Saturday, September 19, 2020

Medieval soap

"Wash your hands!"  We've been told this since we were little kids, and in a time of pandemic it's especially important.  We assume (rightly) that soap is a crucial ingredient of the process.  Did medieval people have soap?  Yes indeed, though not our kind of soap, in handy wrapped bars or even decorative shapes, smelling delicately of verbena or sandlewood.

The ancient world had not been big on soap, although they knew about it.  Athletes had cleaned up after exercise by smearing themselves with oil and sand, then scraping off the sand with little scrapers, taking the sweat with it.  You can buy "olive oil soap" today, but it's not the same.

Soap is made from mixing rendered fat or oil with a "base" (a base as opposed to an acid, think back to high school chemistry).  Medieval people cooked down (rendered) the fat from meat, which we often throw away, and mixed it with lye made from mixing water with wood ash.  This made a powerful soap, good for dissolving dirt and killing bacteria (although they didn't know about bacteria, they recognized that cleanliness was healthier).  Soap usually didn't come in bars but was soft, more like liquid soap (but no handy pump-top dispensers), and had no delicate fragrance.  Lard-based soap could become more or less solid, though oil-based soap stayed more or less liquid.  This was the normal soap in Europe and the US until the mid-nineteenth century.

(One may note that lard, made from pig fat, is often still recommended for pie crusts, and you can buy it at the grocery store.  But I digress.)

This pre-modern soap would not be described as "gentle on your hands."  Farm families could and did make their own.  In medieval cities, however, soap-making could be a skilled profession, even sometimes a guild, with the different soap-makers promoting soap that came in balls rather than as a thick liquid (making it more convenient), even scented with minced lavender leaves or the like.

Between the difficulty of heating up enough hot water for a bath and not wanting to scrub too much lye-based soap on your delicate parts, medieval people did not bathe as often as the modern model.  They valued cleanliness, but some things are just not easy.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on health and hygiene in the Middle Ages, see my book, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available in paperback or as an ebook from Amazon and other on-line booksellers.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Medieval schools

It's back to school time!  Except for now, in the era of pandemic, a lot of schools are being delayed or carrying out teaching on-line (obviously impossible in the Middle Ages, or for that matter the twentieth century).  Did schools open in September in the twelfth century?

Short answer, no.  For starters, there were no public schools.  In fact, what we think of as normal, that is more-or-less universal education provided at public schools, appeared for the first time in the nineteenth century.  And it was not until the 1960s that a concerted effort was made to get everybody even in the US into school until they turned 18.

Now, in the midst of pandemic, there is a great deal of concern about the need for education, complete with dire threats about how children will be hurt if they can't get back in the classroom.  Medieval parents would have been surprised to hear that their children would suffer permanent harm by not attending school.

Medieval schools were all associated with churches. Monasteries and nunneries all had schools attached where children who joined, as their parents' offering to God, would get a good classical education.  They would need it when they grew up to be monks or nuns.  The less-strict monasteries, cathedrals, houses of canons regular, and nunneries would often offer an education to day-students as well, ones who did not intend to enter the cloister themselves but who wanted at least a little education.  These schools ran all year, rather than fall through spring.  It was of course expected that parents would pay for them.

As Europe was overwhelmingly Christian, these schools taught Christianity along with reading, arithmetic, and a little history and geography and music.  Europe's Jewish and Muslim minorities had their own schools.  There were no "atheist" schools.  Medieval people would not have understood why schools today can't teach religion, just as they wouldn't be able to grasp the separation of church and state.

Both aristocrats and well-to-do townspeople would send their children as day-students to these church-connected schools.  But this was usually not the children's first experience with education.  Mothers would teach their children the rudiments of reading and figuring when they were five or six, just as mothers still often do.  Note that this is one of many indications of the important role played in society then by medieval women.

When students got to school, initially all learning was in Latin.  At a minimum they would be able to read Latin; the best-educated would also be able to write.  Note that being able to read and able to write are two different skills, even though we now group them together (see more here on medieval literacy).  By the late twelfth century, a lot of schooling started taking place in the vernacular, Old French, Old Italian, Middle High German, or whatever.  Young aristocrats seem more inclined to be able to write in their normal spoken language than in Latin (not surprising).  Many composed stories and poems.

But how about the great mass of the population that was not aristocratic and did not intend their children for careers in the church?  They never went to a formal school or learned to read and write.  Modern schools have summers off, which is left over from nineteenth-century efforts to get the farmer's children to attend (children were needed to help on the farm in the busy growing season).  If medieval peasants had to agree to a formal agreement, they would make a mark on the parchment in place of a signature, usually an unsteady short line.

This did not mean that they were ignorant.  They might have quite advanced technical skills.  Farming is hard.  So is being a miller, a baker, a brewer, a blacksmith, a wheelwright, a mason, or the other skilled trades that a peasant village needed.  These people would know basic figuring and would know how to keep track of things (like money), even if they knew no Latin.

Education expanded in the late Middle Ages, especially in Renaissance Italy, but it was still something for townspeople, not for peasants.  Parents would send their son off to school with a servant, who was supposed to learn along with the boy and beat him if he didn't do his homework.

Starting in the twelfth century, the ambitious young man (not woman) might want to continue his education at a university.  Basic schooling would be over by age 14 or so, and it was off to the university, to learn complicated subjects, like theology or Roman law or medicine, and to drink and have fun.  University students were primarily from families of well-to-do townspeople.  The Sorbonne in Paris, pictured below (though this is a post-medieval building), was the most prestigious medieval university.  (See more here on medieval universities.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval social history, see my book, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other e-tailers, either as an ebook or in print.

Monday, August 24, 2020


Now there's a curious word.  Like Egypt, it looks like it has too many descenders (letters with tails that hang below the line).  But it's a perfectly good word.  Polyptyque means a survey of people and property on a manor.

Polyptyques were an invention of the ninth century, and although a few were created in later centuries, the ninth century was their golden era.  They appear to have begun with Charlemagne ordering inventories of property and payments both on his own lands and on the lands of the great monasteries of his realm.

That's an image of Charlemagne on one of his coins.  You'll note that he is portrayed like a Roman emperor.

Anyway, there is some thought that Charlemagne considered all the Frankish monasteries his property, which is why he wanted to know what was on their manors.  The royal polyptyques do not survive, but there are still maybe a dozen monastic ones, plus fragments of others.  They are a major source of information on the rural economy of the period.

For each manor (and a monastery would typically own dozens of manors), the polyptyque would list how much revenue was expected.  Often the names of the tenants would be given, but a polyptyque was not intended to be a a census of people, so one cannot determine total population of a manor.  The legal status of the tenants might be specified, using such terms as hospes, colonus, mancipius, or ingenuus.  Although those composing the polyptyques clearly knew what was meant by these terms, scholars today have had serious debates over their meaning, and the twelfth-century successors of those who composed them seem to have had even less idea.

