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 ebook!  Or at least an e-booklet.  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.  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 50 pages long, available as an ebook that can be read on your computer, a tablet, a Kindle, or your phone.

©  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.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Peasant rents

As I have discussed before, medieval peasants were not slaves.  By our standards they worked like dogs and died, worn out, at an age we would still consider young and fun.  But they had a perhaps surprising amount of control over their own lives, and in the High Middle Ages one might consider most of them agricultural tenants.

They paid rents, no more the slave of their landlord than people who rent an apartment now are the slave of their landlord.  The rents however were not the checks that we might write.  Rather, they were a mix of produce, other agricultural products (like wine or animals), manual labor, and coins.

A typical example is provided by a charter issued for the nunnery of Marcigny in 1104.  A widow named Rotrudis wanted to "take the habit" (as becoming a nun was called) and gave Marcigny all the land she had inherited from her father.  (Monasteries and nunneries expected entry gifts, because the monks or nun was going to be fed and clothed for the rest of their life.)  The land came complete with the peasants who lived on it.  They had been paying their rents to Rotrudis, and now they would pay them to the nunnery.  The charter spelled out what the nuns could expect to receive each year:  forty-two loaves of bread, forty-two bushels of oats, forty-two gallons of wine, four sheep, four piglets, four adult pigs, nine chickens (capons were specified), and twenty-three pennies.

(I note the recurring number 42--wasn't that supposed to be the "meaning of life, the universe, and everything"?  Credit The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.)

The peasants clearly had fairly prosperous farms, to be able to pay this amount in rent and have far more left to feed their families.  One will also note the mix of grain, animals, wine, and coin.  Although this particular charter did not mention labor dues, other charters from the same period often mentioned that a peasant family would send someone to work on the landlord's fields once or twice a week, or that the peasants might be expected to help with work at harvest time or provide carts for bringing the harvest from a distant field to the landlord.

Here the rents that Rotrudis had been receiving, and which the nuns would receive in the future, were spelled out in writing.  However, this was probably the first time that this had been done.  The peasants knew how much they owed.  Rotrudis knew, and presumably her father had known, back when the land in question had been his.  But since normally rent obligations were not written down (and the peasants would not have known how to read anyway), memory had to keep everyone honest.

One should also note that not all peasants were tenants.  Some held their property as "allods," land that they owned outright.  In practice, most peasants probably had some allodial land and rented other land, often from more than one landlord.  Memory was expected to keep track of a lot.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval peasants, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other ebook platforms.  Also available as a paperback!

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Medieval grandparents

All human societies have a role for grandparents, people who are no longer as active as they once were but are full of accumulated wisdom and are eager to pass it on to their children and grandchildren.  Today the ideal (though not attained nearly as often as one would hope) is to have children grow up with all four grandparents in the picture.  This was less likely in the Middle Ages.

In part people lived shorter lives, on average.  The human life "span" hasn't changed, as I've discussed earlier, that is the maximum length one might live if everything went very well, but the "expectancy" has gotten a lot longer, that is how long one might on average expect to live, given modern medicine and nutrition (and less back-breaking labor).  Someone who made it to 60 in the Middle Ages, even among the aristocracy, would be more like someone making 80 today.  (Just for the record, someone in their 60s now is young-n-fun.)

Grandparents often lived with their children and grandchildren, or at least nearby.  Among the peasantry, moving far away for a job was far less common than it is in modern America.  Among the aristocracy, the oldest son at least assumed he would life in the same castle or manor house as his parents--and would be eager for Dad to retire so he could take over.  ("Haven't you ever given thought to your soul, Dad?  You know retiring to a monastery can help!")

But until they died or retired, grandparents would be very useful.  As we know, "it takes a village to raise a child," and grandparents, then and now, can be part of this if still around.

Aristocratic young women were more likely to marry far from their parents, who they might indeed never see again after their wedding.  So the new countess (or whatever) would have to make peace with her mother-in-law, who might be the only grandparent her children would know.

There are examples of women continuing to play a major role in their families' lives; Countess Mathilda of Nevers in the thirteenth century, for example, arranged the marriages of her children, her grandchildren, and her great-granddaughters.

Because medieval people defined themselves in large part by their families, they were acutely aware of who their grandparents were, even if they never knew them.  Knowing your grandparents and more distant ancestors' identities was also important for avoiding consanguineous (incestuous) marriages, since medieval definitions of incest stretched out to quite distant cousins.  The male line of one's family was more crucial than the female, as is still the case today, when last names often define "family," and children typically take the father's last name.

