Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Medieval travel and tourism

When people today are asked about retirement plans, they very frequently say, "I hope to travel."  Being a tourist, traveling around to interesting places, is considered fun and worthwhile, even if only really available to those with leisure time (one wonders if those whose jobs require a great deal of travel have the same attitude toward retirement).

As I have discussed previously, travel in the Middle Ages was a lot harder than it is now.  With human power (walking) the chief form of transport, much of the population might spend most of their lives within a twenty-mile radius.  Horses were for the well to do, and carts, made to transport goods, would have been very uncomfortable to ride in over any distance.

Yet people did travel.  The aristocracy especially traveled a lot.  It was easier to move people than to move food, so large courts would frequently move from place to place, eating up the food at one palace before moving on to the next.  Without modern communication, the only easy way to tell what was happening somewhere was to go there, so kings, dukes, counts, and landlords were constantly on the move, checking things out, passing judgments, hearing complaints, collecting revenue.  And of course you had armies marching back and forth and young men traveling to tournaments.

Tourism as we know it did not exist in the Middle Ages.  Our version really began in the nineteenth century, when well to do young men (rarely women) would undertake a Grand Tour.  Young English gentlemen would travel around the Continent for months, even a few years, picking up culture and art, admiring the scenery, and visiting places of historical significance.  The very word "tourism" comes from taking the Tour.

But modern tourism essentially began with the automobile, after World War I.  It is much, much easier to go visit interesting places when one can hop in the car.  In France, after the Armistice, people wanted to visit the battlefields where so many of their young men had died.  The automobile made this possible, and Michelin especially (maker of car tires) started putting out helpful booklets to let people figure out where to go and what to see.

So modern tourism is a combination of "broadening one's mind" by being exposed to different scenes and ideas, of entertainment by seeing lovely and interesting places, and of education, by learning about history and other useful subjects.  The museums where all this educational information was made available developed along with tourism.

Something that looks like tourism certainly existed in the Middle Ages, but its purpose was very different from broadening one's mind or being entertained or educated.  It was called pilgrimage.

One traveled places to improve one's soul, and the difficulties of the journey were supposed to help improve it, by shaking one out of lethargy or luxury.  The best pilgrimage goal was always Jerusalem, the scene of the Crucifixion, but most Europeans would choose more accessible places to go.



Rome was always a place for pilgrims, full of the bones of early martyrs, the graves of Saints Peter and Paul, and of course the papacy.  Many other spots became pilgrimage centers, from Vézelay in Burgundy (pictured above) to Santiago in northern Spain (and a pilgrimage route ran between these two).  Pilgrims were always interested in lovely architecture, important relics, and holy men (hermits could be visited as part of the pilgrim experience), but they do not seem to have paid as much attention to scenery.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Black and white in the Middle Ages

Medieval people would most certainly not be considered inclusive and welcoming of diversity by today's standards.  Anyone who wasn't an orthodox Christian (i.e. not a heretic), or who didn't know how to speak the local language, was treated at best with suspicion.  But skin color was not nearly as big a factor as it is in the modern US.

In part this was because western Europe had a great range of skin and hair colors anyway, with more light-skinned blonds in Scandinavia and Celtic areas like Ireland, and more swarthy skin and black hair along the Mediterranean.  The Mediterranean had been a melting pot since at least the early days of the Roman Empire, with African, Middle Eastern, and European ethnic groups all intermixing.  In the late Empire, a freed slave became a citizen, and his children might marry the descendants of people who had never been slaves.  Frescos from ancient Rome show a progressive darkening of Romans' skin over the generations, as more African genes mixed with the original Roman Celtic genes.

Spain and Italy especially had populations that mingled genes from all over the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as from northern Europe.  Think about "Spanish eyes," dark and flashing.  They didn't get them from the Visigoths.

So medieval Europeans were happy to deal with people with a great range of skin tones without trying to identify them by "race."  Blond and blue-eyed, however, remained the default definition of beauty, as indeed it still is the US—notice how actresses and even TV personalities are far more likely to be blond than the frequency of light hair in the general population would warrant.

Light skin was not just a marker of beauty but a marker of wealth and status.  These days, when most people have indoor jobs, getting a tan makes a Caucasian stand out among the pale-skinned.  In the Middle Ages, when most of the population was involved in farming and thus were outdoors a lot, having pale skin was good, because it meant you weren't a peasant.

(In the modern US, it seems that getting a tan from a day at the beach or from a tanning salon is good.  Getting a tan from your ancestral genes is bad.  I don't get it either.)

It was very rare that a European saw a sub-Saharan African, someone with very dark, essentially black skin.  They knew however that such people existed.  The Romans had mentioned them, and the Queen of Sheba in the Bible was described as "dusky."  (It seems most likely that she was from what is now Ethiopia.)

In the medieval story of "Parzival," Parzival father had lived in the Middle East for years with a woman as dark as the Queen of Sheba.  He never married her, however, according to the story, not because of her skin color but because she was not a Christian.  They had a son who eventually came to Europe and met Parzival, his half-brother.  This mixed-race son was described as spotted, black and white.

Medieval people didn't think through where the range of European skin tones had come from.  But they knew that if you bred a black and a white cow, or a black and a white horse, you'd get offspring with black and white spots.  Humans must be the same.  It all made sense.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Why do bad things happen?

Why do bad things happen to good people?  This is a vexing theological question if one assumes a loving God.  It has come up again in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane season, Harvey and Irma and Maria and Nate, which did serious damage to the US and the Caribbean.  Most of the victims were doubtless good people.

In some ways this is what they call a "First World Problem."  People in much of the world even today, and people in most of the pre-modern world, wouldn't have had philosophical discussions about why bad things happen.  Bad things happen, they would say, because bad things always happen:  fire, flood, disease, accident, war, betrayal, hunger, quarrels, loss …  The list goes on for quite a while.

Even in the modern US, where most of us (when we are not evacuating from hurricanes) can imagine we're fairly good people leading fairly good lives, bad things happen to everybody.  One interviewer I heard said she can always get a perhaps reluctant person to talk by saying, "Tell me about a time you were treated unfairly."  Then she couldn't get them to shut up!

I guess if someone were born into privilege and had every want catered to, and died unexpectedly and painlessly before anyone they loved died, then maybe nothing bad happened to them during their life (until they died of course).

But it's still a good theological question.  Medieval thinkers in monasteries and universities came up with answers, as they did for so many other theological questions.  They may not be our answers, but these people were smart and tried to figure things out.



The most obvious answer was one derived from the Old Testament, that everyone was to be punished for the sins of the few.  Thus one reads in the Bible about "the sins of the father" being punished in all his descendants.  God destroying the earth with floods because of some bad actors, or wiping out Sodom and Gomorrah because some people there threatened His angels, certainly suggest that one can suffer for someone else's fault.  Even today, there is talk in some circles of God bringing about hurricanes because the US is not strict enough against sexual sinning.

Medieval thinkers, however, would not have agreed.  For the most part, they rejected the idea of the many suffering for the few.  Medieval Christianity put the New Testament ahead of the Old, with its emphasis on individual rather than collective responsibility.

So why did good people experience pain and sorrow?  The answer was easy to medieval theologians.  There were no good people!  Everybody was stained with original sin and deserved suffering in this life and damnation in the next.  Only because of God's completely undeserved mercy did anyone make it to Heaven at all.

(Medieval Christianity was not "comforting."  See more on this here.)

The only really good people were the saints, and they suffered the most of all.  All the early martyr-saints had had horrible things done to them for their faith, like being slowly cooked on a griddle (Saint Lawrence).  This suffering, for medieval theologians, burned away the sin in them, strengthening them and making it possible for them to become saints.  People who wanted to emulate the saints deliberately sought out extremely unpleasant experiences, if not actual martyrdom.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Olive oil and butter

People on diets these days (i.e. almost everyone, at least at some point) try to "cut back" their fat. Modern nutrition guidelines specify that only a certain percentage of one's calories should be from fat.  But in all premodern societies, including the Middle Ages, it was hard to get enough fat, which one actually needs (at least in moderation).  One also needs it for cooking, especially in a pre-Teflon era.

The main medieval choices were olive oil and butter.  There was no soybean oil, canola oil, or margarine.  Lard was the third way (and some cooks still insist lard is best for pie crusts--I wouldn't know.)