The tenants were sometimes although not always listed by name.  The overwhelming majority of these names are male, which led a few decades ago to a scholar who should have known better claiming this showed that ninth-century peasant families killed baby girls.  Now one would have thought that something as serious as infanticide would be mentioned in other sources if it was indeed practiced—it isn't.  Even more basically, the lists of tenants just gave the name of the head of the household, not of spouse and children, and, as in the US through the twentieth century, the man was considered the natural head of household.  Thus there is no reason to use the polyptyques to argue for female infanticide.

Most polyptyques do not survive on their original ninth-century parchment, but only as copied into cartularies in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  Here's a picture of a cartulary, a collection of documents all carefully copied into a single book.

Enough had changed in the rural economy and manorial organization between the ninth century and the twelfth or thirteenth centuries that the cartulary scribes often had trouble figuring out what the polyptyques meant.  Sometimes property enumerated in them had been lost to the monastery for generations.  The ninth-century handwriting was clear enough three centuries later, but the vocabulary had changed.  Yet clearly these lists of manors and dues were an important part of a monastery's history.  The scribes abbreviated heavily and hoped for the best.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on monks, kings, and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other major ebook platforms.  Also available in paperback!

Sunday, August 16, 2020


Today I want to talk about Suger, one of the most important political and ecclesiastical figures of twelfth-century France (c. 1081-1151).  And no, his name is not Sugar, it's Suger, pronounced soo-zhay.  Here's an image of him from a stained glass window.

Suger is best known now as a counselor and biographer of King Louis VI (1108-1137) and as abbot of the monastery of St.-Denis.  He was a lifelong friend of the king, because back when Prince Louis was attending school in Paris, young Suger was also.  Schools were run by churches, and although the majority of the young men attending expected to have a career in the church, lay people might also attend as day students, as did Louis.

Suger became a monk at the abbey of St.-Denis, located not far outside of Paris.  (You can get there on the metro.  Be sure to get off at the "basilica" St.-Denis stop, not the "stadium" St.-Denis stop.  France's biggest soccer/football stadium is right down the road from the old abbey.)  This was considered a royal monastery, and many kings and queens of France were buried there, going back to the Merovingians.

It was dedicated to Saint Dennis, the supposed first bishop of Paris way back around the second century, who had been beheaded by the Romans for refusing to worship the pagan gods.  He was martyred on Montmartre ("mountain of the martyr") but then, to everyone's surprise, he picked up his head and started walking.  He'd gotten out to the suburbs before collapsing.  The abbey was built over his remains.  (One doubts he had gone out to catch one last football game.)

When the old abbot of St.-Denis died, Suger was elected abbot in 1122, presumably with some friendly hints from the crown.  Although the monastery was never known for its austerity, unlike the new monastic orders such as the Cistercians, it was free from scandal, and the monks prayed and were serious, even if well-fed.

Suger's major accomplishment as abbot was to rebuild his abbey's church.  He described the process proudly, including his miraculous discovery of enough old-growth oaks for the roof beams, when everyone told him there were no big trees left in the region.  (Notre-Dame, built a generation later, had to get their roof beams--burned in 2019--from all over and float them down to Paris.)  St.-Denis is considered the first Gothic church, marked by tall, thin walls and pointed (rather than rounded) arches.  It was dedicated in the presence of the king in 1144.    (Suger actually just rebuilt the western facade, seen below, and the choir at the opposite end, leaving the eighth-century nave in place, to finally be rebuilt a century later.)  His abbey church looks rather sad today, but it went through a lot in the French Revolution (including having all the kings and queens buried there dug up and tossed out).

After the death of Louis VI, Suger wrote an admiring biography of his old friend, usually translated today as "Deeds of Louis the Fat."  Well, it's not quite fair to think of Louis only in terms of his weight, because he was indeed a very effective and beloved king.  His father, Philip I, had toward the end of his life been said to be too fat to ride a horse, which is something.  Philip had also repudiated Queen Bertha, Louis's mother, because he said she was "too fat."  Hormones.  Louis didn't stand a chance.

When Louis VII (king 1137-1180), son of Louis VI, decided to go off on Crusade in 1147, Suger became regent of France.  At this time usually wives acted as regents for absent husbands, but Louis VII's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, accompanied him to the Holy Land.  But that's another story.

When Suger died, he had started a biography of Louis VII, obviously not completed as the king outlived him by almost thirty years.  But Suger's name was permanently associated with the French kings.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on monks, kings, and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other major ebook platforms.  Also available in paperback!

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Christ Stopped at Eboli

Lately I've been working on a book about medieval peasants.  So I've been looking at medieval documents in which peasants appear (there are a lot more such documents than has generally been assumed) and also at scholars' attitudes toward peasants.  If one assumes (as has too often been done) that peasants were silent, marginal, and passive and thus did not appear in the documents, then of course one will not look for them.  (As you probably guessed, I argue instead for active peasants.)

There has also been an assumption that peasant life was unchanging, that it has been the same for thousands of years.  I have also been reading Carlo Levi's classic book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, which makes this assumption.

Levi was an interesting person, a doctor and painter who got on the wrong side of the Fascists under Mussolini.  In 1935 he was sent into political exile from his native Torino to a little village way down in the foot part of the "boot" of the Italian peninsula, and he spent a year there, among those he called "my peasants."

He was pardoned after a year and hurried back to northern Italy.  But because he was Jewish, he was soon in trouble again and had to go into hiding.  While in hiding he wrote a memoir of his year in a peasant village, published in Italian in 1945 right at the end of the war, and translated into English in 1947.  It is still in print, in Italian, English, and many other languages.  His depiction of the very harsh life of southern Italian villagers brought their plight to the attention of the post-war Italian government, which sought to improve things.

The memoir is called Christ Stopped at Eboli NOT in the rather sweet, sentimental sense of "Jesus stopped off in Eboli for the night and did some miracles while he was there."  Rather, it means that Christianity and civilization got as far south in Italy as Eboli but didn't get any further.  Eboli is about two-thirds of the way down the peninsula, a short distance south of Naples, and at that point the train lines that had been following the coast south turned east instead, ignoring the south.  Here's how Levi defines it:

"We're not Christians," they [the peasants] say.  "Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli."  "Christian" in their way of speaking means "human being." ...  We're not Christians, we're not human beings; we're not thought of as men but simply as beasts, beasts of burden.  ...  Christ never came, just as the Romans never came, ... nor the Greeks.  ...  None of the pioneers of Western civilization brought here his sense of the passage of time, the deification of the State.  ...  The seasons pass today over the toil of the peasants, just as they did three thousand years before Christ."

This is certainly evocative.  But were the villagers among whom Levi lived for a year leading a life unchanged from the Middle Ages, much less the Bronze Age?  One would have to say NO.

To begin with, they were Christian.  There was a church in the village with a priest.  When Levi arrived they took their sick children to him, not because there was no other doctor, for there were in fact two other doctors, both trained at the University of Naples, a university that did not exist in the Middle Ages.  But both the villagers and Levi considered these men grossly incompetent, and the villagers added that the doctors were not "Christian."  So they did indeed use the term Christian to mean a competent human, but their use of the term here certainly indicates they believed themselves good Christians in contrast.