(In doing my own family's history, I've found death certificates of women ancestors, filled out with information provided by their daughters, and the younger generation often did not even know their maternal grandmother's maiden name.  Death certificates often ask for names of the deceased's parents, including the deceased's mother's maiden name.)

The medieval Latin term for grandfather was avus, with avia for grandmother.   Going back to great-grandfather etc., the terms were proavus, abavus, and atavus.  Sometimes the ab- and at- got switched.  The same prefixes were attached to avia.  Periodically noble families would draw up elaborate lists of their ancestors, sometimes arranged in a family tree.

In the image above, from a twelfth-century manuscript, a figure holds a chart showing how relatives are named, filius and filia for son and daughter, nepos and neptis for grandson and granddaughter (the same words were used for nephew and niece), avus and avia for grandparents, and so on.  Next to each Latin word is a number indicating "degrees of consanguinity" (1 for a child or parent, 2 for a grandparent, and so on).

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval families, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other ebook platforms.  (Also available in print.)

Friday, April 10, 2020

YA fantasy

An extremely popular form of literature today is what is called YA fantasy.  I write it myself.  The YA stands for "young adult," which in practice means teenagers.  Although medieval teenagers were considered functionally as nearly adults, as I have discussed earlier, modern teenagers (even if called "young adults") are assumed to be at a certain stage and to need literature written just for them.  (There is also a new fiction category, NA, "new adult," for college-age students somewhere between the teen years and full adulthood, but we don't need to worry about that now.)

In practice of course a lot of adults, including me, read YA fiction.  A good, well-written story remains good and well-written no matter who it's aimed at.  In Britain, when Harry Potter first burst on the scene, the books were issued with two sets of covers, one for kids and one more "sober" looking set for adults to read on the train without embarrassment.

In some ways fantasy is the perfect metaphor for being a teenager today.  One is discovering a strange world, which has its own mysterious rules, and which is larger than one realized.  One is facing challenges that require rethinking what one thought one knew.  Are you a peasant boy or a king in disguise?  If the latter, hadn't you ought to start acting like one?  And so on.

Fantasy also allows one to break free of the mundane.  When one is wielding a magic sword to overcome the forces of darkness, one need not worry about whether one's term paper is the right length, if the cool kids with cars look down on those who take the bus, or why the grownups don't understand the complex yearnings of one's soul.

Indeed, in most YA fantasy the grownups are pretty much out of the action (hors combat as the French say).  They are dead, or captured, or just don't understand.  That's why the teenagers have to save the day.  YA fantasy often has a certain amount of moral ambiguity, as the heroes and heroines face complex choices where there are no good answers.  But at a certain point our brave young protagonists have to overcome really really bad people, bad enough that blasting them to smithereens poses no moral challenge at all.

In fact, there is a phrase that is gaining in popularity, "as evil as the villains in YA fantasy."

Women are just as active and resourceful in these stories as the men.  YA fantasy often has young men and women interacting with each other (and facing the evil villain together), but there is very little actual sex.  If so, it happens off stage.  (This is quite different from YA set in modern America, where there may be a lot of sex.)

I had a book, The Witch and the Cathedral, selected by the New York Public Library as Notable Book for the Teen Age.  It was not a book about teenagers, interestingly enough.  The wizard-hero was in his late forties.  I think what they liked was that the sex (off-stage) had real consequences.  (The book is still available as an ebook.)

More recently I started a new series of books, which is the "Next Generation" from the wizard-hero in his forties whom the New York Public Library liked.  This one began with The Starlight Raven, which actually has a teenage heroine.  I've tried hard not to have the villains be Horribly Evil because they're Bad.

(It's available both in print as an ebook.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval families and growing up then, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Holy Week

It's Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week for Christians, the most important religious period in the medieval calendar.  (The Orthodox church still calculates religious holidays based on the Julian calendar, so theirs comes along a little later.)

As I have noted before, Easter tends to be a relatively minor event in the modern world compared to Christmas, more of an excuse to celebrate Mardi Gras with raucous parties, buy a new spring outfit, and justify eating king crab (seafood for Lent!) than a real religious holiday.  Although around Christmas some people insist that one say "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays," and some radio stations blast nothing but Christmas songs for a month, Easter doesn't get nearly as much attention.  No one goes around insisting that everyone say "Happy Easter," recording artists don't all feel compelled to issue an Easter album, and no radio stations play "Peter Cottontail" for a solid month.  And let's just say that chocolate eggs and bunnies are not a big feature of the Gospels.

