Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Dives and Lazrus

One of the favorite Bible stories in the Middle Ages was that of Dives and Lazarus, sometimes called "the rich man and Lazarus" in modern translations.  In the early modern period it became an English Christmas carol, and Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote a series of beautiful variations on the tune.

There are several different men named Lazarus in the New Testament.  These days most people will think of the one whom Jesus brought back to life after he had been dead and buried three days--a clear prefiguration of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.  This Lazarus gave rise to the urban legend of the Wandering Jew, the man who could never die because he had, after all, already died once, and who has spent the last two thousand years wandering around.

This story also has the classic line (in the King James version) of one of Lazarus's sisters objecting when Jesus wanted her dead brother dug up--"But Lord, he stinketh."

Today we are talking about a different Lazarus.  This one appears in a parable.

He was a poor man lying at the door of Dives, a rich man.  Dives refused to give him even a crumb from his table, even though he had far more than he or his guests could eat.  Instead Dives set the dogs on Lazarus and, when the dogs refused to bite him, set his thugs on him.  But they couldn't touch him either.

Now I myself would have thought maybe there was some sort of message here, but Dives just laughed it off.  Imagine his surprise when demons seized his soul as he died.  All his wealth did him no good.  The twelfth-century carving pictured above, from the abbey church of Vézelay, shows him on his death bed, money bags stacked underneath, and the demons grabbing his soul with great enthusiasm as it emerges from his body.  His wife, on the left, is understandably horrified.

Poor Lazarus, in the meantime, also died (probably from starvation), but he went straight to heaven.

The remarkably clear message from this was that it was the responsibility of the rich to help the poor, as I discussed in more detail earlier.  The well to do, including both noble households and monasteries, would routinely give leftover food out at the back door to poor people who gathered there.  They were quite deliberately avoiding the error of Dives.

In a broader sense, the story was a radical rejection of the value of worldly wealth and power.  Even though there were plenty of wealthy and powerful people (including church leaders) in the Middle Ages, the parable of Dives and Lazarus, frequently represented in church decorations (as here), was a constant reminder that wealth was not going to matter a bit when it came to your soul.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Medieval Houses

We tend to think of medieval houses as built of stone because most obvious surviving medieval buildings are stone.  But these buildings are churches and castles for the most part, not regular people's houses.

Wood was the most common building material in the Middle Ages, as it still is in the modern US, because it was fairly cheap and easy to work.  The earliest castles were built with wooden palisades, and palaces were largely built of wood.  In Scandinavia, churches too were often built of wood.

But in the twelfth century wood started becoming scarce.  As the population grew, forests were cut down for new crop land.  Efforts were made to protect the remaining forests, for hunting or for pasturing pigs.  So big beams became hard to find.

Ordinary people's houses were built mostly of what is called wattle and daub, small pieces of wood providing a framework, filled in with a combination of straw, twigs, mud, and maybe plaster (sometimes dung).  If one thinks of what we now call half timber, wattle and daub was a rougher version--most existing half timber structures were built in the fifteenth century or later.  If the whole thing was whitewashed, it wouldn't look too bad.

Wattle and daub was not strong enough to support a multi-story house, so most medieval houses would be two stories high at most.  The floor would be dirt; conscientious housekeepers would try to keep it (vaguely) clean by constant sweeping, which meant that the floor might end up several inches lower than the ground outside.

If there were nearby marshes, thatch (made from reeds) was a popular choice for the roof.  A well made thatch roof will last for over thirty years, although nowadays thatchers say that acid rain has resulted in weaker, less long-lasting reeds.  The problem with thatch is that it will burn, so in towns those constructing houses were encouraged to use tiles or slates instead.

Starting in the twelfth century, a few wealthy townspeople might build a house in stone.  Such a house was far more expensive but much longer lasting.  It could also be built higher.  Such a house might have a flagstone or tile floor, rather than dirt.

In the late Middle Ages, more and more people started building in stone.  One of the effects of the devastating Black Death of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was that the population was severely reduced, leaving more wealth for the survivors.  Most European stone villages took the form they have now between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, although there are still some twelfth-century structures mixed in.

In the country, the barn with its animals was usually built immediately adjacent to the farmhouse (see more here).  Barns became stone at the same time as the farmhouses.  A medieval stone barn was built as a series of long, narrow open areas with stone walls in between, which made it easy to span the open areas with short boards, for the upper story (hay or grain storage).

Most medieval houses did not have fireplaces.  Instead they had a fire pit, the smoke from which made its way out through small holes near the eaves.  Fireplaces really only came in during the thirteenth century.  They were more expensive and much less efficient in heating the place, so they generally were found only in castles or palaces.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Medieval calendars

We take calendars for granted.  Doubtless there is one hanging on a wall somewhere near you.  We write appointments on the calendar--"Billy to the doctor at 4:15 on the 21st."

Medieval people had the same basic calendar we do (365 days spread over 12 months, the same ones with 30 or 31 days, February always gets shorted but does get an extra day every 4 years).  This is and was your basic Julian calendar.  But, just as medieval people thought about telling time differently (as I have discussed earlier), so they thought of calendars differently.

They would not have a page for each month with an attractive picture (flowers, a rural scene, puppies) next to a grid of little boxes, each with a day number.  (This is an attractive rural scene, in case you couldn't tell.)

Instead each day of the month would be listed underneath the others.  Next to it would be the saint whose special day it was, whose anniversary would be celebrated that day.  Although modern Catholicism has a saint for every day of the year, a lot of medieval calendars wouldn't have anyone special to commemorate on many days.  Unusual events might also be noted, such as an eclipse or a flood.

One of the most important things to note on a calendar was Easter.  In the Middle Ages, Easter was by far the most important religious holiday, unlike today when it has to take a back seat to Christmas.  Easter is now (as then) the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Equinox.  As you can imagine, it moves around a lot.  Exactly when the Spring Equinox falls is open to discussion, and do you count the first full moon as the day whose evening sees it rise or the following day?  In 2016, Greek Orthodox Easter fell in May, a month after Latin Easter.  Medieval people had all sorts of charts and tables trying to show when Easter would be next year.

We assume the new year starts in January.  Some medieval people did as well.  But depending on the region, the new year might start at Christmas, at Easter, or even at the Incarnation (March 25, nine months before Christmas, when Mary became pregnant).  Easter was the most common, which meant that if Easter was early one year and late the next, a "year" might have almost two whole Aprils in it, one at each end.  Sometimes, especially in Italy where the cities were in fierce competition, one could be off by one or two years just by walking a short distance from one city to another.

We count days of the month by the day, 1st, 2nd, etc.  Medieval people, like the Romans, were more likely to refer to the kalends or the ides.  The kalends was the 1st (it's where the word "calendar" comes from).  So a medieval document might be dated by "the second kalends of June," meaning the next to last day of May.  Ides fell in the middle of the month (Caesar was famously assassinated on the Ides of March, or March 15).

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Royal Touch

Medieval kings were not divine-right kings; that idea started only in the seventeenth century.  Certainly medieval kings were not gods or even gods-in-waiting, like the original Roman emperors or the pharaohs of ancient Egypt.

But they still were anointed with holy oil at their coronations, ever since Pippin the Short (father of Charlemagne).  And as semi-sacral beings, they had certain God-given abilities.  The French kings of the High Middle Ages were believed to be able to cure scrofula with the royal touch.

Scrofula was a term used then for a variety of skin diseases, though the term now is restricted to certain infections of the lymph nodes, often associated with tuberculosis, in which the sufferer has black or purple growths on their neck.  Sounds nasty, and it is.

From at least the eleventh century on, French kings were assumed capable of healing this disease, which was therefore sometimes called the King's Evil.  People with skin diseases (and at this distance one can't really say if they all really had scrofula or something else) would petition for healing, and at certain times the king would allow them to approach and be touched with the king's touch.  Modern medicine may be rightly skeptical of how this could possibly lead to healing, but people certainly believed that it worked, because they kept coming back.

For a long time only the French kings could heal with their touch.  The English kings, the former dukes of Normandy, had nothing similar.  For that matter, the French kings were always treated with more reverence by their subjects than were the English kings, who couldn't even get along with their own family members and whose funerals sometimes degenerated into disgusting farces.

