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.

Monday, November 13, 2017


Nobody now thinks much about beads.  Beading (or making simple jewelry from them) can be fun, but it is not something we think of in terms of trade routes and great expense.  In the early Middle Ages, things were different.

Beads were considered a fine form of decoration for women and, to a somewhat lesser extent, to men.  In the late Roman Empire those in the West who could afford it wore necklaces of beads made from semi-precious stones.  Beads could also be made from amber, from non-precious stones, even from horn.  (Plastic was centuries in the future.)  But the most important kind of material was glass.

This changed in the seventh century.  With the rise of Islam and the resultant breakdown of Mediterranean trade routes, it became hard for the West to get glass.  Beads found in graves from that period tended to be made instead from bone, horn, even fired clay.

This changed with the Vikings.  As I have noted before, they established long-distance overland trade routes that reached all the way from Scandinavia to Byzantium.  One of the most important things that they brought to the west was glass.

A lot of the glass was already in the shape of beads.  Other glass could be melted down and shaped into beads (most commonly short tiny cylinders in shape, rather than the round form we take for granted).  The glass came in all sorts of different colors.

The Vikings, who set up trade colonies in the West by the ninth century, once the fun of constant raiding wore off (and they realized that one could make consistent money year after year through trade, whereas a raid usually couldn't be repeated), traded beads.  Beads made excellent trade goods, because everyone wanted some, they were (relatively) inexpensive per unit, so everyone could afford at least some, and they were fairly lightweight, making them easier to transport than say metal or stone.

Big heaps of early medieval glass beads have been found in Scandinavian harbors, presumably from a box being loaded that broke loose and dumped.  It would not have been worth it at the time to send divers down into the murky, icy waters to try to pick up beads one by one.

Do you find it hard to picture a Viking warrior wearing a necklace of glass beads?  Readjust your thinking.

Some of the ideas in this post were inspired by the work of Matthew Delvaux of Boston College.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Anglo-Norman Kings

One sometimes hears that medieval kingship was a simple matter of inheritance--the king was succeeded by his eldest son, and that was that.  The kings of England totally undercut that model.  From the middle of the eleventh century to the early thirteenth century, a grand total of 1 king became king by simple father-to-oldest-son inheritance.

These kings are usually called Anglo-Norman, because they had been dukes of Normandy (in France) before becoming kings of England and held onto the duchy.

William the Conqueror of course became king of England in 1066 by conquest (his nickname is a clue...).  When he died, he was succeeded not by his oldest son, Robert Curthose, but by his second son, William II, also called William Rufus.  Robert Curthose became duke of Normandy.  When William Rufus died without children in 1100, he was succeeded by his youngest brother, Henry I.

Robert Curthose was in Jerusalem at the time, on the First Crusade.  He was distraught, thinking that he ought to succeed as king.  He came back to Europe, fought Henry for half a dozen years, lost, and ended up imprisoned for the rest of his life.  So much for brotherly love.

Henry I had no shortage of sons.  He had over a dozen.  There was no problem there, except for one crucial issue.  All but one of them was illegitimate.  His one legitimate son was lost at sea (a group of young men trying to cross the English Channel during rough weather, all probably DUI).  There was no way Henry could make one of his other sons king, even though several of them became bishops, and all of them had comfortable lives.  So he chose his daughter Mathilda to succeed.

Mathilda was supposed to be king, not queen.  She in fact usually called herself Empress, because she had been briefly married to the Holy Roman Emperor, though he had died without them having children.  She had married a second time, to Geoffrey, count of Anjou.  The county of Anjou is next to Normandy, and the Angevins had decided Normandy was rightfully theirs.

The great Anglo-Norman lords hated Mathilda, partly because she was a woman, partly because they hated Geoffrey of Anjou.  They quickly declared they hadn't really sworn to support Mathilda and went instead for her cousin Stephen, son of a daughter of William the Conqueror.  England now calls Stephen the rightful king, so Henry I was succeeded by his nephew.