But Easter was crucial for medieval people, the celebration of Christ's resurrection just at the time when spring itself is rising from the barren days of winter.  The forty days of Lent, the period leading up to Easter, were supposed to be devoted to prayer and fasting (sorry, king crab really doesn't count as fasting).  And you really weren't supposed to have a blow-out party (Mardi Gras) just before Lent started, to get in the mood.  Lent fell at a time when last fall's harvest bounty was starting to run out, which made it easier to give up certain things.

The days of Holy Week were tied to events in Jesus's last week of life as a mere mortal, as outlined in the Bible.  Palm Sunday (which is today) recalled Jesus entering Jerusalem, riding a donkey, greeted by crowds waving palm fronds.  He planned to celebrate Passover there, which is why Easter moves around with the moon, as Passover does.  In the Middle Ages, as now, churches tried to get hold of palm fronds to decorate the churches for Palm Sunday.  Obviously this was a lot easier for churches closer to the Mediterranean.

Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week didn't have a whole lot attached to them, but Wednesday was (and is) Ash Wednesday, a day for sorrowful penitence for all the things you did wrong during the last year and for confession of sins.  Ashes were rubbed on a person's forehead as a mark of penitence.  If last year's palm fronds were available, they were burned to make the ashes (but any ashes would do).

Thursday of Holy Week was Maundy Thursday.  In the Bible, Jesus washed people's feet, demonstrating his humility and service.  Washing feet frequently was a necessity in the ancient Near East, where people walked around on dusty streets in open sandals.  Medieval monasteries had poor people lined up to come in and get their feet washed.

Thursday was also the Last Supper in the Bible, when Jesus encouraged his disciples to eat and drink in his memory, the origin of communion.  Fun fact:  in the cathedral of Cusco, Peru, a painting of the Last Supper shows Jesus and his disciples with a guinea pig on a platter, because guinea pig is a celebratory dish in the Andes.

Friday of course was Good Friday.  Because it commemorates the Crucifixion, I used to be bothered by the term "good," thinking "bad" was a better description.  But it was considered good because Christ's sacrifice led to humans being redeemed.  For medieval theologians, everyone went to hell before this, and Jesus spent the time he was dead rounding up all the Old Testament patriarchs and getting them out of hell and into heaven.

Easter of course was the culmination of Holy Week, the celebration of the Resurrection.  Monasteries would put on a little play, where monks would dress up as the women who came to Jesus's tomb early Sunday morning, only to be told, "He is risen."  Easter service was the one church service a year that everyone was expected to attend.  In the late Roman Empire, all baptisms took place on Easter, though in the Middle Ages they might take place at any time.  Easter was also the time to start eating big meals again after the privations of Lent.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

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

Friday, March 27, 2020

Building in stone

It's easy to think of the Middle Ages as building in stone.  After all, almost all medieval buildings that survive are the stone ones.  The cathedrals, the parish churches, the castles, are stone structures.

But in fact the majority of buildings in the Middle Ages were not stone.  As I have discussed previously, most town and village houses were "wattle and daub," wood and plaster, what would be called half-timber now.  All-wood structures were found in some places like Scandinavia, but in France and England the good big timbers were gone by the twelfth century, so people used the smaller pieces of wood for wattle and daub, though perhaps with a stone first floor if one were very wealthy.

The reason stone wasn't used more is because it was too expensive and too hard to work.  We think of the Middle Ages as built in stone because the structures that survive from them are, to a large degree, the stone ones.  Even when they are not maintained, stone buildings survive as solid ruins.

In the early Middle Ages, castles and churches were built of field stone, stones picked up from the ground and carefully set together.  In the example below, from an eleventh-century castle in Burgundy, the stone mason seems to have become creative.

In the twelfth century, castles and churches began to be build almost exclusively from quarried stone, nice rectangular blocks.  Both the inside and outside of the wall would be smooth stone, but the center was usually filled with rubble, field stone, gravel, bits of pottery, whatever was lying around.

When the Spaniards first reached the New World and saw the impressive stone buildings that the indigenous peoples of Latin America had built, they promptly decided to use some of them as foundations for their own buildings.  They appreciated good stonework when they saw it.  The church of Santo Domingo in Cusco (Peru) was build on top of the Inca temple to the sun.