And the State had reached their village.  There were carabinieri, the national police.  The whole idea of political prisoners requires a state and politics—and there were several other political prisoners there besides Levi.  The mayor was proud of how Fascist he was; a medieval village might well have had a mayor but nothing comparable to positioning in a political party.

Some of the material culture of modernity had also reached the village.  Levi was brought there in an automobile.  There was electricity, even though he said dismissively it might be a single bulb hung from the ceiling.  Most of the villagers could read and write; there was a public school, where among other things they learned standard Italian, so Levi could talk to them without understanding their local dialect.  There was daily mail service, even if brought in on a mule.  There was even a public restroom with running water, though he claimed he was the only person ever to use it.  The villagers grew and ate tomatoes, which their medieval ancestors would not have done, as they are a New World food.  Some people from the village had moved to America.

This was not a land untouched by time.  Back in the early nineteenth century one might have been able to make such a case a bit more plausibly, but these villagers were living in the twentieth century, even if a different version of the twentieth century than Levi's friends back in Torino.  (In the same way, the Amish today are living in the twenty-first century, even if they don't have TV or drive cars.)

So what did the villagers mean when they said that Christ stopped at Eboli?  Levi thought it meant that they considered themselves inferior, scarcely human.  Given the grim conditions under which they lived (as he described it), my own interpretation of what he called a "proverbial phrase" is something closer to that song in the show Paint Your Wagon, "I'm so lost, so goldarn lost, not even God can find me."  They weren't saying they were inferior.  They were saying everyone had forgotten about them, even Christ.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval life, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Friday, July 31, 2020


They did not have corn in medieval Europe.

Wait! say my British readers (or those who have been reading books by British medievalists).  There are all these references to "corn"!  Yes, but they are using the word "corn" in its broad sense of "grain."  They certainly had grain (wheat, barley, rye primarily) in the Middle Ages.  But there was no maize, corn in the American sense, Zea mays to be scientific.

I thought I would blog about corn because it's an excellent example of how our diet and the diet of medieval people differed.  (They didn't have potatoes or tomatoes either, as I have previously discussed.)  Corn is a New World plant.

Both North American and South American indigenous peoples cultivated maize.  It is descended from a wild grass-like plant, teosinte, with which only a few mutations on key genes produced cobs rather than just little tufts of seeds, and didn't have the seeds scatter spontaneously when ripe.  It has been cultivated in Mexico for at least 9000 years, perhaps eaten originally as popcorn (though without "butter flavor" or movies).  It was well established throughout the Americas when Europeans first arrived.  For the Iroquois, it was one of the "three sisters," along with beans and squash, vegetables that they grew to supplement the wild animals they hunted.

In the Andes, almost as many varieties of corn were developed as varieties of potatoes.  They still have many not found in the US, such as purple corn or the very large-kerneled so-called Inca corn.  The picture below is from a produce market in the Andes.

Corn is now pervasive in the American diet.  You may start the day with corn flakes.  If you eat store cookies or drink soft drinks or put "maple flavored" syrup on your pancakes, look at the label--the chances are excellent that you will see corn syrup used as a sweetener.  (Medieval people didn't even have sugar for the most part, much less corn syrup.)  Puddings, sauces, and pie fillings are thickened with corn starch.  Corn bread is made of corn meal.  Corn tortillas of course are made of corn, and indeed tortillas were a part of the diet of Mexico and the American southwest long before the Spaniards arrived.  Corn, both the ears themselves and the stalks, are now chopped and fed to cattle.  Most of our beef cattle are fed a heavily corn-based diet to fatten them up.  Corn is also used to make ethanol, which is added to most gasoline.  Right now fresh corn on the cob is just starting to appear in farmers' markets in the northern part of the US, but this is a tiny fraction of where corn ends up.

In the world overall, more corn is harvested by weight than any other grain.  It grows fast and can be cultivated in a variety of settings if one chooses the right variety, mountains, plains, northern climes, tropical climes....  Some people now may want to reduce the amount of corn in their diet, but it's hard.

When the Spaniards reached the New World they started eating corn (unlike tomatoes, which they initially considered poisonous).  However, they had serious doubts about corn flour as a substitute for wheat flour.  Priests said only wheat flour could transubstantiate in the mass, meaning you couldn't use tortilla chips for the wafer, and the army leaders feared eating corn would weaken them somehow, making them more like the natives.  Of course this issue was complicated by the fact that wheat is not native to the New World.

So as you munch your cornflakes, popcorn, store cookies, pudding, cola, and nacho chips, remember that medieval people would have had no idea what you were eating.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval food, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Little lost monasteries

As I have discussed earlier, there were a large number of monasteries in the Middle Ages, houses where men (or women, though not both together) lived like a family, sharing their possessions, following a simple life cut off from the outside world (like in pandemic quarantine!), devoting all their attention to prayer and contemplation (not to Netflix binging).

Historians today tend to focus on the famous ones, like Cluny, whose church was the biggest in Europe, or Cîteaux, head of an order of austere "white monks" (so-called because unlike most monks they did not dye black the wool for their habits), or Fontevraud, where English kings and queens were buried.

But there were a whole lot of other monasteries, smaller for the most part, "lost" to historians today because most of their documents were lost, by the French Revolution if not indeed during one of the upheavals (or fires) of the preceding centuries.  Even their buildings have in many cases fallen into ruin, been deliberately destroyed, or sold.  During the Great Depression, some churches sold their buildings to American collectors.  The "Cloisters" in New York City, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, came from St.-Michel of Cuxa, in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Less well known are the remains of the monastery of St.-Laurent, in the Puisaye region of Burgundy.  But the large Romanesque portal of the church is now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where probably most people who see and admire the portal have never heard of the monastery.  The portal is shown below.

Portail de l'abbaye, musée des beaux-arts de Philadelphie (États-Unis). 

The majority of the monasteries about which little is known today seem to have had their origins in the Merovingian period, from the late sixth through the early eighth centuries.  Multiple small houses were founded then, many in cities.  Wealthy laypeople founded such houses and endowed them with property, and saints retreated to hermitages that became monasteries as the saints gained followers.  The monastery of St.-Laurent may have been one of them, if it can be identified with "Saint Wulfin's monastery" mentioned in the sixth century.

 But St.-Laurent (or St.-Wulfin) then disappears from the records, as do most other Merovingian-era foundations.  The following centuries were difficult ones for religious houses, between rapacious laymen appropriating monasteries as their own—the Carolingians, the family of Charlemagne, were noted for such appropriations, and many great dukes and counts followed suit—plus attacks by Saracens, Vikings, and Magyars.  Not until the eleventh century did these old little monasteries start to be reestablished.  New, rural monasteries, such as Cluny and Vézelay, were founded in the late ninth and tenth centuries, and during the eleventh and early twelfth centuries there was a concerted effort to reestablish the ruined Merovingian-era houses.

