Sunday, February 21, 2021

Count Scar

I'm a fantasy writer as well as a medieval historian, so I periodically get asked why I don't write straight historical fiction, stories set in the real Middle Ages.  Perhaps the closest I've come is in Count Scar, which I co-wrote with my husband, Robert Bouchard.

It's set in a thinly disguised version of southern France in the early thirteenth century, in the aftermath of the Albigensian Crusade.  But it has magic as well!  The story is about Galoran, a scarred warrior and younger son who unexpectedly inherits the county of Peyrefixade in the Pyrenees, and Melchior, a magic-working priest who is assigned as his spiritual advisor.  The two men do not initially trust each other, but they are forced to work together.  The county is threatened by heretics, who have "sort of" been defeated but have their eyes on the castle of Peyrefixade, rumored to shelter, in some hidden corner, an ancient and enormously powerful magical talisman.

Then there's plenty of betrayal, sword fights, sword & sorcery, a touch of romance, and the like.  Here's the link on Amazon.

We wrote it as a series of alternating first-person chapters, each of us taking one of the two main characters.  See if you can guess which one of us wrote which.  Writing with a co-author can be exciting, because the other person can think up plot details that you never would have thought of, but then they'll add a plot twist at the end of their chapter, leaving you to figure out what can possibly pull this out.

Although the people and the county of Peyrefixade are fictional (as is the magic-working Order of the Three Kings to which Melchior belongs), we tried to make the setting as accurate as possible.  Besides such obvious things as castle architecture, weapons, diet, and oaths of fealty, we tried to give the characters the attitudes and outlook real medieval people would have had:  tolerance of different viewpoints for example was never official policy.  I've never liked purported historical fiction where the characters are just modern people wearing old-timey outfits.  The magic of course is not historical, but given that the medieval church was the main center of learning and education, it made sense that if there was magic, priests would study it.

Recently we've published a sequel, Heretic Wind, with the same main characters, set about a year later.  Enjoy!

 © C. Dale Brittain 2021

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Failure of Prophecy

 The Judeo-Christian world has always been full of prophecy--it is right now.  Prophecy gives clarity:  it explains why things are happening, that they are all building up to something important, that there is some sort of plan behind what might seem like random events.  Even a bawdlerized version of prophecy, like a horoscope or a fortune cookie, can give meaning to what is happening or explain what you can do to improve matters.  And prophecy provides reassurance--as bad as things may be right now, they're going to get better.  But what happens when prophecy fails?

This has been a problem for quite a while.  The prophetic books of the Bible, especially Isaiah and Jeremiah, are full of excellent prophecies about better things to come, the Messiah who will help his chosen people, who will beat their swords into plow shares and relax under their vine and fig tree.  Yet the Jews are still awaiting the Messiah 2500 years later, and ever since the Romans drove large numbers of them out of their Holy Land in the first century AD, they have been saying, "Next year in Jerusalem."  (Even now, almost 75 years after the foundation of the modern state of Israel, there are plenty of prophecies still waiting to come true.)

The New Testament writers, especially Matthew, emphasized that Jesus was the hoped-for Messiah by explaining how all sorts of details of his life matched the prophecies.  The last book of the New Testament prophesises the Apocalypse.  The so-called Sybilline prophets purported to have prophesied major parts of the Gospels.  If something happens to fulfill the prophecy, it has much more weight than something that just happens.

The Middle Ages always had various prophecies.  Not surprisingly, they tended to appear in times of uncertainty.  Prophets, who announced that they had direct messages from God, appeared with some frequency, even if often labeled (correctly) as heretics.  Even though nobody seems to have expected the world to end in the year 1000, there was a great deal of concern that it might end in 1260, as I discussed earlier.  (Spoiler alert--it didn't.)

One of the biggest problems for prophets and their faithful followers is what to do when prophecy fails.  Sometimes it really doesn't matter, because the end of the prophecy is marked by the end of the prophet, as in the Children's Crusade in the thirteenth century, when some young folks became convinced that God had told them to go to the Holy Land, where their innocence and purity would overcome the Muslims.  As you probably guessed, it didn't work, and they ended up sold into slavery.

