Sunday, September 8, 2019

Iron-age hill forts

Back when iron started becoming widely used in Europe, say roughly 500 or 1000 BC give or take a few centuries, people started building hill forts.  Because they didn't write down what they were doing, clearly having no consideration for their descendants a few millennia later, we aren't quite sure if these were places from which lords looked down in fierce disdain at other people, or if they were villages that felt they needed some sort of protection against wild animals or people from the next village, or if perhaps they were sacred sites where people would assemble for rituals at certain times of the year.  They were at any rate big, with at least a few acres inside their outer walls.

They did in any event take an awful lot of work to construct, which might go on for generations.  Some had earthen walls, with a few openings.  The Mound Builders in what is now the US built similar structures for equally obscure purposes.  (The ancestors of the American Indians did not have iron, however.)  Or an iron-age hill fort might have stone walls.

The image above is a hill fort in Scotland.  It was built with stone walls that are still there, even though they are now stone humps rather than walls.  There are millions of stones up on top of this hill, every one of which had to be carried up there.  Interestingly, there are no loose stones evident anywhere on the hill's lower slopes.  The following image will give you an idea of how high up this spot is.

Now this hill fort is still there, essentially untouched, except by the elements.  But a lot of hill forts have been found under Europe's cities when excavations have been done (for sewer lines and the like).  A good commanding spot with a river or stream at the bottom of the hill remains a good commanding spot over the centuries.

Under the Roman Empire hill forts were found all over Europe (though now used for different purposes), and a lot of them had castles built on top of them in the Middle Ages.  Castles went up a whole lot faster than cathedrals, and my guess is that there's a simple reason:  if there was a good hilltop spot with a lot of stones already collected, that would strike everyone involved as a perfect place for a castle.  Why spend a lot of effort collecting stones when they were already there?

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on medieval castles, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Early modern and medieval history

I recently realized that historical fiction set in the medieval period showed ordinary life as functional, not blessed with the comforts and facilities of modern (western) civilization, but workable, the way that one can function and enjoy oneself while back packing or the like.

In contrast, historical fiction set in the early modern period (roughly 1500-1800) shows ordinary life as brutal and nasty.  People are ill, victims of violence, hungry, smelly, and surrounded by death.  So of course I started to wonder, why is this?

In part of course it's due to the Enlightenment.  This philosophical movement of the eighteenth century, which saw education and culture as the answer to humanity's problems (to a large extent I agree with them), looked at their past as full of darkness, ignorance, superstition, and misery (here they and I part company).  They saw a possible future with much better lives if only everyone could be educated, exposed to finer things, learn scientific approaches, and have at least a little tiny movement toward democratic institutions.  The Enlightenment inspired both the American Constitution and the French Revolution.

Thus we shouldn't be surprised that the French Revolution was ready to get rid of anything "old fashioned," which included what they called feudalism (see more here about why medievalists don't buy their definition), religion, and the kings and queens carved on Notre Dame, whose heads they knocked off.  (One head recently found is shown below, now in the Cluny museum in Paris.)

But then, early in the nineteenth century, indeed during the Napoleonic era, Sir Walter Scott started writing books set in a romanticized Middle Ages (Ivanhoe has a lot to answer for).  As industrialization ('good' according to the Enlightenment, full of science and machines) separated the workers from their products and filled streams with pollution, people yearned for an earlier, better era and decided it was the Middle Ages.  This golden glow never fell on the early modern period.  The historical novelists followed right along.

That's the Sir Walter Scott memorial in Edinburgh, above.

So people were inspired to see the Middle Ages as better than the early modern period.  But there's more to it.  If you compare the twelfth century with the seventeenth, the twelfth has to win.  The Protestant Reformation had given Christians a reason to kill each other, far outshadowing things like the Albigensian Crusade.  In the early modern period you had frequent outbreaks of the Black Death, which had been unknown in the twelfth century (it broke out in the sixth century but then not again until the fourteenth).  Its outbreak in London in 1666 was stopped only by the great fire that destroyed most of London.  (But hey! it worked!  It wasn't actually deliberate.)

