Saturday, January 20, 2018

Winter Olympics

It's almost time for the Winter Olympics!  Was there something comparable in the Middle Ages?  Emphatically NO.  As I discussed earlier, the original Greek Olympian games (that don't bear much of any relationship to the modern Olympics, other than the name) were ended at the end of the fourth century AD as too pagan.  After all, they had begun as a way to honor Zeus and the rest of the Olympian gods.

But the Middle Ages had some of the same sports that appear in the Middle Ages, though maybe not as sports.  Well, at least they had cross-country skiing.

Skiing was a way to get across country with a lot of snow, and was fully developed as a mode of transportation in late medieval Scandinavia.  It was in fact quicker and easier getting between some places in the winter than it was in the summer, when it might be muddy.  Because of the glide, one can go faster on skis than on foot over long distances.

Medieval skis were basically long thin boards.  No fiberglass skis, no special waxes, no big discussions about how long the ski should be compared to your height and snow conditions.  But they got the job done.

The modern Olympics still calls cross-country skiing a Nordic event.  But how about down-hill?

Curiously enough, down-hill skiing is quite recent.  It really only developed in the nineteenth century, in Switzerland (why it is called an Alpine event).  People had been doing cross-country skiing through the valleys but weren't crazy enough to try to zip down mountains to their certain death.  But as people developed ski technology (things like sharp metal edges) and ways to turn the skis, they realized one could descend mountains in a zigzag and not die.  But the big push for down-hill skiing was tourism, as Switzerland sought to break free of its reputation as a backwards, rather dirty place, full of cows and cow dung, and be seen instead as a haven for wholesome manly activity in the outdoors.

But I never thought of Switzerland as backwards and full of cow dung! you say.  Yes, that's because their efforts succeeded wildly well.  And in fact Switzerland is a remarkably clean and tidy country now, and determined to stay that way.  Reread Heidi.  (Did you read it when little?  I must have read it four times in second grade alone.)  It's about how the Swiss are healthy and wholesome, unlike the nasty city life of Vienna.

Skating and bobsledding are also based on activities that went back to the Middle Ages.  Without down-hill skis, people in mountainous regions got down the hill on a sled, doing their best to steer.  (Their sleds did not look much like modern sleds.)  Skating originally involved strapping wooden sliders on your feet, to glide over the ice.

Areas with a lot of ice (like Dutch canals) could use the ice as a road in the winter, though their skates were generally not metal.  Again, it was faster than walking, even so.  Young men could compete informally in skating races, just as they would in foot races in the summer.  (But no Hans Brinker competing for silver skates then.  That's nineteenth-century.)

There was no figure skating.  The skates weren't up to it.  (And if anyone is fooled by the lovely costumes to think figure skating is easy, tell me, how's your quadruple lutz these days?)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Troubadours and minstrels

Fiction set in the Middle Ages often features troubadours and minstrels, fairly low-born men who wandered around from castle to castle, singing songs and eyeing the ladies.  This image is true at least in part, but as anyone who has been paying attention to this blog probably expects, it was more complicated.

For starters, troubadours were not all low-born.  Indeed, the person usually considered the first troubadour was William IX, duke of Aquitaine, Eleanor of Aquitaine's grandfather.  He was credited with writing all sorts of songs and poems in Occitan, the local French dialect.  Troubadours and minstrels became common in the twelfth century, some of them wealthy lords, others the wandering singers of popular imagination.

Troubadours, those who composed elegant love songs (as opposed to people who just sang others' songs), were especially common in southern France, where they began.  A lot of their songs were addressed to powerful ladies, but often written in code, so that a lady whom the troubadour admired might be addressed as "She who says No."  In practice, people might well guess who was meant, but the lady could either deny it or claim it as she preferred.

Although scholars once wondered why so many noble women were addressed by the troubadours as powerful people who could order around those under them, including their would-be lovers,  the answer is simple.  A whole lot of noble women were powerful people who ordered around those under them.  As soon as one stops thinking of medieval women as weak, the question "Why would songs show them as in charge?" is answered.  It's because they were in charge.

