Wednesday, June 29, 2022

A Bad Spell in Yurt

 Although for most of the time here I blog about medieval social history, occasionally I like to discuss my fantasy novels, which are informed by real history even though they are not historical fiction.  So today I'm going to talk about A Bad Spell in Yurt, my first published novel, and comment on publishing in the thirty-plus years since it first appeared.

 It was originally published by Baen as a mass-market (small size) paperback and, after going through three printings, went out of print some time ago.  But it's now available again in a variety of formats:  ebook on all major e-platforms, trade paperback (larger size) that can be ordered through any bookstore, hardcover from Amazon, and audio book from Audible and iTunes.  Here's the link on Amazon.  Through the July 4 weekend, the ebook is on sale for only 99 cents.

Sometimes an author will be embarrassed by their first book (especially these days when it's so easy for anyone to self-publish).  Alternately, sometimes an author will pour years of ideas and writing and rewriting into their first book, and it remains their favorite and the readers' favorite, as they throw together later books without the same prolonged attention.  For me, Bad Spell is somewhere in between.  It's my favorite, but I don't think it's my best.

For one thing, it was the first published but by no means the first written.  I've been writing stories since I was five, studying "how to write better" guides since high school, and I'd been intermittently submitting stories to publishers for twenty years before Baen bought the book.  The editors did suggest some changes that I believe strengthened the story.

The title of course is something of a pun, and the book is fairly light-hearted.  Probably this shouldn't be a surprise.  After all, when I lecture about medieval history to my students, there's plenty of humor there.  I think I tend to see the incongruity and humor in a lot of situations.  (I get my sense of humor from my father.  Unfortunately he didn't live to see this book.)

But it's not intended to be a laugh-fest.  In fact, I've gotten some grumpy reviews about how they expected it to be funnier, and what was with all these serious themes?  Because the book does include themes of mortality and redemption and similar knee-slapping topics, and a lot of it concerns people with very different perspectives needing to learn to get along.

My husband persuaded me to make it into a series, our young wizard hero having other adventures over the next 35 years or so of his life, becoming actually decent at magic in the process.  For those of you who like a series, there are six novels, three novellas (short novels, maybe a third the length of the novels), and a three-volume "next generation" series.

After the book went out of print, I got my rights back and published it as an "indie," an independent author/publisher on Amazon, initially as an ebook and then with the other formats.  It's my best-selling ebook (I have about 20 now), in part I think due to Tom Kidd's excellent cover (seen above) which I think captures the flavor of the book, even though it does not illustrate any specific scene (for one thing, no Oriental princess with a princess phone ever appears).  Some people who read the book in the 90s are happy to read it again, and I'm also reaching a new generation of readers, which is very gratifying.

Indie publishing is in something of a wild-west stage right now.  Far more indie books are published each year than traditionally published books.  "Get rid of the gatekeepers!" would-be published authors cry.  The problem is that the "gatekeepers" at the traditional publishing houses do keep some good books from being published, but they also turn away a lot of really really bad books.  This makes it hard for the well-written indie book to emerge from the haystack.  I've done surprisingly well as an indie, in large part I believe because I already had a fan base from before (we love you, fans!).

To whet your appetite for the book, here's the opening of Bad Spell.


I was not a very good wizard.  But it was not a very big kingdom.  I assumed I was the only person to answer their ad, for in a short time I had a letter back from the king's constable, saying the job was mine if I still wanted it, and that I should report to take up the post of Royal Wizard in six weeks.

It took most of the six weeks to grow in my beard, and then I dyed it grey to make myself look older.  Two days before leaving for my kingdom, I went down to the emporium to buy a suitable wardrobe.

Of course at the emporium they knew all about us young wizards from the wizards' school.  They looked at us dubiously, took our money into the next room to make sure it stayed money even when we weren't there, and tended to count the items on the display racks in a rather conspicuous way.  But I knew the manager of the clothing department—he'd even helped me once pick out a Christmas present for my grandmother, which I think endeared me to him as much as to her.

He was on the phone when I came in.  "What do you mean, you won't take it back?  But our buyer never ordered it!"  While waiting for him, I picked out some black velvet trousers, just the thing, I thought, to give me a wizardly flair.

The manager slammed down the phone.  "So what am I supposed to do with this?" he demanded of no one in particular.  "This" was a shapeless red velvet pullover, with some rather tattered white fur at the neck.  It might have been intended to be part of a Father Noel costume.