This was also the time of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), which European historians characterize as Europe's worst war ever, even worse than the World Wars for destruction of property and civilian deaths.  Cannons had become very effective at killing people.  There was a great deal of urban crowding and slums, which hadn't shown up yet in the small-but-growing cities of the twelfth century.  Slavery had been revived to cultivate the land in the New World, with an accompanying disdain for non-elite people.  The New World had given Europe syphilis, unknown in the Middle Ages (though Europe got their own back, decimating the indigenous population of the Americas with smallpox and measles).  Kings were proclaiming themselves kings by divine right, which had not been possible in the Middle Ages.  There was a great deal of famine and general misery.

So was life in the twelfth century all happiness?  Of course not.  There was plenty of violence, hunger, and despair.  I'm very happy to be living in the twenty-first century.  But if I had to choose, I'd take the twelfth century over the seventeenth every time.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

For more on medieval history, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Sunday, September 1, 2019


Alsace is part of France, the area right up against Germany.  But it has been under German control at least as much as French over the centuries, and although everyone speaks French there, and the schools are run in French (and the hotels give you croissants in the morning), the locals speak a dialect of German at home.

So how did Alsace end up in the middle, so that in much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was handed back and forth multiple times between the two countries?  Since this is my Life in the Middle Ages blog, you won't be surprised to learn that a big reason is medieval political history.

Let's go back to that magical year of 843 and the Treaty of Verdun.  Although Charlemagne, Roman emperor, and king of what is now France, Germany, the Benelux countries, and northern Italy, only had one surviving son when he died in 814, he had three grandsons who all wanted to kill each other.  They decided instead to divide Europe between them (hence the treaty).  Charles "the Bald" got France, Louis "the German" got Germany (you probably already guessed that), and Lothar, the oldest, got Lotharingia, the strip between France and Germany and extending down into Italy.  He also got to be crowned Roman emperor.

In the map above, the pink area was under the French king, the yellow area under the German king, and the green area is Lotharingia.

Alsace was already a perfectly good duchy, and it was included in Lotharingia (so was Lorraine, whose name is a corruption of Lotharingia).  As you can imagine, both the French and German kings decided Lotharingia was rightfully theirs.  For most of the Middle Ages, the German kings (who elbowed their way into being Roman emperors too) held Alsace (though Lorraine was French, it's where Joan of Arc came from).

Because it was always a border area, Alsace is still thick with castles.  It also has extremely cute half-timbered villages, the way one imagines places like Bavaria might look like.  Because Alsace was taken very quickly during World War II, it was devastated much less than most of Germany.  Visit cute Germany while still getting croissants for breakfast!

© C. Dale Brittain 2019
For more on medieval kings, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  The cover image is a staircase cut into the bedrock in an Alsatian castle, Fleckenstein.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Light in medieval churches

 In modern times, churches' light is provided by electricity.  Indeed, many medieval churches today have lights where the tourist puts in a euro to turn on the electricity and illuminate some interesting architectural feature for five minutes.  But in the Middle Ages churches of course had no electricity, and candles won't make up the difference.  The builders had to focus much more on sunlight coming into the church, which is why the windows and stained glass were so important.  Architects positioned their churches to take full advantage of the sun.

As I have noted previously, the altar ("choir") end of a medieval church was aimed (or "oriented") toward the east (the Orient), supposedly toward Jerusalem.  But what about the west end, you ask?

The west end was where the main doors of the church were.  As well as opening to let people in, these doors also served to frame the view from inside looking outside.

The image above is looking out from the church of Brancion, on a high hill in Burgundy, where the view is of the countryside.  At the cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand, in the Auvergne, the view is of the highest volcanic peak in the region, Mont d'Or.  Clearly the western view was also significant.

In fact, there is some indication that architects decided on the "east" on which they oriented their churches in part by deciding first on the direction of the main doors, to face west.  Most commonly true west was considered to be where the sun set at the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.

But when was the longest day of the year?  We look at a calendar and confidently say June 21.  But remember that medieval people were still on the Julian calendar, which got off by a day every century.  In cloudy Europe it was sometimes hard to say exactly when the sun set at the furthest north point and when its setting point started moving south again each day by a tiny bit.  So sometimes the doors would be lined up to face the setting sun at the solstice, and sometimes to face it on what they called June 21 and we would call the middle of July.