Some of these songs were yearning songs of love for ladies too far away or too socially elevated ever to be romantically interested in the troubadour.  Others were fairly explicit about what he expected—and it was not admiration from afar.  Although scholars once credited the troubadours with creating "courtly love" (on which see more here), perhaps even (in a burst of desperate scholarly enthusiasm) influenced by Arabic songs, there was never a recognizable male-female form of interactions that medieval people would have called courtly love.

For one thing, modern scholars can't even decide what "courtly love" supposedly entailed, whether it was rank adultery or chaste admiration from a distance.  Let's get real.  It can't be both.    Courtly love isn't even a medieval term.  Back to the troubadours.

Although the elegant love songs began in southern French, they were soon imitated and sung all over Europe.  Northern French trouvères translated them into their own version of French, as well as writing their own.  In Germany Minnesingers, those who composed elegant songs of love in German, became common in the thirteenth century.  Spain,  England, and Italy developed their own love songs.  Women sometimes wrote songs in the tradition, often about unfaithful lovers—some who made their beloved woman expire in sorrow, some who were rightly punished.  Knights who spent most of their time in fighting or training to fight still felt it appropriate to try to write such songs, some sad and thoughtful, some downright bawdy.  Everybody plagiarized everybody.

The minstrels, those who made a living wandering around singing songs they picked up everywhere, were essentially indistinguishable from jongleurs, wandering entertainers who were welcomed to town or court with both keen enjoyment and sharp suspicion.  Women often were part of a jongleur troupe.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Arrow slits

"My old grandpaw always said, You can't have too many arrow slits."  One imagines many a medieval castellan saying something like this as he added to and remodeled his castle.

Before the fourteenth-century invention of gunpowder and the resulting cannon ports, a castle would have numerous holes and slits from which the defenders could fight back against attackers.  These holes were small, virtually impossible to target from the outside.  A gatehouse would typically have holes in the ceiling, through which any enemy who broke down the gate and got into the gatehouse could be shot--or have stones dropped on him.  But arrow slits were the principal defense openings.

An arrow slit, as can be seen in this picture (Brancion castle in Burgundy), was very narrow on the outside, but wide on the inside, so that the archer could stand to the left or right, wherever he got the best shot at the attackers.  Even if an excellent archer among the attackers (who, remember, would be shooting upward) was able to hit the arrow slit, he might miss the defender unless the latter was standing right in the middle.

An arrow slit does not let in very much light, yet they would be the only openings in the lower storeys of a castle.  There wouldn't even be a door at ground level for the big central tower (donjon).  Rather, there would be a wooden staircase on the outside of the tower that could be fired or cut if attackers got through the outer wall.

As a result, castles were dark for the most part.  However, the people who lived there liked having light as much as anybody.  Thus, upper stories had window seats, where one could sit by a large window, reading, sewing, talking, or just enjoying getting some rays.  The windows did not have glass until the late Middle Ages; before then they would either be closed by shutters or be covered with greased parchment.

Above are some very elegant window seats which would have had fancy late medieval glass windows (also from Brancion castle).

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Christmas Story

We all know the Christmas story.  Even those who are not Christians get it drummed into them this time of year.  Mary, a virgin, conceived, which might seem like an issue already, but then in her ninth month she and Joseph, her celibate husband, had to go to Bethlehem to be entered on the tax rolls, and she gave birth in a stable because there wasn't a hotel room free anywhere.  The baby, Jesus, was shortly visited by shepherds, who'd been told about him by an angel.  Less than two weeks later, three kings arrived from the East with rich gifts, having been following a star that stood over the stable.  Evil King Herod wanted to kill the future King of the Jews that the three eastern kings told him about, but Mary and Joseph escaped into Egypt.

The story of course has its roots in the Bible, but the version everyone knows, the version I just gave, is a composite of two stories written to be quite different from each other.  It was medieval thinkers, who just knew that the Bible told a single, unified story, who put them together in the form we now take for granted.  This was the story they had carved on their churches.  And who are we to argue with them?  After all, Christianity is far more than the Bible.  Medieval thinkers assumed that a thousand years or more of tradition also had validity, or God would not have allowed it.

