Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Lost Girls and the Kobold

I've got a new audio book!

It's the audio version of the first of the Yurt novellas and is entitled "The Lost Girls and the Kobold."  It is about, big surprise, missing girls and a kobold.  Daimbert, the wizard hero, has to find the girls, figure out why and how they disappeared, and deal with the magical forces of the kobold, before rather than after generations-old legends come to horrifying life.  The narrator of the audio book is the same terrific guy who has narrated all the Yurt books so far, Eric Vincent.

It's available from Amazon, Audible, and iTunes, and if you sign up for a new Audible membership, you can get it free.  (You can also just buy it.)  Here the link on Amazon.

In my own head, of course, Daimbert, the first-person narrator, sounds like me, but Eric does a far better job of professionally narrating an audio book than I ever could.  He's now at work on "Is This Apocalypse Necessary?" the sixth and last of the main Yurt series of novels, though there are still two more Yurt novellas I'm hoping to get him to do.

The book mostly takes place in steep, rocky mountains, which is why I have mountains on the cover.  (The picture is of the real Rocky Mountains in Wyoming.  Shhh, don't tell anyone.)

Audio books are becoming more popular, something people can "read" while commuting, jogging, sweeping the floor, sitting in the same room as someone who wants to watch a football game in which you're not interested....  You can even listen for a while and read the ebook for a while, then switch back and forth.

Here's the opening, to give you a taste.


“She put on her best dress, walked out the door and up into the mountains without a word to anyone, and has not been seen since.”
“So how long ago was this?” I asked cautiously.  The woman in front of me had the worn, rangy look of someone who had worked too hard for too much of her life, but her eyes were large, dark, and compelling.  She pushed back a strand of graying hair with a hand red and rough and held my gaze with hers.
My first mistake had been agreeing to talk to her.  My second would be trying to dismiss her.
“Two days.”  She put her hands on her hips.  “A girl can go off with her young man for one day, but not for two.”
“And you expect me to find her?”  A few men with dogs, I thought, could find the girl far faster than I could.  But somehow, with her looking at me intently, I couldn’t manage to say it out loud.
“You’re a wizard, aren’t you?  What else is a Royal Wizard for?”
I could have made several answers.  A Royal Wizard is responsible for protecting his kingdom from dragons and demons.  A Royal Wizard keeps overly energetic knights from killing each other.  A Royal Wizard provides illusions to entertain the court over dinner.
And is bound by great oaths sworn on magic itself to use his powers to help others.  Some within organized wizardry might have made dismissive comments about the extent of my own powers, but I was the only Royal Wizard the kingdom of Yurt had.
“I’ll come right away, of course,” I said, doing my best not to sound resigned.  “You’ll have to show me where she disappeared.”

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

Sunday, August 26, 2018


There's an iconic scene in the '60s movie "The Graduate," where a family friend is giving career advice to a new college graduate.  "One word.  Plastic."

Plastic is not medieval.  It's a twentieth-century invention, and indeed did not become at all common until the second half of the century.  In fact, you can tell if you come across an old dump if it dates to before or after WW II by whether or not it has plastic in it.  These days, of course, plastic is a major part of what we throw away, and the oceans (and ocean birds) are full of it.  (So are we.  The average modern American has several thousand tiny plastic bits lodged here and there inside.)

The word "plastic" just meant originally something that could be molded or shaped into different shapes, which of course plastic can be, to make lots of different objects.  The term now covers all sorts of different materials, including nylon and polyester as well as the versions of plastic that get official recycle numbers on the bottle.

Plastics (polymers) are made out of petroleum.  When you think about how useful plastic is, it seems a shame that we're using petroleum as a fuel and burning it up.  It's also a shame that we don't recycle more.  But these are not what I'm talking about today.

Here I just want to discuss how different a medieval person's material possessions would have been without plastic.

Let's start with clothing.  The chances are excellent that you're wearing something with polyester or nylon in it.  Look at the label.  (Medieval clothing did not have labels.)  Medieval clothing was made of wool or linen or, by the late Middle Ages, cotton.  Let's just say permapress was not known.

