Saturday, May 31, 2014

Medieval Health and Hygiene

We have no idea how lucky we are in the twenty-first century to have antibiotics.  Antibiotics were developed for the first time in World War II and have been highly successful in curing bacterial diseases and infections, the things that can kill you if not treated.  Unfortunately, overuse of antibiotics has led to bacteria who are resistant to most of them, so it's possible that the antibiotic era may not even last a century.

In the Middle Ages, without modern medicine, the normal way to treat disease was to keep the sick person warm and clean, feed them chicken soup, and sprinkle them with saint dust.  With luck, their own immune system would kick in and fight off the disease.  This obviously worked better against some diseases than others; it did not work at all against the Black Death at the end of the Middle Ages.

Starting in the twelfth century, the well-to-do felt it a pious duty to endow hospitals, buildings where large rooms would be lined with beds, where the deserving poor would be cared for by nuns (in England, nurses are still addressed as Sister).  Pictured above is the hospital of Beaune in Burgundy, built in the fourteenth century.  The beds along the walls, now with red blankets, had curtains in front for privacy and a hall running behind, hidden again by curtains, where the nurses would come and go.  It is now a museum, but it continued to be the town's municipal hospital until the middle of the twentieth century.

The doctors primarily had a very theoretical idea of medicine, derived from Aristotle, though barber-surgeons had a more practical knowledge of human bodies and could set bones and cut off gangrened limbs (without anesthetics, of course).  It is probably not surprising that most people were worn out in their fifties (see my post on life expectancy).

Still, the Middle Ages did better at medicine than the Renaissance and early modern period, when it was decided that dangerous diseases needed powerful medicines.  Mercury became a popular cure.  It never worked, of course, "proving" how dangerous the disease was.

Medieval people believed in a bath every week, not because they liked being dirty, but because if one has to heat a whole tub of water over a fire, it takes a lot of water and a lot of fuel that were too valuable to waste.  We now take turning the tap for a hot shower for granted, but the weekly bath was the norm in the US well into the twentieth century.

Aristocrats bathed more frequently, even daily if they had access to hot springs, and cleanliness was a mark of elegance.  Everyone did try their best to keep their teeth clean with twigs and their fingernails free of dirt.  (See my post on medieval teeth.)

Friday, May 30, 2014

Historical Fiction and the Middle Ages

I have trouble with a lot of historical fiction set in the Middle Ages.  Too often the characters are just modern people wearing medieval outfits.  And of course it is far too easy to mess up such basic tidbits of medieval social history as when the Black Death came through or when knitting was invented (clue: both were at the end of the Middle Ages).

One book (which shall remain nameless) got me very irritated when the heroine planned a romantic wedding at a nunnery (nunneries were not places to get married, being instead the opposite), when the hero had a friendly chat with the abbess, who sat on the front porch knitting (knitting was not yet invented, and abbesses did not have friendly chats outside the cloister with passing strangers), and the hero went on to disguise himself in the clothes of a dead leper (which he would have recoiled from in terror).

Real medieval people were grim, ruthless, without any religious tolerance, and thought about death a lot—and those were the good guys!  For modern readers, medieval-themed fantasy, where you don't have to worry about historical accuracy, seems to work better than accurate historical fiction.  As a bonus, it doesn't get historians like me upset.  After all, I write fantasy too! (see previous post).

The closest I have come to real historical fiction is Count Scar, which I co-wrote with my husband.  That's the cover to the print edition, done by the late, great Darrell K. Sweet.  The novel is set in a thinly-disguised version of southern France in the early thirteenth century, a time when fear of heresy was rampant.  We mix it up a little by introducing magic, which in the story is practiced by an order of monks.  This actually makes sense, as people interested in the life of the mind mostly went into the church.

In the book, we tried to strike a balance between real medieval society and characters who would appeal to the modern reader.  If you read it, hope you agree that we succeeded!  (Also if you read it, see if you can guess which of us wrote which character.)

Like my Royal Wizard of Yurt series, the book is out of print but is available used, and also as an ebook from iTunes, Kobo, B&N - Nook, and of course Amazon.
For more information about my novels, go to

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Black Death

Everyone has heard of the Black Death, which sounds very scary, and so it should.  It's often associated  with the Middle Ages, but in fact there were only two medieval outbreaks, one in the sixth century and one in the fourteenth, that is at the beginning and end of the Middle Ages.