(Below is a twelfth-century carving of Mary and Joseph escaping into Egypt.)

Get out your New Testament and follow along as we look at the roots of this tradition.

The story of Jesus's birth (the Nativity) is in only two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke.  Mark and John start with Jesus as an adult.  The name Jesus, by the way, is a variation of Jesse, the name of King David's father.  Everyone agreed that Jesus was of the house of Jesse.  Curiously, although  Matthew starts with the line of descent from Jesse to Jesus, it goes not through Mary but through Joseph.  What about the virgin birth?  After all, it fulfilled a prophecy.  Let's keep moving.

Matthew clearly wrote to persuade the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah who had first been foretold some five centuries earlier.  He kept on noting that aspects of Jesus's birth fulfilled an aspect of the old prophecies.  Medieval thinkers said, Well, of course it did.  No surprises there!

In Matthew, Jesus was born in Bethlehem because that's where Joseph and Mary lived.  They had a house.  It's also where prophets had said the ruler of God's chosen people would come from.  Off in the East, some wise men (or mages, magi, the Bible doesn't call them kings and doesn't say there were three of them) had their own prophecy about the king of the Jews.  It took them maybe a year to figure it out and get to Judea, following a star.  They stopped in Jerusalem to ask directions, where King Herod (a puppet of the Romans, history tells us, though Matthew doesn't go into detail) was distraught to learn of the birth of a King of the Jews, which, naturally, he found threatening.

Herod sent the wise men on their way with false comments about wanting to worship the baby king himself.  In Bethlehem they presented their gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, three gifts that probably led to the conclusion that there were three magi, rich enough that they were considered kings.  The magi were warned against Herod so didn't go back to Jerusalem to tell where the baby lived, but Herod decided to kill all babies in Judea under the age of two anyway.  Mary and Joseph and toddler Jesus escaped into Egypt, fulfilling two prophecies, one about death of children, the other about "out of Egypt."  When they came back from Egypt, they settled in Nazareth, not wanting to go back to Bethlehem in Judea, where Herod's son was ruling.

Luke's story is very different.  It starts with John the Baptist's parents (a section usually not read during Christmas Eve service) and has a long section on the Annunciation, where the angel tells Mary she will conceive of the Holy Spirit, details not in Matthew, which is much more from Joseph's point of view (though both agreed on the virgin birth).  According to Luke, Mary and Joseph had a house in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, though they were there, in the stable, because of the proclamation about tax rolls.  Jesus clearly came from Nazareth, so all stories had to have him grow up there, but he had to be born in Bethlehem because of the prophecy.

Very shortly after Jesus's birth according to Luke, the shepherds showed up at the stable, told by an angel that the Messiah was born.  Although nowhere in the Bible is the Nativity dated, Luke's comment about shepherds watching their flocks by night suggests he thought it was in the spring, lambing season.  You will notice there are no wise men in Luke, just as there were no shepherds in Matthew.  The shepherds in Luke spread the word, but apparently word never got to Herod, because Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem without any problem a little later, to sacrifice at the Temple according to Jewish law.  Herod in this version doesn't slaughter anybody, and Mary and Joseph went peacefully home to Nazareth.

For more on Christmas and how medieval (and modern!) people celebrate it, see my ebook essay, available on Amazon and other e-tailers.

Sunday, December 3, 2017


Medieval people worried about demons.  These were malevolent beings, seeking the destruction of souls.  They would inspire people to do things they shouldn't, tempt them with enticing promises, and harass the virtuous and godly.  They loved to lurk in latrines.

The Bible doesn't have a lot to say about demons, although Jesus is recorded as having cast demons out of people, demons which made them ill or crazy.  But there was plenty there for medieval people to build on.  Demons were usually invisible, but they could take visible shape, such as like a black dog or other animal.  A knight riding to commit a foul deed might abruptly discover that what he thought was a horse was actually a demon, planning to toss him in the nearest river.

