Sunday, April 7, 2024

Kinds of Fantasy

 In the late 1960s - early '70s, fantasy became its own genre.  Now the word "fantasy" had been around for a long time, meaning something not just unusual but unlikely, as in, "I wanted to train my cat to fetch, roll over, and shake hands, but what a fantasy!" or "I have this fantasy of dozens of beautiful young women competing for my attention."  But the genre of fantasy is something different.

At its most basic it is stories with magic, larger-than-life people having wondrous adventures, often imbued with the supernatural.  Some of the oldest stories we have could be called fantasy, starting with The Epic of Gilgamesh and large chunks of the Old Testament.  The modern version is most commonly what one might call medieval-adjacent, being set in something that could remind the reader of medieval society.  This is because it is heavily influenced by medieval myths and legends (like King Arthur or the tales of the gods in Norse mythology) and by the fairy tales that carry on many old legends in a simplified, sanitized way, but keep such medieval aspects as castles and knights and kings.

Medieval fantasy is so influential because of J.R.R. Tolkien, himself a medieval scholar, whose Lord of the Rings launched fantasy as a genre (first published in the UK in the 1950s, only taking off in the US a dozen years later, with the release of a copyright-defying edition).  When the books first came out, people didn't know what to make of them.  A very positive review called them"super science fiction."  Other reviewers called them "fairy tales for grownups."  (Wait, so myths got watered down into fairy tales, and now you're saying that they got watered back up? or something?)

Tolkien wrote what is now called "high" fantasy, a story set in a thoroughly imagined alternate world (although it may bear many resemblances to ours), with a variety of magical creatures (or at least non-human sentients), including (in his case), hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs, and dragons.  This remains the most common sort of fantasy, usually provided with a map and a plot involving a brave, mis-matched band of companions off to save the world from evil.

There was no organized religion at all in Lord of the Rings, but there were hints of great gods off in the distance, made more explicit in Tolkien's Silmarillion.  When there are gods (or at least immortal beings) galloping across the landscape as well as the elves and dragons, one often sees the term "epic" fantasy.  The term epic can also be used for any fantasy that covers wide stretches of territory, lots of characters, and a "save the planet" plot.  George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones and its sequels are always called epic, even without gods (he does have organized religion, however).

Then there's "low" fantasy, which has magic but less of it, and all the sentient beings are regular humans.  This designation sounds somewhat derogatory.  I remember being quite irritated the first time I saw Count Scar, which I wrote with Robert Bouchard, called "low" fantasy.

Count Scar could also be called "historical" fantasy, in that it is set in what is basically southern France in the thirteenth century, complete with medieval Christianity, although with the addition of magic.  The advantage of historical fantasy as a story-telling medium over historical fiction is that no one is going to get honked off if anachronisms creep in.  (I'm a medievalist.  There are extremely few anachronisms in Scar.  Maybe the forks.)

In recent years fantasy has picked up lots of new varieties.  "Science fantasy" is a real sub-genre, which combines fantasy with science fiction, even though both fantasy authors and SF authors dislike the term.  It has major elements of science fiction, like space ships, alien beings from other planets, hyper-modern technology, and a setting in a future version of our universe, but it also includes magic and/or supernatural beings.  Dune is really science fantasy, although the sub-genre didn't exist when it was first published.  In the SF community, faster-than-light travel is designated as NOT fantasy (because SF would be a lot less interesting if we only bopped around our own galaxy and its uninhabited planets), but other than that science fiction suggests semi-plausibly that one could get there from here.

Another version is "humorous" fantasy, where the author tries to have well developed characters and an actual plot, but there are chuckles on almost every page, as the author mocks many of the conventions of fantasy.  Terry Pratchett was the master of humorous fantasy.  My first published novel, A Bad Spell in Yurt, got panned by some readers as not being funny enough, whereas others felt, What's all this humor doing in a book that also mentions the redemption of souls?  (Fortunately a whole lot of people liked it anyway.)

Maybe Bad Spell is closer to what is termed "cozy" fantasy, where you can have magical beings and fully-realized imagined worlds, but you do not have to have the fate of the planet resting on whether our brave band of adventurers do or do not manage to overcome the Dark Lord.  Cozy fantasy is often recommended for tweens and early teen readers, even if the protagonists are not teenagers themselves (my wizard hero, seen above, is 29).

