Monday, April 27, 2015

Medieval feasts

As I discussed in an earlier post on what medieval people ate, for most of the population, including the aristocracy, food choices were very limited by our standards and very bland.  But for a feast, to celebrate a great holiday (like Christmas) or a special event (like a wedding or knighting), cooks at an aristocratic household would throw themselves into creating something special.

Because the daily norm was to have just enough food to get by (dieting was not a big concern in the Middle Ages), one mark of a feast was for everyone to have seconds.  Another marker of a feast would be to have a great many courses.  A feast would start in mid-afternoon and go on until no one could eat any more.

A good feast would include soup, several different kinds of meat (fish, fowl, red meat), plus vegetables, cheese, and puddings, as well as plenty of bread, of course.  Spices were used enthusiastically.  Some birds which we would not think of eating, like swans, would be roasted whole.  (They didn't have turkeys, though they did have geese; maybe they were making do with what they had.)

It was considered extremely elegant to present the bird looking as though it still had feathers.  Bits of vegetable curls (shavings of turnip, say) could be stuck onto the roast carcass with honey.  Something similar could be done with a pig, which might be presented whole, an apple in its mouth.  Food was supposed to look visually special, as well as tasting special.

Because a feast was a display of wealth and elegance as well as a celebration, a great deal of attention went into the setting.  Special wall hangings would be brought out.  Medieval castles did not have dining rooms, so trestle tables were set up in the great hall for a feast, with table cloths for all--or at least for the most esteemed guests.  Everyone was expected to wash their hands, and servants brought basins and fine towels.

Seating was strictly hierarchical, with the most esteemed guests at the head table with their own chairs, lower status people at long tables with benches along the sides, and others somewhere in between.  Guests were expected to wear their finest clothes.  Everyone got plenty to eat, even though the high table would have elegant table ware, while those down on the benches would be happy with a thick slice of bread on which the meat was piled.  They had spoons but not forks, requiring eating with one's fingers--part of the reason you washed carefully before dinner.

Because no one can eat without stopping for six hours straight, there would be interludes of entertainment.  Music, song, and humorous skits filled the gaps between courses.  In the King Arthur stories, the king would refuse to eat on a feast day until some marvel had appeared--which of course always happened in the stories  Because the wine flowed freely at a feast, there was doubtless a great deal of joking and laughing as the evening wore on, whether anything was funny or not.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Middle Ages and Renaissance

There's a general, vague feeling that the Renaissance came after the Middle Ages.  But this is not the case.  The Renaissance is actually just a name for late medieval Italy.

In addition, in spite of a sense that it must have marked something new and improved (after all, we use the word Renaissance, meaning rebirth), the Renaissance began with the Black Death of 1347 and continued with economic disaster.  The art that we now see as the most glorious achievement of Renaissance Italy (and it is) really appears only a century or so after self-styled Italian humanists declared they were living in a new time, a Rinascimento (Italian for Renaissance), and should be seen as a defiant cry against the despair of the age.

As I discussed in an earlier post on medieval Italy, the peninsula was the most urbanized part of medieval Europe, a major trade center where luxury goods from the East first reached Europe.  This focus on trade meant that intellectual life took something of a back seat--why think deep thoughts when one could be making money?  Italy did have Europe's first university, Bologna, but it concentrated on law, not philosophy or the classics--these were studied instead at northern universities, especially Paris (see more here on medieval universities).

So when the trade routes collapsed in the aftermath of the plague, the always energetic Italians looked for something new to concentrate on and focused on ancient philosophy and the arts.  They were, not surprisingly, especially enamored with ancient Rome.  Scholars set out to try to discover "pure," classical Latin, without any of the words medieval people had added to it in the last thousand years.  They started building their churches and monuments in a neo-Roman style.  At parties they would dress Roman and address each other as Cicero or Horace (a little different from the modern vision of toga parties…)

These scholars called themselves humanists, umanistici.  Note that although in modern usage we often use the term "humanist" to mean a secularist, as opposed to a religious person, the Italian humanists were intensely religious.  For them, the term meant someone interested in ancient philosophy and ideas.