But this changed in the late Middle Ages, when several English kings married French princesses and thus gave their descendants the Royal Touch.  Right through the early modern period, both French and English kings would "touch" scrofula sufferers.  (The German kings were never so blessed.)

The practice was eventually ended in England in the seventeenth century (the kings decided the practice was "too Catholic" in a country where Church of England was determinedly Protestant) and in France in the eighteenth century.

These days no one thinks of European or American rulers as semi-sacral.  Imagine the security issues if a president was believed to be able to cure diseases with his touch and had sick people lining up for treatment.

For more on scrofula and the kings, there's a whole book on the topic by the great French historian Marc Bloch, written in the first half of the twentieth century but still in print, The Royal Touch.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Saint Martin

It's November, time to talk about Saint Martin.  Between the election and Veterans' Day it's easy to lose track, but his feast day was November 11, and that day was an important one for medieval people, as rents and the like were often due then (at the end of the harvest).  In parts of Belgium they still have parades in his honor, and some children get presents from him, rather than having to wait for Saint Nicholas almost a month later.

As I noted earlier, although Gaul (France) by the late sixth century had a lot of saints, many of these are not quite as historical as one would like (and had not been revered until sixth-century bishops conveniently discovered their burial places).  But Martin (d. 397) is a historical figure, probably about the first historical saint of Gaul.

He originally came from what is now part of Hungary and was then part of the Roman Empire.  He appears to have converted to Christianity as a youth, just as Christianity was becoming widely tolerated and indeed encouraged in the Empire, but he was still expected to join the army, as all sturdy lads were supposed to do.  He traveled great distances with the troops, getting as far as Amiens, in northwestern France.

Here, according to legend, he had his most famous experience.  Riding along on a wet, cold night, wrapped up in his military cloak, he spotted a poor, ragged beggar.  Feeling sorry for him, Martin cut his cloak in two to share, as depicted centuries later in El Greco's famous painting (where, incidentally, Martin doesn't look anything like a Roman soldier).

To his surprise and understandable shock, the beggar turned into Christ.  This got his attention, as it would certainly have gotten mine, and Martin decided to give up the army life for the religious life.

Monasticism at this time was just starting in the West, although it had been around in the eastern Mediterranean for a century.  Martin founded the first known monastery in Gaul in Tours.  He also became bishop of Tours; the story is that he didn't want to become bishop and tried hiding so they couldn't make him, but the geese among which he was hiding gave him away by honking.  He appears to have been a somewhat disturbing bishop, who followed a rough and simple life rather than the more comfortable life many of his contemporaries chose.

After his death, at least three churches in Tours all claimed precedence over the others on the grounds that Martin loved them best:  Marmoutier, the monastery he founded (the name is a variation of Martini monasterium, Martin's monastery); the cathedral where he had been bishop; and the basilica outside of town where he was buried.  Pilgrims would rub his stone sarcophagus to get saint-dust, until actual holes started appearing in it.

His cape (or at least the half that remained) became an important relic in its own right.  Around the year 900, in the aftermath of Viking invasions, the ancestors of the French Capetian dynasty became titular abbots of Martin's monastery and took the cape as their special possession.  Hugh Capet, first king of the dynasty in 987, got his nickname from the cape.

Martin is the patron saint of beggars, of clothing makers, and of geese-keeping.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Medieval Elections

It's Election Day in the US, a good time to blog about medieval elections.

Athens may have invented direct democracy, where all the citizens got to vote on major decisions, but the Middle Ages invented representative democracy, where people elect those who will represent their views in government or elect those who will lead them.

Voting was the normal way to settle difficult issues in the church, where it was assumed that God would speak through the majority.  A unanimous decision of course was best, but a majority would work (or, as was sometimes said, the "wiser part").  Church councils settled such complex issues as the nature of the Trinity (Nicaea, 325) by getting all the bishops together and voting.  New church leaders, bishops, abbots (over monasteries), and popes were elected by those who would serve under them.

Even today new popes are elected by the College of Cardinals, the major priests of the city of Rome and the most important Catholic bishops from around the world, who are considered to represent the views and wishes of their flocks.  Sometimes there are multiple ballots before a consensus is reached.  Today the ballots are burned after each round of voting, and chemicals are added to give dark smoke if no one got the requisite two-thirds majority.  Those waiting outside are hoping to see white smoke, which means a new pope has been chosen.

Medieval kings were also elected.  There was no ballot box, no get-out-the-vote effort, and only a very tiny fraction of the population voted, but it was still an election.  When a king had died, the most powerful men of the country, including dukes, counts, and bishops, would assemble to elect a new king.  They were considered in some sense to "speak" for everybody else.  Kings would have liked to be hereditary, but they really only established the hereditary principle at the end of the Middle Ages.  Before then, the assumption was that a worthy king would have royal blood, but he still needed election.  (Kings were doubtless irritated that counts had held their offices by heredity since the tenth century.)

A king with an adult son could die in the happy hope that the great lords of his kingdom would elect his boy.  To make sure this happened, kings often had the election held while they were still alive and sitting there, in which case the younger man would become co-king with his father.  But the great lords were perfectly capable of electing someone else.  In England, after Henry I died without sons in 1135, the English barons promptly "forgot" their promise to elect Henry's daughter Mathilda as their king and instead turned to her cousin Stephen, who they hoped would be a weaker leader.

Medieval cities all had elected city councils from the twelfth century on.  Here any citizen of the city with a certain amount of property would vote.  The city council was very much representative democracy, a few fellow-citizens elected to represent the will of the (male) populace in running things.  City councils in fact preceded mayors, though most cities decided fairly early that a mayor, a single elected executive, made a lot of things function better.

Hope everybody got out and voted today!

Friday, October 28, 2016

Strangers at the Gate

With refugees now trying to get out of the war-torn Middle East or out of Africa into Europe, there is often a strong reaction, Europe for the Europeans.  But in fact Europe has witnessed waves of migration, immigration, and downright hostile invasions throughout recorded history.  The ancestors of many modern day Europeans (and their American descendants) were migrants or invaders in their day.

Take England.  There were the megalith builders thousands of years ago, heaving Stonehenge and many other huge stone structures into position (while Neolithic Woman doubtless rolled her eyes and wondered when Neolithic Man was going to go hunting and get the family some food for a change).  Then the Celts came over the land bridge that then connected the British Isles with the Continent.  Then the Romans came and conquered (first century BC).  Then the Angles and Saxons came and conquered (fifth-sixth centuries AD).  Then the Normans came and conquered (1066).  Modern England is a mix of all of these, and it would probably have a lot more in the mix if the chalk land bridge hadn't been broken through (well BC), creating the Channel.

In the early Middle Ages, there were plenty of migrants, refugees, and invaders.  The Germanic peoples for the most part came peacefully into the Roman Empire and its margins.  The Franks settled in Roman Gaul and quickly adopted Roman culture and language.  The ancestors of the Scandinavians settled in the northern parts of Europe where the Romans had never gone, as the ancestors of the Swiss settled, with their cows, on mountains the Romans had avoided.

Other Germanic peoples conquered, like the Goths who sacked Rome in 410.  (This was of course a major shock to the Romans, but they rebuilt--this did not cause any "fall.")  But the Goths too ended up settling in Italy and Spain and adopting Roman ways, being indeed recognized as part of the Empire.

Then there were the Huns, who rampaged through Europe in the middle of the fifth century, being stopped from sacking Rome by the pope (Leo I), and whose empire collapsed after the death of Attila in 453.  The Magyars, a related people, ravaged the German kingdom five centuries later, before being stopped by the German king; modern-day Hungary considers itself the heir of both Huns and Magyars.

The Vikings were another terrifying group of invaders, from whom many people in both France and England had to flee--although some Vikings settled in Normandy and some in Yorkshire around the beginning of the tenth century, where they quickly became respectively French and English (but with some of their lively nature still in place).

Any of these invasions of course created refugees.  So did natural disasters like the famines of the fourteenth century, which sent waves of desperate people across Europe, seeking for food.  Even without massive famine, local loss of crops would lead to refugees, who took off hoping to find some place that still had something to eat.