In fact prophecy fails more often than not.  Even when there are prophecies now about something like the Super Bowl winner or a presidential election, they are going to be wrong half the time, and the full-blown conspiracy theory type prophecies, where all sorts of startling events will happen and a savior will unexpectedly emerge, tend to be wrong a lot more than that.  For example, as I discussed earlier, the "White Caps" of the late twelfth century were following a prophecy that the Virgin wanted them to attack the bandits and cruel lords who were terrorizing the region.  But apparently the prophecy left out the part where the bishop would raise an army and crush the White Caps.

So what do you do when you believe in a prophecy and it fails?  Or even worse, when you have been the prophet but your prophecy failed to materialize? In 1260, when the world stubbornly refused to end, the most common reaction was to quietly go home and pretend one had never believed it anyway.  One small group of true believers insisted the world really had ended, but they were the only ones with the insight to see it.  (This was not widely believed.)

Few prophets, in the Middle Ages or now, will admit they were wrong, though a few will suggest that maybe they were too prideful about getting direct messages from God and that God wanted to teach them a sharp lesson.  More common is (and was) to say that some aspect of the prophecy was misunderstood and that the amazing events are still coming, but maybe not quite yet.  After a while this gets old.  (Though the imminent Second Coming of Christ has been prophesied for over 1900 years without losing its power as a prophecy.)  Or one can say that God saw all the true believers and withheld His punishment or apocalypse or consuming fire, so it was like the prophecy was really true.

Those who believe in prophecy are hard to shake.  The current global pandemic has produced a number of prophecies, which are often indistinguishable from urban legends.  An interesting comment I've heard about all things pandemic:  "It's easier to persuade people to believe something that is not true, than to persuade them that what they believe is not true."  The prophecy hasn't failed a bit!  You just don't understand.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

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, February 8, 2021


 The Middle Ages was marked by two great outbreaks of the Black Death, also known as bubonic plague, also known by the scientific name of the bacteria that causes it, Yersinia pestis.  The second is well known, breaking out in 1346 in the eastern Mediterranean, becoming established in western Europe in 1347, and spreading and killing people for the next several years.  The first, much less well documented, had multiple outbreaks in western Europe in the second half of the sixth century.  That it was the same disease has been proven by the analysis of DNA from mass burial sites from the sixth century, where Y. pestis is clearly found.

The fourteenth-century plague killed at least a third of the medieval European population, maybe half in some areas.  Probably everybody caught at least a mild case.  It was spread by fleas, that would bite an infected rat, then bite a person, passing on the bacteria.  There was of course no vaccine.  The medieval population developed "herd immunity," that is with everybody infected and either dying or recovering with enough natural immunity to fight it off, the disease more or less disappeared after five or six years.

But it was not gone for good.  Over the next several centuries, it came back again (though never in such force) every generation or so, when a new generation had been born that had never been exposed.  The best known of these outbreaks was the Great Plague of 1666 in southern England.  In London it was stopped by the Great Fire, which by burning up a lot of rats and fleas slowed the disease way down.  The last major outbreak was in 1894 and affected people globally for close to twenty years.  As I have discussed earlier, the Black Death is still endemic in rodents (mostly ground squirrels) in the American southwest.  Fortunately it can now be cured with antibiotics if caught early.

Some people now advocate just letting everybody catch Covid-19 to develop "herd immunity" rather than striving for a vaccine.  Thinking about losing a third or more of the population in the process may change their minds.

It is not clear what proportion of the population of late antiquity was wiped out by the plague, but the records that do survive speak of a devastating impact.  Along with three or four outbreaks of the plague in fifty years or so, there was a smallpox epidemic.  Ah, good times.  It is however clear that the plague spread along trade routes and from the cities to the countryside as people fled from the urban centers where the infection rate was extremely high, not realizing they were spreading the disease in the process.

One indication of how devastating the sixth-century plague was is the evidence, from things like tree rings and pollen analysis, that the seventh and eighth centuries saw much smaller rural populations in Europe than in previous centuries.  And the cities shrank even more; in Arles for example the whole city moved into the old Roman amphitheater, building their houses on the rows of seats, and they all fit.

One might consider that the sixth-century plague really ended the Roman Empire (helped along by the seventh-century rise of Islam).  The fourteenth-century plague changed a lot of aspects of society as well as killing off people.  The basic optimism that had marked much of the Middle Ages was gone, and there was a new fixation on morbidity, taking the form in some cases of extreme piety, in other cases a careless "live for today" attitude.

What changes will come from the Covid-19 pandemic?  One assumes there will be more than an increased willingness of companies to have white-collar workers "work from home."