One sometimes sees the term "northern Renaissance."  This is specifically an art-history term, meaning the flourishing of art in places like Flanders in the sixteenth century, or the new interest in reading Greek and Latin works in the original, spurred by the invention of the printing press.  This "northern Renaissance" overlaps with the Protestant Reformation, which started in the first decades of the sixteenth century and led to such disasters as the Thirty Years War (unfortunately, even now, religion has always seemed like a good thing to have a war over.)

For a lot of people, life was worse in the Italian Renaissance than it was earlier.  With the new interest in Rome, slavery was revived, after not being seen in western Europe for centuries, because Rome, after all, had been a slave society.  In imitation of patriarchal Rome, Renaissance husbands tried (without notable success) to make women obey.  The cities of the Renaissance, in a time of turmoil and huge discrepancies of wealth, were violent, dangerous places.

It is interesting that the belief that the Renaissance came after the Middle Ages is so strong that some textbooks have a chapter on the fifteenth century--including such things as Joan of Arc, the end of the Hundred Years War, and the War of the Roses in England--before rather than after the chapter on the fourteenth-century Renaissance.

The Italian humanists, convinced they represented something new (they indeed invented the term Middle Ages, dividing history into antiquity, their own glorious modern period, and the age "in the middle"), would have been shocked to discover that events around the year 1500, including the printing press, Columbus's discovery of the New World, and the Reformation marked a bigger change than did their toga parties.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Norman Conquest

I hope no one reading this blog thinks of history as "memorizing dates."  But there are still a few dates that everyone ought to know.  One of those is 1066, the date of the Norman Conquest of England.  It had major political, social, and cultural ramifications for England (and subsequently for the US.)

Between the seventh century and the eleventh, England was a Christian territory, with some scholars very well educated in Latin.  But its primary language was Anglo-Saxon, not the Old French of the territory right across the Channel.  England did not have the knights, the castles, or the fiefs that developed on the Continent in the first half of the eleventh century.

In 1066 King Edward of England died childless.  He was nicknamed "the Confessor" for his holy way of life--a confessor is a sort of second-class saint.  Several people were convinced they were Edward's rightful heir, including Harold Godwinson, an Anglo-Saxon lord, and William, duke of Normandy in France.

(Vikings had settled in Normandy--named for them--at the beginning of the tenth century and had in the subsequent generations become French, if lively French.)



Indeed, William claimed that Harold Godwinson had promised that he would be the next English king, after William had rescued him from shipwreck.  Harold remembered the whole event quite differently.  William is nicknamed "the Conqueror," so you can tell how this is going to turn out.

When Edward died, Harold Godwinson was elected king by the witangemot, the Anglo-Saxon general assembly of nobles. But no sooner was he crowned than he heard that England was being invaded--from Scandinavia.  A third claimant from there, Harald Hardrada, had allied with Harold Godwinson's brother and decided that he was rightful king of England.

Harold Godwinson met Harald Hardrada in a great battle and won.  Unfortunately for Anglo-Saxon purists, this great battle is now nearly forgotten, for no sooner had the English won than they learned that William had sailed from Normandy.  The exhausted English army met the Normans near Hastings and held their own remarkably well, in spite of just having marched on foot all the way down from Yorkshire, and in spite of having to face mounted knights.

But Harold Godwinson was killed, and many of the English lords with him.  William then declared his own men a witangemot, they elected him (who could have predicted?), and he was crowned king.

England under the so-called Anglo-Norman kings was immediately transformed.  Knights and castles were established on Continental models.  William declared the men who had accompanied him were now dukes and counts (earls) and insisted they hold from him in fief, the first time a king had been involved in fief-holding.  As English bishops died, they were replaced with French ones.