And then there were just migrants.  Europe's cities grew quickly in the eleventh and especially twelfth centuries, as people (the majority young men) gave up farming to move to town for what they considered a better life.  Just as in nineteenth-century America, the migration of people into the cities represented a major population movement.

For much of the High Middle Ages (after the great waves of invasions were over), refugees were treated with pity and concern.  Bishops reminded parishioners of Jesus's saying, "I was a stranger, and you took me in."  This only lasted as long as the economy was strong.  With the weakening economy of the fourteenth century and the accompanying famines (and then Black Death), people lost all pity for refugees, who were considered dangerous and frightening.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Medieval pets

In the modern US, a remarkable amount of money is spent on pets.  Cats and dogs get special foods, their own toys, Hallowe'en costumes, their own blankets, and that doesn't even include veterinary bills.  In the first "Game of Thrones" TV series, both a boy and a beloved family pet were killed at the same time, and the audience was much more distraught over the pet.  Medieval people also had pets, but they were much less common.  Animals were expected to earn their keep.  Peasants had cats to keep down the mice and rats and dogs to guard and to herd, but pets were a luxury for the elite.  (See more here on medieval farm animals.)

Dogs were the most common pet, generally small, fluffy dogs that were considered a sign of faithfulness.  Gisants (tomb sculptures) from the late Middle Ages often show such a dog lying at the feet of their reclining lord or lady.  Indeed, dogs were reputed not to leave the body of a dead master, willingly dying themselves from hunger and thirst rather than abandoning the dead.  (See more here on dogs in the Middle Ages.)

Today people try to make pets out of very large or fierce dogs that were originally bred for hunting or guarding or herding (I have seen people trying to keep a boisterous English Sheepdog in a small apartment, without notable success), but medieval people knew a pet dog should be small and portable.

In the original story of Tristan and Isolde, Tristan gave his lover a small pet dog with a magic bell on its collar whose ringing tone would banish all sorrow.  Isolde deliberately broke the bell off because she didn't want to be happy when Tristan was far away.  (Okay, this adulterous couple had issues.)

Cats were less common as pets.  They were considered cunning, and indeed medieval bestiaries said confidently that the word catus meant cunning in Greek.  As on modern farms, there would have been semi-feral cats living in the barn, catching and eating the rodents that also lived there.  Kittens were as fluffy and adorable then as they are now, but they would not be made lap pets the way small dogs would be.

Birds in cages were another occasional form of pets.  Exotic birds (like parrots) were unknown in the Middle Ages, but magpies were reputed to be able to learn human speech.  Pigeons and doves were not pets but they were still semi-domesticated, as dove-cots might be set up on an estate where the doves could nest, until they became dinner.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


Everyone has heard of crypts--scary dark places down underground, probably with dead bodies.  Well, this does describe medieval crypts, except they were not supposed to be scary.

Medieval churches were built on two layers, the ground-level church and the below-ground-level church.  Main services were held in the ground-level church, which, by the twelfth century, was often very high and airy.  But more private, more special services were held in the crypt.  This is also where early bishops and saints were often buried.

The earliest Merovingian-era churches in France were built with crypts.  In some of these churches, the crypt floor would quite literally be made of stone sarcophagi, laid next to each other.  Others would have far fewer sarcophagi but would still have the tomb of a founding bishop or comparable relics.  Saints' precious bones were considered safer in the crypt than up in the church.

This is the sarcophagus supposedly of Saint Benignus, first bishop-saint of Langres.  He is buried in the crypt of St.-Bénigne, which was a monastery in Dijon in the Middle Ages, dedicated to him.

Even though there are extremely few medieval churches still in existence built before the eleventh century, because the High Middle Ages believed in rebuilding higher and lighter (on which see more here), many crypts under these churches are far older.  Some churches still have their Merovingian-era crypts.  Others had the entire church, crypt and all, redone in the ninth or tenth centuries, and then this crypt would continue to exist under a twelfth- or thirteenth-century church.

Whenever they were built, crypts would need sturdy pillars to support the church above.  The pillars would often have carved capitals.  This image is of a capital on a pillar in the eleventh-century crypt of St.-Bénigne of Dijon.  Twelfth-century capitals were much more elegant, but down in the crypt one was back in an earlier time.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Peasants and labor dues

One often hears that medieval peasants had to pay a certain percentage of their harvest and an unlimited amount of their labor to their landlords.  This (along with so many other myths about the Middle Ages) is not true.  They certainly owed produce and labor, but it wasn't unlimited.

This is because medieval peasants were not slaves, as I have discussed earlier.  Indeed, in the early twelfth century even serfdom, being legally bound to one's "lord of the body," disappeared in France (see more here).  But both serfs and free peasants owed rent, just like anybody who rents an apartment today owes rent.

The rents were generally a combination of money, of produce (like two bushels of wheat and a chicken each year), and labor (like having to work on the lord's land two days a week).  Rents were fixed and were not supposed to be raised.  You will note that they weren't a percentage of the crop; the only "percentage of the crop" in sight was tithes to the church, which many peasants did not pay at all because most villages out in the country did not have a church.

The labor dues were often the most valuable part of the rent to the landlord.  Unless he planned to be out there with the plow and the ox himself, he needed to have people working his fields to grow the food for his household--and to grow food that he could sell at market (thus generating cash to buy horses, silk, spices, jewelry, and all the other things aristocrats felt they needed).  If every tenant household had to provide someone to come work on the lord's land (his demesne) at least one day a week, the necessary work got done.

This labor in fact could be beneficial to the peasants, although they probably didn't appreciate this fact.  The chief way it benefited them was to acquaint them with new, expensive technologies, like heavy mould-board plows, which they would have been (understandably) reluctant to try themselves, knowing that if they didn't work as promised then their families would starve.  The landlords, however, could afford such experiments (as well as affording the equipment).  Once peasants had seen that something worked, then they could adopt it themselves.

In addition, peasants could ride along with a lord when he took produce to market.  They might only each have a small amount to sell, but by going with him, and his larger amount, they found it worth it.

But peasants hated labor dues.  They would much rather be putting the effort into their own fields than their lord's.  By the twelfth century, a lot of lords were finding it a total pain to enforce labor dues.  The workers would show up late--with expanding cultivated land, the peasants might live miles away, and you couldn't expect them to leave home before dawn--leave early, and expect lunch.  Many landlords "commuted" (as it was called) labor dues into an extra monetary payment.  Then they could use the money to hire day laborers, who would not get paid if they didn't show up on time and work hard.  Young men could start saving up money by working as paid laborers.

Many a lord who owned unused, woodsy or swampy land would establish "new towns" (actually new villages), hoping to attract peasants (that is, other lords' peasants) to come work on land that hadn't been producing anything before, peasants who would pay rent.  In these new towns, the peasants would not owe labor dues, generally just money rents and maybe a little produce.

In the expanding economy of the High Middle Ages, the cost of hiring labor kept rising, and it became harder and harder to hire good workers on the cheap.  Rents, however, were fixed as they had always been.  What had once been a good deal for landlords no longer was.  As a result, in the thirteenth century landlords stopped commuting labor dues and tried, generally with minimal success, to reinstate them.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

A Bad Spell in Yurt

I've been writing stories since I was five years old.  Being a published author is a more recent development, however.  It's been just twenty-five years since my first book came out from Baen Books, a New York publisher specializing in fantasy and science fiction.  (Cover below.)

In honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of A Bad Spell in Yurt, it has just been reissued in large format (trade) paperback, with the same great Tom Kidd art on the cover (see below).  Tom did a terrific job making Daimbert, my young wizard hero, look like himself.  Daimbert is not nearly as competent a wizard as he would like to be, but he has still managed to become Royal Wizard of Yurt.  On the cover, Daimbert is trying to work out how to work a magic glass telephone.

The new paperback is available directly from the publisher, CreateSpace, as well as from Amazon and Barnes & Noble--or from your own favorite bookstore.

The characters and situations came to me quite literally in a dream, along with the opening lines:  "I was not a very good wizard.  But it was not a very big kingdom."  (I should have more dreams like that....)  I wrote it in about four months, decided it was the best thing I'd ever written, and Baen accepted it with remarkably little fuss.

