Monday, May 18, 2020

How I Survived Junior High

I've got a new book!  It's entitled "How I Survived Junior High" and is available on all the major ebook sites (Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, Nook), and is also available as a paperback.

Those who know me as a fantasy writer will note that this one is short on wizards and dragons or even a medieval (or semi-medieval) setting.  It is however "historical fiction," set back some 60 years ago in the US.  Like all of my novels, I think of it as "searing," while readers may say, "Gave me a few chuckles."  I deny that it is autobiographical.

Here's the description:

Back before cell phones, before computers or streaming video, even before they called it "middle school," life was easier, right? Wrong!
It's the early 1960s. Shelley, shy and twelve years old, leaves a small elementary school for a big junior high. Her experiences are both painful and very funny. Will she be able to make friends? Will the kids in the popular clique even notice her? Which is more obnoxious, her little brother or the school principal? Why is her body changing like this, and will she ever get a date?

And here's the opening:


I didn't get lost once on the first day of Junior High, even though I had 
never been in the building before. I cheated, though. My mother had
taught there before I was born and told me, “Go in the front door, turn right, and your homeroom is at the end of the hall on the left.” And for the rest of the day I just followed the other people in my classes from one room to another. Since they had not gone to a three- room grade school as I had, they could be expected to be able to find their way around a large building. 

Homeroom 110 was at the end of the hall, on the left, just as my mother had said. Our bus had been early, and there were only two other people there besides the teacher.
“Hello,” she said as I came in. “Is this your home- room? I’m Mrs. Wilkes.” 

“I’m Shelley Langdon,” I answered and smiled. Smile at your teachers, my father had said as I left that morning. Mrs.Wilkes was glancing at a list on her desk. “Shelley is short for Michelle.” 

Mrs. Wilkes returned my smile. She had a plump face and smiled just like my favorite aunt.
“Choose any seat you like, Michelle. Make yourself comfortable until everyone is here.” 

I took a seat next to the window. Be sure to get a desk with enough light, my father had said. And since our bus had been so early, I had plenty of time to make myself comfortable.
“I wonder what she teaches,” I thought, looking at Mrs. Wilkes. “I wonder if I’ll have her. I wonder if any of the other kids in this homeroom will be in my classes.” 

My older brother Jack had gone to junior high on the other side of town before they’d changed the school districts. “Homerooms are alphabetical,” he said, “but your classes depend on how smart you are.” Jack thought he knew everything about junior high, just because he was three years older than I and in high school now. He had ignored me when I said that maybe Sidney Sharpe Junior High was different from his. 

Other students were coming in now. “Hey there, Tom!” “Barbie, how you been?” “Did you guys have a good summer?” “Hey, Jamie, we’re in the same room again!” “I had a great summer!” 

No one said, “Hi, Shelley!” There was no one in the room from my grade school. I sat up straighter, flipped my long curly hair back over my shoulders, and hid my chewed fingernails under the desk. 

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

If you came to my blog looking for medieval history rather than fiction, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other e-tailers.  Also available in paperback.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Prester John

There was a strong belief in the Middle Ages of a mysterious Prester John (the prester meaning priest), a king somewhere in Africa who was a Christian.  During most of Europe's Middle Ages sub-Saharan Africa was primarily what they considered pagan (North Africa of course was Muslim from the seventh century on), so the idea of a Christian enclave was very exciting.

This idea may have had its origin in third-hand stories about Ethiopia.  That region of east Africa included a large Christian population (the kingdom of Ethiopia had made Christianity the official religion in the fourth century) and a large Jewish population.  The latter were descended, according to legend, from the Queen of Sheba, who had married King Solomon.  The Prester John of the stories was usually black (like the Ethiopians) and also Christian.

But there was more to the story of Prester John than confused travelers' tales about Ethiopia (or India or Christian Armenia).  The story gained wide currency from the (fictive) accounts in a volume called Mandeville's Travels.  Mandeville supposedly discovered two great kingdoms, side by side in Africa (or India, or possibly the Middle East, at any rate very far away), one a scary Muslim kingdom of Assassins, the other a beautiful and happy Christian kingdom ruled over by Prester John.  In some versions, John was descended from the Three Magi.  Thus tales of Prester John, who combined the functions of king and priest, could serve as a foil for all that was supposedly bad about Islam.