Then there is "urban" fantasy, set in something like our current world, but with vampires, werewolves, and the like hiding at the edges.  The Twilight series really catapulted urban fantasy into prominence.  Is Harry Potter urban fantasy?  Not really, because urban fantasy tends to be quite dark.

Rather, Harry Potter is YA ("young adult") fantasy, which can take on aspects of all different sorts of fantasy, but is consistent in having young protagonists having to take charge because the adults for some reason have failed (or been killed off or just don't understand).  In the process our young protagonists mature and learn about themselves.  Sometimes they have sex, though that is not required.  The teen years with magic, swords, and capes!  Less school cafeteria, more castles.  Let's do it.

YA fantasy is often set in what I call "fairy tale land," where you've got your princesses and castles and maybe fairy godmothers and witches, but there's little effort to create a whole, consistent world, and the princesses behave pretty much like modern teenage girls.  If they find themselves in a patriarchal, class-based society, they struggle against it.

So what does all this mean?  It means that fantasy is a rich, diverse genre.  If someone says they "don't like fantasy," maybe they just haven't read the right sort (I think I've written most of these versions and know I've read all of them).

© C. Dale Brittain 2024

Thursday, March 28, 2024

To Be Roman

 As I discussed back when I first started this blog, it is wrong to think of the Roman Empire of antiquity as "falling" to barbarian hordes.  Rather, Germanic peoples moved into the Roman Empire, dropped their Germanic language and much of their Germanic culture like hot potatoes, and established client kingdoms within the Empire.

This happened for example with the Visigoths in Spain and the Franks in what is now France, where Clovis (d. 511) is now considered the first French king.  He wore a toga, had his people's laws written down in Latin, wrote off to the Roman emperor in Constantinople for a special commendation, and converted to the Roman religion of Christianity.  Sure looks Roman to me.

Medieval people certainly considered themselves as continuing Rome's traditions.  Latin continued to be the language of learning and the law.  Most cities in western continental Europe had been provincial capitals under the Empire; most still had their Roman walls.  Roman roads were still the main arteries of communication and transportation.

Western Christianity was headquartered in Rome itself, with the pope.  Medieval people knew that there were Roman emperors in Constantinople, and after 800, when Charlemagne was crowned Roman emperor, by the pope in Rome, there were perfectly good Roman emperors right nearby.

 (That's one of Charlemagne's coins, portraying him as a Roman emperor of antiquity.)

In the tenth century, after Charlemagne's descendants lost much of their pizzazz, and there had been several Italian princes claiming to be Roman emperors, the title settled down with the German kings.  Germany and, to the extent that they could keep control of it, Italy, became known as the Holy Roman Empire in the twelfth century.  It is perhaps ironic that Germany, which was never part of the original Roman empire, became the center of the medieval Roman empire (which segued into the Austro-Hungarian empire, which persisted in one form or another until World War I).

And it wasn't just emperors who wanted to be Romans.  In the late Middle Ages, stories grew up both in Lithuania and in Ireland, asserting that the original populations of their countries had originally come from Rome.  Now neither Lithuania, up on the Baltic, nor Ireland, across the Irish Sea from Great Britain, had ever been under Roman rule in antiquity.  But that didn't stop the myth-makers.

According to their creative re-working of the past, scholars in both of these countries were able to assert that the first settlers of their territories were Romans, refugees from a war or adventurous pioneers or something, but at any rate Romans.  How could anyone think the Roman empire had fallen when Rome's descendants were still there, in the farthest reaches of Europe?

© C. Dale Brittain 2024

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

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Global Middle Ages part 2

 In my previous post I discussed the idea of the Global Middle Ages, a fairly new aspect of the study of medieval history, taken up in part to counter the white nationalists who want to see the Middle Ages as a model for a contained, all-white, all-Christian society, because in fact the Middle Ages wasn't like that.  Today I want to continue that discussion.

As well as interacting with people outside of western Europe, especially through trade, medieval people recognized a large range of diversity at home.  For one thing, they were not all Christian.  Christians and Muslims lived side by side, sometimes amicably, sometimes not, all around the Mediterranean.  There were Jews in most medieval cities, making the loans that ensured commercial development when Christian lenders wouldn't.

And Christianity itself had enormous variation, from differences like Scandinavians sometimes drinking beer instead of wine for the Eucharist, to outright heresy.  Even if there was general agreement on theology and liturgy, churchmen and secular rulers always differed on who ought to be in charge.  The Holy Roman emperors spent much of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries at war with the popes.  And there were always doubters.