It was not of course the first thing I'd ever written, or the first time I'd tried to get a book published.  In elementary school I would fold sheets of manila paper so they looked (sort of) like a book and write and illustrate my own children's stories.  By junior high, I was writing chapter-books (as they are now called) on lined paper.  At a certain point I started typing on an old WWI era typewriter.  It was very exciting when, in high school, my parents bought me a (used) electric typewriter and I learned touch-typing.  By then I was reading "how to write" books from the library (something I'd recommend to any would-be writer), and figuring out things like avoiding clichés, ways to develop characterization, description versus action, how to get in background material, and the like.

In high school and college and graduate school I continued writing for fun, in many different genres, though fantasy was probably the most common (I read Lord of the Rings at an impressionable stage).  I had a whole series of 8 or 10 books that now look (sort of) like what George Martin started doing years later, high adventure in an imagined medieval-style world with fairly minimal magic.  The first was about Airnthal Silverblade, daughter of the king, on a secret mission into the enemy's capital.  I tried it on several publishers; it's probably just as well none took it.

So it was extremely exciting to get Daimbert out in the world.  It became a fantasy/science fiction best-seller and went through three printings in mass-market (small size) paperback.  In some ways, however, that early success has defined me.  Bad Spell was followed by five more novels and three novellas about Daimbert.  I've tried publishing other types of fantasy, but my fans just become distraught, feeling I'm wasting my time writing about anything but Daimbert.  I've recently started a new "Yurt, the Next Generation" series, and some fans can't even deal with that.

So for any die-hard Daimbert fans with a disintegrating twenty-five-year-old Baen paperback, now's your chance to get the new edition.  And now that book reading has branched out, you can also get Bad Spell as an ebook from Amazon and other e-tailers, or as an audiobook from Audible.  (The rest of the Daimbert books are also available as ebooks, and most of them as audiobooks.)  Enjoy!

Saturday, September 24, 2016


Both men and women could enter the convent during the Middle Ages.  As I discussed in an earlier post on monasticism, male monasticism came first, and until the late Middle Ages there were more houses for monks than for nuns.

Yet there were also nunneries in the West from the sixth century onward.  During the early medieval period, one would sometimes find double monasteries, with a house for men and a house for women next to each other.  Such a double house would inevitably be ruled by a woman, an abbess, rather than a male abbot.

Because the medieval view of women was that they were equal to men in the eyes of God, it was considered appropriate for them too to enter the monastic life, even though rules for women were less harsh than those for men, in the assumption that women's weaker bodies could handle less rigor.  On the other hand, their physical weakness was also considered a sign of spiritual strength, because they had more to overcome.

Due to the relative shortage of nunneries for much of the Middle Ages, women might be forced to set themselves up in little cells, perhaps next to a monastery, if they wanted to devote themselves to the religious life.

Whereas the majority of monks throughout the Middle Ages had entered the cloister as boys and grew up as monks, probably the majority of nuns, until the late Middle Ages, were adult converts.  Certainly a young girl could go off and join the nuns, but they were outnumbered by women who had been widowed and decided that they had had enough of dealing with men.  As well as widows, the adult converts included women whose husbands had decided to become monks--at least theoretically, if one spouse entered the cloister, both were supposed to.  Such women, experienced in the affairs of the world and often having managed a castle, were considered appropriate choices as abbesses.

Nunneries, like monasteries, might run day schools, where girls from the region would go to get an education.  These pupils might decide in their teens that they would like to become nuns, but most used their education in the secular world.  By the late Middle Ages, cities would normally have at least one nunnery, providing both education and a home for religious women.

One of the challenges for a nunnery was dealing with laymen.  The abbess would do so, although many of the nuns would never see a male again after taking their vows.  Most nunneries would have men who could act as their representatives in secular affairs where a nun would be at a disadvantage.  Another big challenge was the liturgy.  Because women could not become priests, an abbess would have to have a priest under her direction to say Mass.  The nuns, however, could and did sing the psalms, just as did monks.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Capitalism in the Middle Ages

People often assume that capitalism began in the Renaissance and early modern (post medieval) period. Marx famously assumed an "age of feudalism" was replaced by an "age of capitalism," something he dated around the time of the French Revolution (1789).  But in fact capitalism was alive and well in the Middle Ages.

The basic capitalistic ideas of investing money in something now in the hopes of getting a nice return somewhat later, and of buying low and selling high, were certainly present in the Middle Ages.  (And medieval scholars have found it much easier to understand the Middle Ages if one leaves out the confusing and contradictory label "feudalism," as I have discussed before.)  Here are some examples.

A landlord in a good wine-growing region (like Burgundy) would make a capital investment to get a new vineyard started.  He would buy rootstock of wine grapes and all the tools, trellises, and the like that growing grapes required.  But since he had no interest in working the vines himself, he would go shares with a peasant who understood wine grapes.  The peasant contributed his labor to go with the landlord's capital investment.  In this system, called complant, the two would share the vineyard's profits once it was producing, in three to five years.  (See more here on medieval wine.)

Similarly, an Italian merchant undertaking a trading expedition to Constantinople might not have enough money to outfit his ship.  He would also need cash to cover expenses on the route, much less to buy the luxury goods to bring back.  So he would encourage fellow citizens to invest in his ship and its future contents.  If he did well, bringing back lots of goods on which he made a tidy profit, they would see a nice return.  If the ship sank or was lost, they got nothing.  Just like the modern stock market.

So why do people now assume there was no capitalism in the Middle Ages?  As far as I can tell, it's because they assume that people centuries ago must have been crude and stupid and not have money, none of which of course is true.  Humans seem inclined to buy and sell even in the most difficult situations.  As Primo Levi recalled in his memoir of the concentration camps, Survival in Auschwitz, there was a strong black market in the camp, even if the only currency available was bread.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The English Language

The British Isles has had a number of different languages spoken in it over the last two thousand years. In fact, it probably had more different languages than the rest of western Europe.  The only ones that come close are the Mediterranean ones that experienced a mix of Latin, Greek, and Arabic before settling on their modern language.

Originally the islands were Celtic speaking.  Descendants of these languages persist in Ireland and Wales, and to a very small extent in Scotland and Cornwall.  Starting in the first century BC, however, when Julius Caesar conquered Great Britain, the predominant language became Latin.  Britain under the Romans was Latin-speaking and Christian, reading the Bible in Latin rather than the original Greek (much less the Hebrew in which the Old Testament was written before it became, in Greek, part of the Christian Bible--see more here on the Bible in late antiquity).

And then the Angles and Saxons showed up (on whom see more here).  They spoke a version of German.  In what is now England, named for the Angles (but not in the territories on England's margins or in Ireland, the same areas where Celtic languages still linger), both Latin and Christianity essentially disappeared, along with Roman culture.

But these Germanic speaking people were Christianized in the seventh century and by the eighth century were producing excellent scholars, very learned in Latin.  Because for them Latin was a learned language, not an everyday spoken language, they were very careful about things like declensions and case endings and verb forms.  Ironically, on the Continent, where Latin was still a spoken language, a lot of people thought they were speaking good Latin when, from a modern perspective, it was rapidly becoming Old French or Old Italian or Old Spanish.  When Charlemagne's royal court took on some Anglo-Saxon scholars, they were quick to point out the difference between real Latin and what people were speaking.

Anglo-Saxon continued as its own valid language, getting a good written collection of books, including translations of the Bible into Anglo-Saxon, writing down of ancient laws, and the like.  But everything changed abruptly with the Norman Conquest of 1066.

The Normans arrived speaking Old French, so Anglo-Saxon immediately became not a learned language but rather the language of conquered peasants.  For the next two centuries Norman French and Anglo-Saxon German existed side-by-side.  The same thing might be called two different things depending on who was talking about it.  A cow (a Germanic word, related to "cattle"), the creature being raised by a peasant, became beef, a French word, once it reached the lord's table.  (In modern French, boeuf still means both the animal and the meat.)