Olive oil had been the Roman choice, as it had been for the Greeks.  The "anointing with oil" events in the Bible were all examples of olive oil.  It could also be used to burn for light.  And athletes in antiquity, without today's "refreshing shower gel," got rid of the sweat by smearing themselves with olive oil, sprinkling on sand, and scraping it all off.

Olive trees grow well around the Mediterranean, providing both their fruit and oil.  Southern Europe continued throughout the Middle Ages to rely on olive oil as the major source of fat.



Olive trees, however, do not grow well further north, although the oil certainly traveled on the trade routes.  For northern Europe, butter (made from churning cream) was the chief source of fat in the Middle Ages.  If salted and kept cool, butter will keep quite a while.  In Scandinavia, butter might be stored for over a year.

When the Germanic people first came wandering into the Roman Empire, bringing their cows with them, the Romans reacted with disgust to this source of fat.  But then the Germans weren't totally impressed with olive oil.


Butter works well for greasing the pan, mixing with flour for baking, and making dry food more palatable.  But it doesn't work nearly as well for lamps, anointing, or scraping off the sweat.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Attitudes toward medieval poverty

There's being poor, and then there are attitudes about the poor.  Modern society hasn't exactly figured out the appropriate attitude, and neither did medieval society.  By modern standards, all medieval people were poor, lacking the material goods we take for granted, but people then didn't think so.  This meant those who considered themselves wealthy or at least well off had to decide what to think about poor people.

For starters, medieval people couldn't decide whether poverty was a sign of holiness or the result of sin.  As I discussed earlier, voluntary poverty was considered very holy in the late Roman Empire and in the High Middle Ages, times of (relative) economic prosperity and wealth, when renouncing wealth was a sign of devotion to God.  After all, the New Testament depicts Jesus as without possessions or even a house.  Many twelfth-century churches deliberately sought to be simple and undecorated--but not all, showing the basic division of opinion.  Saint Francis in the thirteenth century said he was wed to Lady Poverty.

But even at other times (the early and late Middle Ages), when life was a lot tougher for a lot more people and holiness became equated with wealth, poor people were not automatically spurned.  Although theologically it made sense that poverty was a product of sin, this did not mean then that poor people were specifically sinful.  Rather, Original Sin, everybody's sinful nature, meant that there was poverty in the world.  (Original Sin is a great explanation for all sorts of things.)  "The poor we have always with us," says the Bible.  This meant the wealthy were always responsible for trying to help them.

Giving alms, helping the poor, was considered a religious duty.  Both laypeople and churches sought to help poor people.  The wealthy in lay society and those monasteries that did not go in for extreme simplicity themselves would distribute leftover food at the back door after every meal.  The poor did especially well if there was a feast.

Some monasteries had what were essentially official poor people, those who were fed daily, got new clothes once or twice a year, and had their feet washed on Maundy Thursday.  In all of this, the emphasis was not on the poor people themselves.  The emphasis was on the wealthy or comfortable.  It was their Christian responsibility to help poor people, which meant they would establish official poor folks living nearby if they had to, so that they could help them.

There was still ambiguity about poor people.  Sure, you were supposed to help them, but suppose they were scary and dangerous?  Dirty, unkempt people are always scary, and it's easy to be dirty and unkempt if you have nowhere decent to sleep, no good clothes, and no way to bathe.  And yet the scariest people were not the poor but the powerful.  A knight might be clean and well-dressed, but he also had a sword and a short temper.  Overall, the poor were those to be pitied and helped.

Things changed in the fourteenth century, when over-population and a string of bad harvests (always a bad combination) led to famine.  Now there were a lot of poor people, most of whom were poor not for religious reasons but because they had lost their livelihood.  Their numbers overwhelmed the charities that had supported the poor for the last few centuries--after all, they too now had less food to distribute.

Really for the first time the well to do started making distinctions between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor, those who deserved to be helped and those who didn't.  Thieves and bandits could be easily classified as undeserving, even if they'd stolen only to keep from starving.  Children with big eyes got to be deserving.

The twenty-first century has the fourteenth century's distinction between deserving and undeserving poor.  But we draw the line somewhat differently.  The fourteenth century wanted to know if the poor people being helped were moral people.  Today the concern is that they not be goof-offs.  There is a very strong assumption that many poor people choose poverty so that they can avoid work and get freebies, which is why they have to be very carefully vetted before receiving benefits, and food stamps can't be spent on certain foods that they "don't deserve."  Many would change their attitude if they suddenly had nothing.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Medieval eclipses

Today an eclipse was seen throughout much of the US, reaching totality in a coast-to-coast strip (we were in the 80% range).  So it seems like a good time to blog about eclipses.

These days astronomers can predict eclipses by calculating the paths of earth and moon.  (Eclipses of the sun are caused by the moon passing between us and the sun, eclipses of the moon by the earth passing between sun and moon.  But you knew that.)  There was no way for medieval people to make such calculations.  (The US is going to have another total eclipse of the sun in 7 years.  Plan ahead.)

Medieval people were therefore always surprised when an eclipse showed up.  Although there are plenty of modern notions that medieval people thought they were caused by demons, or thought a dragon was eating the sun (or moon), this is not true.  Medieval people knew perfectly well what an eclipse was, even if they couldn't predict it.  After all, even if you don't know that the earth goes around the sun, rather than vice versa, you could certainly understand how the moon could block the light of the sun or the earth the sun's light reflected from the moon.



Remember, medieval people assumed the earth was a globe, just like the moon.  The "earth was thought to be flat" fable was invented in the nineteenth century.

Some eclipses may well have passed unnoticed.  If it's a cloudy day, even an 80% eclipse of the sun won't look like much of anything.  And a cloudy night would mean you'd totally miss a lunar eclipse.  But medieval people saw and reacted to eclipses.

The usual explanation was that God had sent the eclipse to mark some major upcoming event.  After all, the normal understanding was that God was actively involved in His creation, even though they couldn't always figure out the hints He tried to give them.  If anyone important died shortly after an eclipse, then it was understood that the eclipse had been sent to warn about this event.  After the death of Henry I of England, many recalled a recent solar eclipse.

It is possible to calculate eclipses after the fact as well as ahead of time.  Astronomers have noted an eclipse that took place in the spring of the year we call 29 AD, which some have identified with the "darkness at noon" that the Bible says accompanied the Crucifixion.




Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Peasant Agency

Medieval peasants. it is often now assumed, had little opportunity to express their own ideas or to choose for themselves what to do.  This is actually not true.  Although some peasants were legally restricted by having servile status, being "serfs" (not the same as slaves), all of them had opportunities for independent action, or "agency" as the social scientists call it.

The term peasant means a country person, whose days are spent in farming, often paying rents and dues to a landowner who was supported and fed by the peasant's labor.  A peasant would live in a small village, not a town.  As much as we would all like to imagine we are descended from lords and ladies of the Middle Ages, most medieval people were peasants, and hence so were most of our ancestors.

These people, mostly being illiterate, did not produce written records, appearing instead either in the records of more powerful laymen or in records of the church.  Scholars thus long assumed they were marginal or even silent, at any rate not worth trying to study.  Interestingly, the same assumptions were once made about medieval women.  Once scholars stopped assuming "We'll find no information on women in the records" and thus didn't bother to look, and instead started looking, they found a lot.  The same is true of peasants.

Where peasants are seen most frequently is in legal disputes or in negotiations with their landlords.  Landlords were not in a position simply to impose whatever they wanted on their peasants.  Everyone believed in the value of tradition, meaning that sudden changes did not seem right, and even more importantly, peasants had a lot of leverage.  If a landlord gave them too hard a time, they could just leave.  No aristocrat wanted to end up walking behind his own plow or harvesting his own grain.

Peasants could also play different aristocrats off against each other.  Nobles wanted to be considered "defenders of the poor," and peasants knew that and could exploit it.  Where a serf had both a lord of the body and a landlord (different persons), he (or she) could appeal to one against the other.  Peasants could also appeal to the big regional courts.

In one well-known case, peasants appeared before the court complaining about a local noble, saying they were helpless, saying all they had was their "tormented voices."  They understood very well what all medieval people knew (though many moderns have forgotten), that professed weakness can be a real source of strength.  The court had little choice but to rule in favor of these "tormented" peasants.