The kingdom of Prester John was of course opulent, full of rich jewels, as any imagined wonderful country should be.  But John and his nobles lived abstemiously, eating simple fare, having sex only a few times a year and then only for the purpose of procreation.  Prester John got to have a harem in these stories, or at least be polygamous like an Old Testament figure, but he rarely visited his wives.  Thus the stories about him could also serve as morality stories about what Europe's own monarchs were supposed to be like, as seen in the late medieval image below.  The supposed Assassin kingdom next door to Prester John's, in contrast, was full of gluttony and lechery.

It should not be a surprise that stories of Prester John first became popular in the middle of the twelfth century, during the height of the crusading movement.  A letter that he supposedly wrote, saying that he wanted to help defend Jerusalem from the Muslims and personally visit the Holy Sepulchre, gained wide circulation in the 1140s.  In the 1170s the pope wrote a letter to Prester John, suggesting they should work together, though he doesn't seem to have gotten an answer.

In the early thirteenth century, after the Muslims had taken back Jerusalem, a crusading army made some spectacularly disastrous strategic decisions based on the conviction that Prester John himself (or a son or grandson or nephew for sure) was about to show up with his armies to help them.  (As you probably guessed, he didn't.)

The story of Prester John continued to be influential during the late Middle Ages, getting extra impetus when diplomatic relations were established (sort of) with Ethiopia in the fourteenth century.  By the seventeenth century, however, Europeans had to admit that perhaps Prester John had not been real after all, and that Ethiopia was not the marvelous jeweled kingdom they'd heard about.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on crusades and legends and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other e-tailers.  Also available as a paperback.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020


Gypsies first appeared in western Europe in the late Middle Ages.  Although in the US they are considered a fairly intriguing group, in Europe they have been distrusted and considered dangerous ever since they first appeared.  The word "gypsy" in English is connected "to gyp," to cheat.  British gypsies therefore prefer being called Travelers, because moving from place to place has always been one of their defining characteristics.  The best term for them (their own term) is Roma or Romani.

The first records of them are from India in the tenth and eleventh centuries, when there are references to groups who were especially good at music.   In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, they began migrating west, from India to Persia to Armenia to Byzantium, the Greek-speaking heir to the Roman Empire, centered in Constantinople.  The Greeks called them Atzinganoi, a word that may have meant "heretics" originally, and that has given rise to most of Europe's names for them (Zigeuner in German, Tsiganes in French, Zingari in Italian).

The Romani stayed in Byzantine territory for several centuries, picking up many Greek words to add to a language that had originated in the Indian subcontinent, and gaining the very designation of Romani, people of the "Roman Empire," especially that part now known as Romania.  It was during this period that they began to be considered a particular race, a group within Byzantium with distinctive culture, language, religion, and habits:  for example, they were described as thieves and also as endowed with strange occult powers, especially fortune-telling.

(Cue Cher's song, "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.")

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with the attacks of the Turks on Byzantium (and its eventual fall), many of the Romani moved west again.  When they reached England, they were called "Egyptians," probably from a combination of their darker complexion (compared to the Celts and Anglo-Saxons of the British Isles) and of their reputation for sorcery, for Muslim Egypt was also considered a center of dark arts.  This is the root of the word English word "gypsy."

The Romani were distrusted, as strange "foreign" people.  Some settled down in their own communities in western Europe, but others found it hard to be accepted and found it easiest to keep moving, doing itinerant work (such as being tinkers) or doing animal trading.  Few became farmers.  In many ways, they were treated similarly to the way the Jews were treated, as a minority with useful skills on which the dominant culture wanted to keep a watchful eye, and against which there were periodic attacks.

Those Romani who stayed in Romania/Moldavia/Transylvania had it even more difficult.  The area was considered the breadbasket of the Turkish empire that had replaced the Byzantine empire, and many Romani became agricultural slaves, a condition that persisted until the nineteenth century.