Most became houses of canons regular.  Such canons lived essentially like monks (sharing possessions, living simply in chastity and obedience) but they did interact with the outside world, saying mass for laypeople, baptizing and burying.  Because they were paid for such services, they could subsist on less property than could cloistered monks.  Old ruined monasteries in cities mostly became houses of canons regular.

So did St.-Laurent.  It was located on one of the major pilgrimage routes to Compostella, and it gained a good deal of attention and pious gifts, which was why it built so large a church, to serve both the canons and the pilgrims.  Never affiliated with any of the better-known monastic orders, it still commanded respect and admiration in its time, and it supervised the priests (and received the revenues) of a number of parish churches.  But like many other smaller medieval monasteries, it has few or no surviving records and is now essentially forgotten, except perhaps by the local historian of the village where the monastery once was established (St.-Laurent-l'Abbaye).

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on monasticism and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Summer in the Middle Ages

We think of summer as long, lazy days, time to relax and have fun.  That's because we're not farmers.  (And in fact the reason there's summer vacation from school is because, through the early twentieth century, it was assumed that kids would be needed in the summer to work on the farm.)

Medieval people did not think of summer as a time to relax.  It was time to get things done.  Since probably 90% of the population was engaged in agriculture, this was the time to plow and plant and weed and chase away critters and harvest.  It was assumed that during, for example, harvest time (winter wheat, planted at the end of autumn, would be harvested in July) everyone would set to work as soon as it was light enough to see and continue working until it was too dark to see.  This is why initially eighteenth-century factories believed in the 18 hour work day ("They work that long in the fields, they can work that long on the factory floor").

Below is a picture of a plowed field.  Even with a tractor, it's going to take you a while to work it.

Travel was far, far easier in the summer, in spite of the heat and muddy roads, than it was during the winter, when one was battling cold and snow and ice (and short days).  So the kings and great lords who traveled around to different parts of their realms did so primarily in the summer.  So did popes--and for the popes, getting out of Rome, which was then prone to malaria, made excellent sense in the summer.

Wars were also fought primarily in the summer.  This had always been true--the Bible talks about "May, when kings go to war."  An army needs forage for the horses and mules, which means waiting until the grass is growing, and it also prefers that the people they are going to raid have enough food on hand to make raiding worthwhile.

Even though winter was the time for story telling--there were a lot of long cold dark hours to fill--the stories were almost always set in the summer.  King Arthur stories typically started with the king at his mid-summer feast, hoping that something marvelous would show up.

Because the most common fabric for clothing was wool, one could get very warm in the summer without the lightweight cottons we take for granted (cotton only reached western Europe in the twelfth century and was expensive--the alternative was linen, also expensive).  Men could wear short sleeved tunics that were about knee length, and nothing underneath, but women were expected to wear long skirts, not shorts or mini-skirts.  They did tuck their skirts up when working in the field, but they were still more heavily dressed than the men.

Without electricity, no one before the late nineteenth century could have any kind of fan (other than one a human waved), much less air conditioning.  Northern Europe was still cool enough for most of the summer that it wouldn't become unbearable, but around the Mediterranean things definitely got toasty.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval life, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Medieval Communes

People sort of know what a commune is.  A group of hippies all living together in a big house, right?  And (in popular imagination) probably engaged in a lot more exciting activities than going to work and soaking the chick peas for supper, which surely occupied a lot more time, realistically.

The Middle Ages didn't have hippie communes but it certainly had communes, by which they meant sworn alliances of people governing themselves.  Working together as a community was an essential part of medieval society.  Monasteries, castles, and villages functioned in many ways like big families, and communes were part of this trend.

Urban communes developed at the same time as cities started growing in the twelfth century--the eleventh century in Italy.  A tiny city that had been dominated for centuries by count and bishop would, as it grew in population and became the home to many merchants and artisans, have its citizens decide they needed to be self-governing.  A commune would be set up, sometimes with the support of count and/or bishop, sometimes against their opposition.  These three major entities (count, bishop, merchant/artisan commune) would then have to work out some sort of agreement among themselves over issues like judging and tolls.

In France, the kings often supported the foundation of communes in various cities.  There are clear indications that money changed hands in the process.  It would be hard for a local authority to try to dissolve a commune when they had a royal charter.  The French kings, however, never allowed a commune in Paris.

Communes started with city councils, to make important decisions, and with judges or magistrates, to judge disputes between townspeople and punish malefactors.  Judges would be citizens of the city.  By the late twelfth century, most cities also had a mayor, a single elected individual who would be able to make decisions on crucial issues more expeditiously than could the whole city council.

Although city communes have gotten most of the scholarly attention, peasant villages had them too.  Here the beginning was the village of Lorris, not far from Paris, where the local landlord wanted to attract new settlers to his land and promised them a commune in return for settling there.  The "customs of Lorris" were approved by King Louis VI at the beginning of the   twelfth century and reconfirmed by his son and grandson in the following generations.  These customs were seen by all parties as symbols of liberty, because they gave the peasantry the authority to regulate disputes themselves and specified that the landlord could expect certain annual payments but not impose what the villagers considered arbitrary demands and taxes.  The customs of Lorris were widely copied in other villages.

This demonstrates what can be called peasant agency, the ability of peasants to make their own decisions or, at a minimum, fight back against what they considered oppression.  Medieval peasants might have lived in what we would now consider intolerable conditions (dirt-floored huts, no modern sanitation or modern medicine, back-breaking work), but they were neither silent nor passive.

In one well documented quarrel between the count of Nevers and the abbey of Vézelay, in Burgundy, both sides turned to the peasants and villagers of Vézelay for support.  The count, weeping what a monk of the abbey called obviously false tears, said that he was saddened to see the peasants so oppressed by the vile abbot, and he promised them a commune if they would forswear allegiance to the abbey and be his men instead.

(The image above is the interior of the church of Vézelay, as it would have looked at the time.)

The abbot in turn made a number of insulting remarks about the count and reminded the peasants that they had promised to be faithful to him.  Nonetheless, lured by the promise of a commune, the peasants threw their allegiance to the count, who promised to protect them from the "evil" abbot and who appointed magistrates and city council members from among their numbers.

The quarrel continued for a year, with many twists and turns, the intervention of two cardinals delegated by the pope, councils, threats, the abbot sneaking out of Vézelay claiming his life was in danger, various excommunications, and the like.  It was finally settled by compromise (as were most medieval disputes), with the peasants giving up their commune but getting the abbot to agree to drastically roll back what he had been demanding in dues.  The point is that peasants and townspeople were entirely capable of making the powerful pay attention to them and make concessions to them.  After all, they outnumbered them.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval peasants and townspeople, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Robert of Arbrissel

Although Cluny and Cîteaux, as I have discussed earlier, are now the best known French monasteries of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there were plenty of other houses, not associated with either of these great monasteries, where the monks tried to follow a pure life, and where laypeople came seeking prayers for their relatives and themselves.