In subsequent centuries there were periodic claims that Europeans had crossed the Atlantic and gotten across the Amazon basin to the Andes to teach the Incas how to build in stone.  This is wildly improbable, based on the assumption that only Europeans can figure out how to do stonework, but at least I guess is beats the aliens-from-space hypothesis.

Inca stonework, for their finest buildings, was quarried, but they did not try to make everything rectangular.  Rather they just tried to make sure all the stones fit together very tightly.  This is especially impressive since they had no iron and had to shape their stones with chisels and polishing sand.  It is especially noteworthy that the Incas were using granite (extremely hard), not the limestone (not as hard) that medieval Europe used for its churches.  The wall pictured below is outside Cusco and is about 20 feet high (and 700 years old).

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval castle building, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

End of the World

Every time there's a great disaster, like a hurricane or a massive drought or the current COVID-19 pandemic, many people interpret it as a sign of the coming end of the world.  Since the early days of Christianity, people have been looking for signs of the end.  When John of Patmos wrote the book we now know as Revelations (maybe around the year 100), it provided a partial list of signs to look for.

(John was responding to a persistent issue in the first couple generations of Christianity:  why, when Jesus had said He was coming back, hadn't He done so yet? Wasn't the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70, accompanied by destruction of the Temple, enough to get the Second Coming underway?  By the year 100 the Second Coming was moved well into the future and was moving into the spiritual rather than material realm.)

In the Merovingian era (fifth through eighth centuries), the standard template-book on how to write a good letter suggested starting with something like, "We who live in the final days of the world...."  The disasters of the sixth century, the outbreak of the Black Death coupled with "years without a summer" (caused by volcanic dust blocking the sun), certainly had an end-of-the-world look to them.

But the world kept stubbornly on.  Interestingly, in spite of what they might have told you back in the year 2000, no one worried about the end of the world in 1000.  The "millennium" anniversary that got mentioned a lot instead was 1033, the anniversary of the Crucifixion, and here the hope was for a spiritual awakening, not the world ending.

The Albigensian heretics of southern France in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries were expecting the end of the world.  They got a Crusade preached against them and were thoroughly beaten by the northern French, but the world overall kept right on.

The big "world ending" moment for the Middle Ages was 1260, as I have discussed previously.  The theologian Joachim of Fiore (who died before 1260) had added up the generations in the Old Testament and had come up with the number 1260 as years from Creation to Christ's birth.  This was the "age of the Father," to be succeeded for the next 1260 years by the "age of the Son" and then by the "age of the Holy Spirit."  People became very upset, and bands of penitents wandered across Europe, whipping themselves and waiting for the end.  You can probably guess that they were mistaken.

Medieval Europe's second big outbreak of the Black Death, in 1346-48, was another apocalyptic event.  The world didn't end, but it sure got messed up, with maybe a third of the population dead, cities deserted, trade routes abandoned, and society (unsurprisingly) becoming much more morbid.

Fears of the world ending did not stop with the end of the Middle Ages.  The year 1666 was approached with trepidation, as it included the number 666, which the book of Revelations called "the number of the Beast."  When England experienced first another outbreak of the Black Death and then the great London fire that year, it sure looked apocalyptic.  Nonetheless, the world stubbornly persisted.

Apocalyptic predictions continue.  Remember how supposedly the ancient Mayans predicted the world would end in 2012?  A psychic now getting a lot of attention predicted the outbreak of a pandemic in 2020 (though when she predicted her own death she was off by 11 years).

The response to a failed apocalypse varies.  The most common reaction is to laugh it off and say one never believed it in the first place.  For true believers, disappointed not to have been caught up in the Rapture or whatever (note: the idea of a Rapture first appeared in the nineteenth century and has nothing to do with John of Patmos), the response is trickier.  One can say that the prophecy was right but the date was off (Who forgot to carry the 2?), but then it's hard to be believed next time.  One can argue that the prayers of the faithful averted the disaster that would have taken place without them.

Or, best of all, one can assert the world really did end, but only those in the Select Group are spiritual and insightful enough to have noticed.  This works within the Select Group but not outside it.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval society and religion, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Medieval epidemics

As (justifiable) panic over Covid-19 spreads around the globe. some may be wondering:  did they have epidemics in the Middle Ages?  And what did they do about them?