In both cases, the Black Death came out of central Asia (it also devastated China).  It's a bacterial disease, spread especially by fleas.  In both of its medieval manifestations, the bacteria seem to have mutated into a particularly virulent form, that then spread rapidly, especially in an urban environment where people lived close together, and where rats could serve as hosts for the fleas.  A city could be fine one day, and two weeks later three-quarters of the population would be dead.

In the sixth century, this disease broke down Roman urban culture, which did not recover until the eleventh and twelfth centuries (see my post on the medieval city).  In the fourteenth century, the Black Death marks the beginning of the Renaissance, a time when people turned to art because the economy had tanked.  (The first work of Renaissance art was a piece of literature, Boccaccio's Decameron, about people fleeing the plague.)

In both cases, the impact was devastating.  We know more about the fourteenth century than the sixth, and it's quite horrifying.  An infected ship from the Middle East came into Genoa harbor in 1346, with almost all the sailors dead, and from there one can map the spread of the disease like ripples on a pond.  Probably between a quarter and half of Europe's population died, especially in the cities.

People fled to try to escape, not realizing they were probably already infected and were carrying the disease with them.  Realizing that the disease was carried on fleas, people killed cats and dogs—whose fleas just jumped on humans.

Sometimes you'll see the Black Death compared to AIDS, but it's really not comparable.  It was easy to catch, whereas AIDS is quite hard to catch, and it killed you very quickly, whereas many people now live with AIDS for years.  In practice, probably everyone in the fourteenth century caught at least a mild form of the plague, so one could survive, but at least a third of the population did not.

The worst passed off in a few years, but it tended to keep coming back every generation or so, as children were born who had not been exposed and thus had not developed immunity.  There was a very serious outbreak in England in 1666 (well after the end of the Middle Ages), which ended only with the Great London Fire, which burned up the rats and fleas along with much of the city.

In reaction to the Black Death, some people in the fourteenth century became very pious, multiplying prayers and rituals.  Others however adopted a hedonistic, live-for-today mentality, pointing out that priests had fled from the plague just as fast as anyone else.  Art became much more morbid, and many an expensive tomb featured stone carvings on two levels (almost like bunk beds)—on one level the deceased lay clothed, looking peacefully asleep, whereas on the other the deceased was carved as naked and half decayed.

There has been some debate among scholars about whether the Black Death was the same as the bubonic plague that is still found in the American Southwest and the Sierras.  The current consensus is that it was.  Fortunately, because it's a bacterial disease (and not nearly as virulent as in the fourteenth century), it can be cured with antibiotics.

The chipmunks in the Sierras (actually golden-mantled ground squirrels, but they look like big chipmunks as you can see from the picture) carry the plague today.  No matter how cute they look, do not pat them.  And if you've been camping there and get home feeling funky, tell your doctor you have the plague (otherwise she'll probably test you for AIDS before thinking of the plague).

Click here for more on medieval views on death.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Medievalists don't like to use the term "superstition" when discussing medieval religion.  For one thing, it is always pejorative:  "My religion is good and true, but yours is nothing but superstition."

For another thing, superstition has a very specific meaning.  It means doing certain acts unrelated to the desired outcome, in order to bring about the desired outcome.  Baseball players are notoriously superstitious, as they will acknowledge readily.  Always eating peanuts before an afternoon game, or turning your lucky socks inside out, or twirling the bat twice and tapping it three times are clearly unrelated to whether you will get a pitch you can hit.  This is why it's superstition.

It's possible to make a pigeon superstitious.  Watch until it does a scratch (or other action) in an unusual way.  Quick drop in a food pellet.  Keep watching.  When it does it again, drop in another food pellet.  A few repeats is all it takes.  Now set up the food pellet drop so it's totally random.  The pigeon will keep on doing the unusual scratch all day—and, sooner or later, the pellet will come!

In medieval Christianity, being a good person and praying kept your soul out of Hell.  The actions were clearly related to the desired outcome, so, by definition, it was not superstition.  (Click here for more on medieval belief in miracles.)