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on disease and health and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon.  Also available in paperback1

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Groundhog Day

 In the US it's groundhog day, when supposedly the groundhog (also known as woodchuck) comes out of his burrow and sees (or doesn't see) his shadow, thus becoming a weather predictor.  (There's also a movie called Groundhog Day, but we won't be concerned with that.)  Did they have groundhog day in the Middle Ages?

Marmota monax UL 04.jpg

No! In part for the excellent reason that they don't have groundhogs in Europe.

They did however have February 2 (you probably figured that out all by yourself).  In the medieval Christian calendar, this was the date of the Purification of the Virgin.  In Jewish tradition, a woman who had given birth was supposed to undergo ritual purification a month or six weeks after she gave birth, so this is when, according to the Gospel of Luke, Mary went up to Jerusalem to do so and first presented baby Jesus at the Temple.  (Wait, you say, I thought they'd fled into Egypt.  That was a different version of the Christmas story.  We won't worry about that now.)

February 2 is an important day in its own right, considered to be halfway between the solstice (shortest day of the year) and the equinox.  Medieval churches celebrated it as Candlemas, the day that a year's worth of candles would be consecrated, nice and pure like the Virgin.  There appears to have been a legend that if it was clear weather on Candlemas day, then it would get very cold and wintery for the rest of the month.

At some point, probably in the post-medieval period, a legend grew up in Germany that you could tell how clear Candlemas day really was by whether a badger (Dachs in German) could see its shadow.  When the Amish, fleeing persecution in Germany, settled in what became Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century, they brought this story with them.  There are a lot more groundhogs than badgers in Pennsylvania, so the story got transferred to them.

During the twentieth century, what had been a minor Pennsylvania Dutch story became a media hit in North America.  Soon there was an Official Groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil.  Different places soon wanted their own official groundhog.  Ohio has Buckeye Chuck.  Ontario has Whireton Willie.  Even Nova Scotia has a version of what they call Dax Day (presumably a name derived from the German word for badger).  Something tells me that Nova Scotia does not get springlike weather in February, no matter what the groundhog sees.

Fun fact: woodchucks are scientifically called marmots.  They are related to squirrels, being large rodents.  The name woodchuck comes from the Algonquin wuchak, what some native Americans called them (it has nothing to do with wood or chucking).  The name groundhog is self-evident.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon.  Also available in paperback1

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Indie Publishing

 Being an independent publisher, an "indie," has become more and more common in the last decade.  More books, especially ebooks (as opposed to physical books), are now being published by indie authors than by traditional publishing houses.

As they say, the good news is now everyone can be an author.  The bad new is now everyone can be an author.

Traditional publishing houses long functioned as "gatekeepers," publishing only books that they thought were good and that they thought would sell (not necessarily congruent categories).  Everyone heard stories of authors, from JK Rowling to the Bridges of Madison County guy, who were turned down by multiple publishers before hitting it big.  This is because guessing what was going to sell, as well as interjecting one's own taste into decisions about what's good, has always been an inexact science.

So now there are no gatekeepers for indie authors!  Good books can find their readers without anyone else deciding what they'd like!  Or that's the idea.  It doesn't quite work out that way.

It doesn't because of all the things the traditional publishers have always provided that a lot of indie authors can't manage on their own.  They gave books a good editing, to eliminate typos and misspellings (or at least most of them), and to make sure that the heroine didn't have blue eyes in Chapter 1 but brown eyes in Chapter 6, or that the hero didn't overhear all the details of the nefarious plot in Chapter 4, only to be shocked when he "first" hears about it in Chapter 14.

Traditional publishers always gave books attractive, genre-appropriate covers.  One has heard the saying, "Don't judge a book by its cover," but when there are many books to choose from, the one with the intriguing cover gets picked up first.  A cover with a slightly blurry photo of a backyard bird feeder is not going to sell many romance novels, even if in the story Judy and Jason first meet while buying bird seed.  A drawing of a sailboat is not going to inspire lovers of horror novels to pick up the book, even if the Undead Being manifests itself in a boathouse.  And don't get me started on the picture of Mommy and Daddy drawn by a six-year-old.

Here is the cover of my first published fantasy novel, "A Bad Spell in Yurt." It looks like a fantasy cover, and it looks like fun, and it helped make the book a national fantasy best-seller.  I had nothing to do with creating the cover--it was my publisher.  The artist is Tom Kidd.