Of course they had epidemics.  Any time you have a contagious disease and people living close together an epidemic is possible, that is infection spreading faster through a population than the population can handle it, accompanied by fear and despair.

The worst medieval epidemics were the two big outbreaks of the Black Death, the first in the sixth century, the second in the fourteenth.  The Black Death, now known as bubonic plague, killed maybe a third (or more) of Europe's population both times, having horrible ramifications for both economy and society for those who survived.  It's a bacterial disease so it can (now) be treated with antibiotics, unknown until the mid-twentieth century, but there was no good treatment then.  Covid-19 (which is viral, not bacterial, antibiotics won't touch it) is not nearly as serious, even though it's definitely serious (maybe a 4% fatality rate not 35%, though still far above the fatality rate of seasonal flu, which is well below 1%).

Although medieval people did not know about viruses and bacteria, they certainly could recognize contagion.  People fled the cities where disease spread much more rapidly, not appreciating that they might already be infected and were thus spreading rather than escaping disease--the same is the case today.  Medieval people understood about quarantine, and those not infected would try to stay well away from those who were infected.  Boccaccio's Decameron, now considered the first work of Renaissance literature, is a story of ten people self-quarantining and telling each other tales to pass the time.

Although the Black Death was the most serious medieval epidemic, others, like smallpox, came through periodically.  So did measles.  Both of these, especially smallpox, would leave disfiguring marks on your skin but would not (necessarily) kill.  Both of these, however, became devastating epidemics in the New World in the sixteenth century, killing a great number of indigenous people before the Europeans even had a chance to kill them themselves.

Medieval Europe certainly had a health care system, hospitals where sick people would be kept warm and dry and fed in the hope that their immune system would kick in soon, and barber-surgeons who could cut off infected limbs, but obviously these were ineffective against epidemics.  The image below is the interior of a medieval hospital at Beaune.

Patients would each have a curtained bed, and nuns would bring them chicken soup and saint dust.  Hospitals like this were overwhelmed in epidemics.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval health and disease, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Fairy Tales and the Middle Ages

Modern fantasy (the heir to The Lord of the Rings) is usually, like Tolkien's masterpiece, set in something that looks a fair amount like the Middle Ages.  Now Tolkien himself was a specialist in medieval literature (especially Norse and Anglo-Saxon/Middle English), so it's not surprising that he used elements from the societies he studied in the world he created.

(Hey!  I do the same thing.)

But how about fairy tales?  (Which Tolkien detested if they got too sweet-and-cute.)  They too are filled with castles, swords, princesses, and the like, both in their original (or semi-original) version and in the many modern retellings and new creations.  So it's not surprising that when readers move up from the Big-Little Book O' Fairytales to fantasy, they look for medieval settings.

Why so many medieval settings?  Well, a lot of it isn't actually medieval but nineteenth-century.  As I discussed in my previous post, a lot of life for a lot of people didn't really change from the Middle Ages until sometime in the 1800s.  And at the same time as their life was changing, there was a strong desire for an imaginary simpler world, without all the upheaval and pollution.  Fairy tales and folk tales came into their own.

Some of what we now consider "classic" fairy tales date to the seventeenth century in France (like "Puss in Boots" and "Cinderella").  But the big era of fairy/folk tales was the nineteenth century, when the still semi-medieval social milieu, an image of a golden (and medieval) past, and strange creations like the butterfly-winged fairy seen above (dating to the 1880s), all came together.

The biggest collections of folk tales known now to modern English-speakers are those of Grimm and of Hans Christian Anderson, respectively German and Danish (they are of course known in translation).  These were not fairy tales per se (no butterfly-winged ladies), but rather tales of the folk, the ordinary people, who were considered to represent the wholesome traditional values that were being undermined by cities and factories and hence needed to be recorded and honored.

Here's a French folk tale, recorded in the nineteenth century, that doesn't get told to children.

A man wondered why his neighbor suddenly seemed quite wealthy.  He sneaked over and spied.  The neighbor had a little rag doll, and when he said, "Crap little rag doll, crap," it would crap silver coins.  So the man stole it and took it home.

"Crap, little rag doll, crap!" he cried, and the doll crapped all over him.  (Hilarity ensues.)

So he threw it on the dungheap, but one day he was on the dungheap himself, doing what he'd come to do, and the rag doll rolled over and bit him right where it would do the most damage.  (More hilarity.)

Okay, every generation finds somewhat different things tasteful and hilarious.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval and modern history, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.