It was through negotiation that twelfth-century peasants managed to get out of some of their more burdensome obligations.  For example, one of the markers of servitude was having to pay an annual head-tax, usually a penny a head.  Peasants who had been selling their produce to the growing towns and had saved up could and did offer their lords of the body a fairly large one-time payment in return for not having to pay the head-tax.  The lords of course accepted, but this meant that there was no longer an annual ceremony indicating that these particular peasants were serfs.  In a generation, they would have "forgotten" that they and their ancestors had ever been other than free peasants.

As landlords opened up previously-uncultivated land for farming during this period, they needed to attract peasants, and thus offered them low rents and the opportunity to regulate themselves in what was known as a commune.  In some cases the peasants insisted on having this in writing; the local priest could read it for them.

Certainly being a medieval peasant would not have been an easy life. By our standards even the most well-to-do were desperately poor, with none of the material goods we take for granted, living in a rough house with a dirt floor, snuggled up to the cowshed.  There was always the worrisome question whether the harvest would come in this year (no peasant ever decided he needed to go on a diet), and the back-breaking work would have worn them out by the time they were in their fifties.  But they were smart, and resourceful, and entirely capable of outwitting those who considered themselves their betters.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Fourth Crusade

We use the term "crusade" these days to mean a moral struggle, people rallying themselves to fight for the right (for example, World War II is sometimes described as a "crusade").  But look at the word; at its root it's something to do with a cross.  Its core meaning is Christians fighting for Christ, which in the Middle Ages usually meant killing Muslims (it's too late now to tell them it was a very bad idea, but we're still dealing with the aftermath).

(Interestingly, what we call a crusade was in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries just called going to Jerusalem.)

The First Crusade was successful beyond anyone's expectations, leading in 1100 to the establishment of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem.  As I've discussed elsewhere, winning essentially ended after that.  One of the biggest disasters (though it's hard to choose) was the Fourth Crusade of 1202.

This was after the 1187 fall of Christian Jerusalem and the failure of the 1189 Third Crusade to get it back.  But by 1202 hopes were high for victory.  A big army was assembled.  Planning to go by sea (rather than overland, since after all Frederick Barbarossa had died trying to go overland in 1189), the main army arrived in Venice, which had been busy building ships for them.

Here the Venetians came up with a startlingly large sum for their ships.  (Part of the problem was that the Venetians had been told to build ships for about three times as many Crusaders as actually showed up--and had done so, and didn't want to get stiffed for all that inventory.)  The Crusaders didn't have nearly enough money, and it was going to take more than a couple of bake sales to raise it.  So the Venetians suggested a compromise:  they would take much less if the Crusaders would first sack Zara, a trading rival to Venice, located in Croatia on the opposite coast of the Adriatic.

Zara was Christian (indeed Catholic), but the Crusaders needed those ships, so they took the deal.  The pope, understandably, was distraught when he learned about it and told the Crusaders to come home and be excommunicated.  Instead, trying to make up for this inauspicious beginning, the Crusaders pushed on, sailing to Constantinople.

The plan was to hook up with the Byzantines and together attack the Muslims in the Holy Land.  Popes had been hoping for over a century that such joint efforts might reconcile Latin Christendom and Greek Orthodoxy (though you'd have thought by now they would have figured out that it wasn't working).  Meanwhile, political infighting was going on in Constantinople, and the Crusaders were met in early 1203 by a claimant to the imperial throne who asked for their help in getting his "rightful" rule.

They threw themselves into it with enthusiasm.  Although they got the claimant crowned, one thing led to another, and in 1204 the Crusaders ended up sacking Constantinople (the claimant had been murdered in all the excitement).  Then they looked around and realized they'd just slaughtered a whole lot more Christians.  Whoops.

Very delicately worded letters were sent to the pope, saying how delighted he'd be to learn that Constantinople was now fully committed to Latin Christendom, no more schism here!  The pope even wrote back with congratulations before figuring out what had really happened.

The leaders of the Crusade headed west to "explain" more fully what had happened and to take home some of the great relics they'd obtained. Meanwhile, since  the westerners after all now controlled the city, they declared a Latin Empire of Constantinople.  Multiple French lords competed for who got to be emperor.  This Latin empire lasted only two generations, before the Byzantines took it back in 1261.  The long-term effect was just to weaken Byzantium, although it managed to hold on against the Turks until 1453.  But the Fourth Crusade never got anywhere near Jerusalem.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Medieval boats

Boats were a major part of medieval transportation.  Without combustion engines or good roads, dragging loads along the land was very slow and inefficient.  Much more efficient was to float heavy goods on barges.  Every smooth-running river was full of boats and barges, carrying both people and goods.  Bridges had to be built high enough that boats could easily pass underneath.  The more expensive a trade good and the further distance it had come, the greater the chance that it had been on a boat.

Boats were powered either by manpower (rowing or poling), horse power (barges pulled along by a horse or mule on the towpath), or sail.  Sailing on the rivers was mostly to increase one's current-fueled speed and to improve steering.  Part of the reason the Burgundy region became a major center of wine-growing, even aside from its good soil and climate, was that it was easy to put wine barrels on barges and float them downstream to the large Paris market.

Sail really came into its own on the ocean.  Sailing ships had been found in antiquity, but there were many improvements to rigging and sails during the Middle Ages.  The boldest sailors, of course, were the Vikings.  They developed their longships in the late eighth century, ships that could be either rowed or sailed, were big enough to cross the open ocean, and shallow enough to row up Europe's rivers to find tempting targets to raid.  By the end of the tenth century, they had reached (progressively) Iceland, Greenland, and even what are now the Canadian maritimes.  (See more here.)



Other than the Vikings, most medieval sailors were hesitant about heading off out of sight of land.  Ships tended to hug the shoreline.  Those heading to the Holy Land from Western Europe on Crusade usually went by ship, as both quicker and (slightly) less dangerous, though shipwreck on the windy and treacherous Mediterranean was always a possibility.  At the beginning of the thirteenth century, when leaders of the Fourth Crusade were trying to book ship passage for their soldiers to get to the East, the Venetian ship-masters charged them such high prices that they had to accede to Venetian demands to sack one of Venice's trade rivals as part of the price.  (The Fourth Crusade was a disaster all the way around, but that's a different story.)

The biggest advance in ships in medieval Europe since the Viking longships came in the fifteenth century.  Prince Henry of Portugal, nicknamed "the Navigator," sponsored improvements in ocean-going ships that allowed Portuguese sailors to leave the well-known confines of Europe and the Mediterranean and start south along the coast of Africa.  Henry's purpose was to find a way to get to the Indian Ocean, where spices from the fabled Orient came on Arabic dhows (ships), to join trade networks that led to Europe.  He found Africa a lot bigger than he had anticipated, but quickly realized that trade and colonies in west Africa had a lot to recommend them in the meantime (ever wonder why Angola is Portuguese-speaking?).



It was of course due to rivalry with Portugal that led the Spanish kings Ferdinand and Isabella to sponsor Columbus and his crack-pot scheme to reach the East by sailing west.  So the integration of the New World into European culture owes a lot of fifteenth-century ship building.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Meat in the Middle Ages

Modern people in the West have an uneasy relationship with meat.  On the one hand, we love it.  The smell of hamburgers on the grill or turkey roasting gets everyone's attention.  It's obvious from our teeth and from archaeology that our Stone Age ancestors ate meat (normally cooked) as part of their diet.  Meat has more calories per volume than vegetables (generally), so if one is hunting and gathering it makes sense to hunt for meat.  Humans can eat pretty much every kind of animal, whereas an awful lot of plants are indigestible or just don't produce nutrients for us (grass won't work for humans).



On the other hand, there are a lot of things we think "bad" about meat.  Every recipe for a "healthy diet" starts by talking about cutting back on red meat with its saturated fat.  Many vegetarians and vegans believe it is not right to raise sentient creatures just to kill and eat them.  (I once saw a sign in range-country Wyoming, fighting back:  "Did you know that every day thousands of innocent plants are killed by vegetarians?  Eat more beef!")  This is further complicated by the popularity of things like gluten-free diets, the so-called "Paleo" diet (not clear where Paleolithic woman would have gotten the olive oil), and low-carb diets, where one tucks happily into meat.