This was the beginning of the creation of the language we now call English, which has both Germanic elements (from Anglo-Saxon) and French/Latinate ones (from Norman French).  Modern English indeed has as many words as modern German and modern French combined.  In Anglo-Norman England, there were two distinct languages, one for the conquerors and one for the conquered.  In modern English, built on both these languages, a pig running around is a swine, a Germanic word, until it reaches the table and becomes pork, a French word--an Anglo-Saxon peasant raised swine, but a Norman lord ate pork.

Even now, the Germanic/Anglo-Saxon term is the simplest and pithiest, the French the more elegant.  You can say things in English in two ways.  It is possible to express a concept in English in a dual manner.  (See what I mean?)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Medieval Italy

We think of countries as having clear borders.  In fact, borders are constantly changing, and what we think of as Europe's countries and boundaries are only moderately related to those of the Middle Ages.

Everyone knows where Italy is, that big boot-shaped peninsula sticking out into the Mediterranean.  But where exactly are its northern boundaries?  They are in the Alps somewhere, up in a region that is at least partially German-speaking.  (When they found the Ice Man in a glacier, it was initially unclear whether he was in Austria or Italy.)  Are Sardinia and Corsica part of Italy or not? (Corsica is now part of France).  And how far around the Adriatic to the east does Italy go?



In the Middle Ages, Italy was not its own country, even though that big boot-shaped peninsula was known then as now as Italia.  It had of course been the heart of the original Roman Empire, and its northern half (or so) had been part of Charlemagne's empire.  As I discussed in my previous post on the Holy Roman Empire, from the tenth century on the western Empire was basically Germany and Italy.

German kings would be elected and crowned, then cross the Alps to be crowned emperor in Rome, beating up some Italians en route.  Then they would go home again.  This kept Italy from developing into its own kingdom, as France and England and even Germany were doing.  Machiavelli in the sixteenth century deeply deplored this.  In fact, Italy did not become a unified country until the nineteenth century.

When it was finally unified, there were a few bits never properly incorporated.  Venice, which had been an independent state since its ninth-century foundation, was the last to join.  San Marino is still a tiny, independent country completely surrounded by Italy.  Vatican City is the largest and most important independent unit within Italy.

Sicily, the football at the toe of Italy's boot, had been a separate kingdom from the twelfth century.  It is still looked on with suspicion by northern Italy.

Medieval Italy was the most urbanized part of Europe, with more cities (and bishoprics) per square mile than anywhere else.  Its cities flourished as trade centers, for Italy was where the luxury goods of the East, the silk and spices, first reached Europe.  Italian merchants understood capitalism, "Buy low, sell high," and had complicated business models to raise money by having people invest in merchant ships and cargo, essentially selling stock.

Initially the cities were all headed by elected city councils and usually a mayor; in effect, they were oligarchies, run by the rich merchant families.  During the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, most cities were taken over by tyrants, men who seized power and didn't want to hear any opposing views.  Florence was about the last to remain, at least nominally, a republic.  Late medieval popes ran Rome and its surrounding region essentially as tyrants.  (Click here for more on late medieval popes.)

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Holy Roman Empire

There were at least three different Roman Empires before about 1500, all centered in different places.  To make it more confusing, they all asserted they were the same Roman Empire.

Let's start with the original Roman Empire, the territory conquered in (roughly) the five centuries BC, which ended up including the whole Mediterranean basin and Europe west of the Rhine.  Its capital was Rome, and from the first century BC it was ruled by emperors, absolute rulers who originally were assumed to be semi-divine.

This Empire split in the first half of the fourth century, when the Emperor Constantine moved his capital to Constantinople (the modern city of Istanbul), in Greek-speaking Byzantium (now Turkey).  (I wonder why it's named Constantinople?)  (See more here on the "fall" of the Roman Empire.)

Constantine also converted to Christianity, a religion that soon became official throughout the Empire.  Though no longer semi-divine, the emperors continued to be absolute rulers.

