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.)

So far it's in the form of an ebook, available through Amazon here.  In the near future, it should also become a print book (paperback) and 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:



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.)

Monday, March 13, 2017

Ashes of Heaven

I've got a new ebook that's just come out!  It's quite different from anything I've previously published and is titled Ashes of Heaven.

The brief description is "Passion and betrayal in mythic Cornwall."  It's based on the old Celtic stories of Tristan and Isolde but with my own twist.  Lots of love and tragedy and sword fights.  Also people between the sheets--it is not the PG world of Yurt.

It has just appeared as an ebook on Amazon and will shortly be available as a paperback as well.  I'm planning to make it available on other e-tailers this summer.  Here's a teaser from the opening:

PART ONE - Brothers and Sisters

The passenger stood by the railing, watching the shore slowly emerge from darkness as the eastern sky lightened from grey to yellow.  A light breeze came up with the dawn, tugging at his cloak until he pulled it tighter around him.  Behind him, the sailors emerged from the hold, yawning, and began unfurling the sails.  It was too early for shouting or song, and they belayed the lines and raised the anchor in silence.

As the ship began to move, the water murmuring against its side, the passenger gestured toward the captain.  The captain came to him at once.  The man had paid enough that the voyage would have been worthwhile even without the cargo.  He had been a model passenger, giving no trouble, never sick, eating the same hard biscuits as the crew without complaint, even though demanding better for the woman and little girl who accompanied him.  But something about him always seemed to suggest that ferocity waited just beneath his good manners.

“Is this the coast of Cornwall?” the man asked, his voice soft with the accents of the south.  His hair and eyes were black, his chin clean-shaven in the southern style, and his cloak of patterned silk, but a two-handed broadsword was strapped across his back, and his boots were heavily worn with long use.  He, the woman, and the girl had come aboard with no more luggage than the clothes on their backs—and a heavy pouch of gold.

“This is still Bretagne,” the captain answered.  “We will cross to Cornwall tomorrow, and from there it will be on to Eire.  The journey will be over in another week.”

The man nodded, and when he seemed to have nothing more to say, the captain excused himself and went up to the prow.  The water was foaming now along the sides of the ship, and the rigging hummed as the sun rose over the coast of Bretagne.

The passenger caught a flicker of motion from the corner of his eye and turned, quick as a cat, one hand already on the knife in his belt.  But then he smiled, slipped the knife back, and beckoned.  “Are you feeling better, Brangein?”

The little girl emerged from behind a coil of rope.  Her curly hair was tangled, half hiding her bright black eyes.  “Yes, I felt much better as soon as Isolde gave me the potion.  But it’s stuffy in the cabin.  And I can hardly wait to see Eire.”

“Only a few more days, little cousin.  Another week is all, the captain tells me.”  He pulled her over to stand beside him, under a fold of his cloak.  She was shivering; the early morning sun had done nothing yet to dispel the night’s chill.  “Is my sister still asleep?”

Brangein nodded.  “I tried not to wake her.”  The two watched in silence for several minutes as the jagged black rocks of the coast slid by.  At one point a line of standing stones marched across the thin grass of a headland and right down into the sea.  Seabirds sailed overhead, their calls high and mournful.

Brangein went to the rail and put her head back to watch them.  Their broad circles and the steady movement of the ship under her feet made her dizzy, but she did not look away, only clung to the railing until it was slippery under her hands.  For a moment, looking straight up into the morning sky, she felt as though she had shaken free of ship and sea and might herself soar on the salt wind.

When her neck grew stiff and she looked down again, Isolde had emerged from the cabin and was standing beside her brother.  She was nearly as tall as he was, black-haired like him, with the same suggestion of carefully restrained ferocity.  She wore a necklace of silver besants and silver rings on all her fingers.

“I am sick of this ship, Morold,” she said, though in a low voice, that none but they might hear.  “Could you not have chosen some court closer than Eire?”

“Closer courts might be better informed of affairs in the south,” he said with a shrug.  “And we know the king of Eire is unmarried.  A few more days, and you will never have to sail anywhere again.”

“I like sailing,” piped up Brangein, slipping back to Morold’s side.  “I like seeing new places.”

“Eire will be new,” he promised, and bent to give her a one-armed hug and tousle her hair.

Suddenly she pointed, her arm emerging from under his cloak.  “Look at the castle!”

The castle emerged from behind a promontory, located on its own narrow bay.  Not very wide but very tall, its towers rose toward the sky, far higher than the mast of the ship passing below.  The castle walls were as black as the rocks of the coast, but the roofs were tiled in bright geometric patterns, red and blue and gold.  Everything about it suggested newness, order, and harmony.  Pennants snapped from the highest towers, and a faint line of smoke indicated that someone was cooking breakfast:  something doubtless better than hard and stale biscuits.