As I discussed in an earlier post on the medieval diet, medieval people had a lot fewer foods to choose from than we do, because they didn't have New World foods like corn and chocolate (much less processed foods or fruits and vegetables out of season).  For them, the majority of their daily calories came from bread.  "Give us this day our daily bread" was not spoken metaphorically.  However, they loved meat and ate it when they could.  They couldn't have cared less about saturated fat.

Meat was expensive, rare, and hard to keep fresh centuries before refrigeration.  For most medieval people, pork was the most common meat, but it was only eaten fresh in the fall, at the time of the big pig roundup and slaughter.  Everyone at their fill, then the rest was smoked and salted to last the winter as an occasional treat.

The aristocracy hunted for deer and went hawking for birds, but over-hunting then, as now, can drastically reduce the population of hunted creatures, so the powerful tried (without overwhelming success) to restrict the right to hunt to themselves.

For most people, beef was eaten only when the old dairy cow was no longer producing, and chicken when the hen stopped laying, though young bulls and cockerels might be harvested out of the flock.  Songbirds and rabbits provided additional sources of meat.

Red meat was considered to make one lively and lusty.  Monks considered this bad, so they normally ate no red meat at all.  (It all made sense in terms of Humors.)  To lead a pure and simple life, breaking away from material things, they had to give up meat.  Meat broth might be allowed, however, if a monk were ill, and there were always stories (about other monasteries, of course) about monks who feigned almost constant illness so they could live in the infirmary and have meat.

For a special guest (like a bishop or a great lord), the abbot would be expected to serve something better than the bread and vegetables on which the monks normally lived (with maybe some eggs).  So they would serve fish or maybe cheese (but preferably fish), not red meat but a little classier than regular monastic fare.

This idea that fish was a semi-penitential food, halfway to being a vegetable and certainly not to be considered red meat, gave rise to the assumption that Catholics should eat fish rather than meat on Fridays during Lent.  (It used to be every Friday, but it's just been Fridays-in-Lent since the 1960s.)  These days, however, eating fish (generally more expensive than hamburger) has lost a lot of its penitential aspect and seems more a ritual act.

Our grocery was advertising "crab legs for Lent."  Let's not go into detail on that one.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

Medieval artists

The stereotype of an artist today is someone starving in a garrett, probably wearing a beret, maybe smoking a cigarette and drinking absinthe.  This stereotype probably derives ultimately from the opera La Bohème (a great opera, but not a particularly informative work of social history).  Were medieval artists like this?

No!  (You knew I'd say that, didn't you.)

Medieval artists were not free-spirited individuals creating art in solitude and following their own muse (and starving), but rather professional artisans, employed (and paid) to produce art.  The distinction between art and architecture which we make really didn't make sense.  The majority of medieval art was religious, and a lot of it was produced for churches.

The people who employed artists were often religious leaders (bishops, abbots) but might be wealthy lay people, especially in the late Middle Ages.  Art included illustrations in Bibles and religious books (called illuminations), statues big and small, crucifixes and other liturgical objects, carvings on the fronts of churches or on the capitals at the top of pillars, and wall paintings.


The above image is a capital at the top of a pillar, showing the story of David and Goliath.

There were standard ways of depicting certain people and events; Saint Peter, for example, was always shown with enormous keys.  But the artists had a great deal of latitude in how they worked with the standard expectations.  Artists were given a lot of room for creativity, so that even though a particular image might look at first glance a lot like others, the individual artist would make it his (or hers).

It used to be believed that medieval artists worked anonymously, but in fact the best ones had excellent reputations, and artists often signed their works.  A lot of these signatures have been worn off over the centuries, but if you look carefully at the tympanum over the front door of Autun cathedral, you will see the words "Gislebertus hoc fecit" right under Christ's feet, meaning, "I Giselbert made this."  Giselbert was rightly proud of his work.


(The above image may be too small for you to see the words, but they're there.  See detail.)



Art was valued both for its beauty and for the value of the materials as well as the quality of craftsmanship.  Illuminations in Bibles, for example, often included gold leaf.

During the Renaissance (which is really another term for the late Middle Ages in Italy, as I have discussed elsewhere), artists started to produce portraits of lay people, which had not really been found earlier, other than a few kings.  Again, the artists were commissioned (and paid).  They often worked  in ateliers, with masters and apprentices.  The great majority of Renaissance art, however, was religious.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Are the Amish medieval?

Are the Amish living in a modern version of the Middle Ages?  Short answer, No.

The Amish are living in twenty-first-century America, just a somewhat different version than most Americans.  But they would not be able to live as they do if not surrounded by the modern, commercial US.

Let's start with a few obvious differences between modern Amish life and medieval life.  The Amish are now found exclusively in the New World, mostly North America, not Europe.  And their religion is a version of Protestantism, not Catholicism.  They reject violence, which medieval Christianity was able to deal with at least in some circumstances, and they baptize adults, not infants, as did both medieval and most modern Christians.  During the sixteenth-century wars of religion, both Catholics and Protestants decided they were heretics and persecuted them mercilessly.  No wonder they still try to stay out of the limelight.

It's generally known that the Amish live a consciously simple life, without electricity, without automobiles, without fashionable dress.  But where do they get all the things they need for this simple life?  From the rest of us.

Well-water is pumped not by an electric pump but by a windmill.  Did an Amish man cut down a tree and carefully carve the vanes from wood?  No, he ordered a metal windmill.  A Rodeway truck brought it to the farm.  Amish clothing is homemade.  Did an Amish woman spin and weave her own cloth?  No, she bought factory-made cloth, often dyed fairly bright colors (suitable for teenage girls) as well as black and navy.

(Fun fact:  You can tell an Amish woman and a conservative Mennonite woman apart at once, even though they wear the same overall style of dress, because the Mennonites always wear prints, to distinguish them from the Amish, who never do.  The Amish will however use prints in quilts.)

The Amish drive buggies rather than cars, buggies often made in an Amish workshop--but in many cases made of fiberglass.  The buggies are essentially nineteenth-century in style, not medieval; there were no buggies in the Middle Ages.  And the brakes are modern, and on New Order buggies there's a battery to run the headlights and taillights.  The horses who pull the buggies are often retired race horses.  Bicycles are fine in many Amish communities, and they buy their bikes the same way the rest of us do.  They use money and checking accounts the same as anyone else.

How about food?  The Amish certainly grow a lot of their own.  But they also buy a lot of groceries, flour and canned goods and cookies and other processed foods unknown in the Middle Ages.  And of course they eat all the foods found in the modern world but not in medieval Europe, such as tomatoes and potatoes and chocolate and corn.  They can a lot, using techniques developed in the nineteenth century.

How do they access cloth stores and grocery stores?  If they live close by, they can drive their buggy.  Otherwise, they will hire a driver and a car or van.  The Amish won't have a phone in their house, but they may have a phone booth out by the road, for use in emergency or for use in business.  Cell phones have been making headway in the Amish community.

Inside their houses, the Amish will have modern plumbing and a modern kitchen.  The stove and refrigerator run off propane, rather than electricity or piped-in gas, and the light is Coleman lanterns rather than overhead electric lights, but they aren't cooking on an open fire by candle light.

Now some accuse the Amish of hypocrisy, claiming they aren't as "simple" as they purport to be.  But such an accusation is based on a serious misunderstanding.  The Amish aren't trying to live in the Middle Ages.  They aren't even trying to live in the nineteenth century, though a lot of their farming techniques went out of style a century ago.

Rather, they are trying to follow a lifestyle that is humble rather than showy and is focused on home and family.  The problem with electricity for them is that if you're on the grid, you are making people work on Sundays to get you your electricity 24/7.  Same with the gas lines or the phone.  The phone can also disrupt family time, making the home accessible to people far away.  The car can get you very far away very quickly, whereas with a buggy you won't ever be far from home, and everyone who sees you knows where you're going.

The Amish prefer farming as a family-centered activity, but they aren't medieval peasants.  For one thing, they don't have landlords.  They all have a basic education and tend to get newspapers and read a lot.  And whereas leaving one's family for life in town was a difficult and wrenching decision for a medieval peasant, Amish youth can and do leave the Amish life and still stay in regular contact--as long as they do so before being baptized.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Religion as comfort?