Skin color was not as big a concern in a primarily Caucasian population as it is in modern Western countries, but there were always what we would call "brown" people in the mix.  Outright Blacks were rare, to the extent that a mating between a White and a Black was imagined to produce someone spotted black and white, like a cow.  A Black person was intriguing.

But there is more to trying to make the Middle Ages global that recognizing that it was not a uniformly white, Christian era.  Recently scholars have also tried looking again at the chronology that western historians take for granted.  First there was antiquity, the story goes, then around 500 the Middle Ages begin, to end around 1500, leading to the "early modern" period, then the French Revolution and American Revolution (we adopted our Constitution in 1789, same year as the French Revolution), and we're into Modern.

You can see where this is going.  Modern is good!  Like us!  The early modern period was preparing for us!  The Middle Ages were that time in the middle, after antiquity (from which we can get Greek democracy, Roman law, and early Christianity), before modernity sets in, a dull middle period "best forgotten."  Pretty clear why medievalists aren't happy with this.

Historians (of whatever place and time) need to avoid teleology, that is looking at the past as only interesting if it leads to what we like in the present.  So one might look at the English Parliament as an example of representative democracy, which is good, and leave out the tidbit that it originally only met if called by the king (kings of course being bad).

Looking at the Middle Ages, or for that matter any historical period, teleologically, as leading to us, ignores all the different modernities of different modern countries.  Global studies helps shake us out of that.  While Columbus and Martin Luther, on either side of the year 1500, were obviously crucial to Europe, with new continents to conquer and the rise of Protestantism, 1500 is a pretty meaningless date for most of Asia and Africa.  For that matter, though South America quickly felt the impact of Columbus, North America really did not for another century.

The planet is too big and has too many different cultures to be able to study the whole thing properly.  But by not taking our historical periods and our dates as obvious and absolute (even "the year 1500" is predicated on being able to date the birth of a Jewish boy who grew up to be considered a trouble maker), we can make fewer assumptions about what was important about our ancestors (both biological and institutional).

History done right helps human understanding.  The Middle Ages (as we're stuck calling it) was full of people both like and very unlike us.  Thus we can practice understanding people by starting with medieval people, before branching out to those with very different histories.

Yes, many medieval institutions led to ours, including representative democracy and the legal profession and banking and universities.  Many of the other things that concerned them have no modern analogues.  We'll understand these ancestors better if we don't start with the assumption that they were the embodiment of what the white nationalists today would like to be.

© C. Dale Brittain 2024

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

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Global Middle Ages

 Recently medievalists have begun talking about what is called "the global Middle Ages," that is extending their study beyond western Europe to what was going on in the rest of the world in the same period of roughly 500 to 1500.  It was also intended to make it clear that Europe's Middle Ages could not be taken as some sort of model for white Christian nationalism:  isolated, uniform in religion and skin color, dismissive of outsiders.

The earliest versions of trying to make medieval history global were somewhat awkward.  "First let's talk about Charlemagne.  Now let's talk about Great Zimbabwe in Africa.  Now let's have a brief interlude on imperial China, followed by the Aztecs."  This clearly didn't advance understanding very far.  Nor did attempts to compare institutions in different places that had essentially no contact with each other (though at least this approach didn't treat different cultures as a series of self-contained, unrelated units).  For example, for a while it was common to try to make comparisons between Japanese "feudalism" and that of medieval Europe, an attempt made problematic from the beginning by creating a rigid and a-historical model of "European feudalism," to which Japanese institutions, defined as second-class, could be compared.

More recently there has begun to be more emphasis on interactions between western Europeans and peoples beyond their borders.  There was always interaction with Byzantium, the Greek Roman Empire, centered in what is now Turkey.  Although Latin Christendom and Greek Orthodoxy have declared each other heretics since the eleventh century, learning and ideas and a great deal of trade went back and forth.

The Muslims who predominated in much of the Mediterranean basin from the seventh century on were a constant presence.  Sometimes, as in the Spanish peninsula and southern Italy (especially Sicily), Christians and Muslims got along at least part of the time.  In other cases, especially the Crusades, there were fierce religious wars, which the Europeans almost always lost.  The Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem of the twelfth century was marked by congenial Muslim-Christian interactions in between the fighting.

Eastern Europe was certainly known to the West.  The kingdom of Hungary, the grand duchy of Lithuania, and the Rus kingdom centered at Kiev all sent their princesses to marry western monarchs.  The West knew at least something about sub-Saharan Africa, as occasional elephants were brought to Europe (a medieval picture of one appears below), and the pope wrote to the Christians of Ethiopia (though it is unknown if they ever wrote back).