The Romani are still distrusted and treated with prejudice in modern Europe.  France forbids parking a camper (the modern replacement for the old gypsy caravan) in a house's driveway, meaning that those who want to spend part of the year following the old itinerant ways have to garage one someplace.  (This rule was not written with French vacationers in mind.)

I have included gypsies in some of my fantasies.  I call them Romney, with a different spelling to indicate that I am not striving for historical exactness in my fiction.  The Romney play an important role in the novella A Long Way Til November, which (unlike some of my other novellas) still has my own original cover, a photo of the French hilltop town of Turenne.

A Long Way 'Til November (The Royal Wizard of Yurt Book 9) by [C. Dale Brittain] 

 © C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval society, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.  Also available in paperback!

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Ebook Covers

There's an old saying, "You can't tell a book from its cover," meaning that what something looks like on the surface doesn't necessarily tell you what it's really like.  It's certainly true literally, that sometimes a very boring cover will be found on an exciting book, or an intriguing cover on a very weak book.  And we all know in getting books from the library that often their hardcover books have just plain, cloth covers in a solid color, with the old paper jacket long gone.

But how about ebooks?  You aren't going along a shelf, either looking for something specific or waiting for a title to catch your eye.  You're browsing a series of small ("thumbnail") images of covers.  As ebooks burgeon in numbers (there are at least 8 million on Amazon), authors try to make their book covers say, "Buy me!" to separate them from the pack.

Now, back when I first published the first book in my major fantasy series, A Bad Spell in Yurt, this was way pre-ebooks.  Books were sold in physical bookstores.  But it had an intriguing cover by Tom Kidd which made it stand out from the other fantasy books on the "new releases" table.  (The image below is the Kidd cover, now the ebook cover on Amazon.  I paid him for the rights to be able to use it again.)

I picked up enough readers with that cover (and have continued to do so over the years) that the rest of the series has sold just fine, with varying covers.

But recently I decided to redo the covers on the series novellas.  A novella is a short novel, and these were designed to recount events in between the events of the six main novels.  They stand alone (that is, you don't need to have read other books in the series), so I was also hoping to lure in new readers.

Originally I published them with covers I made myself using a simple graphics program.  The Lost Girls and the Kobold ebook has magical mountains as a major plot component, so I used a photo I took of mountains (the foothills of the Rockies, between Cody and Yellowstone), and the Below the Wizards' Tower story takes place in a city with towers, on the ocean, so I used a tower (Fougères castle in Brittany).

But are these covers intriguing enough?  I have nothing against my own covers, and my "blog book" (image and link at bottom of this page) features my own photo of Fleckenstein castle in Alsace.  But these novellas had been doing well, so I decided to "reward" them with new covers from Self Pub Book Covers.

Independent book publishing (which is what I do) has, as I have discussed previously, spawned a whole service industry of "helpers," including companies that design covers.  This company specializes in "pre-mades," where the graphic artist designs a lot of covers with different images, and the author comes along and chooses one that looks good and puts their own title on it.

(This works for the graphic artist, who can crank out some "pre-mades" between assignments, and who doesn't have to worry that the author will come back and say, "I know I told you to make the cat a tabby, but now I've decided it should be white.  Plus add a dog. No, not that kind of dog."  It also works for the author who might have trouble visualizing a good cover without some samples.) 

So below you'll see my new covers.  They are by respectively R.L. Sather and Viergacht.  How do you like them compared to the originals?

Below the Wizards' Tower (The Royal Wizard of Yurt Book 8) by [C. Dale Brittain]
© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For aspects of medieval history (rather than fantasy), see my book Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other platforms, both as a paperback and an ebook.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

After the plague

As I have posted before, the Middle Ages certainly had epidemics, most notably the Black Death, usually known now as the bubonic plague (it also had a variant, the pneumonic plague, even more virulent).  I used to have trouble explaining to my students how serious the plague was in the fourteenth century and how much it disrupted what one might think of as normal.  Some would say, Is it like AIDS?  No, because AIDS is not particularly contagious, and people can live with it for years.  In the future it may be easier to explain the plague:  it's more like COVID-19.

Now the plague was far more deadly than our current epidemic.   Estimates are that maybe a third of Europe's population was wiped out within a year or two.  We are nowhere near that figure yet, but there's still time.

