breakdown of the late Roman Empire (fifth-sixth centuries) drew eastern and western Christendom further and further apart, with the decline of trade and communication, but the real blow came in the seventh century, with the rise of Islam.  North Africa and most of the eastern Mediterranean, except for Byzantium, came under Muslim rule.  The Byzantines heavily influenced Arabic art and culture and vice-versa, even though the two were officially deadly enemies.  Among the Christians, East and West, Greek and Latin, viewed each other with increased suspicion.  In 1054, the two major versions of Christianity excommunicated each other, a breach still not completely healed today.

The Crusades were begun at the end of the eleventh century at least in part in the hope (wildly over-optimistic) that fighting Muslims together might bring East and West back together.  In fact, the Fourth Crusade in 1204 ended up with the western army sacking Constantinople and installing their own Latin emperor and patriarch.  The Byzantines eventually got their capital back, but not before all the fighting between Christians had seriously weakened Byzantium.

The Turks had, in the previous century or two, come into the Middle East and been converted to Islam.  In 1453, they finally, after years of fighting, took Constantinople, renamed it Istanbul, renamed the region Turkey, turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque, sent the leaders of Greek Orthodoxy into exile, and ended the line of Byzantine Roman emperors.  This was the real "fall of the Roman Empire."

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

YA Fiction

Modern society takes the term "teenagers" for granted, those 13-19, whose age has the word "teen" in it.  But note that this is specific to English.  Other languages (including medieval Latin) don't have a way of naming their numbers that gives 13-19 such a distinctive handle.  (Modern French:  treize, quatorze, quinze, seize, dix-sept, dix-huit, dix-neuf.)

The modern English-speaking world has, however, seized on this artifact of our language to create a specific culture for people in this age-range.  Teenage music, teenage clothing, movies and shows that appeal to teenagers.  Doing so is helped by the fact that people in this age-range really are in a transition period, growing and changing, neither children nor adults, having aspects of both.

For medieval people, there wasn't a defined "teenage" stage, as I have discussed more elsewhere.  People were legally adults for most purposes at fourteen, though exact birthdays mattered much less to them than they do for us.

Even in the English-speaking world, "teenager" really only became a recognized, specific stage in the second half of the twentieth century.  One of the things it needed, society felt, was its own literature.  There had been children's literature since at least the nineteenth century (earlier fairy tales were originally written for adults), and at a certain point kids were expected to start reading the same books adults were reading.  But teen literature, for and about people in their teens, came into its own in the 1950s.

It was called YA, "young adult," I guess because no one would have wanted to read "overgrown kid" literature.  Originally a lot of YA had plots like, "Will Jack ask Sue to the senior prom?" (spoiler alert, he does).  But over the years YA has evolved, often addressing very serious issues like divorce, sexual harassment, bullying, and the like.

In recent years, a major proportion of YA literature has been fantasy.  A lot of basic fantasy tropes tie right into the experiences of teenagers, things like feeling like the weird one (in fantasy, the weird one develops special powers), having to figure out which side one is on as all sorts of unexpected things are revealed, or having to deal with grownups who have messed everything up (think most dystopian fantasy).  Interestingly, good YA fantasy is more likely to end with ambiguity, where does "right" really lie? whereas "adult" fantasy generally has Good whacking the heck out of Evil.

The clearest marker of YA fiction is that the protagonists are teenagers.  I write YA fantasy myself.  My novel "The Starlight Raven" starts when Antonia, the heroine, is fourteen.  It's available both as an ebook and a paperback (here's the Amazon link).  She's the daughter of a witch and a wizard, a very unusual pairing, because female magic and male magic start with very different premises and distrust each other.  She wants to be part of both, but no one thinks she can.

It's going to be a series; so far there are two books, the second being "An Autumn Haunting."  More on the way!

Interestingly, I think I was writing YA fiction without even knowing it.  One of my earlier books, in the "Royal Wizard of Yurt" series, was named a "notable book for the teen aged" by the New York Public Library.  The hero of the book, "The Witch and the Cathedral," is in his late 40s in the book, so that doesn't explain it.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


We take onions for granted.  There they are, at the farmers' market or at the grocery store, maybe in a mesh bag for $2.99.  We cut them up and cook them in oil or butter as Step One of a multitude of dishes, from spaghetti to chili to soup to turkey stuffing.

Medieval people had onions too, and they appreciated them ("not like kids today").  Onions are fairly easy to grow, and once dried, they will keep well, without refrigeration or smoking or salting.  They added a nice touch to a medieval diet which was always threatening to become bland.  They could be a dish all by themselves (think onion soup).  In the spring, as onions were just starting to grow, you could have green onions, where you eat the whole thing, including the leaves.

(Green onions are good in the spring when mixed with cottage cheese, which would be made from the milk when the cow had her calf.)

The above picture is a sixteenth-century image of an onion.

Medieval people also ate other onion relatives as well.  Leeks are not now common in the US, but they were a regular addition to the medieval diet, often stewed (leeks, like green onions, can be eaten leaves and all).

Then there was garlic.  Garlic then, like now, really could perk up a bland dish.  Medieval people would also have dishes made up almost entirely of garlic.  When you don't have a lot of different kinds of food to choose from, you make the best of what you've got.