 Europeans were certainly aware of Asia.  Their silk came from China along the Silk Roads, and their spices came from Southeast Asia, brought to the Mediterranean by Arabic traders.  The arrival of the Mongols in the thirteenth century, a horde that came from Mongolia in central Asia (as you probably already guessed), certainly got everyone's attention.  Marco Polo is famous for his own trip to China, where he lived for many years during the time Mongol rule stretched from Europe to east Asia.  (That's Marco shown below.)

The one area with which Europe really did not have contact was the Americas.  Vikings reached what is now the Canadian Maritimes around the year 1000, but there was no lasting contact or influence, despite what some Scandinavian-Americans may tell you.  Still, that they arrived there at all is an indication that medieval Europe was not sealed off from the rest of the world.

There's lots more to be said about the idea of a global Middle Ages.  I'll continue the discussion next time.

© C. Dale Brittain 2024

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

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Medieval Queens

 Medieval queens exercised a great deal of authority, sometimes from "behind the throne," sometimes in their own right.  As I have earlier discussed, medieval women had more of what we would call "rights" (autonomy, ability to control their own property) than women in the nineteenth century in the US or UK.  Queens of course had an authority that most women never had, but then most men never had that kind of authority either.


A number of queens ruled in their own right.  In England, Mathilda, granddaughter of William the Conqueror, was declared ruling queen of England after her father's death.  She spent her whole reign battling her cousin Stephen for the throne.  He ended up being declared the rightful king in modern lists of kings of England, but at the time the English barons were more than happy to switch allegiance back and forth between Mathilda and Stephen, depending on who offered a better deal.  Stephen lived longer, which is probably why he now gets the nod.  Her being a woman wasn't so much of an issue as the fact that she was married to the count of Anjou, the county that had always been in competition with Normandy, where most of the English barons had property.

Mathilda's son Henry became King Henry II of England after Stephen's death in 1154.  Henry married Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had earlier been queen of France, married to Louis VII, who divorced her for not bearing a son (she had five sons with Henry, showing it wasn't her fault).  She was the only medieval queen to get to be queen of two different countries (France and England), though never actually a ruling queen.  On the other hand, as duchess of Aquitaine she brought essentially the whole southwest quarter of France to each of her husbands.  She also was very active during her life, going on Crusade with Louis VII, aiding and abetting her sons in their revolts against Henry II, and arranging the marriages of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

In the fifteenth-century Iberian peninsula, the two most powerful kingdoms were Aragon and Castile, ruled respectively by Ferdinand and Isabelle.  They married, and their joint rule as "the Catholic kings" (both being king, you notice) was very significant both for a unified Spain and for world history.  They drove the last of the Moors out of Spain, finishing a 600 year project (the Reconquista), drove out the Jews while they were at it, and sponsored Columbus in 1492.

In addition to ruling in their own right, many queens were powers behind the throne.  They had their own courts, with their own court officials, their own hangers-on, and their own petitioners.  Anyone with an important request for the king would do well to start with the queen.  If she agreed, she would use her powers of persuasion to win the king around.

A major constraint on queens was the necessity that they produce an heir (as suggested in the example of Eleanor of Aquitaine).  The problem with heredity is that without children the property (or in this case the kingdom) can end up being passed off to some cousin.  And the queen had to be assumed to be totally pure, so that any child she bore would undeniably be the king's.  Kings were allowed a little latitude in their love life, to the point that by the early modern period (post medieval) Royal Mistress was a recognized position.  But queens were not any latitude.  Queens caught in adultery were supposed to be put to death, although in fact medieval queens were faithful enough (or discreet enough) that this didn't happen (but then in the post-medieval period you get Henry VIII and the wives beheaded for adultery).

© C. Dale Brittain 2024

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

Monday, February 26, 2024

The Armourer

 As I have discussed previously, knights in the twelfth century normally wore chain mail, made of iron rings riveted or welded together to provide protection against swords and other weapons.  Although we have plenty of illustrations from the period of chain mail, actual chain mail from the twelfth century is now essentially non-existent.  It would be used until it disintegrated, and it was especially subject to rust.

