Friday, January 30, 2015

Sweet Middle Ages

I heard on the radio the other day that the average American eats 22 teaspoons of sugar a day.  That includes actual sugar, plus all the corn syrup in soft drinks, store cookies, etc., and it's certainly startling. I think I have just discovered the Mystery Reason why many Americans are packing a wee bit more weight than they'd prefer….

Medieval Europe did not have sugar, not cane sugar, not beet sugar, certainly not corn syrup, because corn (maize) is a New World plant.  Sugar cane was found occasionally in the Middle East, and Crusaders were quite excited about it, but it wouldn't grow in Europe's climate and was too expensive to import.  (The image below is cut sugar cane.)



Yet medieval people, like most modern people (yes, I know, there are exceptions), liked things that were sweet.  This is indeed genetic.  Our ancestors roaming across the veldt of Africa, rarely getting enough to eat, knew that something sweet contained calories.  Well, they didn't know about calories specifically, but they knew feeling well-fed.  Evolution favors those who get enough calories to live and pass on their genes.  ("It's not my fault I'm a bit plump," one can say, "it's all those semi-starved ancestors forcing me to finish off the chocolate cake.")

Medieval people certainly had fruit, which can seem very sweet if one has never had actual sugar.  Orchards grew apples, plums, and pears.  People appreciated wild berries, especially strawberries.  Modern California strawberries are easily 10 times as big as wild berries--and, interestingly, not as sweet!

But the principal sweetener was honey.  A manor would generally have a beehive, carefully tended.  A feast would not be complete without a sweet dessert, such as milk pudding with honey and raisins.  Peasants would not normally keep bees, but they could hope to find wild honey in the woods.

The European honey bee, the same one used for honey in the Middle Ages, is used today to pollinate fruit crops in the US and to make most of our honey.  The bees are however threatened by "colony collapse," a disorder that kills off entire hives and is not well understood.  This could be a disaster not just for those who like honey in their tea (tea is not medieval, by the way) but for commercial orchards.

One distinct advantage of having less sugar in their diet was that medieval people's teeth had far fewer cavities than do modern people's.  (Click here for more on the medieval diet.)


Monday, January 26, 2015

Gay and straight in the Middle Ages

In the modern era, we consider gay and straight to be separate categories.  This distinction would have made little sense in antiquity.  In ancient Greece, a powerful and influential man would often become the patron of a young man, teaching him about the world and having sex with him.  This did not keep the powerful man from having a wife and often having a liaison with a slave girl or two as well.  Greek gods (like Zeus) were happy to have sex with anyone, male or female.

The Romans, following the Greeks, were fairly open to what we would consider swinging both ways, at least among youths.  A mature man, however, was supposed to rein in his passions, keeping a strict control over his body.  Marriage, it was normally assumed, was between men and women, but the emperor Nero did marry another man.  The joke in Rome, where Nero was widely reviled, was that it was too bad his father had not chosen a similar (male) "bride," for then he would never have been born.

Ancient Judaism, in contrast to paganism, taught that men were supposed to be sexually active only with women.  The category of "gay" did not exist among the ancient Hebrews.  (For that matter, neither did the category "bachelor."  There were just men who were married and men who weren't married yet.)  There did however exist what we would call gay sex, which was forbidden--strongly enough that one assumes it must have been going on.

Medieval Christianity did not worry too much about whether someone was gay.  In part this was the influence of the New Testament, where Jesus has nothing at all to say about gay sex.  And the Christians had quietly dispensed with major chunks of Jewish law anyway, including circumcision, taking multiple wives, prohibitions on eating pork or having a meat and milk dish, or even celebrating the Sabbath on Saturday.

In addition, the medieval church had much more to worry about than someone's sexual orientation.  It has hard enough persuading people that they needed to baptize their children and avoid heresy and stop stealing the church's possessions.  Add to this the constant low-level tension between monasteries and bishops and concerns like the Crusades and self-proclaimed prophets of the end of the world, and you can see why it was not a priority.

One could certainly be horrified at gay sex, but because it was not a clearly "bad" category, medieval men were much more openly affectionate with each other than are modern men who are afraid of being seen as gay.  (My own grandfather stopped hugging his grandsons when they got to be about ten, saying, "We don't want to start to like it.")