I was entranced.  "I'll take it!"

"Are you sure?  But what will you do with it?"

"I'm going to be a Royal Wizard.  It will help me strike the right note of authority and mystery."

"Speaking of mystery, what's all the fuzzy stuff on your chin?"

I was proud of my beard, but since he gave me the pullover for almost nothing, I couldn't be irritated.  When I left for my kingdom, I felt resplendent in velvet, red for blood and black for the powers of darkness.

It was only two hundred miles, and probably most of the young wizards would have flown themselves, but I insisted on the air cart.  "I need to make the proper impression of grandeur when I arrive," I said.  Besides—and they all knew it even though I didn't say it—I wasn't sure I could fly that far.

© C. Dale Brittain 2022

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Medieval Laundry

 As I have discussed earlier, when talking about medieval soap, medieval people wanted to be clean.  The wanted their persons, their clothes, and their surroundings to be clean.  This was of course very difficult without washing machines, hot showers, vacuum cleaners, and all the soaps and cleaning agents you can now find at the store, but they tried.


Washing clothes without modern technology was especially a challenge, in no little part because there was not much cotton (to say nothing of polyester, nylon, or permapress), and the most typical fabrics, wool, linen, and (for the wealthy) silk, were all fabrics that today we feel need "special handling."

Wool shrinks when wet, and therefore it would have to be "fulled," beaten and pulled and stretched to get back into the right size.  Fulling was a specialty occupation, shop keepers who would sell fabric and also wash wool and get it back into shape.  Fulling hammers were one of the things which a mill would run.  Obviously one did not get a wool outfit cleaned every time it was worn.

Linen doesn't shrink nearly as much, but it does wrinkle.  It could be ironed (with flat irons, of the sort now used as door-stoppers), but the biggest challenge was keeping it pure white.  Without modern chlorine bleach, it mostly had to be bleached by being laid out in the sun.  Fair maidens in the stories were described as wearing garments of pure white.

Silk is a lot stronger than it looks.  It also holds dye colors well and, unlike wool, is not munched by clothes moths.  It also does not smell sweaty as fast as most fabrics. With no dry cleaners, those who could afford silk gave it the old rub-a-dub.  (The silk saris worn by women of all social stations in India today are not regularly sent to the dry cleaners either.)

So where did washing take place?  One possibility was going down to the river with your dirty clothes, some lye soap, and starting to scrub.  This was sometimes still the case in parts of the US into the twentieth century and even occasionally in southern Europe as late as the 1960s.  Alternately, many towns had wash houses, a well or fountain surrounded by an open-air structure where one could come, wash clothes without getting rained on, spread them out to start drying, and chat with one's neighbors.  Some of these wash houses were in use until quite recently.

So medieval people are often portrayed (in movies for example) as dirty, and by our standards they probably were.  But they did their best not to be.

© C. Dale Brittain 2022

For more on clothing 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, June 18, 2022

Medieval Spain

 When it comes to medieval studies, the big three are Britain (mostly England), France, and Germany.  Medieval France and England were both countries with a single king, located within borders that bear a resemblance to where they are today, and with medieval languages that are the origins of modern French and English (English by the fourteenth century anyway).  Germany is more complicated, and in practice the territory we now think of as German had more centers of governance and more language variation, but it still works as a topic of study.

As I've noted before, medieval Italy doesn't get a whole lot of attention between the collapse of the Roman Empire of antiquity and the Renaissance, and it's sort of off in its own world anyway (though of course there was plenty of interaction between Italy and the rest of medieval Europe, after all, the pope was there).  And as I'll discuss today, the same (relative) neglect affects medieval Spain.  Spanish medievalists study a history usually untouched by those who focus on the Big Three.

For one thing, to study medieval Spain it really really helps to know Arabic.  Muslims from north Africa overran the Spanish peninsula in the seventh-eighth centuries, and indeed some crossed the Pyrenees into France, to be defeated by Charles Martel, Charlemagne's grandfather.  Although Christians started pushing back in the ninth century, the so-called Reconquista, it was a slow process.

Little kingdoms and principalities were established in the northern part of the Iberian peninsula.  One of the most important was the county of Barcelona, where the counts acted as kings.  The kingdom of Aragon was adjacent, and the kingdom of Castile included much of the north coast.  Portugal was over to the west.  Andorra is left over from those days.  From these kingdoms and principalities, Christians slowly worked their way south, dividing the peninsula into long strips.  Portugal is the only one of these strips left intact, as the others are all part of the modern Spanish kingdom (though Catalonia, with its capital of Barcelona, still remembers its independent medieval past).