But most commonly demons were depicted as vaguely human, usually with horns, sometimes with tails.  One of the things demons loved best was hurting people, so carvings on churches often depict them doing so with great gusto.

The above grinning demon is from the eleventh-century monastery of Tournus.

Some of what were described as "temptations" were actually very painful.  I guess the idea was that people would promise the demons anything to make them stop.  Below is a late medieval painting of the "temptation of Saint Anthony."  The demons are having a blast, but Anthony is clearly not.  I used this image for the cover of my fantasy novel, "Is This Apocalypse Necessary?" which (among many other things) includes demons.

Medieval people didn't really make deals with the devil in a nineteenth-century, Faust kind of way, because they realized how little of value the cruel demons could actually offer.  Instead, demons stood by, ready to take souls away to hell, as in the below image of a rich, dying miser whose soul is being snatched while his moneybags are useless below his bed.  (It illustrates the story of Dives and Lazarus.)

Monday, November 27, 2017

My First Kingdom

I've just published a new paperback, entitled "My First Kingdom."

It's a collection (omnibus) of the first three Royal Wizard of Yurt novels and is a big, hefty book, 750 pages long.  It's available on Amazon (click here), and should shortly be available through B&N or your local bookseller.  It's already available as an ebook from Amazon for Kindle, as well as available on the Nook, Kobo, and iTunes platforms.

One of the advantages of indie publishing, which is what I'm doing, is that one has complete control over what gets published.  I've been thinking for close to 20 years that it would be good to have a big fat paperback that included the first three Yurt books, and indeed I've had the title in mind for that long.  Now at last I've made it come about.

One of the challenges was getting a good cover.  I hired fantasy artist Cortney Skinner, whose work I've always liked, and he and I worked out the image.  It shows Daimbert, my wizard hero, and the old, retired wizard of Yurt trying to fight a dragon who has invaded the castle.  Daimbert is attempting, without much success, to make himself invisible (his legs have disappeared but that's it), and the old wizard is distracting the dragon with illusory red balls.  So far it isn't working too well.  The scene appears in the first of the three books, "A Bad Spell in Yurt."

Here's a sample from the first chapter of "Bad Spell" to whet your interest.

     I was not a very good wizard. But it was not a very big kingdom. I assumed I was the only person to answer their ad, for in a short time I had a letter back from the king’s constable, saying the job was mine if I still wanted it, and that I should report to take up the post of Royal Wizard in six weeks.
It took most of the six weeks to grow in my beard, and then I dyed it grey to make myself look older. Two days before leaving for my kingdom, I went down to the emporium to buy a suitable wardrobe.
Of course at the emporium they knew all about us young wizards from the wizards’ school. They looked at us dubiously, took our money into the next room to make sure it stayed money even when we weren’t there, and tended to count the items on the display racks in a rather conspicuous way. But I knew the manager of the clothing department—he’d even helped me once pick out a Christmas present for my grandmother, which I think endeared me to him as much as to her.
He was on the phone when I came in. “What do you mean, you won’t take it back? But our buyer never ordered it!” While waiting for him, I picked out some black velvet trousers, just the thing, I thought, to give me a wizardly flair.
The manager slammed down the phone. “So what am I supposed to do with this?” he demanded of no one in particular. “This” was a shapeless red velvet pullover, with some rather tattered white fur at the neck. It might have been intended to be part of a Father Noel costume.
I was entranced. “I’ll take it!”
“Are you sure? But what will you do with it?”
“I’m going to be a Royal Wizard. It will help me strike the right note of authority and mystery.”
“Speaking of mystery, what’s all the fuzzy stuff on your chin?”
I was proud of my beard, but since he gave me the pullover for almost nothing, I couldn’t be irritated. When I left for my kingdom, I felt resplendent in velvet, red for blood and black for the powers of darkness.
It was only two hundred miles, and probably most of the young wizards would have flown themselves, but I insisted on the air cart. “I need to make the proper impression of grandeur when I arrive,” I said. Besides—and they all knew it even though I didn’t say it—I wasn’t sure I could fly that far.
The air cart was the skin of a purple beast that had been born flying. Long after the beast was dead, its skin continued to fly, and it could be guided by magic commands. It brought me steeply up from the wizards’ complex at the center of the City, and I looked back as the white city spires fell away. It had been a good eight years, but I felt ready for new challenges. We soared across plains, forests, and hills all the long afternoon, before finally banking steeply over what I had been calling “my” kingdom for the last six weeks.
From above there scarcely seemed to be more to the kingdom than a castle, for beyond the castle walls there was barely room for the royal fields and pastures before thick green woods closed in. A bright garden lay just outside the castle walls, and pennants snapped from all the turrets. The air cart dipped, folded its wings, and set me down with a bump in the courtyard.
    I looked around and loved it at once. It was a perfect child’s toy of a castle, the stone walls freshly whitewashed and the green shutters newly painted. The courtyard was a combination of clean-swept cobbles, manicured flower beds, and tidy gravel paths. On the far side of the courtyard, a well-groomed horse put his head over a white half-door and whinnied at me.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Beer and burial in the early Middle Ages