The other thing traditional publishers have always provided is marketing.  No matter how good a book is, no one will buy it if no one knows it exists.  Publishers were good at getting books into stores, getting them reviewed in major newspapers and magazines, even getting the authors on radio or TV shows.  A lot of indie authors are shocked to discover that writing a good book is only Step One.  That's why it's called indie publishing--they have to be publishers as well as authors.

(In my own case, the eight books that I published traditionally gave me a fan base (we love you, fans!) that has continued into my indie publishing days, so I have a market for my new books, and people ready to recommend my old titles when I republish them.  Most indie authors aren't so lucky.)

The other thing challenging indie authors is how really bad some of the books being published are (as I hinted above), meaning some readers turn their noses up at self-published books.  So far no one has figured out how to install gatekeepers to keep out the sludge without, you know, instituting gatekeepers.

In spite of everything, some indie authors do very well.  One advantage they have is that there really is a market for books almost (but not quite) like best-sellers.  So traditional publishers wouldn't touch stories of teenage romance with a handsome young vampire after Twilight, but a lot of readers wanted such stories, and indie authors provided them.  Traditional publishers were dubious about more stories of a rag-tag group of men, elves, and dwarves off to conquer the Dark Lord, in spite of the success of Lord of the Rings, but indie authors have filled that need.  Harry Potter pretty much exhausted traditional publishers' interest in stories of wizardry schools (though my Bad Spell had a wizards' school long before Harry Potter appeared), but now anyone who wants such a story can find it.

The most popular indie genres are contemporary romance and soft-core erotica.  In both cases, readers are voracious, and a skilled and prolific indie author can keep cranking out books that will sell.  To get their books noticed, of course, they work more than a full-time job (there's a reason a traditional publishing house has dozens or more employees).  Realistically most indie authors will only sell one or two copies ever, including the sale to Mom.  There are plenty of sites on the web that will, "for a small fee," tell you how to make Big Bucks in Passive Income by being an indie publisher.  Do not believe them.  (Though they seem to be making plenty of Big Bucks themselves.)

Some skilled and fortunate (and very hard-working) indie authors gross seven-figure incomes (though they have to pay for covers and editors and advertising out of that).  They are however a tiny fraction of all indie authors.  That hasn't slowed a lot of would-be Bigtime Authors down.  They figure that less than 1% of the US population has died of Covid-19, so they aren't going to worry, yet on the other hand far less than 1% of all indie authors become rich, so they figure, That's me!  Sorry, it doesn't work that way.

Writing a book, finishing it, making it the best you can, successfully formatting and publishing it has got to be its own reward.  Selling copies to strangers who like it is gravy.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

Monday, January 25, 2021


 Insurrection, rising up against one's government, is serious.  And yet it has a strangely well established spot in American popular culture.  The American Revolution (actually not a social revolution like the French Revolution but a war of independence) is always framed as freedom-loving folks rising up against an oppressive government.  Star Wars is a series of stories about overthrowing the Evil Empire (you'd think they'd figure out that building a vulnerable spot into every Death Star was a bad idea).  The Hunger Games is about a bold, rag-tag group of freedom-lovers destroying the evil, oppressive Capital.

Even gun-rights advocates say that we need guns to defend ourselves against an oppressive government, although the Second Amendment discusses bearing arms as an act under government direction ("...a well regulated militia..."), and, let's face it, even the best-armed private citizen isn't going to have a lot of luck against a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

Nonetheless, the US has been a remarkably stable democracy for close to 250 years.  Certainly there have been isolated revolts against the government (like the Branch Davidians), but the only really concerted insurrection was the Civil War of the 1860s, which was actually more an effort to take the South off to be its own country than an effort to change the central government itself.

 There were insurrections in the Middle Ages and early modern period, usually framed as overthrowing the king.  This was a little tricky because although medieval kings were not "divine right" kings (the way some later kings tried to define themselves), there was a sense that in overthrowing a king one was overthrowing a form of government that, at least in structure, mirrored the Kingdom of God.  That meant that once the king was gone, it was appropriate to put in a new king (here the American Revolution differed, though there was serious thought of declaring George Washington a king).

As I've discussed earlier (see details here), the Merovingians, the family that ruled France in the early Middle Ages, were overthrown in 751 and replaced by the line of Carolingian kings.  The excuse was that the Merovingians had become hopelessly incompetent.