Beach sandals (flip-flops) are plastic.  Medieval sandals were usually leather, maybe with a wooden sole or some incorporation of straw.

What did you drink your coffee out of?  At home probably a ceramic mug, and medieval people had ceramic mugs (though not coffee).  But if you got it as a carry-out, it may well have come in styrofoam, a form of plastic.  If you ate carry-out food, there were likely plastic utensils involved.

When you go  to the supermarket, the food comes wrapped in plastic, and you get bigger plastic bags to carry it home in.  Medieval people had cloth or leather bags to carry things, and food did not come wrapped in anything.

Many people now carry bottled water around with them, water that is encased in plastic.  Medieval people would have kept water in a stone or ceramic vessel, or in a leather skin for transportation.  They had glass bottles, but these were too valuable (and breakable) to carry around.

How about in the kitchen?  Your countertop is likely to be plastic.  The stove knobs are.  The interior of the refrigerator is.  The non-stick lining of your pans is made of polymers (plastic).  You stir as you cook with a plastic spoon or a metal spoon with a plastic handle.  Medieval pots were iron (best) or ceramic (not as good) and stirred with a wooden spoon.

Eyeglasses these days usually have plastic frames, and the lens itself is often plastic as well (as of course are contact lenses).  Medieval eyeglasses  had metal frames and glass lenses.

Many a modern house has vinyl siding.  Medieval houses were wood or stone or plaster (usually a combination of all of these).  The plaster often had "natural" things like used straw from the stable mixed in.

Once you become aware of it, it's shocking how many things you touch on a daily basis are made of a material that went from very rare to ubiquitous in the last seventy-five years:  the computer, the car's dashboard and steering wheel and upholstery, the baby's chew toy, bottles of water, stockings, phones, indoor-outdoor rugs, credit cards, camping equipment, picnic plates....  The list goes on.

These days people often want to get plastic out of their lives--dress in natural linen or cotton, only leather for shoes, house sided in cedar rather than vinyl, counter-tops of wood or stone or metal, metal water bottles, bring your own ceramic mug for coffee, ask for paper bags at the supermarket or bring your own cloth bag.  They are fighting an uphill fight against a material culture that medieval people would have thought was great.

 © C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Doing History

High school students are often frustrated when their history teacher makes them memorize boring names and dates.  College students are often frustrated when their history professor doesn't want to talk about what they consider the fascinating topic of how many caissons each side had in the Civil War and how their wheels were attached.

So what's going on?  How does one do history, and why do academic historians, including graduate students, love it so much even though their version has names and dates and a general shortage of caissons?

Okay, let's start with the basic fact that History is the study and understanding of the past, not the past itself.  And no, this doesn't mean there is no Truth, or that everyone's interpretation is just as good.  It means that we can't "know" the past the way we know the present, because we weren't there.  And even if we're alive during events doesn't mean we are conscious of them.  Our own personal lives tend to crowd out our attention to even world-shaking events.  It's a lot easier to tell what was important a while after it's happened.

There are an awful lot of events that have taken place just in the 100,000 years or so that there have been the two-legged critters we'd call humans wandering around, and as the human population grows (we're up to about 7 billion) so do the numbers of events.

Of course no one can keep track of them all.  A big chunk of the historian's task is just figuring out what happened in what order.  (It's not like there's some magic recording device at the North Pole that writes them all down.)  Then historians have to figure out which events are important and worth remembering.

Here different people have different ideas.  Political history, the actions and decisions of powerful leaders, the "kings and battles" of your high school text, is one version of History.  Even people who don't do political history have to know at least some of it, the framework on which other events are placed.

Other kinds of history have been with us for a long time, including intellectual history, that is the history of ideas, and religious history or church history.  People don't just come up with ideas, about the nature of the cosmos or the way that Christian salvation works, out of thin air.  They are influenced by other thinkers and in turn influence others, and intellectual and religious history follows their ideas.