Part of Europe's problem in the fourteenth century was that it was impossible to practice "social distancing."  Houses were small and close together, so for most people "self-quarantining" away from everyone else was just not possible.  The same problem, that one cannot put distance between oneself and other people, is why the current disease has spread so rapidly in places like cruise ships, prisons, and Mediterranean countries where houses are still small and close together.  In the case of the plague, the disease could be spread by fleas, so staying 6 (or 12) feet apart was not going to be enough anyway.

Without modern medical treatments and sanitizers, medieval people could try to flee (often taking the disease with them), but the overall response was by necessity something close to what is now described as "ride it out," keep on trying to act normal, and figure that after a while everyone who was going to die is dead, and the rest either are immune or have recovered.

Well, the problem with that approach then (as it would be now) is that an awful lot of people die, and whatever health care facilities you have are overwhelmed, so a lot of those who die might have had a chance to recover in better circumstances.

And what happens then?  Well, in spite of happy hopes one sometimes hears expressed, you can't just restart an economy devastated by a pandemic.  In fourteenth-century Europe, trade routes had been completely disrupted, cities (the centers of economic exchange) decimated, churches and law courts emptied, and any sense of optimism for the future dealt a pretty significant blow.  You can't just put an economy back together when a lot of the people on whom the economy depends are dead.

Europe's cities shrank and did not return to their pre-plague size for at least another century.  Italian merchants who survived stopped putting their money into commerce, which looked decidedly iffy, and started patronizing art instead, kick-starting the Italian Renaissance.  Religious expression became far more morbid, with "dance of death" a common artistic scene:  Death is portrayed dancing across the countryside, bringing everyone with him, rich and poor, young and old, men and women.

Many started creating what might be considered double-decker tombstones, two depictions of the deceased carved in stone, one above the other like bunk beds.  In one the deceased would be seen dressed and peacefully sleeping, as seen in elite tombs for generations.  In the other, the deceased would be depicted as partially decayed, complete with worms carved in stone.

The only ones to come out of the plague better off (besides the Italian artists) were the peasants, if one can put "better off" and "many friends and family members dead" in the same sentence.  Europe had been overpopulated, without enough land (using fourteenth-century techniques and crops) to adequately feed the population.  Losing a third to a half of the population certainly solved that pesky problem!  Peasant families could start farming more land, because a lot of their neighbors were gone.  Landlords who relied on peasant rents and labor had to lower rents or pay more for labor if they didn't want to have to grow their own food themselves, because there was competition for the surviving peasant workers.

In some places landlords fought back.  England for example passed laws trying to keep peasants from demanding higher wages or lower rents.  These were not nearly as successful as hoped.  The peasants in turn fought back, becoming aware, really for the first time, that they had common cause with peasants around the country, resulting in the great Peasants Revolt of 1381.  But that's a story for another time.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval disease and other aspects of medieval history, see my book Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook  and on-line platforms.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Peasant rents

As I have discussed before, medieval peasants were not slaves.  By our standards they worked like dogs and died, worn out, at an age we would still consider young and fun.  But they had a perhaps surprising amount of control over their own lives, and in the High Middle Ages one might consider most of them agricultural tenants.

They paid rents, no more the slave of their landlord than people who rent an apartment now are the slave of their landlord.  The rents however were not the checks that we might write.  Rather, they were a mix of produce, other agricultural products (like wine or animals), manual labor, and coins.

A typical example is provided by a charter issued for the nunnery of Marcigny in 1104.  A widow named Rotrudis wanted to "take the habit" (as becoming a nun was called) and gave Marcigny all the land she had inherited from her father.  (Monasteries and nunneries expected entry gifts, because the monks or nun was going to be fed and clothed for the rest of their life.)  The land came complete with the peasants who lived on it.  They had been paying their rents to Rotrudis, and now they would pay them to the nunnery.  The charter spelled out what the nuns could expect to receive each year:  forty-two loaves of bread, forty-two bushels of oats, forty-two gallons of wine, four sheep, four piglets, four adult pigs, nine chickens (capons were specified), and twenty-three pennies.