For a long time Christians, Muslims, and the large local Jewish population more or less got along.  They didn't like or trust each other, and there would be periodic local wars, but they had to work out ways to live next to each other.  Some, like the legendary warrior El Cid, would fight on whichever side paid the best.  A lot of Arabic words (like "algebra") and Middle Eastern foods entered Europe via Spain.  A lot of Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle, that had been translated into Arabic long since, was translated into Latin in Toledo and eagerly sought by Europe's growing universities.

At the end of the Middle Ages, the two largest Spanish kingdoms, Castile and Aragon, were combined when their kings married, respectively Isabelle and Ferdinand.  They completed the long Reconquista, driving the last Muslims out in early 1492, as well as expelling the Jews.  They referred to themselves as the Catholic Kings, announcing they were more Christian than the pope.

Having a sudden shortage of projects in 1492, they decided they might as well sponsor the harebrained scheme of the Italian Cristoforo Colombo, to reach the East by sailing west.  The rest as they say is history.

Incidentally, medieval Spain still has a higher proportion of its medieval documents surviving than does most of the rest of Europe, in spite of the Spanish Civil War and Franco.  The churches never had the large-scale documentary losses that marked England's dissolution of the monasteries or France's Revolution.  But studying them is definitely helped by knowing Arabic as well as Latin and Spanish.

© C. Dale Brittain 2022

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

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

The Black Sea

 The Black Sea has been in the news a lot lately, because it's that major body of water past the eastern end of the Mediterranean that has the Crimean peninsula hanging down into it.  Crimea is part of Ukraine but has been in Russian control for eight years.  The entrance from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea is narrow, with the modern country of Turkey on both sides.  Indeed, "Asia" was considered separated from "Europe" by this passage.  (This doesn't make a lot of sense from a map's perspective, but if you're sailing the eastern Mediterranean it sort of does.)


Although the modern tendency is to think of medieval Europe only as happening in the lands of modern western Europe, in fact the regions circling the Black Sea were well known to those further west.  Romania is called that because it was part of the ancient Roman Empire; its modern language is indeed close to French.  Bulgaria was believed to be where the Albigensian heresy originated (which medieval people often called the Bogomil heresy).  Ukraine and Russia provided brides for western medieval kings.  And of course what is now Turkey was Byzantium, home of the Roman emperors (as they styled themselves, as indeed they were in a continuous line from the Roman emperors of antiquity).

Note on the map the almost complete land bridge at the southwest corner of the Sea.  Constantinople (now Istanbul) is located right where a narrow opening, the Bosporus, leads from the broader channel coming from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea.  It is a highly strategic location for a city, but it is also important to note that the break in the land bridge is relatively recent in geologic time.

Coming out of the last ice age, what is now the Black Sea was a freshwater lake, only about two-thirds its current size and appreciably lower than the Mediterranean.  Stone Age people lived along its shores.  Then, sometime around 5500 BC, as the melting glaciers raised sea levels, the waters from the Mediterranean broke through.  What had been a freshwater lake became a substantially larger salt water body.  The old shore line is still there, under water, and shells of freshwater mollusks from below the old shore line show how the Sea used to be.

The breaking of the land bridge would have been a sudden, cataclysmic event, like a dam breaking.  There are numerous legends in the Middle East of a sudden, terrible flood (including the story of Noah in the Bible, and the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh), and the flooding of the Black Sea may be at the origin.

The salt water pouring into what became the Black Sea was heavier than the fresh water and sank to the bottom, leaving a brackish top layer.  Because the area does not have the temperature gradients that cause lakes to turn over, the lowest level of the Sea is poison, without oxygen.  (The same is true of the Caspian Sea.)  That means that ships that sank during classical and medieval times, when there was regular commerce between all the countries surrounding the Sea, are very well preserved.  No marine worms to eat the wood!  Archaeologists are starting to map and study the wrecks (mostly remotely, humans can't go down into the poisonous layer).  Not only the wrecked ships are there, but much of their cargo.