Men routinely wrote each other letters, intended to be read out in public, saying how they longed to embrace and kiss each other.  Richard the Lionheart and King Philip II of France became close friends, eating from the same dish and sleeping in the same bed.  Richard's father, Henry II of England, thought this was wonderful when he heard about it, establishing good international relations, even though he had just sentenced some "catamites" for scandalous behavior.

The one place that really worried about gay sex was the monastery.  But here the problem was not gay sex per se but rather sex itself.  In an all-male community, straight sex wasn't even an option and thus not worth worrying about.

Interestingly, no one in antiquity or the Middle Ages worried too much one way or the other about lesbians.  Presumably they existed then, but affectionate closeness between women was accepted as normal.  One may note that the same is true of modern society.

Click here for more about sex in the Middle Ages.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Medieval swords

Modern movies that are set (theoretically) in the Middle Ages often show people fighting with long, thin fencing foils.  But these are nothing like real medieval swords--and contrary to many other movies, you cannot "fence" with a medieval sword.  They were too heavy.  They were meant for cutting and whacking.

The basic sword was long, reaching from where it hung on one's belt down to mid-calf or lower.  It was sharpened on both sides of the blade.  The handle was usually made as an integral piece of metal with the blade.  Because you didn't want your hand sliding down, there would be cross-pieces, the hilt.  This meant that the sword overall was in the shape of a cross, which seemed extremely significant to those at the time who tried (not entirely successfully) to make knighthood something inherently Christian.



As part of their knighthood training, boys would learn to fight with swords, starting with wooden swords, working up to blunted weapons, and finally being allowed to use sharp blades.  In a battle between knights, they would start by trying to knock each other off their horses with their lances, then, when they were unhorsed, they would draw their swords and start raining blows on each other.  One defended against sword blows with a shield, not by using one's own sword as a fencing foil.  One could theoretically lay about with a sword from on horseback, but it was dangerous--especially for the horse.

Because medieval blacksmiths did not have furnaces hot enough to melt iron, they had to make a fire as hot as they could with charcoal and bellows, to soften the metal enough to be worked.  To make a sword, the iron would be repeatedly heated in the fire, folded and pounded.  In essence, they were making carbon steel.  Especially fine blades were made in parts of the Middle East.  ("Damascus steel" was renowned in the west.)

Swords were very expensive and greatly prized.  We have few medieval swords, because they would be in use until they totally wore out.  They do however show up in medieval art, and in the early Middle Ages a few would be put in the tombs of the most powerful.


Friday, January 23, 2015

The Wood Nymph and the Cranky Saint

Saints were a major part of medieval Christianity, as I have discussed previously.  In writing stories set in a fantasy version of the real Middle Ages, I have therefore included saints.

The modern person may assume that saints were gentle and kind.  They could be, but medieval saints could also be frightening to malefactors, or even to those to whom they were well-intentioned.  In The Wood Nymph and the Cranky Saint, I used many motifs from real medieval saints' lives and miracle stories.



For example, my fictional Saint Eusebius has a backstory of how he came to die for the faith.  In his case, he was eaten by a dragon (this is, after all, a fantasy story), and the dragon miraculously choked to death on him, thus saving the people of the countryside, and leaving only his big toe.  This of course became the relic of the Holy Toe.

In the story, the Holy Toe is served by a hermit, who has several apprentice hermits living a short distance away.  This motif reflects a common medieval dilemma--a hermit would be so renowned for his holiness, his austere life in total isolation from society, that many people would want to go join him.

Eusebius shows his crankiness in one case by diverting a river so that the grave of a noted reprobate will be cut off from the rest of a cemetery full of good, decent dead people.  This is based on a real medieval miracle story.

A key feature of the plot is that two different groups of people want the saint's relics (the Holy Toe) for their own, both claiming that the saint has appeared in visions to them.  Again, this was a real medieval concern, wanting to have the relics of a saint near one in order to be sure of his favor.  There were many medieval stories of "holy thefts," people stealing a saint's relics and bringing them home when the saint was clearly not being properly revered or respected where he was (as evidenced of course by visions).