More recently, social history has become the dominant form of academic history, that is the study of people in groups.  Social history can focus on anything from family structure to what people ate to the position of women to the experience of poverty to material goods like houses or clothes.  The history of women especially has been a major growth area.  More recently, many historians have started looking more closely at the relationship between humans and their environment, whether geographic factors or such things as trees or climate.

Some people, generally amateur historians, will focus right in on something very narrow, like the caissons, or the names of the original eighteenth-century settlers in a particular village.  Academic historians call this "buff" history.  There's actually nothing wrong with it, and buffs may know more about their narrow topic than anyone on the planet, but academic historians want context.  They want (for example) to know how the caissons were used and how they were funded and the extent to which they did (or didn't) affect the outcome of the Civil War.  Or they want to know where the people came from before founding the village, and whether their experience was similar to or different from those at other villages.

Historians generally base their research on written sources, though they may also add in findings from archaeology or even tree rings.  This means that there isn't a whole lot of history known from more than about 3000 years ago.

The most important written sources, the "primary" sources as they are called, were those written down at the time events took place, by people who were there.  Historians work out their interpretations of what happened and what it means based on reading and analyzing the primary sources.  Works written by these historians are called "secondary" sources.  One can learn a lot from reading secondary sources, but until you get into the primary material, you aren't really a historian.

History doesn't stand still.  Historians are always coming up with new questions to ask (and as suggested above, new groups to ask them about--historians didn't use to be interested in women, for example).  New primary sources may be discovered.  New, better interpretations may replace the old.  There is thus a "history of history," or historiography (though if you're not a graduate student, you don't have to worry about it--yet).

It wouldn't be worth being a historian if everything were already known and understood.  Any academic historian writing an article or book is making an argument, either saying, "Here's an important thing no one else has written about," or else, "Others have written about this, but they are all wrong except for me, and I'll show you why."  That's okay.  History advances with arguments.  After all, so does science.

Fundamentally, History is about people and what they thought and did and why they thought doing so was important.  The most important question is not "What happened?" but rather "What did people at the time think it meant?"  That's why it's so interesting.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Scottish castles

Recently I posted about medieval Scotland.  Today I would like to continue the Scottish motif by discussing some Scottish castles.

On the Continent the era of defensible castles was mostly over in the fifteenth century due to the development of gunpowder and cannons (and many a castle was replaced with an elegant château).  But in Scotland castles continued to be used for their original military purpose until the seventeenth century.  Sure, they were shot at with cannons, but they shot back.

In some cases this was because the castles were so well positioned for defense that it was almost too hard even to try to attack them.  An example is Dunnottar Castle, perched high above the North Sea.

The castle is on a headland reachable only by a narrow isthmus.  One has to climb a long way down, almost to sea level (160 steps, we counted), climb partway up the headland, and go into a tunnel, with a few holes in the ceiling where things can be dropped on you, before finally emerging in the castle.

During wars between England and Scotland (the Scots call these wars of independence) the so-called "Honours" of Scotland (the official sword, sceptre, and crown used in the coronation of a Scottish king) were hidden at Donnottar.  When it looked like the English would get in (the castle's problem is a shortage of fresh water, making it harder to resist a siege) the Honours were let down the cliff to the sea and smuggled away, being hidden, buried, in a graveyard until things were safe again.

Later, in a very dark chapter in the castle's history, "covenanters" (a group of people opposing the Church of England) were held prison there, packed in so tight they had to stand, but no one wanted to sit down anyway, because there were no "facilities" and the prisoners were standing in their own filth.  Christianity has been used as an excuse to do horrible things to other people, which seems (shall we say) misguided, given that the religion is based on a pacifist's preachings about love.   Today the castle is clean and wind-swept, with lots of gulls and fulmars and even puffins.

The castle of Urquhart, on Loch Ness, has both a citadel (on the right), probably an Iron Age hill fort in origin and defended throughout the Middle Ages, and the castle proper (on the left).  During the seventeenth century, the defenders held out against the Jacobites (let's just say Scottish history is complicated) because the Jacobites had failed to bring cannons with them.