In the image above (a capital on a column in the twelfth-century church of Vézelay), a dying rich man (note the bags of money under the bed) has his soul rising from his chest and being seized by a pair of enthusiastic demons, while his wife looks on in horror.

Now a modern person who didn't believe in demons might say, "Hah, nothing but superstition."  But to medieval people, demons were real.  Many claimed to have seen them.  This particular capital illustrated the story of Dives and Lazarus (it's in the New Testament, look it up—Dives is now usually called "the rich man" in modern translations).  The rich man callously turned the poor man from his door and set his dogs on him, but when he died he went to Hell, where his hoarded money did him no good.

Christianity began as a religion preached to the poor and marginal.  In spite of everything, this message was never forgotten in the Middle Ages, any more than now.  A message like this was aimed at rich people within the church hierarchy (like bishops) as well as at rich laymen.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Medieval Diet - What They Ate

In an earlier post, I discussed what medieval people did not eat, primarily because it was not available (for example, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, all New World foods).  Here I will discuss what they ate instead.

The medieval diet, like the diet of ancient Greece and Rome, got most of its calories from bread.  Christians pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," with "bread" a metaphor for all needed things, but when the Lord's Prayer was composed in the first century, bread meant bread.

Bread could be made from different sorts of grain, but wheat bread was preferred.  Medieval wheat (like most modern wheat) was winter-wheat, planted in late fall and harvested in the summer.  Barley, which was more common around the Mediterranean than was wheat, was planted in the spring and harvested in the fall.  Barley was also used to make beer.  Medieval people would not recognize today's "lite" beers.  Beer was supposed to have a lot of calories.  The bread was what we would call whole-wheat, with the wheatgerm in, and the beer was thick and crunchy, almost like runny oatmeal.

Confusing to Americans, the British often call wheat "corn."  This is because the word "corn" just means grain in general, although in the US it is used almost exclusively for maize.  Maize (American corn) was not found in the Middle Ages, so all references in British sources to medieval "corn" mean wheat.

Other foods in small amounts accompanied the bread.  Dried peas, beans, and lentils were a regular part of the meal.  So were root vegetables, parsnips and turnips (carrots were only domesticated centuries later).  You will notice that none of these foods need refrigeration.  You will also notice that they are all remarkably bland, which is why spices were highly valued and highly expensive.  So was salt.

Those parts of Europe that will support grapes produced wine.  Wine was also necessary for the liturgy and had to be imported into places (like Scotland and Ireland) where grapes will not grow.  For the peasantry, beer rather than wine provided most of the alcohol (it was all fairly low proof).

Milk, when they could get it, was mostly made into cheese.  (Unlike modern cows, medieval cows only gave milk for a short time when they had just calved.)  Eggs, when they could find the nests the free-range chickens had hidden, added protein.  Nuts, berries, and mushrooms were gathered in the woods in season.  In spring and summer lettuce and cabbage and other leafy vegetables rounded out the diet.

This vegetarian (if not vegan) diet was the normal diet for most of the population, most of the year, and also for monks, who deliberately ate a peasant diet in a search for purification and simplicity.  A vegetarian diet is now promoted as healthful.  But note that these "healthy" people were worn out by their 50s.

But then there were special foods.  When a hen got too old to lay eggs, she could become dinner.  So could the worn-out ox or cow.  Aristocrats hunted for deer—and tried to restrict peasant poaching, because they wanted the deer for themselves.  Aristocrats also went hawking for geese, ducks, and other wild birds.  Peasants did not have trained hawks, but they sometimes spread a sticky substance on twigs to try to catch song birds—who we would not think had enough meat on them to be worth eating.

Fish were an important addition to the monastic diet, eaten on feast days because monks never (or almost never) ate red meat.  Streams like the one pictured above produced trout.

But the most common source of meat was pork.  Pigs were only semi-domesticated and ran wild much of the year.  Around November, after they had gotten fat on acorns ("mast"), they were rounded up and slaughtered.  Everyone ate as much fresh pork as they could hold for a day or two, then the rest was smoked and salted to last the winter.  Modern ham would seem very insipid to a medieval person used to a ham that had to be soaked for a day or so before cooking, to get out all the extra salt.