In the fourteenth century the two languages ended up merging, creating Middle English, the ancestor of modern English.  There were a number of different Middle English dialects, but Chaucer, for example, can still be read by modern readers if there are notes on some of the words.  Modern English, which has roughly as many words as modern French and German combined, came into its own in the so-called "Elizabethan age" on either side of the year 1600.  This is the age of Shakespeare, who can now be read more easily than Chaucer, and of the King James Bible, sponsored by Elizabeth's successor, King James.

The King James Bible is still the most frequently used Bible in English.  It was translated directly from the Hebrew (Old Testament) and the Greek (New Testament), without reference to the Latin (Vulgate) version that had been the standard in the Middle Ages.  (Contrary to popular belief, the Bible was not written in English.)  Once this language became the standard for religious service, the language stopped changing nearly as fast as it had earlier.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Medieval holidays

Since it's Labor Day weekend, I thought I should blog about medieval holidays.  (Hint:  there was no Labor Day in the Middle Ages.)

Medieval holidays were religious holidays--or at least religion was the excuse for a holiday.  Since every day of the year had been, at least since the seventh century, associated with one saint or another, every day was a saint's day.  If that saint was worthy of special commemoration, then there was a holiday (literally "holy day") in his or her honor.  The date for a saint's feast day would be associated with a special event, generally their death, less commonly birth or the date of translation of their relics from an old tomb to a new one.

Different localities would commemorate different local saints.  A founding bishop would, for example, generally be commemorated in a cathedral town, especially if he had been martyred for his faith.  Some saints, like Bercharius of Montier-en-Der, were scarcely known outside of their locales, but they were highly honored there.  The saint's annual feast day was quite literally that, a day of feasting and festivity.

Then there were the universal saints.  Saint Stephen protomartyr, the first Christian martyr, who is in fact recorded in the New Testament, had his feast day on December 26, for those who hadn't gotten enough celebrating on Christmas.  The Feast of the Wise Men comes along twelve days after Christmas, as a last chance opportunity.  The Assumption of the Virgin is still a big holiday in France today.  Easter was the biggest of all.

In practice, there were probably four or five holidays a month worth having a special celebration.  Work stopped on these days except for the most necessary chores (feeding the animals, milking cows).  Since peasants were not expected to be answering email on holidays (just for example), they really did get a break from work.

Sunday was also supposed to be a day of rest.  Medieval people did not treat this commandment quite as seriously as did the later Puritans, especially since a lot of people a lot of the time had no idea what day of the week it was.  But a Sunday and/or a feast day gave a break in the work and also provided an opportunity for reflection and planning, which is as important in farming as in any other business.  The Puritan idea of being very strict and proper on Sunday would have made no sense in the Middle Ages, where feast days were for fun.  After all, Christianity is supposed to bring good news.

Humans have probably always had festivals to mark special transitional periods.  In the Middle Ages, these were absorbed into Christian festivals:  Easter for spring, Christmas for darkest day of the year, and so on.  For more on Christmas in the Middle Ages, click here for my essay on Amazon.

Click here for more on the Feast of the Wise Men and here for more on medieval saints.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Medieval bread

As I noted in an earlier post, the basis of the medieval diet for both peasants and aristocrats was bread.  Low carb, gluten free, and "paleo" diets would have seemed completely bizarre.  I guess people with celiac disease, full-blown gluten allergy, would have been in serious trouble in the Middle Ages.

Ideally bread was made from wheat, but rye and barley were also used, especially in more northern climates where wheat did not grow as well.  Medieval wheat was "winter wheat," planted in late fall, so it would grow very slowly over the winter and then quickly in the spring, being ready to harvest in early summer.  Rye and barley, on the other hand, are planted in the spring and harvested in the fall, so they could supplement a poor wheat harvest.

Wheat, and other similar grassy grains, produces a seed head which is both the grain we eat and the seed for next year.  The medieval farmer always hoped to get a lot more grains of wheat back than what he planted.  In modern agriculture, the ratio is generally 20 to 1 or better, grains harvested to seeds planted.  The return for medieval farmers, without modern fertilizers or specially developed strains, was much worse. They especially feared getting down to a ratio of 2:1.  With a 2:1 ratio, one harvested two grains for every one planted.  That meant you ate half the crop and saved the rest for seed for next year.  Probably half the crop wasn't enough food to last all year.  Then you ate some of the seed, meaning not enough to plant for next year.  Starve now, or starve next year.

Wheat had to be threshed, that is beaten, to get the seeds off the stems, then the "wheat was separated from the chaff" (people in Biblical times had the same issues).  Preferably one's bread didn't end up with bits of stem or seed coating.  However, the wheat germ was not removed, as in modern white flour.  What medieval people called white bread was all-wheat (as opposed to partly rye or barley), with no bits of chaff left in to make it more filling (but less nutritious).

There was a thirteenth-century story of someone asking to become a monk.  As part of the process of joining the monastery, he was asked why he sought the monastic life, with the expected answer something like, "To honor God and atone for my sins."  But he answered, "I want white bread and plenty of it!"  (Monks kept the chaff out of their bread.)

Wheat had to be ground into flour before it could be baked into bread.  Once wind and water mills replaced the hand mills that had been used under the Roman Empire, a big sack of grain could be quickly and efficiently made into flour.  Bread had to baked every day, because (like bread in modern France) it would stale very quickly.  It was all sour dough bread, because there were no handy little foil packets of yeast.  The ingredients were just flour, water, and a little salt.

People could bake their own bread, but most villages had a bakehouse, where one could buy one's bread.  Indeed, bread was the one food that peasants would regularly buy rather than produce themselves.  (They could sell their flour to the baker.)  The bakehouse and the brewhouse, where beer was brewed, were often run as a combo, by a husband and wife team.  He would bake, she would brew.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Processed food

Today a lot of people say they want to eat simple, unprocessed food.  Medieval people, however, might have killed for an Oreo™.

One of the biggest differences between the medieval diet (which actually continued up into the nineteenth century for most people) and the modern western diet is processed food.  Unless you are taking fresh meat and fruits and vegetables and eating them after minimal cooking, you are eating processed food.  We don't even think about it.  In fact, a lot of what passes as "fresh, simple, healthy" food is processed.  Think orange juice.  It's pasteurized and has ingredients like calcium added.  Think vegetable oil.  How did it get from the soy bean to your bottle?  Think oatmeal.  Surely the oats didn't grow in the form of little flakes, and clearly something happened to it so it can cook in 5 minutes.  Think sliced turkey from the deli.  Have a close look at the list of ingredients.  And don't even get me started on hot dogs.

Now of course processing is not automatically bad.  Unpasteurized milk used to spread tuberculosis.  Processing reduces spoilage.  And people can have a much more varied diet when a variety of foods are available--the kind we take for granted in a grocery store, which would have left medieval people stunned (see more here).  And especially processed food means that people have time to do all sorts of things during the day besides grow, gather, and prepare food.  Pre-modern people, especially women, would have spent a major part of the day in food preparation.  Farming, producing food, is a full-time job as any farmer will tell you, and in the Middle Ages the great majority of the population farmed.

Medieval people also ate almost entirely locally produced food, except for spices.  Again, we tend not to think very much about how many of our berries come from South America, tomatoes from Mexico, peppers from Holland.  And even American-grown food probably came from California.  Are you in California?  In the central valley? (LA and San Fran don't count).  So trucks if not indeed airplanes were involved in bringing you your fresh, simple fruits and vegetables.

Here the advantage is that we can get fresh fruits and vegetables year round.  Medieval people could not, unless you count parsnips and maybe cabbage as fresh fruits and vegetables.  The moral of the story seems to be that we need modern technology and processing to eat a simple, wholesome diet.