From the early fourth century to the late fifth, the real capital of the Empire was Constantinople, but there were still sometimes co-emperors headquartered in the city of Rome.  The last of these western co-emperors was killed at the orders of the Byzantine emperor, leading to over three centuries of just one Roman emperor.  These Byzantine Roman emperors indeed continued to rule until 1453, when the Turks finally took Constantinople.

Meanwhile, back in the west, the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned emperor by the pope in the year 800.  (See more here on Charlemagne.)  Now there were two emperors, one with his capital at Aachen, near what is now the French-German border, and the other in Constantinople.  Both called themselves Roman Emperors.  Neither was in Rome.

Charlemagne's empire, which was originally (more or less) the territory that now corresponds to France, Italy, and western Germany, became by the eleventh century just Germany and Italy, as France went its own way.  German kings would be elected by the German princes, then cross the Alps, beat up some Italians, and be crowned Roman emperor by the pope.  (See more here on medieval Italy.)  Since 800, it was very clear that no western king could call himself emperor unless the pope crowned him.

As you can doubtless imagine, there was a great deal of hard feeling between emperors and popes, who felt that the other guy ought to do what he wanted.  The Investiture Controversy (on which see more here) was a knock-down, drag-out fight that continued on and off from the late eleventh century to the late twelfth.  At one interlude during this Controversy, the German emperor decided that not only was he Roman emperor, he was Holy Roman Emperor.  (Take that, pope!)  The title sticks.  Indeed, to avoid confusion, a lot of historians refer to the "Holy Roman Empire" as starting with Charlemagne, to keep it distinct from either the original Roman empire of antiquity or the Byzantine Roman empire.

In the late Middle Ages, the German princes, deciding that if they elected someone king that was good enough, declared that one could be Holy Roman Emperor without the bother of crossing the Alps and beating up Italians in order to be crowned at Rome.  The Holy Roman Empire eventually was joined by marriage to the Spanish Empire of Ferdinand and Isabella, busy conquering the Mediterranean and the New World, but that takes us into the post-medieval period.

To reiterate, there's the original Roman Empire, centered at Rome, until the early fourth century.  There's the Byzantine Roman Empire, centered at Constantinople, from the fourth century until 1453.  And there's the Holy Roman Empire, not called "holy" until the twelfth century, but really starting with Charlemagne and persisting (with majors changes) until the end of the Middle Ages.  All clear now?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Medieval archery

Archery has become very popular lately, due at least in part to the "Hunger Games" books and movies, where a single well-placed arrow can bring down a rabbit, a person, or even a fighter jet.  Bows and arrows go far back in human history, having long been used to hunt animals and kill people (though usually more than one arrow is needed), even if not bring down jets.

The regular bow and arrow, a long piece of supple wood with a cord, which is used to shoot a missile (arrow) far faster and harder than a human could throw it, has probably been developed several times over the millennia.  Until very recently, there was nothing like the modern compound bow, where pulleys give extra power.  The force of a bow was limited by one's strength, how much one could overcomes the resistance of a stiff bow--a "50 pound bow" was one that required the equivalent strength to pull back the string as picking up a fifty-pound weight one-handed.  And then there's aiming.  If one has ever seen a buffalo, enormous, shaggy, and fierce, then one has to admire the plains Indians trying to sneak up on them with a bow.



Bows were used in both hunting and warfare in the Middle Ages.  Everyone agreed that a bow was a coward's weapon, because you could kill someone from a distance, and in practice every army marched with a contingent of bowmen.  Knights would have found it shameful to fight with a bow (though they used them in hunting), but it was no use being silly and not having bowmen along.

King William Rufus (William II) of England was killed in a hunting accident in 1100.  The person who killed him, who swore his whole life that it was an accident (he was given many benefices by Henry I, William's brother, who succeeded), had been hunting with the royal party, using heavy stag arrows, and the king just happened to move into range as he fired at a stag.