But they promised to come back Very Soon, better equipped.  The defenders, not wanting the Jacobites to take the castle and hold it against them, blew up the gatehouse, making the castle far less defensible, and fled.  If you look closely, you will see the gatehouse (just past the bridge) is a slightly different color than the rest of the castle, because it has had to be patched back up so tourists can visit.

Children (and me!) love running around castles, but they were not built as happy, fairy-tale places.

 © C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Paganism to Christianity

Europe was Christianized starting in the second century, and by the fourth century Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire.  So why does one often see references to the Middle Ages as semi-pagan?

Part of it of course is an unwillingness to see anything beyond one's own version of Christianity as "real" religion.  Protestants in the past were especially prone to do this, announcing that since modern Catholicism considers itself the unique heir to medieval Christianity (spoiler alert, it isn't), and since (according to these Protestants) Catholicism is Wrong (and probably superstitious to boot), then the label of Paganism can be blithely applied.  I kind of hope medievalists these days have gotten over this.

Another issue is that a lot of medieval holy sites had been holy sites long before Christian missionaries showed up.  Scholars have tended to assume that either the ignorant peasantry didn't know the difference between one version of religion and another, or else the manipulative priests tricked their new flocks by letting them carry on with their pagan practices.

But this doesn't always work.  Some springs, like the sources of the Seine, were clearly holy springs before the Romans even reached Gaul, because wooden votive offerings have been found in them, as seen below, but the springs acquired no Christian cult.  (The sources of the Seine, now owned by the city of Paris, instead now have a nineteenth-century grotto and statue.)

In other cases, springs or wells became holy only many centuries after paganism had died out, so it would be difficult to claim that a holy well was a pagan survival that had lurked undetected for 700 years.  For example, a monastery near Angoulême, in southwestern France, announced in the twelfth century that it had discovered the relics of Mary Magdalene in its well, and for a brief time pilgrims came to drink the well's waters.  But the well had never been holy before, and it soon stopped being so again.  (The monastery of Vézelay in Burgundy, well known for having the relics of Mary Magdalene, loftily ignored what the monks there would have considered nothing but a pathetic fraud.)

And a place can continue to be holy with changes in official religion without either ignorant peasants or manipulative priests.  The great cathedral of St. Andrew's, in Scotland, was destroyed during the Protestant Reformation, as the local populace became Presbyterian and decided they didn't want what they considered nasty Catholic magnificence.

But as seen below, they still needed a place to bury their dead, so the land next to the cathedral ruins, even inside what had once been the (now roofless) cathedral, became a cemetery, used until the early twentieth century.  Even though nobody was a closet Catholic, and even though their ministers weren't trying to trick them, an old church just had the kind of atmosphere that seemed appropriately holy.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Medieval Scotland

Medieval Scotland doesn't get a lot of scholarly attention, outside the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and St. Andrews.  For that matter, a lot of Americans assume that Scotland is "in" England, which it certainly is not (though England, Scotland, and Wales are all located on the island of Great Britain).  Rather, England and Scotland, along with Wales and Northern Ireland, are the United Kingdom, four different kingdoms that all share one monarch (currently Queen Elizabeth II).

From the Scottish point of view, Scotland absorbed England and the rest, rather than the other way around, because James VI (son of Mary Queen of Scots) was already king of Scotland when he was asked to come be king of England as well (as James I).  The kingdoms have been united (more or less) ever since.

But this was in the seventeenth century.  Before then, Scotland was its own country.

In early days, when the Romans were in Britain, what is now Scotland was full of people the Romans called Picts ("painted" people).  They were considered scary and dangerous, which is part of the reason Hadrian's Wall, some 80 miles long, was built across Great Britain, a little south of the current English-Scottish border.  The Romans traded with the Picts and even went up there occasionally, but essentially civilization was assumed to stop at the wall.

There was a great deal of moving around once the Romans pulled out, and people from what is now Ireland, called Scots, moved into the western part of what we call Scotland.  Great battles were joined between Scots and Picts, commemorated in Pictish sculptured stones, though it's hard to say who is who in the carvings.