One of the most significant of these was Fontevraud, founded in the early twelfth century in the west of France, on the border between Anjou and Poitou.  It was patronized by great kings, including Henry II of England and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had already been queen of France before marrying Henry.

The above is Eleanor's tomb at Fontevraud.  (It was added well after her death.)

But Fontevraud had a distinctly non-royal origin.  It was founded by a man named Robert of Arbrissel (c. 1045-1116), so-called because he came from the village of Arbrissel, in Brittany.  He joined the church as a young man and became a priest.

He was very interested, as were many other well-educated men in the eleventh century, in trying to find a life that matched that of the early apostles.  In his early 50s he retreated to the forest of Craon, near his home village, to become a hermit.  There were actually quite a few hermits there already, men living alone, devoting their days to prayer and contemplation, living from offerings of people who came to seek their wisdom and from small vegetable gardens.

It would be difficult being a hermit.  On the one hand one didn't want to starve, and thus pilgrims bringing small offerings were good.  On the other hand, how can a hermit focus on spiritual matters if people keep showing up and asking all sorts of things?

Robert, because of his learning and wisdom, soon attracted a following, and disciples began assembling around him.  In essence, his hermitage became a monastery.  And with his disciples around him seeking his spiritual insights, Robert seems to have decided within a year that his real vocation was in preaching, spreading God's word.  The pope was visiting France, and he gave Robert an official "license to preach."  For the next twenty years, until his death, Robert wandered around, preaching and gathering followers.

He appealed especially to women.  He would come into town, preaching God's word, and when he left, a number of women would go with him.  Now without modern forms of entertainment and communication, a wandering preacher was much more exciting at the beginning of the twelfth century than it is now.  And one can certainly see that women would have been intrigued by the possibility of leaving a dreary life behind.  But walking cross country, living on hand-outs, and sleeping in fields was not going to be "fun" for long.  The women kept on, at least some of them, convinced they were drawing closer to God.

The bishops were distraught.  What was this old guy doing, wandering around with a lot of women?  One bishop accused him of looking like the village idiot, going barefoot and dressed in shabby clothes.  He even accused him of practicing some strange exercise in self-control, in which a man would deliberately sleep next to women without any sexual activity, to test their ability to resist temptation:  but, he said, this never worked, "as the cries of babies show us, if you get my drift." He told Robert that he had to found a nunnery and put all these women in it.

Robert rather reluctantly established the monastery of Fontevraud in 1101 for the women.  But it was not just for women.  Under the authority of one woman, an abbess, there was a house for women, a house for men, and a leprosy, a house for lepers.  Fontevraud immediately became known for its holiness of life, which is why it gained so much attention in the following generations, including from kings and queens.  The bishop expected Robert would stay there, but he kept right on wandering and preaching.  He would promise to stay put "this time" and head right out again as soon as the bishop's back was turned.  His followers considered him a saint after his death, for his humility and holy wisdom, but he has never officially become a saint, probably because of his failure to follow the rules.

The monastery is still there, all the different components surrounded by a long wall, though it is now a museum, without monks or nuns or lepers.  The former leper house is now a luxury hotel.

Two "lives" of Robert were written shortly after his death by men who had known him, translated into English by Bruce L. Venarde, as Robert of Arbrissel:  A Medieval Religious Life (Catholic University Press, 2003).

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on monasticism and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other e-tailers.  Also available in paperback.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Know Your Self Publishing

I've got a new book!  It's called "Know Your Self Publishing:  Everything You Wished You Knew Before Publishing."  This one's different from what I've published before.  It's helpful tips for independent publishing.  I figure a lot of people who read my blog would like to become published authors themselves, so I've compiled some ideas to get you underway.

 Know Your Self Publishing: Things You Wished You Knew Before Publishing by [C. Dale Brittain]

"Reports! Sales! Royalties! Book Reviews! And what about all those pirates trying to steal my book?
There's a lot for the new self-publishing author to keep track of. Here an experienced self-publisher answers many of the questions that keep coming up, even questions someone may not even have known to ask, in a light-hearted Q&A format."  That's the book description.

Here's the link on Amazon, available either as an ebook or a paperback.  It's aimed particularly at those self-publishing through Amazon's KDP program for ebooks and paperbacks (it stands for Kindle Direct Publishing).  These days, ebooks by "indies" (independent publishers) sell far better than paperbacks, but you can do either.

The key is that an indie isn't just a writer.  She also has to be a publisher, meaning she has to understand sales figures, how royalties are calculated and paid, how to have the book reviewed, and how to make sure people even know your book exists.  Many say that writing the book is far easier than becoming the publisher.

So these are the issues my new book addresses.  I haven't talked about formatting, which is a major issue in itself, but which a lot of other guides address.  Amazon KDP has step by step instructions for getting your book formatted and ready to publish.  I also touch only in passing on marketing and advertising.

But the book addresses concerns that new publishers often have, which don't seem to have obvious answers when they look around, such as How many books can I expect to sell? or If I publish my book will other people steal it? or Why won't Amazon let Mom write a glowing review of my new book? or Will Fred's Corner Bookstore carry my book?  Even Can I quit my day job? (short answer, no).  It's about 100 pages long, available as an ebook that can be read on your computer, a tablet, a Kindle, or your phone.

I've updated the cover.  The new one, done by Brad, is shown below.  Which one do you like best?

Know Your Self Publishing: Things You Wished You Knew Before Publishing by [C. Dale Brittain]

©  C. Dale Brittain 2020

Monday, June 8, 2020

Alaric the Goth

Medievalists have embraced Late Antiquity.  This is the period, roughly third or fourth century AD to the seventh or eighth century, that might be seen as lying between Antiquity and the Middle Ages.  Classicists, those who study ancient Greece and Rome, cover lots of fields, language and literature, art, and archaeology, as well as ancient history.  Usually they lose interest around the fourth century, once the Roman Empire's capital moved from Rome to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and the Empire became officially Christian.  So medievalists have taken up Late Antiquity and reconceptualized it, not as the era of the "fall of Rome" but rather as the beginning of the Middle Ages.

After all, medieval society is generally seen as developing from a mix of Roman culture, Germanic culture, and Christianity, so we might as well embrace the centuries where those got all mixed together.

One of the major figures in Late Antiquity was Alaric the Goth.  The Goths were a Germanic people who had lived at the eastern edges of the Roman Empire and had been wandering in during the fourth century.  The Romans had recruited a number of their young men into their armies.  The Goths were not an organized "tribe" but rather a large group of people who shared a lot of language and culture.  There were two main subgroups, the Visigoths (meaning western Goths) and Ostrogoths (meaning, as you probably already guessed, eastern Goths.)  In the late fourth century, the Visigoths lived in the Balkans.

(And no, the Goths did not wear heavy eye makeup and black fingernail polish.  They also had nothing to do with Gothic architecture.  One word, many meanings.)