The late medieval stories of Robin Hood were stories of someone who was an excellent shot with a bow.  But you will notice that he was an outlaw in these stories, using what would be considered a coward's weapon, not a noble lord's weapon, to fight the sheriff of Nottingham's men.

The crossbow was developed by the twelfth century.  It was a shorter bow, often reinforced with metal, needing massive force to pull back the bowstring (actually a wire).  Because one couldn't just draw and release, it would need to be cocked, by standing on the bow and tugging the bowstring up with both hands, until one could hook it into a notch.  It would be released with a trigger mechanism.  The arrows for a crossbow, called quarrels, were shorter than regular arrows.  The crossbow was aimed and shot horizontally, rather than vertically.  The quarrels could punch chain mail into an opponent's flesh, making them deadlier than a regular bow, but they were much slower to shoot, as reloading took a couple of minutes.

By the thirteenth century, however, a winding mechanism had been developed, so that one could crank up a crossbow much more quickly.  Both crossbows and regular bows (often called longbows) continued to be used in battle into the late Middle Ages, even after the development of gunpowder.  The battle of Agincourt in 1415, during the Hundred Years War, was a great triumph for the English primarily because their longbowmen mowed down the French army.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Medieval springtime

As I noted in a previous post on privacy, springtime was an exciting time in the Middle Ages, because it was the first opportunity to get out and about with someone special, without being surrounded by other people.  The sap in the trees was not the only thing rising up.  (One could of course go outside and be private in the winter, but it would have been, let's face it, awfully cold.)

Fresh air would not have been a big concern inside a medieval house or even castle.  Without central heating, the chief concern was keeping whatever warmth there was inside--including the wood smoke and the odor of farm animals.  Springtime was an opportunity to get clean air in one's lungs.

Most romances written in the Middle Ages took place in the springtime.  Stories of King Arthur routinely started in the month of May, when everything was fresh and new and exciting.  Many epics, echoing the Bible, spoke of spring as a time when kings rode forth in battle.

Just like today, spring in the Middle Ages was a time for wildflowers to come up, flower, and seed before they were shaded out by deciduous trees.  A common spring wildflower was the daffodil.  It is native to the Mediterranean region, and the bulb had been considered a delicacy by the Romans.  The legions brought daffodils with them to western and northern Europe.




Springtime was lambing season for sheep.  The New Testament speaks of Jeus being born "when shepherds watched their flocks by night," which, when it was written, would have meant early springtime.  It was necessary to keep a close watch on the ewes in lambing season, both to make sure they didn't have problems and to keep off the predators.  (Jesus's birthday was fixed on December 25 only some three centuries later.)

Tiny, wooly lambkins scampering about on the hillside also made excellent eating, much better than a tough slab of mutton from an old ram or a ewe who no longer bore.  Easter, as I noted in a previous post, was an important feast day after nearly six weeks of scarce rations and fasting, and lamb was frequently featured on the menu.  Jesus was both the Good Shepherd who looked after the sheep and the Lamb of God, the young sheep who was sacrificed.  It all made sense.

Spring was also planting season for a number of crops, including rye and barley, which could supplement the winter wheat (planted in late fall and harvested in June or July).  It was also the time for planting "legumes," peas, beans, and lentils, which formed a major part of the medieval diet, as well as onions and garlic.  If one's diet is heavily skewed toward lentils and bread, some garlic is very welcome.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Starlight Raven

I've just published a new book!  It's an ebook, available on Amazon, BN/Nook, Kobo, and iTunes; a paperback version has also been published (on which see more here).



The story can be considered "Yurt, the Next Generation" (by those who have read the original Yurt series), or it can be enjoyed as a stand-alone.  It's a "YA" book (aimed at a young-adult audience), because Antonia, the heroine, is fourteen when it begins.

A sneak preview is below.  Enjoy!