I thought about this while making chocolate cake.  I personally think my chocolate cake, made "from scratch," is far superior to nasty processed cake you'd buy in the store.  Yes, only simple, wholesome ingredients, just like a medieval cook.  First the unsweetened chocolate--whoops, it comes from the tropics of South America (and was thus unknown in the Middle Ages) and was processed from cocoa beans into handy little squares.  Then butter--well, I didn't churn it, and it probably came from out of state, but it's "like" simple food.  Then eggs.  Eggs!  Yes!  Unprocessed, just sitting there.  (Well, the hens were probably on a factory farm.  Let's move on.)  Flour is simple and wholesome--except that I didn't grow the wheat or thresh it or grind it or bleach it or put into white paper bags.  Buttermilk--well, if I'd had a cow, and if I was churning my own butter (see above), I'd have buttermilk, that which is left in the churn after taking out the butter.  A big if.  We need some sugar--sugar cane doesn't grow around here, and the sugar in the box doesn't exactly resemble sugar cane.  Let's assume we can pass baking powder off as a spice (medieval people had spice).  The frosting has more chocolate, some vanilla (it's okay, it's like a spice), and powdered sugar.  We already dealt with sugar--except that powdered sugar also has corn starch, which comes from corn (not a medieval plant), and doesn't look like corn on the cob.  There we are!  A delicious chocolate cake just like medieval people would make (except they didn't have chocolate or sugar--but they had flour!).

If they'd kill for an Oreo, just think what they'd do for chocolate cake!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Merovingians

Most Americans have never heard of the Merovingians.  French schoolchildren, however, can tell you that they were the first dynasty that ruled France, starting with Clovis at the end of the fifth century.

As I discussed in an earlier post on the so-called "fall of Rome,"a number of Germanic tribes settled in the Roman Empire, including the Franks, who settled in Roman Gaul--the territory now called France in their honor.  The Franks dropped their Germanic language like a hot potato, which is why modern French is a Latin-based ("Romance") language.  They also quickly abandoned their paganism for Christianity.

The Merovingians were the ruling family of the Franks, so called from Meroveus, son of the sea-serpent.  The story is that one of the early Frankish queens was out for a swim, got caught in a riptide, got rescued by a friendly sea monster, and decided he was totally hot.  One thing led to another.  Her husband the king, apparently, was cool with this.

The historical Merovingians really start with Clovis, first king of the line to convert to Christianity in 496.  His wife Clotilda, already a Christian, seems to have been the major influence, though Clovis also appeared to grasp that he would be a lot more successful if Gaul's bishops supported him.  There had been a lot of separate little kingdoms in what is now France, but he conquered them all.  This is why he gets to be "first king of France" (481-511; there is some debate about the exact dates).

The above image is a somewhat later ivory depicting Clovis's baptism.

Clovis's descendants ruled what is now France for almost three centuries, until the last king of the line, Childeric III, was deposed by Charlemagne's father in 751, who them became king of the Franks himself.  Charlemagne's court seem to have feared, after the fact, that maybe this wasn't quite as legitimate as one would have hoped.  They created a determined story of Merovingian weakness and decadence (to justify the deposition), which historians then tended to believe for the next 1200 years, although recently scholars have begun rehabilitating the Merovingians.

They were certainly a violent crew, but they were also highly literate--one of them tried to introduce new letters into the Roman alphabet for sounds the alphabet didn't cover (like th)--were very supportive of the church, and did their best to be Roman.  Clovis represented himself on his coins as looking like a Roman emperor and was intensely proud of being named a consul by the emperor in Constantinople.  He sponsored the writing down of ancient Frankish law (called Salic law) in Latin, in imitation of Roman law.

All Frankish kings divided their kingdoms between their sons, who then all decided that Brother was the enemy.  This wasn't just the Merovingians--the Carolingians, Charlemagne's dynasty, did the same thing.

Interestingly, although Charlemagne's court tried to denigrate the Merovingian dynasty, he himself named his son Louis for Clovis (take the C off Clovis and you'll see what I mean).  Louis then became the most common French royal name until the monarchy finally ended in the nineteenth century.

Saturday, August 6, 2016


The city of Troyes is primarily known for creating three things:  champagne, knitting, and weighing gold.  Two of these are medieval.

Let's start with the one that isn't medieval:  the drink champagne.  It is named for the region, Champagne, which has been called that since the Middle Ages (Campania in Latin).  In the twelfth century the counts of Champagne, who controlled more territory directly than did the kings of France, made Troyes their capital.  Troyes, along with several other cities of the region, held major trade fairs where wool from northern England, spices from the far East, and everything in between was traded.

But what does this have to do with the bubbly drink, you say?  Sparkling wine was invented in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, traditionally by the monk Dom Pérignon (in a monastery outside of Troyes) although probably several different people came up with it independently (and accidentally).  Modern bottling methods were required to hold in all those bubbles--medieval wine was kept in barrels which would have exploded.  By the way, it's only really champagne if made in Champagne.

Let's get back to the trade fairs.  Every city had its own system of weights and measures--it would have hurt their civic pride to use somebody else's measures.  The weighing system of Troyes became known, not surprisingly, as troy weight.  Although most of the world uses the metric system (grams and kilograms), and the British and Americans use British (also known as avoirdupois) pounds with 16 ounces to the pound, gold is still specified in troy weight.  There are 12, rather than 16, troy ounces in a troy pound.  Silver and gem stones are also often specified in troy ounces.

The city of Troyes also claims to be the home of knitting.  In weaving, parallel threads, all running one direction, have another set of parallel threads woven through them perpendicularly.  Weaving requires some sort of loom.  Knitting, on the other hand, is based on a single thread (or yarn) looped and knotted around itself, usually using knitting needles.  There are a few indications of some version of knitting going back to antiquity, but medieval cloth was woven, not knitted.  But in the late Middle Ages knit objects begin to appear.  The process is especially good for things like stockings and gloves that need flexibility, which knit fabric does much better than woven.  The city of Troyes developed a true knitting industry by the late Middle Ages.  The French word for knit (tricot) derives from the Latin for Troyes (Trecassium).  (The English word knit is related to the word knot.)

And then there's Chrétien de Troyes, who essentially invented stories of Arthur, Lancelot, and the Round Table in the late twelfth century.  Visit Troyes.  It's a delightful city.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Olympics and the Ancient Greeks

Although this is mostly a life in the Middle Ages blog, with the Olympics getting started very soon, it seemed a good time to discuss their ancient origins.

The modern Olympic games (founded 1894) were inspired by the Olympian games of ancient Greece, hence the name "Olympic."  But other than a general inspiration of having people from different states compete in athletic contests, they're really very different.  And there was a millennium and a half gap between the end of the original Olympian games (or their Roman successors) and modern Olympics.

The original Olympian games were created as a ceremony to honor the Olympian gods (the 12 big ones you normally hear about, Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Artemis, and so on, but especially Zeus).  We don't usually think of sporting events as religious ceremony, but the ancient Greeks did.  Any sort of contest could be done in the gods' honor.  Athens, for example, had annual play-writing contests in honor of the god Dionysus.

Starting in the eighth century BC (the traditional date is 776 BC), Olympian games were held every four years.  Wars would stop for the duration of the games.  The various city states into which Greece was divided would all compete, for the glory of their city.  There were no medals, only an olive leaf wreath for the winner, and no second or third places.  You either won by coming in first or else you lost.  In spite of all their differences (and wars), Greek cities were united by coming together for the games.

The events were primarily of activities that would be useful in war, things like running, jumping, throwing spears, throwing the discus (which could be a deadly weapon), wrestling, and chariot racing.  There was even a race run wearing armor.  Women did not normally compete, although there was sometimes a foot race for girls.

The competitors were all amateurs in the sense that modern sports have forgotten--they spent most of their life doing ordinary things, not full-time athletic training.  If they won, however, they would be richly rewarded by their city.

Competition was in the nude for most events.  (Have you ever wondered why you never see Greco-Roman wrestling on TV? just joking!)  There were several explanations for the nudity.  A common story was that the men originally competed in breeches, until one time one's waistband snapped.  He then either ran faster nude and won, or else got tangled up, fell to the ground, hit his head, and died, depending on which version you believed.  The more likely explanation is that the Greeks weren't all that big on clothing anyway and considered a manly body worth putting on display.

The Romans took over much of Greek culture when they conquered the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and they originally continued the games.  They introduced a number of events for women, though these seem to have been more a chance for the spectators to enjoy the sight of flashing legs (the women competed in short tunics) than genuine athletic contests.

The emperor Theodosius eventually ended the games in 393 AD, as part of a campaign to make Christianity the Roman state religion and end all old pagan ceremonies.  But when the modern Olympics were created, the modern Greeks were eager to claim them as their heritage.  Greece ("Hellas" as they themselves call their country) has its athletes march in first.