© C. Dale Brittain 2022

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

Friday, June 3, 2022

Marco Polo

 We live in a globalized world, where our household goods and even much of our food may come from North and South America, Europe, or Asia (less likely Africa, though that's also a possibility).  Medieval Europe was never as globalized as we are (no shoes imported from China or blueberries from Peru), but there were always trade networks that stretched far beyond Europe's boundaries.

Accompanying the trade were travelers' tales of the bizarre people and creatures one might find in foreign climes, everything from elephants to people with faces on their stomachs instead of on their heads.  But sometimes Europeans followed the trade routes (goods usually changed hands multiple times) to see for themselves.  One such person was Marco Polo (depicted below, in a later mosaic from Genoa).

 In 1271 he set out from Venice, his home, along with his father and uncle on a  trip that would take them across Asia to China and eventually home again, twenty-four years and over 15,000 miles later.  He was only seventeen at the time they set out, but the attention always goes to him, rather than the older men, because he wrote up the journey after it was over.  In fact, his father and uncle, Venetian traders named Niccolò and Maffeo Polo, deserve more credit than they usually get, for they had already taken a six-year journey into  Asia and come back to tell about it.

In 1271 the family started by ship, sailing from Venice to the eastern end of the Mediterranean, stopping by Jerusalem for some holy oil which, at least according to Marco, the emperor Kubla Khan had requested when Niccolò and Maffeo had visited him on their earlier trip.  From Jerusalem Marco and his older relatives traveled by land through the Middle East, where he marveled at what he saw in Persia, before heading off in a camel caravan through central Asia.

All through the trip, Marco kept looking at things with a merchant's eye, for his account is full of bazaars, tapestries and jewels, swords and spices and elephant tusks, objects that would bring a very high price in Europe, as well as recording marvels such as the supposed tombs of the Three Wise Men in Persia.

After many adventures they reached what was then the capital of China, Shangdu (also known as Zanadu or Cathay).  Here ruled the Mongol emperor Kubla Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, who ruled an empire stretching from China to Russia and what is now Iraq.  According to Marco, they were highly favored by the emperor, even though Niccolò and Maffeo had failed to bring the 100 learned Christian teachers they had promised when there earlier.

They ended up staying in China for seventeen years.  Marco became an agent and ambassador for the emperor, traveling as far as Indonesia.  There have been doubts expressed over the centuries whether he could have actually gone to all these places, but his descriptions of places and practices seem remarkably accurate.  Finally the three Venetians were given the task of escorting a princess from China to the Mongol ruler of Persia, which they did, continuing on to Constantinople and then safely home to Venice in 1295.

As was often the case in medieval Italy, various city states were at war with each other, in this case Venice and Genoa.  Marco became involved in the war and was captured, then locked up for many months in a Genoese prison.  This gave him the time to start writing his book of his travels, partly dictating it, partly, it seems, basing it on notes he had taken over the years.  The book was immediately famous, and hundreds of copies were made (this is still pre-printing press).  (Genoa is proud of its role in his book, which is why it has a mosaic to honor him.)

One sometimes hears that Marco Polo brought spaghetti back to Italy from China, but this is not true; the story in fact was invented in the twentieth century.  Italians had long eaten spaghetti.  Marco said that the Chinese he visited ate little bread but lots of vermicelli instead.  He would not have called twisty noodles vermicelli if he hadn't known his audience would at once recognize the word used (even today) for twisty noodles; literally the term means little worms.

More important than spaghetti or noodles, however, is the evidence of long distance trade across Eurasia and the possibility of personal relationships between people as different as a Mongol emperor of China and a family of Venetian merchants.  And it reminds us how tough our ancestors must have been, to take journeys like this by ship, horseback, camel, or on foot, with no maps, no GPS or ways to communicate with people back home, probably not knowing the languages half the time, going through hostile territory, not knowing where they'd find food, and yet somehow making it home again.  And remember the senior Polos did the trip twice.

© C. Dale Brittain 2022

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

Saturday, May 21, 2022


 Most people take honey bees for granted.  They make honey, we figure, and honey ends up in granola and shampoo and herbal tea, but we don't think much more about it.  In fact, something like a third of our food would not be possible without bees.

This is because a lot of our crop plants have to be pollinated, the fruits and nuts and vegetables (though not the grains).  They flower, but they don't set seed or fruit unless the flower is pollinated.  And unless we want a whole horde of people out there with little brushes, swiping pollen a flower at a time, we need bees to do it for us.