Click here if you're interested in seeing more of the Cranky Saint.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Tournaments

Tournaments, mock battles, first appeared at the end of the eleventh century/beginning of the twelfth.  Because by that time it was fairly well understood (at least in the abstract) that Christians should not kill Christians (as discussed in a previous post), the knights who had been trained their whole lives as warriors wanted a chance to demonstrate their skill.  Church leaders would have preferred them to go off on Crusade, but the knights did not necessarily want to go off on a long and dangerous trip, where they would likely come home broke if they came home at all.

Of course, one could be killed in a tournament, even though that was not the purpose.  The swords did not have edges, but they still made fine blunt instruments.  And falling from a galloping horse is an excellent way to break one's neck.  Because the church believed that a tournament brought out all of the worst vices--pride and anger as well as potentially manslaughter--whole tournaments might be put under excommunication.  Someone killed in a tournament was not supposed to be buried in the churchyard but rather at the crossroads with a stake through his heart, the same as a suicide.

Twelfth-century knights were not deterred nor inspired to go on Crusade instead.  If one went on Crusade, one was either trying to find salvation or else to join in the general excitement when a duke announced he was off to Jerusalem.

It was possible for an excellent tournament fighter to make his living on the circuit.  William Marshall, who was companion to one of the sons of Henry II of England and later regent of England after the death of King John, got his start fighting in tournaments.  Losers forfeited their horse and armor to the winner, who generally allowed the loser to buy them back.

Although the modern view of tournaments is two knights with long lances galloping at each other in a ritualistic way, in practice twelfth-century tournaments could be a lot more chaotic.  As well as jousts, the face-offs between two knights, there was the mêlée, a free-for-all that could take off cross-country and go on all day.  At one point the knights from Flanders were late for a tournament and announced that they would just sit and watch.  However, as the mêlée was winding down, and all the other knights were exhausted, the Flemish knights donned their armor, mounted up, and quickly captured everyone in sight.  This was universally agreed to be a fine trick.

At many big tournaments, there would be a sort of pre-tournament the night before, to weed out the weaker fighters.  This "bohort" was typically fought in regular clothes, not armor, and involved poking more than striking.  It was a sign of ostentatious wealth to wear very fine clothing to the bohort and have them ripped to shreds.

Women did not participate directly in tournaments.  But they certainly were spectators, cheering on their favorites, often determining who was the winner, the one who had fought the best.  The knights of course wanted to impress the ladies (adding lust to the list of vices a tournament could excite).

With the invention of gunpowder, the fighting skills honed in tournaments no longer played much of a role in real battles.  Nonetheless, tournaments continued to be popular.  They could become extremely elaborate, requiring knights to prove noble ancestry several generations back in order to take part.  As armor became heavier and heavier and the warhorses thus larger, the knights had to be winched up into the saddle and strapped in place.  The late medieval church decided there was no problem with tournaments, even though people were still killed in them--including the heir to the French throne in the sixteenth century.


Friday, January 16, 2015

Violence in the Middle Ages

Medieval society was violent--but not anarchical.  Efforts were constantly being made, some more successful than others, to rein in violence.  When you have a number of muscular, well-trained fighting men carrying swords, it was, not surprisingly, a constant concern.

In the modern US, we tend as a society to fear those of lower socio-economic status.  Poorer parts of town are considered dangerous.  In the Middle Ages, in contrast, the powerful, the wealthy, the elite were considered the most frightening.  On the other hand, poor people's only defense against dangerous warriors was found in other wealthy and powerful men.

The reason villages grew up around castles was because the villagers saw them as sources of protection.  A lord would certainly defend his own peasants, even if he ran roughshod over someone else's peasants' fields (or even the peasants themselves).

Knights and nobles were trained to be fighters.  From the twelfth century on, nobles defined themselves in part by their military prowess.  A touchy sense of honor, where every insult had to be met with violence, was a constant issue.

Of course, this violence was not unmitigated.  For one thing, it is much harder to kill someone from a distance with a sword than with a gun, so until gunpowder was invented in the fourteenth century, fighting had to be up-close.  (Nobles used bows for hunting, but not for attacking each other.)