THE STARLIGHT RAVEN

Of course I knew my mother was a witch.
She never needed a match to light the fire.  She knew immediately if someone new had come to town, even if she had spent the entire day at home, sewing.  Sometimes in the evening, after she had finished tailoring a new ballgown for the mayor’s daughter or embroidering a new altar-cloth for the church, women would knock quietly on our door, giving quick glances up and down the cobbled street, and Mother would tell them if they were going to have a baby boy or a girl.
But I had no intention of living an uneventful life as a small-town witch.  I was going to study to be a real wizard.
That would be easy, I thought.  My father was head of the wizards’ school in the great City, a much more interesting place than our little town of Caelrhon.  He’d said himself that I could come and study there when I became fourteen, the first girl the wizards’ school had ever admitted.  Already I knew how to turn someone into a frog, something even my mother couldn’t do.
But on my fourteenth birthday it all became much less easy.

It started two weeks earlier.  A gentle hand on my shoulder interrupted my dreams.  “Antonia, wake up.”
“It’s too early to get up for school,” I mumbled into the pillow.
The hand remained on my shoulder.  “It’s not a school day.”
Then I remembered.  “We’re going to the City!”
I was out of bed with a bound, and then, with another bound, right back under the covers.  The air from my casement window was cold.  ”It’s not even morning yet!”
Mother flicked a flame into life on my candlestick.  She was already dressed, her brown braids neatly wrapped around her head.  I loved her hair, smooth where mine was always tangled, darker than mine but showing golden highlights in the glow of the candle.
“I want to go there and be home again before it gets late,” she said firmly.  “After all, tomorrow is a school day.  In fact I hear,” she added with a smile, tugging the quilt off me, “that at the wizards’ school they give the new students only one warning.  Then, if they aren’t on time for the first early-morning class, they set the dragons on them.”
I swung my legs out of bed and kept them out.  “Sometimes I think everyone’s seen dragons except for me.  Father even killed one once when he was young, even though he won’t talk about it.  And there was the time we arrived in the City just too late to see a whole flock of them.”
“I’ve never seen a dragon either,” said Mother.  She had the brush and was working the snarls out of my hair.  “I think it would be more terrifying than exciting.  And I’m not at all sure they come in ‘flocks.’”
I let her work on my braids, thinking that once I was a wizard I would go visit dragons myself, rather than waiting for them to come to me.  A herd of dragons?  A pack?  A clutch?  I was fairly certain it wouldn’t be a gaggle.
“Besides,” I said after a minute, “I know they don’t punish students for sleeping late.  Father told me that when he was a student at the wizards’ school, he hardly ever made any of his morning classes.”
There was a chuckle behind me.  “Antonia, your father is an admirable man in many ways, and he’s made himself an excellent wizard over the years, but I would not recommend using him as your model when you become a wizardry student.”
I shrugged and laughed myself.  Having my hair braided was very pleasant.  I glanced toward my window, still nearly dark, and was hit by a sudden memory.  “I had the strangest dream,” I said slowly.  “It was about a bat.  He tapped at my window and squeaked this really high squeak, but when I sat up he flew off.  And for some reason I wasn’t frightened at all.”
“Of course not,” Mother muttered through hairpins.  “Bats won’t hurt you.  I’m glad you knew that, even in a dream.”
“And the strangest thing of all,” I went on, “was that he had a little cylinder tied to his leg—you know, like the carrier pigeons wear.”
“Who would send messages by a bat?” said Mother abruptly.  The last pin went sharply into my hair.  “Really, Antonia, you’re old enough to know that nobody finds someone else’s dreams very interesting.  Get dressed and come downstairs.”
She slammed my door behind her, leaving me wondering why she could possibly be so irritated by a dream.
No time to worry about it.  I splashed cold water on my face from the washbasin, pulled on a school dress, and laced up my boots.  In front of the mirror I smoothed out the hairs disarranged in getting dressed.  I grinned at my reflection and blew out the candle.  I was the daughter of a witch and a wizard, almost fourteen years old, and I didn’t think there was anything I couldn’t do.
When I clattered down the stairs into the kitchen, Mother was frying bacon and smiling again.
But then I saw it, lying on the table amid dressmaking scraps:  a tiny piece of parchment, half unrolled.  It looked like the kind of message usually brought by a carrier pigeon.