But wouldn't they all have garlic breath? you ask.  Well yes, probably, and they didn't have little pocket tins of mints to suck on.  But if everybody has been eating garlic, it's much less of an issue.  And besides, they did try to keep their mouths clean.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Saint Augustine

If you live in Florida, you think of Saint Augustine as a city in your state.  If you took Western Civ in college, you may have heard of the saint.  Wasn't he like an early Christian thinker or something? you say.  Yes he was, and the person after whom the city is named.  He's actually one of the most important Christian thinkers of the West.  The following gives you a few highlights that ought to jog your memory of Western Civ--or fill in a gap if you never took it.

Before beginning, let's clarify, that there are two saints named Augustine.  The first one is the one we're talking about today (lived 354-430).  He was a bishop in North Africa when North Africa was still part of the Christian Roman Empire, pre-Islam.  I pronounce his name AW-gust-teen, like the Florida city.  The other one was sent from Rome to Anglo-Saxon England around the year 600 to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxon kings to Christianity, at which he was fairly successful.  I pronounce his name Aw-GUST-tin, to keep him separate from the first one.  (Note that pronunciation of these names is fairly mix-and-match, depending on who you ask.)  (The name Austin is a variation of Augustine.  Thought you should know.)

Let's talk about the bishop.  He wasn't a bishop at first, of course.  He grew up in Roman North Africa, son of a Christian mother, Monica, and a father who didn't seem to worry much about religion one way or the other.  (Monica is also a saint now.  You go, girl.)  Young Augustine's father told him to enjoy his youth, sow some wild oats, and Augustine took him up on it.  We know all of this because Augustine was one of the first people to write an autobiography, a story of his own life, which he called "Confessions."  But among all the wine, women, and song, he started thinking about philosophical issues.

His big question (and a question that's continued to be big for all philosophers) was, Why is there evil in the world?  First he decided Dualism was the answer.  This is the philosophy that the universe is caught in an eternal struggle between Good and Evil.  They are equally balanced, and neither will ever win.  (This is also called Manichaeism.  It's officially a heresy.  It's also related to the religion of Zoroastrianism.)

Augustine ended up rejecting Dualism, however, after reading the pagan Greek philosopher Plato (lived in fifth century BC).  Plato argued for archetypes, absolutes, that we all reflect dimly, saying that there is such a thing as Absolute Good (this was against other Greek philosophers, who said everything was relative).  However, there was no Absolute Evil, only an absence of good.

(Think about light versus dark.  Dark isn't an absolute.  It's just the absence of light.  When you go to bed you don't reach for the switch and "turn on the dark.")

Young Augustine really studied Plato and other early Greeks (in translation into Latin, his own native language) and went off to Milan, where there was a famous school of philosophy at the time.  Here he encountered Ambrose, who was both bishop of Milan and a noted philosopher in his own right.  (Ambrose is also now a saint.  The cathedral of Milan is dedicated to Santo Ambrogio.  That's him.)  Ambrose converted Augustine to Christianity, and Augustine soon went home to North Africa to become bishop of the city of Hippo Regius (which was not a city of hippopotamuses, it's just its name‚ a city now in Algeria and called Annaba).

Here he started writing, so many books, in fact, that when he died it was said that no one could possibly read them all.  And these weren't just any books.  These became the most important works defining theology for the Middle Ages--and for that matter, he was also very influential on Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

Augustine settled on original sin and the will to explain evil.  Humans, he said, ever since Adam and Eve had wanted to have their own way, rather than do what was right and good.  There was no "childhood innocence" for him, but everyone was born a sinner.  He pointed out that if a woman were nursing two babies (either twins, or one of hers and another she was fostering) the two would fight over who had the Lucky Breast.  Without baptism that wiped out original sin (the sin of our origins, from Adam and Eve), everyone would go straight to hell.  Not surprisingly, this idea pushed baptism  from something you might undergo in old age back to infancy.

But, as he knew perfectly well, everybody kept on sinning away even after baptism.  Augustine stressed that no one can make their own salvation, no one can always be good and pure and earn their way into heaven.  (The idea that all it takes is to choose to do good to be saved is another heresy, Pelagianism.)  Since everyone's a sinner, we all need grace, he said, God undeservedly choosing to save at least some of us--a possibility because of Christ's sacrifice, grace given to humans via the sacraments.

Because Augustine rejected Dualism (though Christianity still has a lot of dualism in it), he rejected the idea that the body was naturally bad.  After all, Genesis is clear that God had created the physical world, including human bodies, and God doesn't create bad things, even if we mess them up.  Our problem is a will that tells the body to go for it.

Sex, like the body, was not naturally bad.  After all, Adam and Eve were supposed to multiply.  (And we're not talking here about the times-tables.)  Sex in marriage, for the purpose of having children, was just fine for Augustine.  But willfully deciding to have sex just for fun, especially if outside of marriage, was clearly sinful.  This is still the official Catholic position.  (But one was allowed to enjoy procreation.  Whew.)

Perhaps his most famous work is "The City of God," in which he argued that humans cannot create heaven on earth, but that the perfect city will be found only after death, in heaven.  This was written partially in response to the Visigoths sacking Rome in 410, which caused some to complain that things had been better in the olden, pagan days, when Rome wasn't sacked a bit, and others to blame God for allowing perfectly good Christians to have their city sacked.  You're missing the point, Augustine said.  The Vandals (like the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe) sacked his own city of Hippo as he was dying in 430, but they left his cathedral and library untouched.

Click here for more on figuring out philosophically why there is evil in the world.