Also, "peace" was considered an extremely important value.  If two knights insulted each other and then sprang at each other, their friends were supposed to pull them apart, not egg them on.  Everyone knew all too well that a fight with knives and swords would turn deadly all too fast.



At exactly the same time as knights and castles first appeared in France, in the years around 1000, bishops started holding Peace of God councils.  They would bring knights together and make them swear mighty oaths, on relics, not to harm the harmless--churchmen, women, merchants, peasants.  This was reasonably successful, at least in getting the knights to consider that killing the weak was wrong and might even send them to hell.

Two generations later, the bishops followed up on their initial success by establishing the Truce of God, where they persuaded knights that they shouldn't even kill each other on Sundays, great saints' feast days, Advent, or Lent.  This was not nearly as effective, but it certainly made the knights think.  By the twelfth century, everyone more or less agreed (whether or not they always acted on it) that Christians should not kill Christians.

Churchmen instead urged the knights to go on Crusade, to use their warrior skills to kill Muslims.  The knights themselves preferred tournaments, mock battles where people (theoretically) were not killed, but they were able to show off their prowess.

There were of course psychopaths in the Middle Ages, just as there are now, people who enjoyed inflicting pain and suffering.  The chroniclers always described such acts of violence as "unheard of," indicating that they were far from the norm.

See more here on medieval conflict resolution.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Privacy in the Middle Ages

In the modern US, we treat privacy as a serious right.  Although it is not protected in so many words in the Constitution, several key Supreme Court decisions have been based on the inherent right to privacy as fundamental to American law.  (Of course, this is all undercut by the modern tendency to blab all of one's activities and feelings on Facebook.)

Medieval people had no such assumptions about privacy.  In a medieval village or a castle, a community of people living close together, it was assumed that everyone knew everyone else's business, perhaps even better than they did.

Even sex was not nearly as private as we think it should be.  In a castle or manor house, the lord and lady's bed was in the middle of the great hall, and the servants slept on pallets in the hall around them.  (The bed at least had curtains.)  A newly-married couple would be tucked into bed together, and although the bridal party would retreat at least partially, they would find it both hilarious and appropriate to shout "helpful" suggestions through the curtains or under the door and "inspire" the couple with naughty songs under the window.



One has probably heard the phrase, "In springtime, a young man's fancy turns lightly to thoughts of love."  In spring, a young man for the first time in months had a chance to get a young woman off by herself, in woods or field, away from all the relatives.

One has also probably heard, "Each man's house is his castle," with the vague suggestion that people are entitled to privacy in their houses "just like" medieval lords were private in their castles.  But this phrase was only coined well after the end of the Middle Ages, based on a thorough misunderstanding of medieval law.  Any medieval lord who defied the king would find the king (and the law) had no concern for or indeed knowledge of any inherent privacy rights.  Such a lord's defense would reside in high walls, not in some legal principle.

For that matter, the distinction between public and private which we make for rulers--a president cannot treat the taxes that have been collected as personally his--is also a fairly modern distinction.  Until about 1200, the royal treasury, what we would think of as "public" funds, was kept under the king's bed, and he decided how it should be spent.

Religion, which we also tend to think of as a private matter, was also an issue for one's neighbors in the Middle Ages.  Someone who had done serious damage to the Church or who had fallen into heresy would be excommunicated, literally cut off from the community, because it was feared that the normal sharing of everything, including religious ideas, would infect the others.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Medieval villages

A village, then and now, is a small community with a sense of identity--that is, it is more than some houses that happen to be next to each other.  Medieval villages would generally have been farming villages, where the peasants grouped together (rather than living on widely scattered farms, as is the case in most of the modern US).

A village was not just a small city.  Medieval cities, which had their roots in Roman cities in all the parts of Europe that had been in the Roman Empire, were capitals and commercial and political centers even when very small by modern standards.  Villages were rural, often again with Roman roots, in this case a Roman villa, a fancy home for a wealthy man from which he supervised agriculture--generally slave-worked fields under the Empire.

In southern and western parts of medieval France, a "village" might be scattered over a square mile or so, a series of farm houses, each surrounded by its fields.  In more fertile and northern areas, however, a farming village would be very compact.  The peasants would live close together, with the barns for their animals, and go out during the day to work in the fields.