“I like that castle,” Brangein announced.  “I want to live there.”  She leaned her chin on the rail, straining to see better, all thought forgotten of flying with the seabirds.  Several boats floated in the bay, none of them rigged.  She spotted no people, but two cows appeared beyond the far side of the castle and wandered off toward pasture.

“That is just a little country castle,” said her cousin with a laugh.  “We’ll be living at the royal court in Eire.  It will be much finer.”

The captain had approached again.  “That is the castle of Parmenie.  If we had been an hour further along the coast at twilight yesterday, we might have anchored in its bay.  Its lord is named Rivalin.  Sometimes when we anchor there he buys goods from our cargo.”

“Lord Rivalin of Parmenie,” said Isolde, turning the words over thoughtfully and looking at her brother.  “Is he married?”

“Not unless he has married very recently,” the captain answered.  “He has not been much at home the last year or two; the castle is maintained by his steward.  The last I heard, Lord Rivalin had quarreled with his liege lord.  He is a fiery young man by all accounts.”

“You would not like that,” said Morold with a wink for his sister.  “A fiery man who quarrels with his liege lord?  Impossible!”

Brangein did not listen to their conversation but continued to watch the distant castle until it disappeared behind another tall headland.

Friday, March 10, 2017


Everyone sort of knows about troubadours, medieval guys who sang love songs.  But there's more to it.  There were gals as well as guys among the troubadours.  And they wrote the songs as well as singing them.  (The word troubadour comes from trobaire, meaning to compose.)  Some became very famous.

To be a troubadour was to be more than the wandering singer that we may now imagine.  Indeed, troubadours looked down on those who just sang other people's songs, the jongleurs, rather than writing their own.  The person usually considered the "first troubadour" was the Duke of Aquitaine.  The female troubadour, the trobairitz, was often a high status woman, whose songs were infused with classical learning as well as the many other influences on troubadour poetry.

Troubadours were part of the culture of what we would now call southern France during the twelfth century.  It was officially part of the French kingdom, but the French king hadn't been there in generations.  But the region had its own language, Occitan, so called because the people used the word oc instead of oui to mean "yes."  The region is therefore sometimes called Occitania.

(Fun fact:  Latin had no word for Yes.  Many Romance languages went for si for Yes, from the Latin "sic," meaning "So it is" or "like this."  Occitan got its oc from  "hoc," meaning "this one."  Modern French oui comes from "hoc-ille," meaning "this one - that one."  You had to be there.)

Troubadours wrote their songs in Occitan, but their language was close enough to Old French that the French could figure it out.  Many of their surviving songs are written as autobiographical, "I knew a woman …"  It is of course unclear whether they were actually relating experiences or, far more likely, using the first-person "I" the way modern song writers do.  ("I saw her standing there."  "I once knew a girl."  "I should be sleeping like a log."  Hum your favorite Beatles tune here.)

A lot of the women in the songs appear to have been powerful, well-known women, referred to under nick-names or teasing sobriquets, which were probably perfectly transparent at the time but are no longer.  The male troubadours acknowledged how powerful these women were, saying they wanted to serve them, urging them to be kind to the lowly singer.  In some cases male troubadours suggested there had been kisses and more, but the women of the songs were just as likely to Just Say No or to turn on their one-time lovers.

Scholars used to assume that these poems about service to women were part of some institution of "courtly love," where men claimed they were serving ladies, putting them on a pedestal, but it was all a game because the women were actually subservient, and if they were put on a pedestal it was just to get them out of the way.  This is now understood to be based on a complete misreading of medieval sources.

Instead, medieval women really did have a lot of very real power, as I have discussed elsewhere.  Ermengard, countess of Narbonne, for example, led her armies into battle and deliberately married someone whose center of power was hundreds of miles away, so that he would stay over there and not bother her, yet no one else could try to marry her himself and take over Narbonne because she wasn't single.  Ermengard shows up a lot in troubadour poems, often with a sword in her fist.

The original troubadour culture was thoroughly messed up when northern France conquered Occitania during the Albigensian Crusade of the early thirteenth century, but the idea of the composer-singer spread to other Mediterranean countries, to northern France, and even Germany.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Vikings in the New World

When humanity's ancestors left Africa, maybe 120,000 years ago, some turned left and ended up in Europe, while others turned right and ended up in Asia and some, eventually, in the Americas, crossing during the end of the Ice Age when the seas were lower and people could get across between what is now Siberia and Alaska.  (In fact people left Africa in several waves, and many of course stayed, but let's keep it simple.)  When the Vikings met the people they called Skraelings in the Canadian Maritimes around the year 1000, the circle was complete, and people whose ancestors hadn't seen each other for 120,000 years met again.