These days most people who follow a religion find it comforting.  They take it as reassurance that, as bad as things may be here, a better world awaits.  It also tells them that the universe is not just a series of random events but has an overall plan, or at least direction, even if we can't always recognize the plan.

These days most Christians assume they will go to heaven when they die.  Studies suggest that most don't even really believe in the devil or in hell.  A lot feel assured that they are saved.

While medieval and modern Christian theology are actually not radically different, the way the religion was perceived and the message it conveyed were very different.  Medieval religion was not comforting.  It was scary.



No one would have tried to comfort someone whose family member had just died by saying they had gone to a "better place."  Instead they would offer to arrange for prayers for the soul of the deceased, to see if they could possibly get them out of purgatory, if not indeed hell.  The liturgy for the dead wasn't sweet songs about passing over to the "other side."  Instead it was the Dies Irae, a poem about the "day of wrath."  Judgment was coming, and everyone was in trouble.

No one would have assumed they were saved.  Instead they would have assumed they were damned.  This was, not surprisingly, very worrying.  Religion did not comfort.  Rather, it provided tools to use against the horrors that it also provided.  But everyone knew how weak these tools were.  Demons roamed the world, seeking the destruction of souls, and even the most holy person was never safe.

One had a better shot at salvation if one were a member of the organized church, as a priest, monk, or nun.  Medieval churches are still thick across Europe, many with very tiny congregations, if any.  But didn't they have a big medieval congregation? you ask.  No, not really.  The churches might minister to the locals, but for an awful lot of them, they primarily served the body of monks or nuns or canons who lived there and spent much of their day in liturgy and prayer. A much larger proportion of the population went into the church than is the case today.

Families who sent their sons (or to a lesser extent daughters) into the church weren't trying to get rid of excess mouths.  They were hoping to have an insider praying for them.  And a lot of people in the church had "converted" (as it was called) to the religious life by their own decision, often against parental wishes.

Protestants tend to think of Jesus as their savior.  Medieval Christians of course assumed that Christ dying on the cross gave them at least a shot at avoiding hell, but they held Him in too much awe to get "personal" about it.  Rather they turned to the saints, who might help them avoid hell, even though they all knew they deserved it.

Note that all these concerns were concerns of the well educated.  It was the uneducated peasant or urban worker who was likely to tell you they didn't believe in religion.  Marx in the nineteenth century called religion the "opiate of the masses," but he was definitely not talking about medieval religion.


Friday, May 12, 2017

Birds in the Middle Ages

We take birds for granted.  Some are domestic and get eaten (or their eggs are eaten).  Some are wild and are hunted for food.  Some are wild, and we give them something to eat in bird feeders.  We admire their flight and enjoy their songs.  It's not often that we treat them as partners.

Medieval Europe had the same birds as modern Europe (though not in the same proportions), but they had more hunting hawks, trained to be partners in hunts, just as a modern pointer or retriever (dog) can be a partner to their master in the hunt.  (Or not.  The Labrador retrievers I've known would either not figure out where the duck went or would carry it off for their own purposes.  Training is everything.)

Most farmyards had chickens, free range, that lived on spilled grain and insects.  Keeping down the insects was an important function, nearly as important as laying eggs  Eggs were an important source of protein in the medieval diet, and when a hen got too old to lay, she became dinner herself.  Geese and to a lesser extent ducks provided eggs and feathers (and dinner).  Geese also made excellent watchmen, raising a great honking if something untoward happened at night.


Medieval people also ate songbirds, ones we would consider too small to bother with (and you would not have caught a medieval peasant putting out their precious grain for the birds to eat).  The easiest way to catch them was to spread lime on a branch, so that when the bird landed on it, their feet would become stuck.  They did however appreciate songbirds for their songs as well as their bits of meat.  The nightingale especially appears in many a song and story, enchanting the lovers.  (The US doesn't have nightingales.  Our loss.  Nighthawks are not the same.)

Aristocrats, but not peasants, used hawks in hunting.  Training a hawk was a long and complicated process.  The thirteenth-century emperor Frederick II wrote a book on falconry that is still respected today (an image from it appears below).  The chief goal is to make the bird, from a very young age, think of the human as the source of food.  Every respectable castle or manor had a mews, where the hawks were trained and housed.  One could find baby birds and raise them oneself or buy them.  Trained falcons made good gifts.



In the mews, the hawk would be tied to its perch, usually hooded to keep it calm and in the dark.  Merchants might sew a hawk's eyes shut while transporting them.  Hawks have much better eyesight than humans and can adjust for closer or longer distance in a way that is the envy of everyone wearing bifocals.  But if they can't see, they tend to sit quietly, even if not happy about it.

Hawks had leather straps, called jesses, attached to their legs, which could be held (or grabbed).  Generally the jesses had a bell, to help one locate a hawk that had not come back when it was supposed to.  The way it was supposed to work was to ride out hunting with a hooded hawk sitting on one's wrist (the hand and wrist in a heavy leather glove because the talons are sharp).  Then one unhooded the hawk and freed the jesses to send it up after a bird one was trying to catch.  Theoretically the hawk caught the bird and brought it back, getting a treat as a reward.  There are enough descriptions of chasing the hawk by the sound of the bell, of whirling the lure that was supposed to attract it, and giving calls to which it had been trained, to indicate that coming back didn't always work out right.  This was part of the fun of the chase.

Birds caught with hawks became dinner.  Wild ducks were normally caught with hawks, not with archery (and of course double-barrel shotguns were centuries in the future).  Different hawks were used for different prey.  Sparrowhawks (kestrels) caught small birds, as the name implies, big goshawks could take a goose, and there were others in between.  Different kinds of hawks were considered more or less noble and thus more or less suitable for those different social station.  A good master of hawks was highly prized.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Chastity belts

The nineteenth century simultaneously discovered the Middle Ages, that "glorious age of chivalry," and decided that everything bad could be described as medieval.  If there wasn't enough bad stuff, they made some up.  Among these was the chastity belt.

The story, of course, was that when Crusaders left for the Holy Land they locked their wives into chastity belts to make sure that nothing untoward happened while they were gone.  The difficulty is that there isn't the slightest evidence of anything of the kind.

The only thing that could even vaguely be interpreted as supporting the existence of chastity belts (and probably where the nineteenth century got it) was the statement by some twelfth-century monastic leaders that knights should "put off the belt of war" [i.e. stop going to war with a sword strapped to their hip] and "put on" chastity and obedience as monks.  You notice they were urging men to live chaste, obedient lives as monks, not recommending a specific belt.  You also note they were addressing men, not Crusaders' wives.

The first actual thing that could be interpreted as a chastity belt was a fifteenth-century drawing of an iron contraption, in which a writer complained that Florentine women inserted themselves.  One wonders if in fact this writer was "getting no satisfaction" (to paraphrase the Rolling Stones).  You also note that this was long after the Crusades were over.

By the nineteenth century, people were claiming to have found chastity belts in women's graves.  One does of course wonder why a woman would be buried with such a thing.  After all, it was far too late to worry about keeping her chaste.  Some of these were put on display in museums but more recently quietly removed, because the contraptions appear to have been fakes, constructed in the nineteenth century.

Let's think about the image of chastity belts for a moment.  The idea is some sort of plate that went between women's legs, to keep them safe from adulterous activities.  For starters, it would be extremely uncomfortable.  And of course the woman would have to remove it to use the garderobe, or to clean herself up every month.  Otherwise, it would have been filthy in no time.  If a woman could remove it any time she needed, what was to keep her from removing it when a handsome young squire caught her eye?

The real question is what made people dream up chastity belts in the first place, or why they still have a hold on the imagination.  The Victorian era was fascinated with sex, which was supposed to be secret and forbidden and therefore twice as exciting as if it were out in the open.  A chastity belt allowed people simultaneously to talk about "sex is bad" (and the romanticized Middle Ages supposedly knew this!) and to get all intrigued by things between women's legs.

It always makes people feel better to think that earlier people did weird things.  It makes the weird things we do today seem almost normal.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Voluntary poverty

Everyone today, except for the truly homeless, would be considered rich by medieval standards, because of everything they own or have access to, from electricity to plumbing to furnaces/air conditioning to cars to TV to refrigerators to phones.  But as I discussed earlier, there were plenty of people considered wealthy in the Middle Ages, and gradations of wealth down to the destitute.