Mathilda spent much of the next two decades fighting Stephen.  She never won, but at the end of his life, when he had no children to succeed (what's with these guys? low sperm count?), he agreed that Mathilda's son, Henry II, would become king after him.  So Stephen was succeeded by a first cousin once removed, a man who was already duke of Normandy and count of Anjou.  Henry also acquired Aquitaine, essentially the southwest quarter of France, through his marriage.

Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had five sons.  (No low sperm count there!)  Though their oldest son, William, died very young, and the second, Young Henry, died as a young man while his father was still alive, the third son, Richard the Lionheart, was alive and ready to succeed when Henry II died in 1189.  This was the first time an English king was succeeded by his oldest surviving son since before the Conquest.

But Richard had no children, so he was succeeded by his younger brother, John.  When John died in 1216, his young son succeeded as Henry III, and (at least for a little while) there was a sense that this father-son inheritance should be the model.

Henry II and his five sons had not had a happy Dad-and-lad relationship.  Richard and Geoffrey (the fourth son) rebelled against their father.  They also did not get along with each other.  Geoffrey was killed in a tournament, and his young son, named Arthur, mysteriously vanished after visiting his Uncle John.  When Richard the Lionheart was preparing to go on the Third Crusade, he seems to have wanted to make John come with him, fearing that if John were left behind he would seize the English throne.

Although the King Arthur stories that developed in the twelfth century (which owe essentially nothing to the fifth century) cannot be seen as simple metaphor or roman-à-clef, there are similarities between the King Arthur of the stories and the real Anglo-Norman kings.  Arthur in the stories never had a legitimate son, like Henry I.  He was rebelled against by his son Mordred, like Henry II.  Mordred was the product of an incestuous union, Arthur's nephew as well as son, which made it worse--and evoked nephews in royal succession (at least none of the Anglo-Norman kings were thought to have had incestuous relations with their sisters).  The first people who heard the King Arthur stories saw parallels with their own line of kings.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017


Copper played a major role in the Middle Ages, both as part of the economy and as a marker of cultural exchange.  Copper of course had been mined and used for centuries.  Although not nearly as hard as iron and thus not as good for weapons (though copper can become hard and sharp if mixed with tin to become bronze), it is a very useful metal and relatively easy both to mine and to shape into tools.  It has been used for at least 10,000 years.

In the Middle Ages, copper was used for coins (coppers--modern pennies are an alloy today but used to be copper).  Silver was officially the main form of currency, but in practice most monetary exchange was in copper.  It was also used for all sorts of bowls, lamps, pots, pipes, jewelry, and the like, as well as for roofs and for decoration.  (Health tip:  a copper bracelet will not cure arthritis.)  It transmits heat very well (as well as electricity), meaning it's good for cook pots, and barnacles won't grow on it, meaning it is prized for cladding ships.

Sicily became a major medieval center of copper usage under Norman rule (eleventh-twelfth centuries).  Sicily itself did not have much in the way of copper mines--the main Mediterranean source of copper was Cyprus, which gave its name to copper (the Romans called the metal aes cyprium, the metal of Cyprus).  But the Sicilians both worked the metal extensively and imported all sorts of small useful objects from the Middle East, much of which they resold.

Arabic scientists had worked out a lot of the details on how copper could be worked and made into alloys.  The Sicilians both read these treatises and figured out on their own how to work and shape the metal.  They also absorbed a lot of Arabic ideas on alchemy.

Although we now think of "alchemy" as involving lead and gold, and being a bunch of nonsense, it was a major intellectual thread in Arabic and Christian thought in the Middle Ages.  It was a way of thinking about the nature of the physical world, how it's put together, how different kinds of material substances relate to each other.  (The word alchemy, like algebra, is from the Arabic, as are many other words that start al-.)

One of the ways that the Sicilians used copper was to make major decorated church doors, some of which still survive.  The Temple in Jerusalem was supposed to have had copper doors, and the idea had a great deal of appeal.  The Sicilian church doors were incised with alchemical symbols and ideas.