I've discussed the Vikings before, but here I want to focus on their visits to the New World.  You can't really say they discovered America, because the natives knew it was there the whole time, and Columbus, not Leif Eriksson, was responsible for permanent contact between Europe and the Americas.  But they definitely got there in their long ships.

The Vikings/Norsemen were a lively lot, with exploration, raids, trade, colonies, and permanent homes from Scandinavia to the British Isles to France (Normandy) to Sicily (where they established a kingdom) to Ukraine, Russia, and Byzantium.  Everybody they met they called Skraelings, "the other," people who weren't them and therefore inferior.

Starting in the late ninth century they headed west from the Shetland and Hebrides islands, where they'd been well established, to see if there were any more good islands out there, and ended up in Iceland.  This became a very successful settlement, where a language very close to Old Norse is still spoken today, and the glaciers are balanced by the hot springs heated by volcanos.  The only big problem was that once they cut down the trees they didn't grow back, not having nearby trees to reseed them (as on the mainland).  But the Icelanders were mostly sheep farmers anyway.

From Iceland they kept exploring west and got to Greenland in the late tenth century.  The sagas tell that the explorers came back talking about how "green" everything was there in order to lure settlers, omitting to mention that most of Greenland is under a sheet of ice a mile thick (unfortunately now melting).  Several Viking colonies were established, which lasted until the late Middle Ages, when the climate cooled and their sheep-farming (their principal occupation beyond fishing) just wasn't working.

In the meantime, explorers kept heading out, going north with the current up the coast of Greenland, where they hunted walruses, then west to Baffin Island, and south along the coast of what is now Labrador.  Here they doubtless encountered Eskimo ancestors (who were heading east themselves and eventually reached Greenland, after the Vikings did, though their descendants survived when the Norse ones did not).

South of the Arctic Circle the Vikings got to L'Anse-aux-Meadows, on the northern tip of Newfoundland.  This seemed like a much better place than what they'd been seeing recently.  They called the region Vinland because wild grapes grew there.  There were already people (ancestors of what are usually called Indians, or in Canada First Nations people) with whom they had an uneasy relationship.  This is all described in the saga of Leif Eriksson, but for a long time it was considered fanciful.  Then archaeologists started digging and found all sorts of Viking objects, as well as the remains of the sod long-houses they had built.  L'Anse-aux-Meadows is now a "living history" site, with reenact ors and everything, as well as ongoing archaeology.  You can visit it, and Newfoundland would love you to do so.

Vinland really was too far out, so although there was at least some Viking habitation there for twenty years or so, including women and families, they pulled back to Greenland.  This has not kept Scandinavian-Americans in Minnesota from imagining that they somehow made it a couple thousand miles further overland to reach their homeland.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Old in the Middle Ages

As I indicated in an earlier post on growing old in the Middle Ages, medieval people tended to wear out, on average, earlier than we do.  This should not be surprising, given that they lived what we would consider a rough life and did not have the modern medicine that easily remedies things that would have killed a medieval person.  (Medieval medicine was just was not the same.  So much for all-natural cures and the secret wisdom of the ancients.)

This did not of course mean that people keeled over in their 30s.  Indeed, a man who survived childhood and the childhood illnesses that vaccinations have essentially eliminated could expect to make it at least into his 50s, short of death in battle or in a serious farm accident, and some lived substantially longer.  Women could expect to live about the same length of time, short of death in childbirth.

Here I want to discuss a bit more how medieval old people lived--defining of course "old" as they did, not how we do (I consider people in their 60s to be young and fun!).  Old people were a much smaller proportion of the medieval population than they are of the modern western population, however one may define "old," because fewer of them lived to what we'd now call a ripe old age.

There was no specific definition of when one became old.  Different authors came up with different definitions.  However, multiples of 7 appear very frequently.  "Age of reason" began at around 7, the age at which medieval children started their career training.  At 14 one was no longer a child but a youth and could get married.  At 21 one might or might not pass out of "youth"; interestingly, this is the one big turning-point we have kept.  At 35 one might become mature or middle-aged or even "old," depending on who you were talking to.  Or one might remain a youth or young man up to 49.  Everyone agreed, however, that someone past 70 was not just old but very old.  (This was of course approximate, because medieval people didn't really keep track of birthdays.)