Too often today one hears suggestions that those poor in the modern world somehow chose not to have enough money, being lazy and shiftless people who prefer to survive with handouts.  This isn't particularly true now, but in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there really were people who deliberately chose to be poor and to live by handouts.  They were considered holy.

In the New Testament, Jesus is described as wandering from place to place, without having any sort of permanent home, preaching as he went and accepting food and hospitality.  The apostles followed him, and indeed the Bible notes that Jesus said that others should do the same.  Now I personally (but I am not a minister!) think a person can be a good Christian without wandering barefoot around the Sea of Galilee, but the Bible is remarkably explicit on this point.

Following this example, there were a number of people in the High Middle Ages who deliberately gave up all material possessions and comforts, either to live a life of prayer as hermits separate from the world, or, increasingly commonly, to wander around and preach.  Monks had been around in the West since the fifth century, people who lived in groups and who shared all their possessions (following the Acts of the Apostles) while leading deliberately simple lives.  Hermits were rarer but still found, men who lived a solitary life of simplicity and prayer, far from human habitation, although they had to be close enough to humans for people to come and make offerings.

But wandering preachers were different.  They were disruptive and meant to be.  They considered themselves to be following the New Testament, including all the indications that Jesus was considered threatening by the well-established religious leaders of his time.  For that matter, the secular governors (the Romans in first-century Palestine) considered him disruptive enough to execute him.

With any self-proclaimed holy disruptive person, the question is always are they genuinely inspired by God or genuinely a crackpot.  The bishops of the twelfth century tended toward the latter explanation.  Wandering preachers would come into town, preaching about salvation and damnation, and leave with a new group of followers, often disproportionately women.  Now a lot of these new followers would quietly return home within a couple days, realizing that not having much to eat and sleeping out in the rain was not a comfortable lifestyle in spite of the promised salvation.  But some would stick it out.

The bishops wanted these preachers to settle down and become monks, and especially they wanted to make sure they got a good religious education, because it was unclear what their message of salvation and damnation was based on.  Some of these preachers spent much of their lives skating along the edge of heresy, promising to settle down and be monks and then heading off cross-country as soon as the bishop's back was turned.

But absolute poverty and wandering preaching became officially accepted by the organized church with the Franciscans (founded by Saint Francis), recognized by the pope in 1215.  They took voluntary poverty to a new level, living entirely by begging, refusing to touch money, not even saving an apple over from one day to the next--eat it if you're hungry, if not give it to someone who is.  People were stunned by their holiness and similarity to Christ and the original apostles, a connection made explicit when Francis received the stigmata.  The absolute poverty he adopted started being modified shortly after his death—it really was an almost impossible standard.  Later in the thirteenth century, those Franciscans who said they were sticking with Francis's original message got embroiled in an apocalyptic heresy, which sort of ended that branch, but the ideal of holy voluntary poverty long persisted.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Medieval taxes

Today is income-tax day in the US, so I will blog about medieval taxes.  I discussed medieval taxes once last year, but this is a topic that can always stand revisiting.

A tax is, by definition, something charged by a government, to pay for things that government does, theoretically for the good of everybody:  defense, infrastructure, help for the weak.  Private individuals can and do charge rents and fees but not, strictly speaking, taxes.  This distinction was also found in the Middle Ages, though it would have been more blurry than it is now, because the public-private distinction was not as sharp as we now try to make it.

The one kind of tax not found in the Middle Ages was income tax.  This is because essentially no one had what we would call a regular income.  Payments of rents and dues, or the equivalent of salaries for servants, were generally made once or twice a year and were subject to change without notice.  Farmers who sold part of their crop would have a lot of money coming in at some times of the year, none at other times.  Extremely few people would have kept close track of how much they received in a year.  There were however plenty of property taxes and sales taxes and head taxes.

The Roman emperors had collected taxes from all their provinces.  These were collected once a year, each province expected to come up with the amount Rome felt they owed, and it was basically up to each local governor how to find that much coin.  When the emperors left for Byzantium these taxes were assessed much less rigorously, especially with the breakdown of trade routes and urban culture in the sixth and seventh centuries.  But the kings of western Europe continued, at least intermittently, to collect taxes from what were called fisc lands, that were attached to the crown rather than to the person who happened to be king.  (This is the root of the modern word fiscal.)

In ninth-century England, King Alfred fought to keep the Vikings confined to northeast England and levied a tax, one penny per household, that was used both to pay for the fighting and to serve as a bribe to keep the Northmen in the territory known as the Danelaw.  This dane-geld, as the tax was known, continued to be levied in subsequent centuries, becoming a more or less general property tax.  Ironically, the Norman kings of England, descended from Vikings themselves, continued to collect this tax (now called simply the geld) long after the Danelaw Vikings had settled down to become Yorkshiremen and were no longer being bribed.

In the twelfth century, when the trade fairs of the Champagne region became established, the counts of Champagne, that is the regional government, became responsible for making sure that tradesmen were safe and that order was maintained.  To pay for this, they charged sales taxes on every transaction.

Medieval cities levied property taxes to pay for things that cities did:  paving the streets, maintaining the bridges, hiring mercenaries to fight other cities (in Italy), hiring guards and watchmen to keep the peace, hiring judges, building municipal buildings like city hall, erecting walls, caring for the destitute, paying to keep things (sort of) clean.  These taxes were all property taxes, assessed by deciding how much each individual household was worth and coming up with a figure of what they therefore owed.  Cities also assessed sales taxes in their markets.

Modern American income taxes are actually not particularly high compared to most western countries, but they very complicated, with all sorts of pieces of paper to keep track of, amounts to enter in the right place, lots of extra forms to file if one has done this thing or that thing.  So maybe we'd be happier with medieval taxes?  Do you like the idea of a city clerk, probably accompanied by a member of the municipal guard, coming to your door and just announcing what you owe this year?


Thursday, April 13, 2017

When did the Middle Ages end?

Officially of course the Middle Ages ended around 1500.  I say "officially" because that's when modern textbooks about the Middle Ages stop.  (Some British versions stop in 1485, the end of the War of the Roses.)

Nobody at the time of course saw 1500 as a major turning point, and for that matter they didn't know they had been living in the Middle Ages.  (The Italian Renaissance humanists who coined the term thought they were Modern, though in fact they lived pre-1500 and were, by our standards, medieval.)  But changes on either side of 1500, including the printing press and the Protestant Reformation, make 1500 a good round date.

In many ways, however, the Middle Ages lasted until the nineteenth century.  Technology drives society, more than probably we like to think, and through the eighteenth century the technology wasn't that different from medieval technology.  They had gunpowder and printing presses, respectively fourteenth- and fifteenth-century inventions (and hence medieval!) and had made advances in sailing ships, navigation, and carriages.  But most people most of the time were small farmers, struggling to make a living in the same way their ancestors had for a thousand years.  Horsepower quite literally powered most things, other than the mills, run by wind or water as they had been since the twelfth century.

The big change was the Industrial Revolution, which started in England in the last decades of the eighteenth century and had reached other western countries by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Factories began for the first time to mass produce goods, especially fabric and steel.  The machines were driven initially by steam, from water raised to boiling by coal.  We now tend to think of the English countryside as green and bucolic, but a lot of it was full of coal dust and polluted streams at the time.

By the time you get to the 1830s, railroads were starting to come in, making it possible to get from one place to another far faster than one could on horseback (also spewing coal dust).  Semi-universal education came in at the same time, meaning a major proportion of the population could at least (sort of) read and write and do arithmetic.

It has recently been argued, quite plausibly, that the biggest technological-social changes for the west came in the century 1870-1970.  Some people would say that the internet and cell phones, both dating back only 25 years or so, have also been profoundly transformative, and I would argue for the major significance of factories and railroads, but let's think about this "century of innovation."

A lot of things we now can't imagine living without weren't there (except maybe in prototype) in 1870 but were standard in the west by 1970.  Here are some examples.  Communication?  Think about a world without telephones.  Long-distance, across the country or across the world, was possible in 1970, but there were no phones in 1870.

Transportation?  There were trains but no cars or buses in 1870, certainly no airplanes.  Most certainly there were no moon landings (first one in 1969).  Steamships were the exciting new thing in the late nineteenth century, but sail was still around.  Not by 1970, except for recreation.