The other day's sunset to which church doors might be aimed seems to be Michaelmass.  This is the feast of the Archangel Michael, officially September 29, although it seems to have been intended to fall on the equinox a week earlier (and again, there seems to have been some difference of opinion whether to focus on where the sun actually was or on the calendar).  Michaelmass was an important day because it was when quarterly rents were routinely due.

Sometimes different architects had different ideas of east and west.  At the abbey church of Vézelay, for example, the eastern end was built first, in the early twelfth century, pointing toward what the architect thought was true east, but there's a slight kink in the church, because the western end, built a generation later, was done by an architect who had a different idea of how to aim west.  This second architect did do a very nice job of getting sunlight to come straight down the nave from the high windows at midsummer and to illuminate the carved capitals at the tops of pillars at midwinter.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on medieval churches and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Medieval Music

Many people, including me, love medieval music.  It is evocative and powerful, most commonly religious but sometimes concerned with love or with just having a good time, but always different from later forms of music (baroque, classical, modern, popular) which it nonetheless heavily influenced.

Music in the Middle Ages was considered one of the “seven liberal arts,” the foundation of a good education, along with grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.  Medieval people invented the musical staff we now take for granted (the five lines on which notes are arranged).  They were an inventive lot.

Medieval music today is commonly discussed as though it consisted primarily of Gregorian chant, and indeed such chant was an important component but certainly not all.  Monasteries had monks routinely sing (or “chant”) the Book of Psalms, all of which were clearly written as songs and were believed to have been composed by King David of Old Testament fame.  There were also hymns to be sung as part of the Mass, for liturgical events (like a requiem), and for the celebration of various saints’ days.

It used to be thought that Pope Gregory I (d. 604) had written the music (“chants”) for all of these, though it has also been argued that Pope Gregory II, over a century later, was responsible for organizing and stipulating the music for certain purposes.  At any rate, once Charlemagne became Roman emperor in 800, his court adopted the Roman form of liturgical music rather than the form that had been previously used in the churches of Gaul.  Churches that could afford it started installing pipe organs, apparently invented in Byzantium.

Gregorian chant was sung in unison.  Ninth-century manuscripts might show the texts with little marks (called neumes) above them to show the overall rhythm and where one sang higher or lower, but essentially those singing learned the music from others.  But in the early eleventh century the musical staff first appears (as noted above).  Its invention was attributed to Guido of Arezzo.  Now one could look at written music and figure out the tune without having to hear it first.

At around the same time, medieval musicians started adopting polyphony, where different singers would sing different notes at the same time, creating harmony.  By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries different singers might be singing different (complementary) texts as well as different notes.  (Think about pop music where one singer has the melody and the backup singers croon out “doo-wap” or whatever.)  Especially if more than one melodic line was being sung at the same time, and the medieval singers were supposed to end at the same time, you can see why better notation would be required.

Medieval music could be played as well as sung.  String instruments included the harp, the lute (strummed, like a banjo or guitar), and the  vielle, the ancestor of the violin, as seen in the image below.  Wind instruments included the sackbut (ancestor of our brass winds) and the bagpipe.

An enormous amount of medieval music was composed.  We know the names of some of the most revered medieval composers.  In the twelfth century the abbess Hildegard von Bingen wrote lovely music for her nuns to sing.  (She also had visions and wrote chiding letters to popes.  She has been taken up by New Age folks and had some of her music recorded with a drum machine line.  She rolls in her grave.)  Starting in the twelfth century, troubadours composed and sang all sorts of songs, of love and glory.  In the fourteenth century Guillaume de Machaut wrote love songs that were widely admired both then and now.

Those who study the history of music are called musicologists.  A number of them put together a book in the “Men and Music” series, edited by James McKinnon, called Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Macmillan, 1990).  It has a lot of good, technical detail on the development of medieval music.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on medieval culture and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Robert the Bruce

Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) is considered a great Scottish hero.  His name is evoked all over Scotland for his role in making that country independent from England.