And here we meet Alaric of the Visigoths (c. 375-411).  He was recruited into the Roman army as a young man and helped the Romans defeat the Franks, another Germanic tribe (which eventually settled in the Empire, in what is now called France for them, but that's another story).  He did not receive the accolades and rewards he felt he had been promised and left the army.  But he gained a high position nonetheless in becoming king of the Visigoths in 395.  (Guess Rome was showed!)  (You note he's still only about twenty.  This is a world of young men.)

 The above is a nineteenth-century German picture of what Alaric might have looked like.  Because he was Germanic, the nineteenth-century Germans liked him, as they tried to assemble a national identity.

He and his people were recognized by Rome but not given much respect.  A recent author has tried to draw parallels between the Goths being treated as second-class by Italians, and modern African-Americans being discriminated against by mainstream American culture, but I think he's overdoing it (though I'm glad he's concerned about modern African-Americans).  The leaders of the Roman Empire treated everybody like that.  They were a slave society.  Anyone who wasn't them was considered a lower being.

So I wouldn't call Alaric's concern a desire for his civil rights.  After all, he spent most of his years as king plundering Roman territory.  He had seen how wealthy the Romans were, and he went from plundering Greece to plundering Italy.  It's an incredibly complicated story, involving rival emperors, imperial usurpers, treaties made and broken, ransoms promised and reneged on.  It puts Game of Thrones to shame.  It didn't help the Romans in the long run that they captured and killed a lot of the wives and children of the Goths during some of the wars' twists and turns.

In 410 Alaric and his Goths decided to sack the city of Rome itself.  This was as you can imagine a shock to the citizens of Rome.  The city had not been effectively attacked for half a millennium.  But the Goths came through and seized everything that wasn't nailed down.  One of the prizes Alaric took with him was the emperor's sister (who eventually married Alaric's brother, but that's another story.)

 Above is a nineteenth-century French depiction of the sack of Rome.  Visigoths are preparing to topple a Roman statue.  It's unclear why they've decided to do so in the nude.

Now this was not the "fall of Rome."  Several years later the city had rebuilt so successfully that Romans boasted you could hardly tell anything had happened.  There continued to be, at least intermittently, Roman emperors in Rome, as well as the main emperors in Constantinople, for several more generations.

Alaric himself did not survive a year after the sack of Rome, dying probably of a fever.  The story is that a stream was diverted from its course, and he was buried in the stream bed with suitable amounts of loot, and then the stream was allowed back into its banks, to conceal his final resting spot.  To be sure, the slaves who had done the digging were all executed.

But the Visigoths, carrying lots of excellent loot, headed west, eventually settling in southern France and the Spanish peninsula, which was also part of the Roman Empire.  They had picked up a variant of Christianity, Arianism (officially a heresy, it denies the divinity of Christ, calling Jesus just an inspired teacher).  There they ruled until the rise of Islam two centuries later.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval social and political history, see my book, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other e-tailers, either as an ebook or in print.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Revolt of the White Caps

Popular movements, social revolts, heresies:  it is really hard to distinguish them for the Middle Ages.  It used to be that historians would see all heresies as social revolts in disguise, dismissing the religious aspect as just a facade.  That of course is not true, but it would be equally wrong to think of the heresies which became popular movements--as many did--as animated only by spiritual concerns.

This brings us to the White Caps, a religious/social movement of the 1180s.  It started in the town of Le Puy, in the Auvergne, a city built on a series of volcanic cones.  A man named Durand had a vision of the Virgin, who is the patron saint of Le Puy.


This is the town today.  On top of the highest peak you can glimpse a nneteenth-century statue of the Virgin.

Anyway, in Durand's vision in the 1180s he was told to form a group of faithful people who would all adopt a lead badge with the Virgin's image on it and a white cap or hood.  Both lords and peasants joined the group, with the goal of bringing "peace" to the region, in part by attacking bandits who were interfering with local trade.  Durand's group was known as the capucciati because of their caps.

Several chroniclers recorded the events at the time, all giving slightly different versions.  One said that the vision that began it was nothing but an "imposture," and that the greedy merchants of Le Puy just wanted an easier time transporting their goods.  Most however credited the group with real religious devotion.

The movement quickly spread north into Burgundy and became established in the region around Auxerre.  Here, the chroniclers all agreed, the movement changed, and the peasants and villagers turned on the lords who had once been part of their group, saying they were all bandits themselves.  At this point the bishop of Auxerre, recently consecrated, became involved.

Bishop Hugh rode out, heavily armed, with his men and rounded up all the White Caps folks he could find.  He took away their caps and their badges, saying they had forgotten that "the wages of sin are servitude" and they were all sinners and serfs, and that the Bible says that serfs should not attack their lords (the Bible actually says "the wages of sin are death" and talked about slaves, not medieval serfs, but this was close enough for the bishop).

He told the defeated White Caps that, to punish them, they would not be able to wear any hat at all for a year, either to shelter them from the bright sun during harvest or to keep the snow off in the winter.  The bishop's uncle, the archbishop of Sens, however saw the men roasting in the harvest fields, had pity, and told Bishop Hugh to let them wear regular hats again.

This short-lived revolt has several interesting features.  One is that it demonstrates peasant agency, the ability of people who are usually thought of as marginal and oppressed to fight back against oppression, as I have discussed earlier.  It also shows that what might be considered a social revolt, an effort by peasants to claim that all lords were, in some form, bandits, would take on a distinctly religious tone in the Middle Ages.  The capucciati were not an actual heresy, because they were not espousing erroneous doctrine, but a religious impulse clearly started their movement.  It is also important to note that bishops were not always in agreement with each other, and that many bishops, like Bishop Hugh of Auxerre, felt that they were a better judge of real religion than other people, and were prepared for armed conflict to prove it.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval religion and society, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other e-tailers.  Also available in paperback!

Monday, May 18, 2020

How I Survived Junior High

I've got a new book!  It's entitled "How I Survived Junior High" and is available on all the major ebook sites (Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, Nook), and is also available as a paperback.

Those who know me as a fantasy writer will note that this one is short on wizards and dragons or even a medieval (or semi-medieval) setting.  It is however "historical fiction," set back some 60 years ago in the US.  Like all of my novels, I think of it as "searing," while readers may say, "Gave me a few chuckles."  I deny that it is autobiographical.

Here's the description:

Back before cell phones, before computers or streaming video, even before they called it "middle school," life was easier, right? Wrong!
It's the early 1960s. Shelley, shy and twelve years old, leaves a small elementary school for a big junior high. Her experiences are both painful and very funny. Will she be able to make friends? Will the kids in the popular clique even notice her? Which is more obnoxious, her little brother or the school principal? Why is her body changing like this, and will she ever get a date?

And here's the opening:


I didn't get lost once on the first day of Junior High, even though I had 
never been in the building before. I cheated, though. My mother had
taught there before I was born and told me, “Go in the front door, turn right, and your homeroom is at the end of the hall on the left.” And for the rest of the day I just followed the other people in my classes from one room to another. Since they had not gone to a three- room grade school as I had, they could be expected to be able to find their way around a large building. 