Speaking of recreation, how would your life be different without radio, without TV, without movies, without record players/CD players?  And those all need electricity.  Houses didn't have electricity before 1870.  They didn't have gas furnaces.  They didn't have stoves the way we think of stoves ("ranges") or refrigerators, much less microwave ovens, so food preparation would have been very different.  For that matter, there were no processed foods or supermarkets.

Most of us now have more clothes than we need, and for most people their clothing was made in factories.  Even home-sewers use factory-made fabric (except for the one or two who still weave their own--even the Amish buy their cloth).  The dyes that color them came in during the late nineteenth century.

Medical advances were stunning during the "century of innovation."  Think of a world without X-rays, without antibiotics, without vaccines.  In the 1860s medicine had been professionalized, in that doctors had "taken charge," but with their lack of sanitation, fondness for chloroform and powerful drugs, and readiness to amputate, you would probably have been better off in a medieval hospital, where the nuns would keep you warm and give you chicken soup and saint dust.

Photography had begun before 1870, but it was an arduous and expensive process, and all in black and white, whereas by 1970 anyone could take color pictures with a little box camera.  Computers were definitely around in 1970, even though there would be less computing power in a main frame that filled a room than you have in your cell phone.  Tools like washing machines and dryers, power saws, vacuum cleaners, and dishwashers made household chores much easier.

And speaking of washing things (including you), let's not forget indoor plumbing and running water and water heaters.  This is all post-1870.

So in 1970, like today, you could (while wearing factory-made clothes washed clean in the washing machine) drive to the movies with your friends, not worrying about catching a dread disease because you were vaccinated, come back to someone's house and get some snacks (food taken out of the fridge and heated up in the microwave), listen to music while chatting, get a phone call from your Mom that you needed to get home now, and drive home beneath the streetlights.  None of this was remotely possible in the first half of the nineteenth century, any more than it was in the twelfth century.  The Middle Ages is over.

Friday, April 7, 2017

An Autumn Haunting

It isn't autumn right now, it's spring, but my newest book takes place in the fall and is called An Autumn Haunting.  Here's the cover, thanks to Dane at eBookLaunch.



As you can probably tell, it's fantasy with a teen-age heroine.  For those of you who have been C. Dale Brittain fans, it's the second book in the "Yurt, the Next Generation" series, the sequel to The Starlight Raven.  It's about Antonia, daughter of a wizard and a witch (a very rare union), trying to find her way as the only girl at the all-male wizards' school.  In this book she's in her third year at the school, and is hoping things will look up now that they've finally admitted a second young woman.  But her life is complicated because too many of the male students seem unduly interested in her, and then a terrifying haunting shows up….

(And let us all note that I had already been publishing books with a wizards' school for many years before "Harry Potter" showed up.)

It's available both as an ebook and as a paperback (your choice), available through Amazon here.  In the near future, it should also become an ebook on other e-tailers.  Amazon assumes most ebook readers will read on a Kindle, but they have free apps so you can also read on your computer, on a tablet, on an iPad, or even on your phone if you like reading one sentence at a time.

For those of you thinking, "Gee, haven't you been writing a lot of books lately?" the answer is that I've finally been able to retire from that pesky day job and get back to some stories I'd sort-of written as long ago as a dozen years, and get them into final form.  (Besides, aren't more books good?)

Here's the opening to whet your appetite:


AN AUTUMN HAUNTING

PART ONE 

To the left of me, Chlodomer gasped.  “They’re not supposed to do that!”  Something very strange was happening to his rats’ tails.
To the right of me, Harduin’s rats were growing bigger and bigger, until the wires of the cage made deep dents in their fur.
But mine, giving me what I could have sworn were reproachful looks from their little pink eyes, just keeled over, paws in the air.
“Antonia,” said the Potions teacher from the front of the room, “if the spells are beyond your abilities, you know you should have come and talked to me.”
This was not “beyond my abilities.”  I’d known exactly what I was doing.  This couldn’t be happening!  Unless—
“Hey, ’Tonia,” said Chlodomer in a whisper.  “What a change!  You messed up even worse than me!”
Five more minutes.  Potions Practical would be over in five more minutes.  If I gritted my teeth I could make it out of the room before rather than after I started screaming at somebody.

If I’d had to choose someone to slam into, it wouldn’t have been Prince Walther.
But then it was hard to make a choice, running down the stairs so fast I was barely touching the steps.  Only a quick spell saved me from going right over the railing at the last landing.  When Walther stepped out the doorway directly in front of me, it was much too late even to think of a spell.  We both sprawled across the staircase, and the books he’d been carrying sailed in all directions.
“Antonia!  Slow down!” he said, standing back up and taking me by the elbow.  He sounded as serious and sharp as one of our teachers.  Two words in the Hidden Language drew all his scattered books together, and they tidily stacked themselves on the step beside him.  “You are going to hurt yourself if you’re not careful!”
The last thing I needed was to be lectured by someone the same age as I was.  I picked myself up slowly.  He was smiling, or at least showing his teeth.
But I had to talk to somebody.  “They’ve sabotaged my potions!  And now they’re blaming me!”
He stopped straightening his student robe to look at me, one eyebrow lifted skeptically.
Walther had excellent eyebrows, heavy and black, under a thick shock of dark hair.  I was never able to make one of my brows lift independently, as much as I practiced in front of the mirror.  I could probably have raised one with magic, but that would be unfair.  And I wasn’t about to be distracted now by facial hair.
“We were working on potions in class,” I said, a little more calmly, “herbal potions—some to strengthen, some to make a creature grow, some to give it a new color.”
Prince Walther nodded soberly.  A smile never looked right on his face anyway.
“And we tried them on rats.  Everybody else’s potions worked—some rats turned green, some shrank so small they were almost able to squeeze through the bars of their cages, some got so strong they were able to rip their cages open and the teacher had to stop them with a binding spell.  Chlodomer’s rats all grew a second tail, though I don’t think that’s what he intended.  But all my rats just rolled over on their backs and died!”
When I looked away from him I could still see their reproachful little pink eyes.
“And you think this was sabotage,” he said quietly.
“Well, what else could it be?” I demanded.  “I know I did the spells right.  And everybody else’s were working fine.  But when I told the teacher somebody had been messing with my potions, he didn’t believe me!”
“What did he say?”  Walther lifted an eyebrow again, and he looked as if he didn’t believe me either.
“He told me that I needed to study the chapter again, ‘properly this time.’  And that wasn’t even the worst!  He said that maybe my ‘pretty little head’ just wasn’t made for doing magic!  He thinks I can’t study magic because I’m a girl!”
Walther sat down beside his books.  I noticed absently that the top one was a history of the Black Wars.  He tried to smile again, but it was not a success—he looked for a second as though he felt someone might not think he could study magic.  Which was silly.
I wished I didn’t feel overawed by him.  It was only, I told myself, because he was a prince, and because he was the only student in our year who might be as good at magic as I was, and because he had grown so tall in the time we’d both been at the wizards’ school.
The momentary look of pain on his face was gone as if it had never been there.  “Antonia, don’t start that,” he said, almost lecturing me.  “You’ve a third-year student now, not a beginner.  All the teachers know you’re smart.  You’re one of the best wizardry students in our class.”
“If they think so, then why haven’t they admitted any other girls?  No, they all just believe I’ve done as well as I have only because I’m the Master’s daughter.”
I sat down next to him, wishing gloomily that there was another wizards’ school somewhere I could attend, somewhere I wasn’t related to anyone.  But without Father they would never admit me in the first place.
“If you want them to respect you, storming out of the middle of class isn’t going to make you look responsible,” said Walther severely.  I started regretting having said anything to him.  At one time I’d thought we were friends.  What had gotten into him lately?
“It wasn’t the middle of class,” I said, glaring at the floor.  “We were done.  All that was left was cleaning up.  And I wasn’t about to clean up a potion that someone else had poisoned!”
And it was feeling so guilty about the dead rats that made me want to scream, run, anything but look at their lifeless little forms.
“I would have thought,” said Walther slowly, “that you’d have been very careful to save the sabotaged potions.  They could show you who did it—if you didn’t, of course, just do the spells wrong.”
Why hadn’t I thought of that?  I jumped up, almost knocking Walther over again as he too rose to his feet.  “I’d better get right back!  Sorry I bumped you!” I yelled over my shoulder as I shot up the stairs.  So the apology was five minutes late.  So at least I’d given one.
Back in the classroom, the other students were pouring the last of their potions into the big tub, over which our teacher mumbled neutralizing spells.  The teacher’s assistant, Nivard, one of the older students, was helping clean up.  Right now he was trying unsuccessfully to calm down a rat enough so that it would drink a potion to reverse the spell put on it.  It was one of Chlodomer’s that had grown a second tail, and it bit madly at the tail, squealing with pain and bleeding hard, and did not stop biting.
After a minute Nivard shrugged, took the rat firmly by head and hindquarters, and jerked hard to break the spine.  “Sorry, little one,” he said as the rat went limp, and he dropped the body into the incinerator.
My own dead rats were already gone.  In fact, my bench space was strangely clean and empty.
“I cleaned it up for you, ’Tonia,” said Chlodomer, coming over and smiling.  He gave a quick glance toward our teacher.  “I knew you were upset, and I didn’t want you to get into more trouble by leaving your bench space messy.”  Tall, gangly, and freckled, he was five years older than I was, because I had entered the school much earlier than students usually did, but it was always hard to remember he wasn’t younger.
I forced myself to smile back.  He’d meant well, and I couldn’t expect Chlodomer to have known that I wanted to save the potions, since I hadn’t thought of it myself.
Our teacher saw me and nodded rather distantly.  Some of the potions in the tub appeared to be interacting badly, bubbling and sending off smoke.  He added new phrases in the Hidden Language and poured in another potion that seemed to settle things a bit.
“Let’s go get something to eat before our afternoon discussion section,” said Chlodomer.  “I can tell you how I figured out a potion to make my rats return to normal—all except for that one,” he added regretfully.
I wasn’t hungry, but there didn’t seem any point in hanging around—especially since our teacher might have been planning to tell me that even girls with pretty little heads needed to clean up their own failures.
We slipped out and walked down the stairs, Chlodomer speculating on why a potion that was supposed to make his rats able to run very fast had given them extra tails instead.  He’d been able to reverse the spell by adding a handful of chopped dragon’s-bane to his original concoction, but he still wasn’t sure what had gone wrong in the first place.