Feasts (for the wealthy) were symbolically a denial that the diet was bland and limited.  A good feast included a great many different dishes, fowl, red meat, fish, vegetables cooked in different ways, puddings, nuts, and so on.  A feast started in early afternoon and went on as long as anyone could still eat.

Click here for more on medieval ideas of mealtimes.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Medieval Knights

Knights, like castles, first appeared right around the year 1000 in western Europe (they were not found in England until after the 1066 Norman Conquest).

Basically a knight is someone who fights on horseback.  The original, eleventh-century knights were not aristocrats, but rather henchmen on horseback, men who fought on behalf of the lords of the castle.  (Click here for more on knights' horses.)

Fighting on horseback really only became a possibility with the development both of the stirrup, probably in the ninth century, and advances in iron-mining and metallurgy in the tenth century, to make horseshoes affordable.  Without stirrups, one will slide off a horse's back far too easily.  Without horseshoes, a horse's hooves will wear out unless it is kept strictly on grassy surfaces.

Hollywood now portrays all knights in plate armor.  But that kind of armor only developed at the end of the Middle Ages and in the early modern period, when warfare was carried out with cannons and pikemen on foot, not cavalry charges, and the heavy plate armor protected people in jousts, mock battles that no longer had anything to do with real warfare.

Twelfth-century knights wore chain mail, generally a long tunic made out of metal rings.  It was heavy and uncomfortable but would stop either a sword or a lance from penetrating.  Their helmets covered the top and sides of the head and had a long nosepiece.  Shields might be round or might be tall and kite-shaped, as in the image below.

These knights were carved on a church and were intended to represent the vices (if one looks closely one can see "…PERBIA" coming in from the left, the second half of the word superbia, meaning pride).  The register above them shows images representing virtues.

Knights of course were proud; the church architects were right.  And the service knights of the eleventh century desperately wanted to be like their aristocratic masters.  Meanwhile, the noble lords of castles admired knights--their ability to fight on horseback, how cool they looked galloping across a field with a lance held high and cape whipping in the wind.

During the course of the twelfth century, nobles began to define themselves militarily, as knights, not just as people marked by great wealth, power, and noble birth.  The knights, if they possibly could, married younger daughters of nobles, giving their children noble blood.  By the thirteenth century, knights and nobles had essentially fused into one group.

(For more on chivalry and knighthood training, click here and here.)

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Medieval fantasy and religion

A great deal of fantasy is set in a vaguely medieval setting.  And yet much of this fantasy leaves out a crucial part of real medieval life:  religion.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a good Catholic, and presumably he did not feel he could properly introduce an imaginary version of the church, especially since "Lord of the Rings" supposedly takes place hundreds of years BC.  George R.R. Martin, who is not a good Catholic, has created his own religions for "The Song of Ice and Fire," all polytheistic, but with organized systems of churches and priests and rituals.

Real medieval fantasy, that is fantastic stories written during the Middle Ages, always included religion.  The authors could not imagine a world without organized Christianity.  People might transform into hawks or see a parade of candles carried by invisible hands, but they still went to church—and worried (often quite appropriately) about going to Hell.

My own fantasy (see more here), set in an alternate version of the Middle Ages, includes organized religion.  It wasn't a deliberate decision; rather, when I started writing about a king in a castle, he logically had a chaplain, a castle priest.  The Christianity of my "Yurt" series will remind a person of medieval Christianity, although it is not a truly accurate depiction.  For one thing, the organized church in these stories has no hierarchy above the level of bishop (no archbishops or popes).  But there are plenty of elements I've taken from real medieval religion, like reliquaries and cranky saints and depictions of Hell.

I always dislike it when fantasy stories that do depict some version of organized religion have all the priests either hypocrites or cunning schemers or foolish and deluded (or all three).  When I made religion a real force in the world of my stories, I had to have at least some priests who were genuinely devout and holy.

Since my stories also have organized wizardry (which of course the real Middle Ages did not), there are lots of opportunities for conflicts between these two institutions and for misunderstandings between people belonging to one or the other.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Medieval Teeth

Medieval people did not get cavities at nearly the rate that do modern people in the West.  On the other hand, their teeth were worn down a lot.