The reason for the difference is that in areas of heavier, richer soils peasants had adopted the heavy plow, the carruca (on which see more here).  This heavy plow demanded that peasants cooperate, for it was too expensive for just one family to afford, and it created long, thin fields that would extend out from the village, rather than the compact fields that surrounded the individual houses of the more scattered type of village.

Most compact villages had narrow, twisting streets, due to the houses being built next to each other with no particular thought of the layout.  In the twelfth century, however, some landlords, wanting to open up previously unused land to agriculture, created new villages with low rents to lure peasants to settle, and the villages would be laid out on a grid pattern.

Rural monasteries and castles might have a village grow up next to them.  Villagers living next to a castle could expect to be protected in case of war or disaster.  Most villages, however, did not have an adjoining castle, though by the late Middle Ages many would have a manor house or two, the home of the richest local families.  Slowly, starting in the twelfth century, villages acquired churches; before then, a villager would have to go into the city for service or baptism and burial.

In the twelfth century, village houses were generally wattle-and-daub, wood and mud and plaster, not requiring very large timbers, and were generally thatched with reeds.  By the late Middle Ages, however, in those areas with good building stone, most villages were rebuilt in stone with tile or slate roofs--for one thing, they were much less likely to burn.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Medieval underwear

The ancient world hadn't worried much about underwear.  The Mediterranean summers were hot, and two thousand years before air conditioning, one preferred to have as much of one's body as possible cooled by the breeze.

The normal outfit for a man in ancient Greece was a simple piece of cloth wrapped around the torso, going under one arm and pinned at the other shoulder.  It was held in place with a belt and stopped somewhere in mid-thigh.  Men must thus have flashed their manly manliness with almost every step.  In a society that believed athletic events should be carried out in the nude and that portrayed its gods in the nude, this should not be surprising.

(Greek women wore the same basic outfit, but it was ankle-length and would be pinned or sewed with a few stitches all down the side.  We don't know what they had on underneath--they were discreet.)

The Middle Ages however had underwear.  The Romans had mocked the breeches the Germanic people wore, but they had to admit they made horseback riding more comfortable.  Underwear was however expensive.  You probably didn't want wool tight against your private parts, even though wool was the most common and cheapest fabric, so they had to use linen, until (relatively) less expensive imported cotton reached Europe in the twelfth century (silk had been around longer but was of course even more of a luxury).

If a man was not going to get up on a horse, he typically wore a tunic (knee-length or a little shorter) with nothing to speak of underneath except the arrangement (dare I say garter belt?) that held up his stockings.  (Medieval tunics, unlike those of ancient Greece, had no vents down the side.)  Medieval women always wore a bit more under their skirts, as well as usually a slip or chemise with lace at the neck if they could afford it.

Male monks did not normally wear underwear.  The whole purpose of the monastic life was to remove oneself from the world to a life of austere simplicity, and a long, wrapped habit (basically like a bathrobe) was all that was required.  However, this could create problems if a monk went out on an errand or had to ride somewhere.  Monasteries provided breeches to monks leaving the house (no use causing a scandal if the robe suddenly flew open), but they were supposed to return them once they got back.

Nuns however always had a bit more on under their habits.  Heloise, as abbess, complained bitterly to Abelard that the Benedictine Rule that governed monasteries did not give proper attention to the things that went on with women's private parts (she did not go into detail, but we all know what she meant).

As we all snicker about medieval underwear, let us remember that there is still a lively debate about what Scots are supposed to wear under their kilts.

Click here for more on medieval clothing.


Monday, January 5, 2015

Medieval-themed fantasy

The majority of modern fantasy is set in an alternate versions of Europe's Middle Ages, complete with knights, castles, and swords. North America and Down Under, which have no castles but whose culture is European-derived, produce large numbers of fans of medieval-style fantasy--and a fair number of writers of such (including me).

I'm often asked, "How much research do you have to do to write medieval-themed fantasy?"  Well, in a way I've been doing the research my entire adult life.  As I've discussed previously, I've somehow managed to balance being both a fantasy writer and a professor of medieval history, with a decent collection of books I've written in both areas.