(But wait, you say, aren't they the same country?  Emphatically no.  They are both part of the United Kingdom, several different kingdoms under one monarch.  It's been this way since 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England.  From the Scottish point of view, Scotland took over England.  England has never seen it that way.)

So why is Robert called "the" Bruce?  Bruce was the name of his clan.  Last names were just coming in during the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries, so he might also be called Robert Bruce.  But because he was head of the Bruce clan, he was "the" Bruce.  If I were head of my own clan (my siblings would vociferously disagree), I would be Dale the Brittain.

Medieval Scotland had had its own kings, but in the second half of the thirteenth century the English, led by King Edward I,  conquered the kingdom.  Edward's father had already conquered the kingdom of Wales, naming baby Edward Prince of Wales.  So you see the island of Great Britain had not been the peaceful UK we now imagine it to be.

The Scots fought against the English in what were called the "wars of independence," culminating when Robert the Bruce, having killed his principal rival, had himself crowned king of Scotland in 1306.  He was descended in the female line from twelfth-century kings of Scotland.  The glorious (from a Scots point of view) battle of Bannockburn in 1314, where the English were routed, cemented his claim.

Scottish schoolchildren are taught all this in school, and most Scottish castles highlight their connections to Robert.  The church of Dunfermline, where he was buried, was rebuilt in the nineteenth century to celebrate him (image below, note it saying "Bruce king" at the top of the tower; it says Robert on the other side).  It shouldn't be a surprise that when England says it plans to leave the EU, the Scots are seriously rethinking this "united" kingdom.

After Bannockburn, Scotland stayed an independent kingdom until 1603.  Now relations were not always good with England, and there were such adventures as Mary, Queen of Scots, being held captive for years by her cousin Elizabeth I of England--Mary was James I/VI's mother.  But this seems like a good stopping point.

A good biography is by Michael Penman, Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots (Yale University Press, 2014).

 © C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on Britain during the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Castles through the Ages

Castles, as I've noted in previous posts, really only first appeared around the year 1000, as a combination of palace and fortress.  There had of course been palaces and fortresses going back to prehistoric times, but their combination in a single defensible structure was new in the eleventh century.

We have very few eleventh-century castles.  The occasional grim eleventh-century square tower is about all that we have, or perhaps an outer wall such as the eleventh-century shell-keep of Gisors in Normandy, seen below.

The reason we have such few remains of eleventh-century castles is because castles were rebuilt a lot.  Siege technology was constantly improving (think trebuchets), and castles had to stay one step ahead.  Besides, castles had to make a Statement, and the bigger, the stronger, and more elegant they were, the better statement they made.  Any castle lord who could afford it would renovate and rebuild his castle every generation or so.

In some ways gunpowder did in castles.  In France, where under Louis XIV his war minister, Vauban, systematically went around the countryside with cannons destroying castles (or at least knocking big holes in them), castles were pretty much given up in the early modern period.

But the castles were still there.  They were built of literally millions of stones and were not going anywhere.  And all that stonework could be made defensible again with some effort.  In some places, like Scotland, where it was harder to get cannons across the lochs and highland hills, new castles were being built in the early modern period, designed pretty much the same as medieval castles.  After all, that's what a castle was supposed to be like.

The image below is of Blackness Castle in Scotland, on the Firth of Forth.  It was used for its original military purpose up through the nineteenth century, when soldiers were quartered there.

For the most part, however, most medieval (and early modern) castles had become ruins by the nineteenth century, with a lot of the best stone carried off by enterprising locals to use in their own building projects.  With the development of the Romantic movement (think Ivanhoe) as a reaction against the industrial age, people decided they liked ruined castles.  Castles were romantic.

Some castles were renovated once again in the twentieth century, becoming elegant homes (by twentieth-century standards) as they had once been elegant homes (by twelfth-century standards) in the Middle Ages.  These aren't ruined anymore, but they sure are romantic.

The image above is the Scottish castle Eilean Donan, on an arm of the Irish Sea.  It's now a house as well as a castle that has been voted "most romantic" by various entities.  It really is a romantic site.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on castles and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other ebook sellers.  Also available in paperback!