We took the air cart.  It was barely light as we hurried down the streets to the livery stable, where we rented space for it.  The building was still locked this early in the morning, and after Mother had concentrated for a moment she said that there was no stable boy inside who might have answered our knock.
But that didn’t slow us down.  The wind tugged at our cloaks as I used a tiny lifting spell to turn the tumblers in the lock and drive the bolt back.  The spell worked perfectly the first time—a good sign, I thought, for my future as a wizardry student.  Mother led the cart out into the street, talking soothingly to the horses in the stalls, and I relocked the big doors.
The air cart was the skin of a purple flying beast, a gift to us from Father a few years ago.  It had been born in flight, and even though long dead it would still start flying if not carefully tethered.  This was wizardry, not witchcraft, and I had learned the spells even before Mother had.  We climbed in, and I confidently gave the commands in the Hidden Language.  The cart took off, wings flapping steadily, to circle above the narrow streets and dark tile roofs of Caelrhon.
I glanced sideways at Mother, saw that she seemed deep in her own thoughts, and quietly muttered the spells that made the air cart pick up speed.  I loved to go fast.
The sun rose behind us as we headed toward the City.  It was springtime, and the trees and meadows below us were fresh and green in the light of breaking dawn.  Finally I got up my nerve to ask.  “What was that letter I saw on the table?”
Mother shrugged, unconcerned.  “Just a message about a dress I’m supposed to be making.”  I would have believed her and thought no more about bats—except that no one in Caelrhon would have sent her a pigeon-message.  They would have used the magic telephones or walked over to talk to her in person.
Most of the time it was fine having a mother who kept her concerns to herself.  She had calmly bandaged me the time I’d come home all bloody from beating up a boy who’d invented an insulting song about witches.  She’d just shaken her head when the teacher sent her a frosty note saying she hoped I would never cover another student with green spots again—I didn’t even have to explain that I had virtuously resisted turning him into a frog.
And this last year, when I’d gone to a few school dances with the same boy who’d come closer to being a frog than he realized, she just asked me when I got home if I’d had a good time.  She didn’t quiz me about what we had and hadn’t done—as I’m sure my father would have in her place, as if I didn’t have excellent good sense!

But if someone had trained a bat to carry messages, which I’d never before heard of anyone doing, then the content of that message must itself be interesting.  If I’d been waked in the middle of the night by a bat, I thought, and the bat was carrying a message, I’d certainly tell my daughter about it.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Medieval Easter

Easter was always the principal holy day in the Christian calendar--even though, in recent years, it has gotten elbowed to the side in the US by Christmas and even Hallowe'en.  It is a so-called "movable feast" because it is celebrated on a different day every year, moving around in late March and April.

This is because its celebration is based on Passover, which, like all Jewish holidays, is based on phases of the moon.  According to the Gospels, Jesus had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover when he was crucified.  Both holidays are supposed to be the first sabbath after the first full moon after the equinox.  Because the Jewish sabbath (Saturday) and Sunday are different days of the week, they do not always occur together in the modern calendar, and exactly when the moon is considered "full" is open to interpretation.  A major dispute broke out in England in the seventh century between the Irish and the Roman versions.  In 2015, Passover and western Easter are on the same schedule, but Greek Orthodox Easter comes a week later.  Medieval monks made elaborate tables to calculate when Easter would fall each year.

Because many medieval calendars started the New Year with Easter, there could be years with two Aprils, if Easter was early one year and late the next.  Fortunately what year it was did not figure as significantly for medieval people as it does for us.

Medieval theologians all agreed that the Resurrection, the first Easter, occurred on March 27, because Jesus "of course" would have died on March 25.  This is because important people died on the anniversary of their conception, and they concluded that Mary would have conceived on March 25 because Jesus was born on December 25.  It all made sense.