Cavities, as your dentist will tell you, are directly linked to sugar and sugary foods.  The medieval diet (on which see more here) had very little sugar.  They had honey, but it was not used very much.  After all, honey means bees, so you either have to find wild honey in the woods (and avoid getting stung) or keep bees, which is a lot of work and takes away from time spent raising grain.

Without soft drinks, without sugary snacks, without frosted flakes, even without the currants that started attacking teeth in the early modern period, a person in the Middle Ages would get very few cavities, as archaeology has shown.  They would not have the perfectly aligned, pure white teeth of modern orthodontia, but they were pretty good for people without toothbrushes or fluoride toothpaste.  (One could and did clean one's teeth with a twig.)

And yet many teeth were worn down by medieval bread.  Starting in the eleventh and twelfth centuries,  most grain was ground by big millstones, powered either by wind or water.  These replaced the old hand mills, something closer to a mortar and pestle.

It would take one person essentially all day, doing nothing else, to grind enough grain into flour in a hand mill to make enough bread for a family for one day.  Back in Roman times, a slave or two would do the grinding.  With wind mills and water mills, however, unknown to the Romans, one could grind a 50-pound bag of wheat into a 50-pound bag of flour in fifteen minutes.  Not surprisingly, this technology spread very rapidly and was adopted nearly everywhere.

But mills grind grain by rotating two big millstones against each other, with the grain in between, and what emerges is both flour and stone dust.  The stone dust would be baked into bread along with the flour.  Stone dust passes through the digestive tract without any problem, but it first wears down the teeth, not a lot with each bite, but the effect builds up over time.

Archaeologists can tell when a particular community adopted mills and millstones by looking for wear on skeletons' teeth.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Medieval Christianity

I was brought up Protestant.  One day a well-meaning neighbor asked my mother how I could possibly want to study the Middle Ages:  "After all, they were all Catholic then."

This is a common belief but not strictly true.  Protestantism, like modern Catholicism, is an heir to medieval Christianity.  Modern denominations are the product of a good three thousand years of monotheism growing, enlarging, and then splitting.  Ancient Judaism gave rise both to Christianity and to more recent versions of Judaism.  Early Christianity split into Eastern Orthodoxy and western (Latin) Christianity.  Islam borrowed from both Judaism and Christianity as well as from many revelations of its own.  Medieval (Latin) Christianity split into Protestantism and Catholicism in the sixteenth century, and Protestantism has since split into numerous denominations.

Modern Catholicism differs from medieval Christianity in a great many ways, as does modern Protestantism.  Yet Catholicism is happy to claim the Middle Ages as its own, stressing continuity, whereas Protestants sometimes act as though there were a curious thousand year gap between early Christianity and Martin Luther in the sixteenth century.

And of course, as I discuss in another post, it is counter-productive at best to label medieval Christianity (or for that matter any religion) as "superstition" just because it differs from one's own.

Medieval people took religion extremely seriously.  Whereas modern America will spend millions on commercial buildings (think the Trump Tower), the biggest, grandest medieval buildings were the cathedrals, built for the glory of God.  Modern Europeans, for the most part, still get married and buried and have their children baptized in churches built during the Middle Ages.

This did not mean that everyone was Christian.  There were always small Jewish communities in western Europe, tolerated for much of the Middle Ages—though subject to intermittent persecution from about 1100 on.  There were always plenty of doubters and scoffers, though all medieval accounts assure us that these people were appropriately struck down by the saints.  For most people, most of the time, if you were baptized and said you were Christian, you counted as Christian.  The church had far too much to do to inquire too closely into peasants' beliefs.

One will sometimes hear that "everyone had to obey the pope" in the Middle Ages, but this is far from true.  For much of the Middle Ages, most people had no clue even who the pope was, much less what he thought.  And when popes first asserted their authority as head of the church, they immediately got into knock-down, drag-out battles with the emperors.

But that is a story of another post.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Lord of the Castle and his Family

A twelfth-century castle was not just a defensible fortress but a home for a family, the family of the castellan (the lord of the castle).  A castellan needed a wife, who ran most things that were not directly involved in warfare:  making sure there was enough food, enough firewood, enough clothing and blankets for everybody, and supervising the servants.