And of course I've used a lot of motifs from real medieval history in my stories; see the discussion of an example here.

Fantasy as its own genre got off the ground in the 1950s-70s, indubitably due to JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien himself was a professor of medieval literature, so it is not surprising that his own fiction was imbued with the tropes that medieval authors put into their own literature--almost all of which we would now label "fantasy."  (For them, it was just literature.)

Once people found how compelling Lord of the Rings was (and realized it was not "super science fiction," as an early review of LotR stated), they started looking for more, and discovered such earlier works as CS Lewis's Narnia series, Lord Dunsanay, and a few others.  Then people started writing their own, and they haven't stopped.



These days, fantasy is a mix of several quite different sources.  One of course is Tolkien himself.  There are plenty of stories where an ill-assorted group of comrades set off on a dangerous quest to overcome the Dark Lord, even though most of these stories end up having the comrades find the powerful magic artifact to whack said Dark Lord, rather than following Tolkien, whose heroes sought to destroy such an artifact.

Once one gets past imitation Tolkien, there is plenty of influence from real medieval literature--the King Arthur stories (especially in the late fifteenth-century version by Mallory), the epics and romances, and the Norse sagas.  The wizards and dragons now found in many works of fantasy were, however, very scarce in medieval literature, as I discuss more here.  Interestingly, Tolkien never used King Arthur stories, having an expressed dislike for anything Celtic.

Another source is real medieval social and political history.  George RR Martin says that he started with the history of the fifteenth-century War of the Roses in England (between the Yorks and the Lancasters, sound familiar?), though he kept the war technology in the pre-gunpowder era.  And his very realistic and gritty touches, like food production and the horrors of war, are to some extent undercut by the dragons and walking dead--which are fantasy!

Another source is nineteenth-century folk tales.  Not until the nineteenth century did people find it worthwhile to "collect" the stories told by the folk.  These include everything from the stories of the Brothers Grimm in Germany to the Kalevala in Finland.  There are some great stories here, and most have a sort of medieval-like look, but they aren't actually medieval--unless you assume, which I sometimes do myself, that in many ways life for three-quarters of Europe's population didn't really change from the Middle Ages until the coming of railroads and telegraphs and semi-universal education.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

January

It's January!  The coldest month of the year in the northern hemisphere.

January is named for Janus, a Roman god always depicted as having two faces, one looking forward and one back.  He was the patron saint of doors and doorkeepers (a 'janitor' was originally someone who kept watch at the door, even though we now think of janitors as being those who clean the restrooms and keep the furnace burning).



Janus was also the god of New Year's celebrations, both looking back toward the old year and forward toward the new.  The Romans, like us, celebrated New Year's on January 1.  Although the shortest day of the year (now December 21), the birthday of the sun-god Apollo (December 25 in the Roman calendar) and New Year's were all originally supposed to recognize the slow return of daylight after midwinter darkness, as discussed more here, in practice, due to the difficulties of calculating leap year, they have drifted apart.  More excuse for parties!

The Romans (like us) celebrated January 1 with feasts, drinking, getting together with friends, and general rowdiness.  This was a continuation of Saturnalia, which was the rowdy week honoring the god Saturn, leading up to the shortest day of the year on December 25 in the Roman calendar.  One assumes they got over their hangovers in the week leading up to January 1, just in time to start over.

Romans also exchanged gifts on New Year's, a practice that much later migrated to Christmas.  In the Middle Ages, gifts on January 1 were the norm, even though preachers routinely told people that such gift-giving was a pagan practice.

This was all complicated by the fact that medieval people did not all celebrate the New Year on January 1.  In fact, the most common practice was to celebrate it on Easter, which does make theological sense, even though you could end up with a year with two Aprils, if Easter was early one year and late the next.  Christmas was also a possibility for the official start of the new year, as was the preceding March 25, commemorating the Incarnation (i.e. when Mary became pregnant).

Thousands of generations of little fuzzy ancestors tell us to spend January snoozing in the nest, maybe going out occasionally to bring back more seeds to munch.  We might as well enjoy ourselves before settling down for a "long winter's nap."