Copper, which starts as almost golden in color and becomes green as it is exposed to oxygen (verdigris), was seen as a symbol of one important theological discussion:  the relationship of God to His creation.  It was argued by many that God had created the earth, set it in motion, then stood back to see how it would do.  Copper symbolized this, starting as bright and golden, like God's initial creation, then becoming green, like the earth covered with growing plants.  Medieval thinkers loved metaphors and analogies.

Note:  Many of the ideas in this post were inspired by the work of Robin Reich, of Columbia University.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Protestant Reformation

Last week was the official 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther (after whom the civil rights leader Martin Luther King was named, don't confuse them) nailed what he called "95 Theses" to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.  Although he had no idea at the time that he was starting a whole new branch of Christianity, in retrospect it was decided that this was the beginning of Protestantism.

(It's a little tricky to do modern "anniversaries" of long-ago events, because they were still on the Julian Calendar, rather than our Gregorian Calendar, which puts specific dates at a slightly different distance from the solstice.)

The 95 Theses were a list of things that Luther objected to in the church of his day, both theologically and practically.  He was himself a monk and a professor of theology at the local university, a member of the church.  Although the events of 1517 are now seen as a thorough break with medieval Christendom (one of the reasons the end of the Middle Ages is usually put around the year 1500), in many ways Luther was the last of the medieval reformers who thought the organized church was headed in the wrong direction and tried to drag it back.

Luther's main concern in 1517 was so-called indulgences.  People who worried about their sins (that is, almost everyone) were encouraged to show their penitence by making a gift to the church.  Their penitence would be rewarded by being "indulgently" granted a reprieve from much of their expected time in purgatory.  Luther thought the pope would agree that although this might make theological sense--popes had ruled that the saints had created a "treasury of merit," excess virtuous deeds on which ordinary Christians might draw--it had been seriously abused.  Pardoners were wandering through Europe, promising forgiveness for a payment, missing the whole nuance.  "As the coin drops in the box, the soul rises up!"

In practice, the pope was not impressed.  After councils and extensive discussion, Luther was excommunicated in 1521.  Rather than wanting to be rejoined to the church, Luther, like all good people who break with orthodoxy, decided that he was right and the organized church was the real heretic.  His real point, which he developed as his movement spread and gained many followers, was that people were saved by "faith," not by deeds.  That is, of course one had to try to be the best person one could, but one could not count on being saved just by doing rote activities, like buying an indulgence or taking part in sacraments.  One could not "earn" one's own salvation he argued, but rather had to receive it, if one were saved at all, as a gift from God.

Protestantism (so-called because the followers were "protesting" things in the organized church) spread rapidly, its ideas spread by pamphlets and leaflets printed on the recently developed printing press.  New versions of Protestantism quickly developed (such as Calvinism), theologically different from Luther's version.  In England, Henry VIII broke with the pope because he wanted a divorce, then essentially declared his own version of Protestantism (Anglicanism).  In Germany, which at the time was divided into many small principalities, the duke or count or prince of each territory declared which religion was to be followed in his region.  Protestants and Catholics went to war with each other, making the sixteenth century a particularly bloody time.  Everyone persecuted the Mennonites for being non-violent.

The big schism between the two versions of western Christianity was never healed, although they no longer treat each other as heretics.  Protestants still have many versions, but they differ from Catholics in reducing sacraments, allowing priests to marry (as they had in the early church--Luther himself went on to marry a former nun), rejecting purgatory, having people read the Bible in their own language (Luther translated the Bible into Latin, though Catholics stuck with the Latin Bible until the 1960s), and jettisoning most of the saints and relics.  One really only can speak of Catholicism in the aftermath of the rise of Protestantism, when it became the other version of western Christianity, to be distinguished from eastern (Greek) orthodoxy (and such versions as Russian orthodoxy).  In the aftermath of Luther, the Catholic church did a great deal of reforming itself (like getting rid of pardoners), even though never admitting Luther had a point.