The lady of the castle wore the castle keys on her belt, including the keys to the treasury and to the spice chest (sometimes even more valuable).  She taught both her sons and her daughters reading and simple arithmetic.  The boys would usually go off for training and education elsewhere by the time they were eight or so, but the girls would run behind their mother, learning castle management, because it was likely (or so they hoped!) that they would be married in their teens and immediately start managing a castle themselves.

There were few women in a castle, the lady, some women who attended her, and her daughters.  Most of the people living in the castle were male, including the cooks, as well as of course the knights (for more on knights, click here).  The lady of the castle bossed them all.  She could even take over defense of the castle if her husband were away.

Symbolically the whole castle was one big family.  The great hall was the center of castle life, and here the castellan and his lady had their bed.  It had curtains to give them at least some privacy, but most of the single men in the castle also slept in the great hall, on mats on the floor around the lord's bed.  These were taken up during the day.  The only private chambers were for the women, although there might also be one set aside for a visiting dignitary.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Medieval Diet - What They Did Not Eat

The medieval diet, unlike the modern American diet, did not have meat as the central event.  Aristocrats ate a lot more meat than did the peasants, but for everybody bread was the single most important item in the diet.

Today I will point out a few things that they did not eat, mostly because these foods were not found in Europe in the Middle Ages.  In a future post I will discuss what they ate instead.

There was no corn in medieval Europe.  We tend to think of corn as corn on the cob, or a major ingredient in corn tortillas and corn bread.  But in fact corn is a significant part of the American diet.  Look on almost any box or can, and you'll see corn starch or corn syrup.  And of course we use a lot of corn to fatten up cattle before slaughter.

There were also no tomatoes.  Like corn, tomatoes are a New World plant.  In fact, they were originally introduced into Europe as an ornamental plant that grew attractive red fruits believed to be poisonous.  It was a century or two before someone was brave enough (hungry enough?) to eat a tomato, find it tasty, and not die.

Hard as it may be to imagine, medieval Italy had pasta and pizza without tomato sauce.  You also couldn't put ketchup on your French fries.

Part of the reason of course is that there were no French fries!  Potatoes, like tomatoes, are a New World plant.  We tend to think of potatoes as having something to do with Ireland, because of the potato famine in the nineteenth century, but that is because the Irish had been replacing wheat fields with potato fields, because potatoes grow much better in Ireland's cool, damp climate than does wheat--at least until it gets the blight.

The potato, like the tomato, has prospered in modern Europe as in the US, because it also grows well in lots of places besides Ireland.  (See more here on potatoes and tomatoes.)  Russia grows a lot of potatoes--and indeed uses them to make vodka.

Medieval Europeans however did not have hard liquor.  This is not because they were Mormons!  Rather, distilling was not invented until the very end of the Middle Ages.  The major alcoholic drinks were beer and wine.  Without modern bottling (also a later invention), neither will keep very well, and last year's wine had pretty much turned to vinegar by the time of the grape harvest in the fall.

Tea and coffee were also unknown in medieval Europe, even though these are not New World products.  Both reached Europe for the first time in the early modern period, tea coming from China and India, coffee from the Arabs.  Without coffee and tea, no orange juice, and no corn flakes, medieval people might start the day with a hearty mug of beer.

Finally, there was no chocolate.  Yes, I know, it's hard to imagine.  Chocolate comes from South America.  I have seen it suggested that the reason the ancient Greeks invented tragedy is because they did not have chocolate….

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Modern Fantasy and Medieval Fantasy

As well as inventing universities, professional lawyers, and the banking industry, the twelfth century invented fantasy.

Now in some ways fantasy is the oldest form of literature, larger-than-life people wandering through the landscape having adventures colored heavily by marvel and the supernatural.  In the twelfth century, however, it took on a more specific form, one of knightly adventures, generally with a strong admixture of romance as well as sword fights.  The authors were not describing their own society, but in presenting a larger-than-life version of that society they were able to comment on and critique it.

King Arthur stories as we know them were a twelfth-century invention, although the "complete" Arthur  corpus was put together only in the fifteenth century, around the time the printing press was invented.