One of the more obvious differences between a young or middle-aged man and an old one was that old men grew out their beards.  Youths prided themselves on clean-shaven, sweet faces, to the extent that modern people sometimes have trouble telling the difference between young men and women in medieval illustrations (the clothing is the giveaway).  Active men didn't want a beard that would get in the way of a helmet (for a knight).  Monks were shaved every Saturday whether they needed it or not, and peasants were probably the same.

But an old man in the high Middle Ages would be proud of growing out a long, white beard, which became a symbol of wisdom.  Charlemagne and Arthur were always described in twelfth-century epics as having such a beard.  Even in the image below, probably a tenth-century copy of an image created not long after Charlemagne's death, you can see Charlemagne on the left as having a solid beard and mustache, whereas his son on the right has at most a 5 o'clock shadow.  (Also note the scribe below; see my previous post.)

Medieval old people were expected to pass their wisdom on to the younger generation, stepping back from active farming, for example, as the next generation were able to take up the task.  The Amish still practice this today, where at a certain point the old generation move out of the main house to a small, adjacent house, leaving the main house and the responsibility for the farm to a son or daughter.  Medieval peasants probably wouldn't have the choice to stop working altogether, and they probably wouldn't move out, but they would hand off the heavier chores.

One of the concerns then, of course, as it is now, is who would take care of old people.  As now, one's children were the primary candidates.  But taking care of the old was also considered a "good work."  In part this was because being old and being poor often came together, and the Bible was very explicit about taking care of the poor.  In the late Middle Ages someone wealthy might establish a "hospital" that took care of the indigent poor whether or not they were sick.  Masters were expected to provide small amounts of money to help retired servants.  Servants would be expected to take care of an old master.  Guilds would take care of their members in their old age.  Churches routinely took in old people, as monks or nuns if they were educated enough to take part in the liturgy, or at least as part of the cluster of official poor people whom they fed and clothed.

These days, for most people, a major part of one's total lifetime medical spending occurs in the last few years of life, as serious illness (heart attack, cancer, stroke, broken bones) are treated to give the person another six months or sometimes several years of life.  All of these would have carried off medieval people quickly.  There was no medieval equivalent of the fear about being kept alive by machines.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Writing in the Middle Ages

We take writing for granted.  Starting in kindergarten, children are taught to write the letters of the alphabet, including their own names.  In the Middle Ages, however, writing was a relatively rare skill, rarer for example than reading.  For us, reading and writing go together, but if you think about it there's no necessary reason that they should.

Charlemagne famously was well educated, able to speak both Old French and Old German fluently, able to read Latin and, he claimed, at least a little Greek, but he couldn't write.  He had never developed that fine motor control of his fingers (why we start kids in kindergarten), and a lifetime with a sword or a horse's reins in his hands had further coarsened them.  He used to keep a wax tablet and stylus by his bed and practice if he woke up in the night.

Writing was rarer than reading because it was highly technical.  Until the late Middle Ages, any permanent writing was done on parchment, sheepskin carefully prepared, which of course was far more expensive than paper.  This is why rough drafts and quick notes were done on a wax tablet, that could easily be wiped clean and reused.

Writing was done with a quill pen--which in fact continued to be the case until the nineteenth century.  So you needed a goose to produce the feather to use as a pen.  (Our word indeed comes from the Latin penna, meaning feather.)  If you were right-handed, you needed a feather from the goose's left wing, so it would curve away from your face as you wrote.  The right wing feathers were understandably cheaper.  This was not quite as big a deal as you might suppose, however, because the feather would be cut down to maybe eight inches long before use (not the enormous feathery pens you may see in movies).

A feather, being hollow, will draw up ink, but the scribe still needed frequent dipping.  As the scribe wrote, the quill would wear down, so it constantly needed trimming with a pen knife.  The knife was also used to split the quill, forming the nib, and to erase mistakes.  Without modern erasers (or the backspace key), medieval scribes had to carefully scrape incorrect words off the parchment.  Depictions of scribes at work, generally writing on a slanted lectern (as in the image above), often showed them with a quill pen in their right hand and a pen knife in the left.

The ink itself was usually made of soot, lampblack or charcoal, mixed with a binder.  The sap of plum or cherry trees was considered to make a good binder.  Some advocated boiling up hawthorne branches to make a thick, dark ink.  Whatever the ink was made from, it would have to be thinned before use, generally with vinegar (that wine that went bad still had a use!).  The prepared ink would be put in a horn for use (in images it appears to be the tip of a cow's horn).  Most "black" ink was actually dark brown, although Italian scribes prided themselves on really black ink.

Charters would be written in black (or brown) ink, but books usually had rubrics, that is red initials and/or headers to individual sections.  Someone copying a book would thus need to have both red ink and black ink handy.