The whole area became Christianized, in many areas faster than did Anglo-Saxon England (remember, the Christian Romans pulled out of Britain and the pagan Angles and Saxons showed up at about the same time).

Eventually Picts and Scots united in one kingdom, further complicated by the advent of Vikings, who settled in the area and intermarried with the locals.  The MacDonalds, lords of the western Isles, were considered half Irish and half Viking and feared (or celebrated, depending on your point of view).

The thirteenth through fifteenth centuries were marked by repeated wars with England, which kept on trying to invade and take over, but the Scots kept winning.  Robert the Bruce and William Wallace are still celebrated as great heroes in these struggles for independence.  (See more here on Scottish castles.)

By the eighteenth century, when England and Scotland had long stopped fighting each other (okay, there were still Jacobites, descendants of James I/VI who thought they should be king after England had gone in a different direction, but let's stay away from that for now), the Scots were considered sort of dirty and crude.

But hah!  They were able to reinvent themselves in the nineteenth century as full of wholesome natural country virtue, when more industrialized areas were starting to think that sophisticated cities and pollution weren't as good they had been supposed to be.  (The Swiss did the same thing at the same time.)

This "invention of tradition" as it is called created a semi-legendary past for Scotland, including the idea that every clan had (and had always had!) its own distinctive tartan and that bagpipes and kilts were uniquely Scottish.  Everybody needs symbols of national unity.

 © C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Monday, June 25, 2018

Book covers

There's an old saying, "You can't tell a book by its cover."  What it means of course is that what something looks like on the surface is not necessarily an indication of what it's really like.

However, when it comes to indie publishing, this isn't really true.

There are something like 7 million ebooks for sale on Amazon, at least half of them written by independent authors.  It's going to be hard to find the book the reader might find most interesting in all those books.  This is where the cover comes in.

A cover is an ad for the book.  It should catch the reader's eye and give a sense of what the book is about.  A look at the cover of my book, "The Starlight Raven," will indicate at a glance that it is teen fantasy.

You may not even have thought about it, but if you go to a regular (physical) bookstore and look around, you will see that the most elaborate, almost-photographic-realism paintings are the covers for fantasy, that horror covers tend toward red and black, that SF has planets and/or spaceships (and rather angular lettering), that mainstream fiction (stories set in the modern world) often show part of a person but not their face, romance has people embracing (or at least standing close), and so on.  (Medieval romance, like my "Sign of the Rose," needs a castle too.)

Non-fiction often is illustrated with a photo, as is my medieval social history book, "Positively Medieval" (see below). Even the font for the title varies with genre.

So a cover doesn't really illustrate the story as much as give you an idea of it.  Its purpose in life is to look intriguing enough that someone who likes that particular genre will read the description (blurb).  (This is what is on the back of a paperback.)  If the description is good, with luck the reader will read the first few pages, whose purpose is to make the reader buy.

But how about physical (print) books?  They need a cover too.  The cover on a paperback wraps all the way around, so if it is laid out flat the back cover is on the left, the front cover is on the right, and there's a strip in between where the spine goes (with title).  You may not even have thought about it.

One of the challenges for indie authors is getting good covers.  You can make your own covers--I made the "Positively Medieval" cover from my own photograph.  But with the explosion in indie ebook publishing, there has also been an explosion in services for the indie author, including providing covers.  My "Starlight Raven" cover is an original painting by Dane of eBookLaunch.  My "Sign of the Rose" cover is from SelfPubBookCovers, where graphic artists with some extra time on their hands create covers that they think would be interesting, using stock photos combined in interesting ways, and authors look through the (extensive) collection to find one that they think would work for their book.  Each of these is sold to someone only once.

Amazon has their own "cover creator" for people who are both unartistic and cheap, where, for free, indie authors can pick an image out of Amazon's collection and put their  own name and title on it.  The problem here is that in a particular genre you may see the same image used again and again for different books.  Better try for something unique.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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