And they make sure that the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia is called "the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia," not just "Macedonia."  For the Greeks, the name Macedonia evokes the northern part of Greece (bordering the former Yugoslav republic), where Alexander the Great came from, and they don't want "some Slavs" (as they would think of them) bearing a national name that to them is emphatically Greek.

In the US, we lose track of history before WW II, or even the Vietnam War.  The rest of the world has much longer memories.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Multiplication on your fingers

There were no calculators in the Middle Ages.  So if one needed to make a calculation, one might do it either in one's head or on one's fingers.  For adding or subtracting, an abacus came in very useful, as I discussed in an earlier post, but it's hard to do multiplication on an abacus.

Medieval people did however work out a way to do multiplication on their fingers.  Here's how it worked.

First, they memorized the "times table" (as school children often call it) up through 5 X 10.

Then they pondered the nature of the "ten's place" and "one's place."  In the number 46, for example, the 4 is in the "ten's place" (four tens), and the 6 is in the "one's place" (six ones).  This is extremely easy to visualize on an abacus.  On an abacus one adds, for example, 27 and 25.  Add the numbers (beads) in the ten's place (on the second wire) and get 4.  Add the numbers in the one's place (first or bottom wire) and get 12.  The 2 goes in the one's place in the answer, and the 1, which is in the ten's place, is added to the 4 already there, by flicking a bead over.  The answer is 52.

Okay, all those following along at home, remember how they explained numbers back in middle school, get out your abacus if necessary, and let's keep going.

For multiplication, they had a finger-calculating method to be used when both numbers were between 5 and 10 (if one number was smaller, you had to just have memorized the answer).  One hand represents each number.  On each hand, put up the number of fingers by which the number is greater than 5.

Example, suppose you are multiplying 7 X 7.  On each hand, you put up two fingers, because 7 is two greater than 5.  Now add the upright fingers together.  This is the ten's place.  So the ten's place in your answer will be 4.  Now look at your hands again, at the tucked-down fingers.  There are 3 of them on each hand.  Multiply them together, 3 X 3.  The answer is 9.  This goes in the one's place.  So the answer is 49.

Or multiply 6 X 8.  One hand has one finger sticking up, the other three.  Add them together.  You get 4 for the ten's place.  And how many fingers are tucked down?  Four on one hand, two on the other.  Multiply them to get 8 for the one's place.  Answer, 48.

Or multiply 6 X 10.  One finger sticks up on one hand, five on the other (because 10 is 5 more than 5).  Add them.  The ten's place is 6.  The tucked down fingers are four and none.  None times four is none.  So just a 6 for the ten's place and nothing for the one's place, giving 60.

Or multiply 6 X 7.  One finger from one hand plus two fingers from the other hand, added together, gives 3.  But multiplying four tucked-down fingers from one hand times three tucked-down fingers from the other hand gives 12.  So the 2 (of 12) goes in the one's place, the 1 gets added to the ten's place.  Answer, 42.  The meaning of life.

Practice.  Fool your friends.

My brother the engineer worked out the mathematical formula that explains this:

a = First number (left hand)
b = Second number (right hand)
5 ≤ a ≤ 10
5 ≤ b ≤ 10

(a - 5) = Number of fingers UP on left hand
(b - 5) = Number of fingers UP on right hand
(5 - (a - 5)) = Number of fingers DOWN on left hand
(5 - (b - 5)) = Number of fingers DOWN on right hand

((Number of fingers UP on left hand) + (Number of fingers UP on right hand) x 10) + ((Number of fingers DOWN on left hand) x (Number of fingers DOWN on right hand)) =
(((a - 5) + (b - 5)) x 10) + ((5 - (a - 5) x (5 - (b - 5)) =
((a + b - 10) x 10) + ((10 - a) x (10 - b)) =
(10a + 10b - 100) + (100 - 10b - 10a + (a x b)) =
a x b


Sunday, July 24, 2016

Eyeglasses in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages was a very inventive period, and one of the things they invented was eyeglasses.

Many people have always been nearsighted or farsighted, but until glasses were invented there was nothing to do be done about it.  A lot of medieval manuscripts look as if written by a nearsighted person writing with his nose very close to the parchment--the letters are tiny, sometimes hard to decipher without a magnifying glass (or a modern nearsighted person taking off her glasses).  Alternately, a lot of medieval people must have been farsighted, to make out details in high stained glass windows that require most of us to use binoculars.

Medieval people worked with glass especially for church windows, but also for decorative purposes and as a stand-in for jewels.  It doesn't take much to discover that glass can bend light, to focus it at different spots if it's convex or concave.  The Arabs had written on optics, giving ideas to thirteenth-century scholars.  The first known depiction of a person wearing glasses dates from the end of the thirteenth century.  During the fourteenth century, eyeglasses became relatively common among the well-to-do.

The above image dates to around 1400.

(Bifocals, by the way, were invented by Benjamin Franklin in the eighteenth century.  Until then, someone might need two different pairs of glasses.)

We now take glasses so much for granted--not to mention contacts and laser surgery to correct sight--that we may not appreciate what a useful invention they were.  Without them, a lot of people would have wandered half-blind through their lives.

Including me.  I would have been hopeless in the twelfth century.

Here's a safety tip.  If you ever see what appears to be a sort of green curtain across part of  your vision, it means your retina is coming detached from the back of your eye.  Do not hesitate.  Do not let that ooky feeling of thinking about eyeballs and sharp instruments in the same sentence deter you.  It won't go away by itself.  Diet, exercise, and herbal supplements will have no effect.  In a few days the green curtain will be replaced by the black curtain, and then you're blind in that eye.  Don't let that happen to you.  For one thing, you'll be asleep during the operation and will miss the sharp instrument-meets-eyeball moment.

(If you're concerned, and I appreciate your concern, mine was successfully caught at the green-curtain stage.)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Sign of the Rose

As I've noted before, we indie fantasy authors have to work to promote our ebooks.  And I tried something new with my latest, "The Sign of the Rose."  Here's the link on Amazon.

I enrolled it for a campaign in "Kindle Scout."  They eventually did not select my book, but it was an interesting experience.  For a successful "KS" book, Amazon themselves publish and promote and advertise it, which would be great.  There are so many good books on Amazon (and bad ones), that it's easy to get lost.

Amazon is essentially crowd-sourcing the decision of which indie books to publish.  Authors (like me) are invited to put their books up on the Kindle Scout site, where the first two chapters are available to give readers a preview.  Amazon restricts entries to full-length books and to certain fictional genres only (mystery, romance, science fiction/fantasy, and general literature).  Readers can preview the books for free and vote for their favorites by "nominating" them.  They can nominate up to 3 (and can change their minds if they find a better one).

At the end of 30 days, Amazon looks at the ones that have been the most popular and chooses from those which ones it will publish.  To reward nominators, those who have a "winning" book among their nominations at the end of the 30 day period will get the entire book, free, a full month before anyone else.

Kindle Scout is, as the name suggests, designed for ebooks to be read on a Kindle.  But since my novel was not picked up by KS, I've also made it available as a print book, for those (like me) who prefer a physical book to reading on a screen.

Hope you enjoy the book!  It's as close as I've ever come to writing real historical fiction set in the Middle Ages.  There's no magic in it, and it's definitely inspired by medieval history.  In fact, the inspiration for the book is a story written in Old French around the year 1200, "Guillaume de Dole."  I loved the strong heroine and the plot twists and thought modern readers would enjoy the story too.  (I did recast it.  Medieval authors routinely did things like have the hero and heroine fall passionately in love just by hearing about each other, without ever meeting.  Or authors would forget to include an important plot point and just mention much later that it had happened.)

What we call "romance" was invented in the twelfth century, as was so much else.  This book is a romance in the medieval sense--adventure, glory, and love all mixed together.  But I think it also passes muster for the modern definition of romance, although no bodices are ripped.

For those of my fans who want Yurt-or-nothing (and I know you're out there), never fear, more Yurt is coming.  But that pesky day job slows my writing way down (so inconsiderate), and this story just showed up in my brain late in the winter and demanded to be told.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Origins of Parliament

As I discussed in an earlier post on Magna Carta (promulgated in 1215), English Parliament had nothing to do with the "great charter" during the Middle Ages.  Parliament came along three generations later.