(I note the recurring number 42--wasn't that supposed to be the "meaning of life, the universe, and everything"?  Credit The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.)

The peasants clearly had fairly prosperous farms, to be able to pay this amount in rent and have far more left to feed their families.  One will also note the mix of grain, animals, wine, and coin.  Although this particular charter did not mention labor dues, other charters from the same period often mentioned that a peasant family would send someone to work on the landlord's fields once or twice a week, or that the peasants might be expected to help with work at harvest time or provide carts for bringing the harvest from a distant field to the landlord.

Here the rents that Rotrudis had been receiving, and which the nuns would receive in the future, were spelled out in writing.  However, this was probably the first time that this had been done.  The peasants knew how much they owed.  Rotrudis knew, and presumably her father had known, back when the land in question had been his.  But since normally rent obligations were not written down (and the peasants would not have known how to read anyway), memory had to keep everyone honest.

One should also note that not all peasants were tenants.  Some held their property as "allods," land that they owned outright.  In practice, most peasants probably had some allodial land and rented other land, often from more than one landlord.  Memory was expected to keep track of a lot.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval peasants, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other ebook platforms.  Also available as a paperback!

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Medieval grandparents

All human societies have a role for grandparents, people who are no longer as active as they once were but are full of accumulated wisdom and are eager to pass it on to their children and grandchildren.  Today the ideal (though not attained nearly as often as one would hope) is to have children grow up with all four grandparents in the picture.  This was less likely in the Middle Ages.

In part people lived shorter lives, on average.  The human life "span" hasn't changed, as I've discussed earlier, that is the maximum length one might live if everything went very well, but the "expectancy" has gotten a lot longer, that is how long one might on average expect to live, given modern medicine and nutrition (and less back-breaking labor).  Someone who made it to 60 in the Middle Ages, even among the aristocracy, would be more like someone making 80 today.  (Just for the record, someone in their 60s now is young-n-fun.)

Grandparents often lived with their children and grandchildren, or at least nearby.  Among the peasantry, moving far away for a job was far less common than it is in modern America.  Among the aristocracy, the oldest son at least assumed he would life in the same castle or manor house as his parents--and would be eager for Dad to retire so he could take over.  ("Haven't you ever given thought to your soul, Dad?  You know retiring to a monastery can help!")

But until they died or retired, grandparents would be very useful.  As we know, "it takes a village to raise a child," and grandparents, then and now, can be part of this if still around.

Aristocratic young women were more likely to marry far from their parents, who they might indeed never see again after their wedding.  So the new countess (or whatever) would have to make peace with her mother-in-law, who might be the only grandparent her children would know.

There are examples of women continuing to play a major role in their families' lives; Countess Mathilda of Nevers in the thirteenth century, for example, arranged the marriages of her children, her grandchildren, and her great-granddaughters.

Because medieval people defined themselves in large part by their families, they were acutely aware of who their grandparents were, even if they never knew them.  Knowing your grandparents and more distant ancestors' identities was also important for avoiding consanguineous (incestuous) marriages, since medieval definitions of incest stretched out to quite distant cousins.  The male line of one's family was more crucial than the female, as is still the case today, when last names often define "family," and children typically take the father's last name.

(In doing my own family's history, I've found death certificates of women ancestors, filled out with information provided by their daughters, and the younger generation often did not even know their maternal grandmother's maiden name.  Death certificates often ask for names of the deceased's parents, including the deceased's mother's maiden name.)

The medieval Latin term for grandfather was avus, with avia for grandmother.   Going back to great-grandfather etc., the terms were proavus, abavus, and atavus.  Sometimes the ab- and at- got switched.  The same prefixes were attached to avia.  Periodically noble families would draw up elaborate lists of their ancestors, sometimes arranged in a family tree.

In the image above, from a twelfth-century manuscript, a figure holds a chart showing how relatives are named, filius and filia for son and daughter, nepos and neptis for grandson and granddaughter (the same words were used for nephew and niece), avus and avia for grandparents, and so on.  Next to each Latin word is a number indicating "degrees of consanguinity" (1 for a child or parent, 2 for a grandparent, and so on).

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval families, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other ebook platforms.  (Also available in print.)