 The Carolingians too had revolts against them.  When Louis II of France died in 879 after a short reign, Boso of Burgundy declared himself French king, rather than the child Louis III.  It didn't work, and he ended up king only of Burgundy and Provence, with his own brother fighting against him, but it is interesting to note that this non-Carolingian king had given himself a royal aura by having his sister marry one Carolingian king and himself marrying that king's niece.  King Charles the Simple was deposed as incompetent in 923 and replaced by Robert I, a hero of the Viking wars.  The Carolingians came to a final end in 987, when Robert's grandson Hugh Capet became king of France, deposing the last, incompetent Carolingian and beginning the Capetian line.  You've probably noticed a pattern here.

In the late Middle Ages, however, the usual explanation for replacing a king was not that he was incompetent but that he was a tyrant.  Late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England witnessed struggles between a number of men of the royal line, all cousins, during the last years of the Hundred Years War (as discussed in an earlier post), and, more viciously, during the War of the Roses, with the argument for insurrection always being that the current king was a tyrant (plus evil).  This continued into the early modern period, with the brief reign in England of Mary Tudor ("Bloody Mary") before Elizabeth I became queen, the deposition and beheading of Charles I in 1649, and, after Charles I's son was (eventually) brought back to the throne, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that deposed (but didn't need to behead) Charles I's grandson James II.

And then there's the French Revolution, which was both a social revolution (ending official nobility) and eventually an overthrowing of the monarchy—originally the revolutionaries were going to allow the French king to stay on as a constitutional monarch (like England after 1688).  But that's a different story.

Maybe the real moral of the story is that those practicing insurrection over the centuries have been strangely unwilling to change the form of government, just the individual at the head, and that tyranny and incompetence are the favorite rationales.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

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

Monday, January 18, 2021

Medieval Costumes

 Creative anachronists and those who enjoy cosplay put great effort into creating more-or-less authentic costumes.  They usually do not weave their own cloth (much less raise the sheep, shear the sheep, and spin the wool), and dying their own cloth is not common, but the more authentically-minded sew by hand rather than by by machine.

Photograph of five people standing together in costume

(Of course a lot of them buy patterns, in their size, and use the pieces of tissue to cut out pieces of cloth in the right shape, but there are limits to how heavy-duty someone wants to be.)


 Medieval Cosplay Armor Patterns | Kinpatsu Cosplay

If one is going to become all authentic about medieval costumes, one of the first decisions is to choose the era one is trying to reproduce.  For both men and women, throughout the Middle Ages, the basic unit of clothing was a tunic, essentially a long-sleeved T-shirt, shorter for the men, longer for the women, as seen in the medieval drawing below.  A long rectangular cloak, generally with a hood, went over this in cooler weather.  But this simple design was greatly varied depending on time and place.

Classical antiquity had had very simple clothing, a lot of it basically pieces of cloth just wrapped, tied, and pinned around the body.  Early medieval clothing seems to have been equally simple, although Germanic men adopted trousers, which the Romans initially found both effeminate and hilarious.

As the Middle Ages went on, clothing became more elaborate.  Elegant women wore dresses cut on the bias, which gave their clothing stretch, allowing their clothes to fit more closely to their bodies.  These elegant dresses did not have zippers or other fasteners (zippers are a nineteenth-century invention), so the woman had to wiggle her way in.  Sleeves were basted on separately, every morning.

Even with fairly simple tunics above and socks or stockings below (no tights), an outfit could be accessorized with brooches, bracelets, necklaces, sashes, and fancy belt buckles.  These were worn by both sexes.  The image below is a modern reproduction of a Frankish belt buckle.


A big advance in the thirteenth century was the adoption of buttons.  Originally they were merely decorative, but quickly women realized they could be used with loops as closings for one's clothes, allowing even more tight-fitting outfits.  Lots of buttons (which were expensive, usually mother-of-pearl or ceramic) was a sign of luxury.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages women started wearing elaborate head dresses, again as signs of wealth and luxury.  Keeping one's clothing fresh and unstained, especially if it was white, was also a sign of luxury in an era with neither dry cleaning nor washing machines.

In the post-medieval period, clothing became even more elaborate for those who could afford it.  Those huge white ruffled collars one sees in early modern Dutch paintings were certainly nothing that ordinary working people could afford or manage.

At the court of Louis XIV in France, clothing was by far the biggest expense for the aristocrats at court trying to impress each other.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on clothing and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon.  Also available in paperback1