Modern fantasy was essentially invented in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, by people who were very familiar with the literature of the real Middle Ages (such as J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis) and thought that modern times had lost something important in leaving medieval ideals and values behind.

I myself write fantasy, imbued with real medieval social history--but because it's fantasy, not historical fiction, I can be as anachronistic as I like.  My Royal Wizard of Yurt series, which begins with A Bad Spell in Yurt, is set in something like what the nineteenth century would have been like if the Middle Ages had continued--with no New World to discover, no Protestant Reformation, no Enlightenment, no French Revolution, no Industrial Revolution, and, of course, magic.

(For more on my thoughts on religion in fantasy, click here.)

All but the last volume of the Royal Wizard of Yurt series are out of print as physical books (though available used), but they are now coming out as audio books, and all are available as ebooks on all the major e-tailers:  iTunes, Kobo, B&N-Nook, and of course Amazon.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Medieval Life Expectancy

There is a lot of confusion over the term "life expectancy."  One often hears that in the pre-modern world life expectancy was 35, with the assumption that people just keeled over in their mid 30s.  Actually, they did not.

This figure of 35 is a modern guess, based on assumptions about the "life span."  Span and expectancy are not the same.  The span is how long one could reasonably live, barring accident and serious disease, before body parts start wearing out.  The average "span" (and remember, this is just an average) is genetic, fairly fixed for humans, and has generally been assumed to be about 70.

Thus, making the assumption that half of all babies died in infancy in the Middle Ages, modern people have assumed that the other half lived to 70, and thus, on average (70 plus zero, divided by two), people could "expect" to live to 35.  But this was not in fact the case.

In the modern West, good nutrition and medical care have meant that more people can "expect" to live out the full human life-span, which is probably closer to 80 or 90 than 70.  But as we all know, plenty of people die a lot younger, and some live longer.  That's why it's an average.

In the Middle Ages, child mortality was certainly higher than it is now but was never half.  War, accidents, and (for women) childbirth, as well as the diseases that can easily be cured with modern antibiotics, carried off a lot of people in what we would call the prime of life.  Particularly deadly were the two outbreaks of the Black Death, in the sixth century and again in the fourteenth.  A few people, very few, did live until 90 or so.  But for most, as we can tell from the lives of well-documented individuals, the "expectancy" was probably to live into one's 50s, before the rough life lived by even aristocrats caught up with them.

This is of course not uniquely medieval.  Even though my own grandfather lived to 107, his own grandparents did not make it out of their 50s.  Their obituary (they died within days of each other) said that they were "quite advanced in years, being near 60."

(Click here for more on growing old in the Middle Ages.)

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Medieval City

Europeans are much closer to the Middle Ages than are Americans, because most European cities have, at their heart, the old medieval city.  A lot of the buildings may be post-medieval (say, sixteenth- or seventeenth-century), but the street layout will have changed little since the twelfth century, and the main church will be medieval.

Not surprisingly, medieval streets, designed for foot traffic plus occasional carts and horses, are hopeless for modern traffic.  This did not keep people from trying (with greater or lesser success) to drive them for the first half of the twentieth century.  But starting in the 1970s, most European cities instituted pedestrian-only zones, closed to automobiles, available for delivery trucks only at certain times of day.

These pedestrian zones are now busy and bustling, full of shops and cafés.  If you squint just right, mentally blank out the plate glass windows on the first floors of medieval buildings, pretend that shoppers are wearing simple woolen clothing in grays and browns rather than fashionable get-ups, ignore the electric lights, and imagine that everyone is speaking Old French or Old Italian (etc.) rather than modern languages, you might be able to imagine yourself back to the late Middle Ages.  (Or, again, maybe not.)

Ancient Rome had been an urban civilization, and most cities in what is now France, Italy, Spain, and the Benelux countries have not only medieval but Roman origins.  These cities remained tiny throughout the early Middle Ages, but they were still religious, political, and commercial centers.  With the economic boom of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, these cities grew big by their standards, 10,000 people or even more (whoo hoo!).

Germany, which had never been part of the Roman Empire, also developed cities in the twelfth century, but they were new foundations.