Medieval people understood this just fine.  Domesticated bees had already been around for several thousand years at the beginning of the Middle Ages.  Every medieval manor or village, every orchard had to have a hive of bees.  The bees, led by their queen, lived in it, and this was where they had their honey comb.  Beekeepers who knew how to keep from startling the bees (and who wore protective covering) would harvest the honey and keep the hive clean.  The bees thus served two main functions, pollinating fruits and vegetables and providing the only real source of sweetness in the medieval diet.  In addition, the wax of the honeycomb was used for high-grade candles in church.

There was a great deal of folklore associated with bees.  They were considered a symbol of hard work and industriousness, as we still use the expression, Busy as a bee.  The Merovingian kings of France of the fifth through eighth centuries used bees as their symbol, a symbol Napoleon borrowed to try to assert he was part of a thousand-year tradition.  A rural English tradition is that you have to "tell the bees" about any major life changing event, but it is not clear if this goes back to the Middle Ages.

Medieval philosophers thought that bees were born without feet, which of course is not true, although medieval bestiaries commonly repeated this idea.  This is because Isidore of Seville (writer of the late Merovingian era) said that the word apies, Latin for bee, came from a- (without) and -pies, meaning feet (which it doesn't).

Modern agriculture continues to depend on bees.  There are wild bees that will pollinate flowers, but the honey bee is really necessary, meaning it has become the basis of an industry, where bee keepers take their hives around to wherever pollination is needed.  "Colony collapse," the death of a hive due to mites or fungus, has been a real challenge to bee keepers in recent years.

It was quite fortuitous, but I posted this on what turned out to be World Bee Day.

© C. Dale Brittain 2022

For more on medieval food and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.  Also available in paperback.

Friday, May 13, 2022


 Cheese has been a staple food in the West for a very long time, probably going back to the period when people around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East first started keeping flocks of sheep and goats, close to 10,000 years ago.  Milk is an excellent source of protein, but it doesn't keep well without refrigeration, and it is only available part of the time, when the mother sheep or goat or cow has just given birth.  Also, a lot of people develop intolerance to the lactic acid in milk (though if one keeps drinking it all the time growing up, this intolerance is much less likely).  Cheese to the rescue!

To make cheese, fresh milk is deliberately curdled using rennet, which used to come from an animal's stomach lining.  The cow gives birth and starts producing milk, you kill the calf to have a tasty veal dinner, and now you have the calf's stomach lining as rennet to make cheese from the milk the cow continues to produce while you keep milking her.  (Note:  modern cheese uses cultures for the curdling process, not requiring death of a calf or kid or lamb every time.)

Properly curdled milk gives you curds and whey, basically cottage cheese.  This can be pressed to get the whey out, formed into a wheel or other shape, sometimes washed or heated, and aged so it develops a rind and hardens up.  Some cheese, like Roquefort, is aged in caves where interesting molds are found, to give it the distinctive blue veins.  There are hundreds of different kinds of cheese, some very local productions, some made in big factories.  Some of the modern French varieties are about as specific as "Madame Grangier makes this cheese in the spring from the milk of her cows Bessie and Bossie."

The Romans enjoyed cheese, and our word comes from the Latin caseus, meaning (you guessed it) cheese.  They distinguished between caseus (any kind of cheese) and caseus formatus, the latter specifically hard cheese made (formed) into a wheel.  This formatus was one of the foods given to soldiers in the legions, and is the root of the modern French  "fromage" and Italian "formaggio" (both of course meaning cheese).

The medieval diet included a lot of cheese.  It was more readily available than meat and acceptable to monks as meat was not.  Even those wealthy enough to enjoy meat on a regular basis would eat cheese or fish on Fridays instead of meat.

A story told about Charlemagne related that he visited a monastery on a Friday, and because they had no fish, they served him their local cheese (which would have been considered second-rate for a king, behind a nice trout).  When Charlemagne started cutting off the rind, the abbot unwisely corrected him, saying the rind was perfectly edible.  Now, no one tells the king he's doing something wrong.  Charlemagne pretended not to mind, ate the rind, said it was all very good, then got his revenge by ordering the abbot to send the royal court 200 big wheels of this tasty cheese every year.  After five years of the abbot scrambling madly to get enough milk to make this much cheese, leaving nothing for his monks, Charlemagne forgave him, but he'd learned his lesson!

Final note:  So-called "cheese food product" is an abomination before the Lord.

© C. Dale Brittain 2022

For more on medieval food and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.  Also available in paperback.