Homeroom 110 was at the end of the hall, on the left, just as my mother had said. Our bus had been early, and there were only two other people there besides the teacher.
“Hello,” she said as I came in. “Is this your home- room? I’m Mrs. Wilkes.” 

“I’m Shelley Langdon,” I answered and smiled. Smile at your teachers, my father had said as I left that morning. Mrs.Wilkes was glancing at a list on her desk. “Shelley is short for Michelle.” 

Mrs. Wilkes returned my smile. She had a plump face and smiled just like my favorite aunt.
“Choose any seat you like, Michelle. Make yourself comfortable until everyone is here.” 

I took a seat next to the window. Be sure to get a desk with enough light, my father had said. And since our bus had been so early, I had plenty of time to make myself comfortable.
“I wonder what she teaches,” I thought, looking at Mrs. Wilkes. “I wonder if I’ll have her. I wonder if any of the other kids in this homeroom will be in my classes.” 

My older brother Jack had gone to junior high on the other side of town before they’d changed the school districts. “Homerooms are alphabetical,” he said, “but your classes depend on how smart you are.” Jack thought he knew everything about junior high, just because he was three years older than I and in high school now. He had ignored me when I said that maybe Sidney Sharpe Junior High was different from his. 

Other students were coming in now. “Hey there, Tom!” “Barbie, how you been?” “Did you guys have a good summer?” “Hey, Jamie, we’re in the same room again!” “I had a great summer!” 

No one said, “Hi, Shelley!” There was no one in the room from my grade school. I sat up straighter, flipped my long curly hair back over my shoulders, and hid my chewed fingernails under the desk. 

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

If you came to my blog looking for medieval history rather than fiction, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other e-tailers.  Also available in paperback.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Prester John

There was a strong belief in the Middle Ages of a mysterious Prester John (the prester meaning priest), a king somewhere in Africa who was a Christian.  During most of Europe's Middle Ages sub-Saharan Africa was primarily what they considered pagan (North Africa of course was Muslim from the seventh century on), so the idea of a Christian enclave was very exciting.

This idea may have had its origin in third-hand stories about Ethiopia.  That region of east Africa included a large Christian population (the kingdom of Ethiopia had made Christianity the official religion in the fourth century) and a large Jewish population.  The latter were descended, according to legend, from the Queen of Sheba, who had married King Solomon.  The Prester John of the stories was usually black (like the Ethiopians) and also Christian.

But there was more to the story of Prester John than confused travelers' tales about Ethiopia (or India or Christian Armenia).  The story gained wide currency from the (fictive) accounts in a volume called Mandeville's Travels.  Mandeville supposedly discovered two great kingdoms, side by side in Africa (or India, or possibly the Middle East, at any rate very far away), one a scary Muslim kingdom of Assassins, the other a beautiful and happy Christian kingdom ruled over by Prester John.  In some versions, John was descended from the Three Magi.  Thus tales of Prester John, who combined the functions of king and priest, could serve as a foil for all that was supposedly bad about Islam.

The kingdom of Prester John was of course opulent, full of rich jewels, as any imagined wonderful country should be.  But John and his nobles lived abstemiously, eating simple fare, having sex only a few times a year and then only for the purpose of procreation.  Prester John got to have a harem in these stories, or at least be polygamous like an Old Testament figure, but he rarely visited his wives.  Thus the stories about him could also serve as morality stories about what Europe's own monarchs were supposed to be like, as seen in the late medieval image below.  The supposed Assassin kingdom next door to Prester John's, in contrast, was full of gluttony and lechery.

It should not be a surprise that stories of Prester John first became popular in the middle of the twelfth century, during the height of the crusading movement.  A letter that he supposedly wrote, saying that he wanted to help defend Jerusalem from the Muslims and personally visit the Holy Sepulchre, gained wide circulation in the 1140s.  In the 1170s the pope wrote a letter to Prester John, suggesting they should work together, though he doesn't seem to have gotten an answer.

In the early thirteenth century, after the Muslims had taken back Jerusalem, a crusading army made some spectacularly disastrous strategic decisions based on the conviction that Prester John himself (or a son or grandson or nephew for sure) was about to show up with his armies to help them.  (As you probably guessed, he didn't.)

The story of Prester John continued to be influential during the late Middle Ages, getting extra impetus when diplomatic relations were established (sort of) with Ethiopia in the fourteenth century.  By the seventeenth century, however, Europeans had to admit that perhaps Prester John had not been real after all, and that Ethiopia was not the marvelous jeweled kingdom they'd heard about.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on crusades and legends and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other e-tailers.  Also available as a paperback.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020


Gypsies first appeared in western Europe in the late Middle Ages.  Although in the US they are considered a fairly intriguing group, in Europe they have been distrusted and considered dangerous ever since they first appeared.  The word "gypsy" in English is connected "to gyp," to cheat.  British gypsies therefore prefer being called Travelers, because moving from place to place has always been one of their defining characteristics.  The best term for them (their own term) is Roma or Romani.

The first records of them are from India in the tenth and eleventh centuries, when there are references to groups who were especially good at music.   In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, they began migrating west, from India to Persia to Armenia to Byzantium, the Greek-speaking heir to the Roman Empire, centered in Constantinople.  The Greeks called them Atzinganoi, a word that may have meant "heretics" originally, and that has given rise to most of Europe's names for them (Zigeuner in German, Tsiganes in French, Zingari in Italian).

The Romani stayed in Byzantine territory for several centuries, picking up many Greek words to add to a language that had originated in the Indian subcontinent, and gaining the very designation of Romani, people of the "Roman Empire," especially that part now known as Romania.  It was during this period that they began to be considered a particular race, a group within Byzantium with distinctive culture, language, religion, and habits:  for example, they were described as thieves and also as endowed with strange occult powers, especially fortune-telling.

(Cue Cher's song, "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.")

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with the attacks of the Turks on Byzantium (and its eventual fall), many of the Romani moved west again.  When they reached England, they were called "Egyptians," probably from a combination of their darker complexion (compared to the Celts and Anglo-Saxons of the British Isles) and of their reputation for sorcery, for Muslim Egypt was also considered a center of dark arts.  This is the root of the word English word "gypsy."

The Romani were distrusted, as strange "foreign" people.  Some settled down in their own communities in western Europe, but others found it hard to be accepted and found it easiest to keep moving, doing itinerant work (such as being tinkers) or doing animal trading.  Few became farmers.  In many ways, they were treated similarly to the way the Jews were treated, as a minority with useful skills on which the dominant culture wanted to keep a watchful eye, and against which there were periodic attacks.

Those Romani who stayed in Romania/Moldavia/Transylvania had it even more difficult.  The area was considered the breadbasket of the Turkish empire that had replaced the Byzantine empire, and many Romani became agricultural slaves, a condition that persisted until the nineteenth century.