But today Britain's Parliament and Magna Carta are both considered to have something to do with "English liberties," so one can see why they are often run together in people's minds.

So where did Parliament come from?  The word is from the Old French, indicating a place or gathering where people talk (parler) and discuss.  It had long been established in all of medieval Europe, going back to the beginning of the Middle Ages, that kings were not supposed to make unilateral decisions.  If they did, they were tyrants.  Rather, they were supposed to work through councils made up of the powerful men (and very occasionally women) of the realm.

In England, kings who knew what was good for them called councils of the powerful whenever they had something important to decide.  At different times different collections of people might be asked to come.  These powerful people were considered to represent the populace and nation as a whole.  Such councils were called parliaments during the thirteenth century.

In 1295 a parliament was called which was later described as the "model parliament."  The people who were summoned then to advise the king became the model of who was supposed to be called.  No one at the time thought they were "founding Parliament," but the next few parliaments summoned the same people, and it became a tradition.

The "model parliament" had two wealthy burgers from each town and two knights from each shire, as well as all the powerful dukes and counts and the bishops and abbots of the realm.  The towns represented in 1295 continued to be the towns represented in Parliament until the nineteenth century, when changes had to be made—some major cities had grown up which had not existed in 1295, and other medieval cities had shrunk so much that they scarcely had more than the two people needed as representatives.

During the thirteenth century the Parliament settled down to have two "houses," the House of Lords, made up both of the great aristocrats and of the church leaders, and the House of Commons, made up of the burgers and knights of the shire.  The modern British Parliament still has these two houses, although the Commons has had almost all the power for the last couple centuries, the reverse of the medieval situation.  Parliament long had judicial as well as legislative functions; Britain got a separate Supreme Court only in 2009.

Early in the fourteenth century, a generation or two after the model parliament, both France and Spain developed similarly institutionalized forms of councils to advise the king.  In France the Estates General persisted (although frequently ignored by the kings) until the French Revolution.  Interestingly, the French had three "estates" rather than England's two "houses."

In France, the three estates were the church (separated out from powerful lay lords), the nobility (which included knights who would have been in the Commons in England), and wealthy townspeople.  France's regions also continued to have "parlements" in the medieval and early modern periods, regional assemblies which were primarily judicial.

The above image is of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster (what Americans would think of as part of London).  It is not medieval.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Throwing Things Away

Medieval people threw away far less than we do, for the simple reason that they had far less "stuff" to begin with (as I discussed in an earlier post).  In these days, when many Americans fill a 30-gallon drum with throwaways every week, it may be hard to realize how recent are today's landfills.

Throwing things away really started in the late nineteenth century, when food started coming in containers.  If you have a tin can or a glass jar that you don't need any more, you throw it away (or, one hopes, these days you put it in the recycling bin).  With the spread of plastics during the twentieth century, there was more and more to throw away.  Food scraps, broken toys, old newspapers, empty bottles, electronics that have stopped working, styrofoam cups, cracked plates, beat-up cardboard boxes, worn-out tires, stained clothing, unused carpeting from the remodel, off it all goes.

Medieval people certainly generated food scraps, but they would not be thrown away.  For one thing, one really did not leave food on one's plate, because there was not today's abundance of food.  At a castle or well-to-do monastery, food that was put on the table (in serving dishes) but not consumed would be passed on to the poor.  Cooking scraps, vegetables that had gone off, egg shells, cheese rinds, and bits of fat would often be fed to a pig (probably not too good for the pig, but that's a separate issue).  If there was no pig, they could just be composted or buried.

Bones and shells were harder to dispose of.  Bones could be used to make glue, and shells could be ground and mixed with chicken feed, but often these hard substances were just tossed into a pit or a pile.  Such midden heaps are of great interest to archaeologists, because they can determine what kind of animals medieval people were eating from the bones that are left (beef? pork? deer?).  The midden heaps would also get a certain amount of other things (like broken crockery) that no one wanted and were not easy to recycle.  Sometimes other things (rings, coins) would end up in the midden heap by accident.

Clothing would not be thrown away.  Fine clothing that was no longer wanted would be passed down the social ladder.  Peasants wore their clothing until it was literally rags.  Rags were very useful in an era without facial tissues, toilet paper, paper towels, or feminine hygiene items.  Once paper came into common use, rags were also used to make paper.

Rags continued to be valued until the nineteenth century.  If you've read any Charles Dickens, you may recall that very poor people could get a little money collecting and selling rags (the way today someone might collect and return bottles).

These days the "sanitary landfill" (what an euphemism) can be enormous.  There's one near Chicago big enough to have a ski slope.  They are supposed to have "liners" to keep the trash and its effluents out of the water supply; many have doubts.  Sometimes landfills catch fire and burn, literally, for years, because of all the chemicals and petroleum products in them, which of course were unknown in medieval times.  We might mock medieval people because they did not have the minty freshness of people who have daily sudsy showers, but they would mock us for our belief that we can just throw things away and never worry about them again.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Indie book promotion

As I discussed in an earlier post, one of the big challenges of publishing as an independent (rather than through one of the Big Six New York publishers) is getting noticed.  No one can buy a book if they don't know it exists.  Standing on the corner with a wheelbarrow full of books, like a stereotypical old-fashioned oyster seller, might work, but only for print (physical) books.  It's not going to work at all for an ebook.

So the first question after a new author publishes an ebook (typically through Amazon, B&N/Nook, iTunes, or Kobo) is, "How can I promote/market my book?"  No one likes to hear, "It's a ton of work and probably will have minimal results."  "There must be a secret!" they insist.  No, if there was a secret, either we'd all be doing it (in which case it wouldn't be secret), or else the few who had figured out the Secret would guard it with their lives, not wanting to dilute its effect.

It's actually simple and not secret all.  First, write a book that's as good as you can make it, including editing, cover, and description, as well of course as excellent content.  Make sure it's in a popular genre (tip, romance, SF/fantasy, and mystery/thriller usually do OK, poetry and children's books do not).  Then let everyone you know (especially on social media) know about it.  Then hope the Sales Fairies drop a big load of fairy dust on you.  Then write more books, even better than the first.  ("Your results may vary.")

Social media promoting can be difficult because, if your Facebook is nothing but "Buy my book!" no one will bother checking it out.  Same goes for Twitter.  I blog (well, duh, you say as you read my blog), but I doubt I get many sales of my books as a result.  Most people who come to the blog just seem to want to know about medieval farm animals (or, as one person recently asked, "Why were chickens sacred in the Middle Ages?"--hard to know how to answer that one….)

This is why promotion companies have sprung up.  Authors give them money, and they send out an announcement of a Special Sale on an ebook to a mailing list made up of people who have specifically asked to be notified of books on sale in their favorite genre.  This is targeted selling at its best, much better than randomly tweeting "Buy my book!" to anyone left on your Twitter feed.

The biggest and best (and most expensive) is Bookbub.  In the fantasy genre, they have roughly 1.8 million folks on their mailing list, and they anticipate that, on average, about 1800 of these will buy a particular book as a result of their mailing.  This is 1/10 of 1%, even though the recipients of the promotion email specifically asked to be notified, and indicates why most authors' own random mass blasts don't have much effect.

But 1800 sales in a couple days is good.  It is believed that a decent proportion of all Amazon ebook sales are due to a Bookbub promotion.  Sale of a first book in a series will, if the book's any good, lead to follow-on sales for the rest of the series, at full price.  This is why authors line up to give Bookbub lots of money.  There are other, less expensive promoters of this sort, but BB has by far the biggest mailing list.  They can afford to be very picky about which books they promote, which in fact helps, because the recipients of the emails know the books have been pre-screened for decent writing.  (Though some good books never get picked!)

I had a Bookbub promotion this weekend, A Bad Spell in Yurt on sale as an ebook for only 99 cents, on Amazon and other e-tailers.  As the first in the Royal Wizard of Yurt series, it's the gateway drug to the rest of my books.  I managed to sell over 2500 copies at the sale price, so I'm hoping that readers will want to continue with the whole series.