When we reached the lower landing, Prince Walther was gone.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The name Constance

These days people name their children all sorts of different things:  a family member's name, the name of a character in a favorite book or show, a name picked out of a baby book, the name of a celebrity or sports star, some made-up word that sounds good.

Medieval people on the other hand chose names quite deliberately to create a connection, usually with a family member, or sometimes for a lord one wished to honor (which is why we speak of "Tom, Dick, and Harry" as "everyman" names, because they became very common in late twelfth-century England, honoring the saint Thomas Becket and the kings Richard I and Henry I).  This was true of both male and female names.  Today I want to discuss a particular female name in the Middle Ages, Constance, an excellent name.

Its origin is Roman.  The ancient Romans, at least among the aristocracy, had had male and female variants of the same name, so Julius and Julia, or Claudius and Claudia.  Constance (Constantia) was a variant of Constantine.

It was not used in the West in the early Middle Ages, however.  The story gets interesting around the year 900 with the emperor Louis, nicknamed "the Blind."  From his nickname you can tell his story is not going to end well, but before he was blinded by his enemies he had a son, whom he named Charles-Constantine.  The Charles was for Charlemagne, from whom Louis's mother was descended, and the Constantine for the original fourth-century emperor of that name--Louis's wife was Byzantine and claimed descent from Constantine.  Louis wanted his son's name to indicate unmistakably that the boy was born to be an emperor.

It didn't work out that way.  But Charles-Constantine had descendants among the counts of Provence, and among them were women named Constance for him (the male version was probably too audacious to use).  One of these women married King Robert II of France around the year 1000 and became queen.  From then on, the name had royal overtones.

One of the French princesses named Constance married the king of Sicily.  And among her descendants was the famous Constance, queen of Sicily (ruled 1194-1198).  She was a daughter of the king of Sicily by his third wife and was not intended to become queen, because she had plenty of brothers and nephews.  In fact, she did not marry until she was 30, old by medieval standards.

But when she did marry it was a great dynastic union.  She married Henry VI, son and heir of Frederick Barbarossa.  The Holy Roman emperors (kings of Germany) had long considered themselves rightful kings of Italy, and a union with Sicily sent a clear message, especially since the kingdom of Sicily included not just the island but also much of Calabria (the foot part of Italy's boot).  Henry and Constance were crowned emperor and empress in 1190, after Frederick Barbarossa's death.

But Constance did not become queen of Sicily until 1194, after the death of the last of her nephews.  In that year she and Henry finally had a son, the future Frederick II.  She was about to turn forty, so, the story goes, she made sure to give birth very publicly, in a tent in the town piazza, so that no one would be able to say that the baby wasn't really hers.  She made the bishop comes and watch.  She also nursed baby Frederick II in public, to make sure there were no doubters.

When she died in 1198, she commended her child, heir to Sicily and (at least potentially) to Germany (where his uncle was ruling), to the new pope, Innocent III.  Little Frederick grew up telling "Uncle Innocent" that he would be a good and faithful friend of the papacy.  Innocent died before discovering how mistaken he was to trust him.

But that's a story for another day.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Trade in the Dark Ages

Okay, to start, the Middle Ages was not the Dark Ages.  The term "Dark Ages" was coined by British scholars to describe the period, basically the sixth century, between when Angles and Saxons arrived in Britain (c. 500) and pretty much obliterated the Christian, Roman culture that was there in England (including the historical King Arthur), and when Christian missionaries reconnected England to the European mainstream (c. 600).

Now of course England is not the world (though to listen to some Brits, you might think so).  (Gee, they're almost as bad as Americans!)  But the sixth century was tough in a lot of places.  The Roman Empire (then centered in Byzantium, capital Constantinople) had shrunk, and the areas that are now France and Spain had "barbarian kingdoms" (respectively Franks and Visigoths) that were only very nominally in the Empire.  Then there were such disasters as global cooling and the Black Death.

And yet trade continued through this "dark" period, with sixth-century Byzantine coins, pottery, silver dishes, glass beads, even fabric found all over the Old World, especially Eurasia, as indicated by dots on this map.


This map was worked out by the British archaeologist Dr. Caitlin Green, on whose blog it was originally posted.  She gives a lot more detail, which I recommend.  Here note that while the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century (solid brown on the map) was fairly restricted to the Mediterranean (and not even all of that), including what's now Italy, Greece, Turkey (then Byzantium), the Near East, and bits of north Africa, Byzantine artifacts from the period have been found in Africa, in Asia (including India, China, and Japan), and in western and northern Europe, including Anglo-Saxon controlled Britain.

Now Byzantines themselves didn't go to all these places, but trade routes did.  Ships sailed down the Red Sea, and either continued down the African coast or went around the Arabian peninsula and on to India, where many artifacts have been found.  There were trade routes carrying Byzantine goods across the Sahara.  The silk roads across central Asia to China carried great luxuries to the Mediterranean.  A Japanese monastery still has a silk cushion cover (pictured below), given to it by the Japanese emperor in the eighth century, which was created in sixth-century Syria, from silk imported from China, and which then followed the silk roads back.



Byzantine gold coins have been found in Scandinavia, where the local people had long traded fur and walrus tusks—used as ivory—to the Romans and continued to do so.  Indeed, Scandinavian settlement of Greenland was, centuries later, driven by catching walruses for the ivory trade.  Although the Scandinavians themselves did not have a coin-based economy in the sixth century, they certainly recognized their value.  This gold coin minted in the early sixth century for Emperor Anastasius was found in Sweden and was pierced for use as a pendant.


Much of what archaeologists have found comes from burial sites—in England the bodies buried with them sometimes have DNA suggesting a North African origin.  Others were hoards that were buried when the person who buried them must have intended to hide them until able to come back, but then never came back.  Some, like beads and pieces of pottery, were lost accidentally or were tossed out when broken and no longer wanted.

The vast spread of Byzantine goods along trade routes, routes that continued even in a politically, socially, and economically deeply troubled time, indicates that there has never been a time when people could shut themselves up behind high walls and pretend the rest of the world didn't exist.  (On this see more here.)