The Romani are still distrusted and treated with prejudice in modern Europe.  France forbids parking a camper (the modern replacement for the old gypsy caravan) in a house's driveway, meaning that those who want to spend part of the year following the old itinerant ways have to garage one someplace.  (This rule was not written with French vacationers in mind.)

I have included gypsies in some of my fantasies.  I call them Romney, with a different spelling to indicate that I am not striving for historical exactness in my fiction.  The Romney play an important role in the novella A Long Way Til November, which (unlike some of my other novellas) still has my own original cover, a photo of the French hilltop town of Turenne.

A Long Way 'Til November (The Royal Wizard of Yurt Book 9) by [C. Dale Brittain] 

 © C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval society, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.  Also available in paperback!

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Ebook Covers

There's an old saying, "You can't tell a book from its cover," meaning that what something looks like on the surface doesn't necessarily tell you what it's really like.  It's certainly true literally, that sometimes a very boring cover will be found on an exciting book, or an intriguing cover on a very weak book.  And we all know in getting books from the library that often their hardcover books have just plain, cloth covers in a solid color, with the old paper jacket long gone.

But how about ebooks?  You aren't going along a shelf, either looking for something specific or waiting for a title to catch your eye.  You're browsing a series of small ("thumbnail") images of covers.  As ebooks burgeon in numbers (there are at least 8 million on Amazon), authors try to make their book covers say, "Buy me!" to separate them from the pack.

Now, back when I first published the first book in my major fantasy series, A Bad Spell in Yurt, this was way pre-ebooks.  Books were sold in physical bookstores.  But it had an intriguing cover by Tom Kidd which made it stand out from the other fantasy books on the "new releases" table.  (The image below is the Kidd cover, now the ebook cover on Amazon.  I paid him for the rights to be able to use it again.)

I picked up enough readers with that cover (and have continued to do so over the years) that the rest of the series has sold just fine, with varying covers.

But recently I decided to redo the covers on the series novellas.  A novella is a short novel, and these were designed to recount events in between the events of the six main novels.  They stand alone (that is, you don't need to have read other books in the series), so I was also hoping to lure in new readers.

Originally I published them with covers I made myself using a simple graphics program.  The Lost Girls and the Kobold ebook has magical mountains as a major plot component, so I used a photo I took of mountains (the foothills of the Rockies, between Cody and Yellowstone), and the Below the Wizards' Tower story takes place in a city with towers, on the ocean, so I used a tower (Fougères castle in Brittany).

But are these covers intriguing enough?  I have nothing against my own covers, and my "blog book" (image and link at bottom of this page) features my own photo of Fleckenstein castle in Alsace.  But these novellas had been doing well, so I decided to "reward" them with new covers from Self Pub Book Covers.

Independent book publishing (which is what I do) has, as I have discussed previously, spawned a whole service industry of "helpers," including companies that design covers.  This company specializes in "pre-mades," where the graphic artist designs a lot of covers with different images, and the author comes along and chooses one that looks good and puts their own title on it.

(This works for the graphic artist, who can crank out some "pre-mades" between assignments, and who doesn't have to worry that the author will come back and say, "I know I told you to make the cat a tabby, but now I've decided it should be white.  Plus add a dog. No, not that kind of dog."  It also works for the author who might have trouble visualizing a good cover without some samples.) 

So below you'll see my new covers.  They are by respectively R.L. Sather and Viergacht.  How do you like them compared to the originals?

Below the Wizards' Tower (The Royal Wizard of Yurt Book 8) by [C. Dale Brittain]
© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For aspects of medieval history (rather than fantasy), see my book Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other platforms, both as a paperback and an ebook.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

After the plague

As I have posted before, the Middle Ages certainly had epidemics, most notably the Black Death, usually known now as the bubonic plague (it also had a variant, the pneumonic plague, even more virulent).  I used to have trouble explaining to my students how serious the plague was in the fourteenth century and how much it disrupted what one might think of as normal.  Some would say, Is it like AIDS?  No, because AIDS is not particularly contagious, and people can live with it for years.  In the future it may be easier to explain the plague:  it's more like COVID-19.

Now the plague was far more deadly than our current epidemic.   Estimates are that maybe a third of Europe's population was wiped out within a year or two.  We are nowhere near that figure yet, but there's still time.

Part of Europe's problem in the fourteenth century was that it was impossible to practice "social distancing."  Houses were small and close together, so for most people "self-quarantining" away from everyone else was just not possible.  The same problem, that one cannot put distance between oneself and other people, is why the current disease has spread so rapidly in places like cruise ships, prisons, and Mediterranean countries where houses are still small and close together.  In the case of the plague, the disease could be spread by fleas, so staying 6 (or 12) feet apart was not going to be enough anyway.

Without modern medical treatments and sanitizers, medieval people could try to flee (often taking the disease with them), but the overall response was by necessity something close to what is now described as "ride it out," keep on trying to act normal, and figure that after a while everyone who was going to die is dead, and the rest either are immune or have recovered.

Well, the problem with that approach then (as it would be now) is that an awful lot of people die, and whatever health care facilities you have are overwhelmed, so a lot of those who die might have had a chance to recover in better circumstances.

And what happens then?  Well, in spite of happy hopes one sometimes hears expressed, you can't just restart an economy devastated by a pandemic.  In fourteenth-century Europe, trade routes had been completely disrupted, cities (the centers of economic exchange) decimated, churches and law courts emptied, and any sense of optimism for the future dealt a pretty significant blow.  You can't just put an economy back together when a lot of the people on whom the economy depends are dead.

Europe's cities shrank and did not return to their pre-plague size for at least another century.  Italian merchants who survived stopped putting their money into commerce, which looked decidedly iffy, and started patronizing art instead, kick-starting the Italian Renaissance.  Religious expression became far more morbid, with "dance of death" a common artistic scene:  Death is portrayed dancing across the countryside, bringing everyone with him, rich and poor, young and old, men and women.

Many started creating what might be considered double-decker tombstones, two depictions of the deceased carved in stone, one above the other like bunk beds.  In one the deceased would be seen dressed and peacefully sleeping, as seen in elite tombs for generations.  In the other, the deceased would be depicted as partially decayed, complete with worms carved in stone.

The only ones to come out of the plague better off (besides the Italian artists) were the peasants, if one can put "better off" and "many friends and family members dead" in the same sentence.  Europe had been overpopulated, without enough land (using fourteenth-century techniques and crops) to adequately feed the population.  Losing a third to a half of the population certainly solved that pesky problem!  Peasant families could start farming more land, because a lot of their neighbors were gone.  Landlords who relied on peasant rents and labor had to lower rents or pay more for labor if they didn't want to have to grow their own food themselves, because there was competition for the surviving peasant workers.

In some places landlords fought back.  England for example passed laws trying to keep peasants from demanding higher wages or lower rents.  These were not nearly as successful as hoped.  The peasants in turn fought back, becoming aware, really for the first time, that they had common cause with peasants around the country, resulting in the great Peasants Revolt of 1381.  But that's a story for another time.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval disease and other aspects of medieval history, see my book Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook  and on-line platforms.