Although we think of handwriting as very personal, in the Middle Ages different scribes at the same place were expected to write a very similar hand (although there was still some variation).  One can indeed give documents a place and rough date just by the style of the writing.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Medieval color

Medieval people appreciated brightly colored flowers or sunsets or autumn leaves just as much as we do.  But they did not have the option of having those colors on their bathroom wall or on their clothing.

The bright colors we take for granted for manufactured items are products of chemical dyes, first developed in the nineteenth century.  The Middle Ages had to make do with natural dyes.  A few of these could produce very nice colors, but those were luxury items.  For most purposes, one had a choice of off-white, muddy green, subdued red, dark brown, dark blue, and maybe unconvincing yellow.

The white was usually off-white, the color of undyed sheep's wool or linen.  Linen could be bleached in the sun, and elegant ladies in the stories wore shifts of snow-white linen.  Keeping it spotless was an additional challenge.

Black sheep (actually dark brown) produced dark brown wool, which was used for monks' habits (so-called black monks) as well as anything else where you wanted a dark brown/black.  Some of the new monastic orders of the twelfth century, such as the Cistercians, went in for white habits instead, because black sheep were rarer than white and their wool was thus more expensive (and "showier").

Purple came from mollusks from the eastern Mediterranean.  This so-called Tyrian purple (actually closer to maroon) had been reserved in ancient Rome for colored strips on the togas of Senators.  In Byzantium, this purple was so rare that it was supposed to be reserved for the imperial family (hence the expression, "born in the purple" for someone of extremely high birth).

Real red was made from kermes insects, found in Italy.  The secret of this vivid red was closely guarded, so that cloth might be sent from the cloth markets of Champagne to Italy to be dyed and come back with its value more than doubled.

You could get a version of dark red from madder, an herbaceous plant with red roots.  It worked great to dye your hands red while you were trying to get some color on the cloth.  ("No, I don't have blood on my hands!")  Indigo, which came from the sap of certain shrubs, could give you a dark blue.  You could also get blue from woad, a plant in the mustard family.  Yellow was hard, but you could get at least pale yellow from some flowers and especially from pollen (in particular the pollen of crocuses, saffron).  You could get green (sort of) by mixing yellow and blue or by embracing grass stains.

Madder, indigo, and woad were all sold commercially, as was saffron, although the latter was very expensive and mostly used as a spice.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


It's a cold, rainy February day.  A good time to blog about rain in the Middle Ages.

As any farmer will tell you (and there are fewer active farmers all the time in the US), growing food is dependent on a foot or so of topsoil and the fact that it rains.  Without water falling out of the sky, agriculture is just not going to work.  The vast majority of people in the Middle Ages lived on a working farm, and they knew this very well.

But how about irrigation? you say.  Certainly medieval people knew about irrigation ditches, even if they didn't have the elaborate machine-driven irrigation systems used today in, for example, California's central valley.  In the ancient world, the "fertile crescent" between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now Iraq, got much of its water via irrigation ditches from the rivers.  It didn't rain very much in ancient Egypt either, but the barley fields were irrigated by the Nile.  But in these places, as in medieval Europe, where do you think the river water came from?  That's right, rain.

Rain also provided drinking water in many places.  A castle up on an inaccessible mountain, for example, would not have a decent well and thus would collect rainwater, both for drinking and cooking and for everything else water was used for.

Now in the Middle Ages, as now, too much rain could be as much of a problem as it is now.  Floods in a city (and all cities were built on rivers) caused all sorts of problems.  Flooded fields meant that crops couldn't be planted, or couldn't be harvested, or rotted without ripening.  But overall rain was considered good.

On the other hand, it was just as uncomfortable then as it is now to be out in the rain, and they had far fewer things to keep the rain off.  We reach for our umbrellas.  Well, umbrellas only became available in the West in the seventeenth century.  China and Japan had long had parasols (Japan's mostly made of paper, thus better to keep off the sun than the rain), and Europe probably got umbrellas from the East.

The image is a van Dyke painting of a seventeenth-century lady with an umbrella.  It was a new, fashionable invention.  The word umbrella comes the Latin umbra, meaning shade.  The Brits often call them brolleys (derived from umbrella).  Americans, for reasons obscure, may call them bumbershoots.

Medieval people also didn't have raincoats.  Look at the tag in your raincoat.  It is probably made at least partially from nylon or polyester or else has a plastic-based finish.  Medieval people had very tightly woven boiled wool.  Wrap your cloak around you and put up the hood.  At least wool will continue to keep you warm even when it's wet, but it would soak through fairly soon.