The population growth of the cities was fueled especially by people moving into town from the countryside, preferentially young men trying to get ahead--or trying to get the heck away from home.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Castle

We tend to think of medieval history as taking place in castles, but in fact castles were an important aspect of medieval life for only about four centuries, from when they were first developed, around the year 1000, to when the invention of gunpowder and cannons made them less viable, around 1400.

A castle combines two structures that had been separate in the early Middle Ages:  an elegant home for an aristocrat (or "palace") with a fort.  Forts had generally been temporary structures, encampments of soldiers in times of war, although cities had had walls going back to Roman times.

The first eleventh-century castles, permanent forts that were also dwelling places, mostly combined a grim stone tower with a wooden palisade, surrounding a bailey with many other wooden buildings:  kitchens, stables, storerooms, barracks, weapons shop, and the like.  Quickly stone replaced wood for the outer walls and soon for many of the structures in the bailey.

No two castles were alike.  They were added to, renovated, rebuilt every generation if the castellan (lord of the castle) could afford it.  Generally they were built in a spot easy to defend, on a hilltop or in a loop of a river.  Tall walls made them hard to attack.  In practice, by the middle of the twelfth century it was nearly impossible to capture a castle by assault.  Starving out the inhabitants through a siege--or hoping for treachery from within--were the attackers' best hopes.

A castle looming over the valley made its own quiet statement, "Don't even think about it."

With the development of cannons in the late Middle Ages, however, castle walls could be breached.  Many a castellan gave up on building for defense and instead started constructing an elegant palace with large windows--a fairy-tale château.

For more on life in the castle, click here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The "Dark Ages"

What are the "Dark Ages"?

Medievalists avoid this term.  Dark?  You mean the sun didn't come up?  Until the late nineteenth century, with the development of electricity (which did not reach all parts of even the western world until the middle of the twentieth century), everything was lit only by fire.

Or dark?  As in horrible things happened?  Well, modern people have the technology to do even more horrible things faster and on a wider scale.  Unfortunately humans tend to do horrible things to each other a lot, though everyone (including me) keeps hoping we'll stop soon.

The term Dark Ages was originally a specifically British term, meaning the late fifth and sixth century, after the collapse of Roman Britain, before the Anglo-Saxons who had settled in Britain (or, as they called it, England) became Christianized and started writing things down.  Originally the sixth century was considered "dark" because we knew so little about it.  We know a lot more about what was going on in continental Europe.

Because so little was known about the so-called Dark Ages in Britain, it was a great time to set the much later epics and romances about (for example) King Arthur.

But "dark" always has a pejorative context, implying more than just something unknown (ask anyone with a lot of melanin in their skin).  So medievalists don't use the term.  (The "Light Ages"?  Well, probably not.)

Above is an image of a sarcophagus from late antiquity, the period often called the Dark Ages.  It doesn't look so crude and rude to me.

Click here for more on the "fall" of the Roman Empire.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Life in the Middle Ages - Welcome

Welcome to the C. Dale Brittain blog, "Life in the Middle Ages."

Between "Lord of the Rings" and "Game of Thrones," there's a whole lot of interest in what life in the Middle Ages was really like.  As both a professor of medieval history and a fantasy writer myself, I've been studying medieval times for over 40 years.

In this blog, I'll be posting fun bits of information about the period--some funny, some sad, some downright weird.  I'll also be putting up some pictures of medieval architecture and the like, almost all of them mine.  There is an amazing amount of misinformation about the Middle Ages out there (no, not everyone was middle-aged!), so I'll be correcting some of that too.

First tidbit of information:  The Ox.

An ox was a crucial medieval animal.  An ox is just a bull who was castrated as a calf, so he (it?) grew up with a bull's powerful muscles but none of a bull's testosterone-fueled fury.  Strong and placid, able to subsist on grass rather than needing expensive grain (because of the multiple stomachs all cattle have, good for getting the last ounce of nutrition out of something), an ox made a great draft animal.  Carts and plows were normally drawn by oxen.

And when an ox got old and died, its skin was used for leather (ox hide is thick and tough), and its meat could be boiled up and eaten (though also thick and tough).

(Click here for more on medieval farm animals.)