Easter was by far the most important Christian feast day.  Coming after 40 days of Lent, where people really did try to give up at least some normal pleasures and follow a sparse diet (for one thing, most of the food stored away at harvest time was exhausted), Easter really was a feast day as well as a holy day.

As a holy day, it was the day that all Christians were supposed to go to church, even if they didn't the rest of the year.  (A lot of modern-day Christians seem to follow this same directive.)  A monastery might have a little play, in which monks wearing white robes represented the women coming to the tomb at dawn of the first Easter, finding it empty, and learning, "He is risen."

That women, rather than men, were the first to learn of the Resurrection and the first to see the risen Christ was one of the details that made medieval theologians agree that women were equal with men in the eyes of God, even if not in secular law.  (Click here for more on medieval women's position.)

Most societies have some sort of spring festival, celebrating renewal and rebirth, but medieval Easter celebrations kept the focus not on generic renewal but specifically on the Christian version.  Modern Easter, with its rabbits, eggs, and chocolates, to say nothing of new spring outfits, focuses on symbols that medieval theologians would have found deeply troubling.

For my further thoughts on Easter and Christmas, see my long essay, available as an ebook from Amazon and other e-tailers.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Game of Thrones

George Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" series of books, dramatized as "Game of Thrones" on HBO, has gotten a lot of people interested in the Middle Ages.  Those of you who have been reading these posts know that there was a whole lot to the Middle Ages that did not involve knights whacking each other with enormous swords or people riding across an empty landscape, but the books (and the shows) have made a good-faith effort toward historical realism, at least in the look.

The Starks and the Lannisters, as Martin has said, are clearly rooted in origin in the Yorks and the Lancasters, two branches of the English royal family engaged in a debilitating war in the fifteenth century.  The real war, called the War of the Roses because one family had a red rose for their emblem and one a white, was fought with gunpowder and cannons, rather than knights, but like Martin's imagined wars, it killed off an awful lot of people, most of whom knew each other and had been cousins and allies, and was full of treachery and deceit.



The armor and weaponry in the show are based on real late medieval tournament armor and weapons.  It is rather ironic that these were perfected in the late Middle Ages just as their use in real battles became irrelevant.  Of course, real medieval people would not sleep in their armor--it would be far too uncomfortable.  One senses that the show has used aluminum rather than iron.

Martin made up his own religion (indeed religions) for the Seven Kingdoms, none of which look much like Christianity.  Probably the closest any of the depicted religions come to medieval Christianity is the Ironmen's faith in the Drowned God.  I have to commend Martin for including religion; a lot of modern fantasy pretends it's not there.  The dominant religion of Westeros is based on seven gods, and thus Martin has a church-equivalent called a sept, which makes sense as that is the Latin root for "seven," but it does also make one think "septic" in a disturbing way.

The cities in the show use some of Europe's oldest cities as backdrop, where there really are winding, narrow cobbled streets even today.  However, medieval Europe's cities never had nearly as many brothels.  The Free Cities are vaguely Mediterranean, some modeled fairly directly on Venice.  The cities of Slaver's Bay seem a combination of north Africa and central Asia.  That's the advantage of fantasy--you can mix and match.

People sometimes assume that as a medievalist I won't like the show.  I like it just fine, because it doesn't pretend to be historically-accurate medieval yet has a good pseudo-medieval feel.  My own stories, of course, are not nearly as dark and grim, but I really like Martin's characters.

I've enjoyed the books for the 20 or so years they've been out (come on, Martin, you need to pick up the pace a little).  And I think the writers of the show--including Martin himself--have done a good job of keeping true to the spirit of the books even while radically pruning characters and events and rearranging their order.

The danger with the new season is that they may catch up to the books.  Are next year's shows going to contain spoilers for those who are reading?  Starts April 12.

Click here for more of my thoughts on medieval-themed fantasy.