When we think of armor we usually think instead of plate armor.  Here we have lots of surviving examples, the earliest from the thirteenth century but continuing up through the seventeenth century.  England's Tower of London long collected helmets and swords from the late medieval and early modern periods.  Recently these have been moved to their own museum in Leeds (Yorkshire), called (appropriately enough) the Armouries.  The entryway is seen below.

The person responsible for making all the pre-modern armor was known (again appropriately) as an armourer.  It was a highly skilled occupation, and armourers had their own late medieval guilds.  A royal court would have several armourers on staff, and they were kept busy.

Plate armor was made from steel, not iron, produced by working the charcoal from the great furnaces (used to melt iron) into the metal.  Because most medieval iron came out of mines in Germany, that region also became the center of steel making.  Armor made by German armourers might be sold all over Europe.  Plates of steel, ready to be made into armor, would also be sold, or a powerful lord might buy raw iron to be worked up locally.

The armourer was in many ways like a blacksmith, using metal, a furnace, and hammer and anvil to shape metal into protective gear.  The advantage of plate armor over chain mail was that it was designed to deflect the blow of a sword or lance, even to turn aside a bullet unless it came in on a perfectly direct course.  Late medieval helmets often took on fanciful shapes, which while certainly embracing fashion, were ultimately based on theories of the best shapes to send an incoming shot or blow skittering away.

Realistically plate armor will not do a lot against musket fire, and it's useless against cannon fire, but it was highly effective against the footsoldiers increasingly pressed into service in late medieval warfare.  A heavily armored knight on a heavily armored horse could ride down footsoldiers with impunity.

But plate armor achieved its great flourishing in post-medieval tournaments.  When the cavalry charges, for which tournaments had originally been designed to train knights, no longer served in wars fought with cannons and pikemen on foot, tournaments became very popular games for the powerful.  The above mounted knight is clearly a tournament fighter.

The heavy plate armor used for tournaments of the early modern period would have been awkward and confining in a regular battle.  But it didn't matter.  Knights would be hoisted into the saddle with cranes and aimed at each other.  Armourers really came into their own, shaping the armor to fit each individual, decorating it with scenes from epics or tales of antiuity, inventing new styles.  King Henry VIII of England loved such tournaments.  Several of his suits of armor survive, getting larger and larger around over the years as he did.

© C. Dale Brittain 2024

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

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Medieval Gemstones

 Medieval people valued gemstones.  They were widely used metaphorically, as, for example, the Heavenly Jerusalem had its walls studded with gems, or a larger-than-life hero in an epic tale would have jewels set in the hilt of his sword.  But they also used both precious and semi-precious stones to decorate everything from Bible covers to royal crowns to reliquaries to communion cups.

Although these days few churches would stud their holy objects with gems, medieval people did so regularly.  Just as crown jewels marked the high position of a king or queen, so gemstones attached to the reliquary that held the bones or other relics of a saint marked this saint as something very special.

The above image is the twelfth-century reliquary of Sainte Foy, patron saint of Conques, apparently at origin a Roman statue of a man (Foy was a woman), repurposed to hold Foy's relics and covered with gems to show her value.  Many of these gems may have come from jewels people donated to show their gratitude to Foy when she healed them (she was particularly known for healing blindness and diseases of the eye).  In the stories, if someone came to be healed but carefully left their rings at home (so Foy wouldn't claim them), their hands would swell unbearably the next time they wore the withheld rings.  A quick return visit to Conques would be needed.

Gemstones could also have what we would call magical powers.  The proper gem placed under the tongue, or dipped in liquid that one then drank, or placed on the body could supposedly heal disease, or reveal a secret (like adultery), or protect travelers, or help a mother in childbirth.  It was agreed that these gems might lose their potency with time, so there are accounts of priests blessing them or putting them on the altar or anointing them with special herbs to revive their power.

The powerful had much of what we would call their liquid wealth tied up in gemstones.  Women wore highly valuable necklaces, and rings set with jewels were frequent gifts from the wealthy to their closest associates, or gifts made in response to a special service.

Diamonds were extremely rare in the Middle Ages and highly valued; most diamonds in more modern times have come from deep African mines.  Other precious stones included rubies, emeralds, sapphires, opals, and amethysts, plus pearls, which are actually not stones at all, although they are minerals.  Most of these precious jewels can now be created in the laboratory, but of course they were not then.  Medieval people also valued what were considered semi-precious stones (the distinction between precious and semi-precious went back to antiquity), like topaz, lapis lazuli, jade, beryl, and tourmaline.

© C. Dale Brittain 2024

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