One of the big questions in early medieval British archaeology is the change in pottery.  What we now think of as England had become a thoroughly Romanized part of the Roman Empire, Christian, Latin-speaking elites, villas with mosaics, hot baths.  (See more on this here.)  Pottery was professionally made, smooth, thrown on a wheel and thus perfectly symmetrical, fully glazed, fired in a kiln.

But in the fifth century a different kind of pottery began to appear, shaped by hand but not on a wheel, thus not nearly as symmetrical (though it might be decorated), glazed on the outside but not the inside, fired in a bonfire rather than a kiln.  (One can tell the difference because a kiln gets a lot hotter, being enclosed, and the clay fires much harder.)  Why the change?

Now the easy answer was always that the Anglo-Saxon invaders brought a cruder way of making pots with them.  But this only makes sense if the local populations was completely replaced by the newcomers.  And in fact for at least a generation both kinds of pots were used, so there must have been more to it than Celts fleeing with their symmetrical pots while crude Germans and crude pots replaced them.

To further complicate the issue, most of the hand-built pots that archaeologists have discovered were used to bury cremated bodies.  And some of the pots have trace elements on the interior surface that suggests they were used for making beer.  The Romans had believed in cremation (though much less so once they became Christian), whereas Germanic peoples often buried people in elaborate graves with grave-goods, so this further messes up any effort to explain the change in pots by changes in the population.

One way to explain this is to start not by supposing a change in population but rather a change in who was in charge and who made the beer. While Romanized lords ruled the villas, they tended to have the beer made in industrial amounts.  They then distributed it to their tenants, who were I'm sure suitably grateful.

But if the Anglo-Saxons did not completely replace the local Celtic population, they certainly did a number on the lords in the villas.  Who was going to make the beer?  (And it wasn't as if they could drink wine instead--England is not really warm enough for wine grapes, even now, and wine imports from the Continent had stopped a few generations earlier.)

Beer making fell to the local women.  With no lords in the villas, the locals had to figure things out for themselves.  And one thing they seem to have figured out is that getting beer to ferment needs yeast, which they couldn't see (it's a microorganism), but which they knew was in bakeries or, and this was the key issue, in containers that had been used to brew beer before.  (That is, they didn't specifically know about yeast, but they knew about fermenting and getting it started.)  And they certainly knew that pots unglazed on the inside were more likely to retain the "fermenting principle."

So it may well be that women made these "cruder" pots specifically to brew beer, even while Roman-style pots were still being made for other purposes.  Because they were fired at a lower temperature (better for a pot not entirely glazed), they were more fragile and couldn't be counted on to last more than a year or so in use.  Pots archaeologists have found generally had a crack or leak.  But what more appropriate to use as a container for a woman's cremated remains than the kind of pot in which women had been brewing beer?  An intriguing possibility!

This blog post was inspired by the ideas of Andrew Welton, of the University of Florida.