Monday, December 21, 2015

Shortest day of the year

It's December 21, shortest day of the year.

This doesn't mean earliest sunset.  That was back on December 6, Saint Nicholas day.  It also doesn't mean latest sunrise--that doesn't come until a week into January.  It's just the day where there are fewest hours of daylight.

The shortest day of the year, January 1, and December 25 (Christmas) are actually all supposed to be the same day, or at least have their origin in the idea of the day that darkness has finished getting darker and things will now start returning to light.  But they also all have their origin in festivals that humans have held since the beginning of civilization.

The Babylonians, the first astronomers and mathematicians, were also the first to decide that a circle had 360 degrees.  They were intensely irritated with the year for having 5 extra days.  But this was easily solved.  Have a 5-day blowout party with the extra days.  (To some extent, our year-end partying is the continuation of this tradition.)

Our calendar is Roman, based on the Julian calendar (of Julius Caesar fame), which was the first to recognize officially that you had to have a leap year every 4 years.  (The Babylonians would get around to a leap month every generation or two.)  In this calendar, January 1 started the new year, but Saturnalia was a week of feasting and fun leading up to it.  (Look how classical we are!  Celebrating both with the Babylonians and the Romans!)

In the fourth century, a pagan Roman emperor, disturbed by the rapid spread of Christianity in the Empire, decided to fight back by declaring particular devotion to Apollo, the sun-god, and declared the shortest day of the year the sun-god's birthday--because it was the day he started to increase.  In the then Julian calendar, which had been drifting since Caesar's time since no one realized that you can't have leap years on the century (have 24 and skip one), the shortest day of the year was December 25.

The Christians in turn fought back against Apollo and declared December 25 their God's birthday.  (The Sun/Son pun only works in English, but it's still applicable.)  Christmas has been celebrated then ever since.

Now in fact the New Testament doesn't exactly say that Jesus was born in December.  In fact, it puts his birth "when shepherds watched their flocks by night," which would be in the spring, lambing season, when the shepherds have to be vigilant against predators.  But it still seems an excellent time for a festival of light and warmth.

For medieval theologians, December 25 also made sense, because the crucifixion took place around the time of Passover according to the New Testament, that is probably late March.  And "everyone knows" that important people die on the anniversary of their conception.  If Jesus was born on December 25, he must have been conceived on March 25, obviously the date of the crucifixion.  It all made sense.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Santa and the chimney

In an earlier post on Saint Nicholas, I noted how our current version of Santa Claus is a curious mix of a Byzantine patron saint of children, Dutch traditions celebrated in nineteenth-century New York by Washington Irving, the "Night Before Christmas" poem, and Coca-Cola commercials.

But how about the chimney?  Why is Santa landing on our roofs and trying to stuff his rotund form down a narrow space uniquely designed to get black soot all over a nice red velvet suit?

The chimney goes back to the Italian Renaissance.  One of the stories told about the original Saint Nicholas was that he saved three lovely but impoverished sisters from ending up in the brothel, by tossing dowries in through their window.  In the ancient Roman Empire, and again in the Renaissance, a young woman really couldn't get married without a dowry.  Indeed, if she moved in with her husband without one, she was officially just a concubine by Roman law.

In the Renaissance, country girls often moved to town to find work and save up money for a dowry, because their families wouldn't have the cash to provide one.  But their working life was tough, and the pay was bad.  If they couldn't save up enough, they might well end up in the municipal brothel.  Many well-to-do Renaissance townspeople became concerned and formed San Niccolò societies, to help these girls as the original saint had helped the lovely but impoverished sisters.

These societies would provide dowries to poor-but-deserving young women, to make sure they were able to be married.  The societies would also sponsor church windows in honor of the saint.  In these images, poor-but-honest scullery maids would be depicted in front of the big kitchen fireplace, having fallen asleep there out of sheer exhaustion, after having scrubbed all the pots.  The saint would come down the chimney, wearing his red bishop's robes, and drop bags of dowries into their laps.  The laps were significant, because the dowry protected their "honor."  Perhaps it's not well to think too hard about how the laps became stockings.

(For that matter, the song "Santa Baby," where a torch-singing woman invites Santa to "slide down my chimney," doesn't seem aimed at children.)

The image from the Renaissance stained glass windows made its way into one of the subtle influences shaping the nineteenth-century Santa Claus.  In "The Night Before Christmas," however, the Saint Nicholas who comes down the chimney is not a saint but an elf.  In fact, he is a rather small creature.  His flying sleigh is drawn by "eight tiny reindeer."  (Washington Irving's Saint Nicholas had driven a flying cart drawn by a horse.)  This one had no trouble fitting down the chimney.

More recent Santas have become enormously fat, as well as full-height men.  One has to wonder how they fit down the chimney.  But this is probably the least of their worries, given how many children's houses they are supposed to visit in the brief hours between when the parents finally get to bed and the kids wake up.

For more on Santa, see my essay, "Contested Christmas," available as an ebook on Amazon and other ebook platforms.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Medieval scribes always abbreviated.  When one is using a feather pen, dipped in ink laboriously made from oak gall and lamp black, writing on parchment that had to be carefully prepared from sheep skin, it's a slow process.  One of the ways to pick up the pace was to abbreviate.

A number of abbreviations were standard from the ninth century on.  For example, a short horizontal line drawn over a vowel meant that there was a following -m- or -n-.  Hence, to write cu with a short horizontal over the -u- was to write the common Latin word cum (meaning with), without having to devote energy to all those little vertical lines (called minims) that go into the letter -m-.

Similarly, the letter -p- with a short horizontal through the lower leg (the descender) meant per, a word that came up a lot in medieval Latin.  It could also be found in the middle of a word, so that imperator (emperor) would be written as impator with a short horizontal through the lower leg of the -p-.

One could even write episcopus (bishop) as epc, because, after all, what other word could it possibly be?

A very common abbreviation was of the word Christos.  This is of course Greek, meaning "the anointed one" or "the Messiah," Christus in Latin, Christ in modern English.  (The New Testament was written in Greek, though medieval writers used the so-called Vulgate, the Latin translation.)  Because Christos is a Greek word, which medieval scribes recognized as such, they abbreviated it using Greek letters, even though very few of them knew much Greek at all.

The first letter of the word in Greek is "chi," what we would call a K-sound, written as X.  Thus a capital X stood for Christ.  Sometimes the scribes would add the second letter, the "rho," the R-sound, written as P.  One will see on sarcophagi and altars the letters X and P superimposed on each other.  This is the "chi-rho" (pronounced Cairo), meaning Christ.

So a scribe referring to Christians might write Xiani.  Christmas was Xmissa (missa is Latin for mass).

This abbreviation system has continued in the modern Xmas.  Some people find the abbreviation deeply disturbing, the reduction of Christ to a cipher, to an unknown.  But this is not the case at all.  (One does wonder if the mention of "the unknown" is a leftover from modern high school algebra.)

Medieval monks could never be mistaken for secularists, and they found the abbreviation very reverent.  Indeed, there may have been some holdover of the ancient Hebrew idea that you should not actually say or write in too explicit a way (or at any rate write on something that might be discarded) the sacred name of God.

So if someone today loudly pronounces they do not believe in Christianity and will therefore refer only to Xmas, that's one thing.  But you cannot read an anti-religion sentiment into the simple abbreviation.  It does, after all, go back to the earliest existing western Bibles.

For more on the history of Christmas, see my essay "Contested Christmas," available as an ebook from Amazon and other ebook platforms.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Medieval bridges

Bridges seem self-evident to us.  There's a stream or river.  We want the road to cross.  We build a bridge.

But bridge-building, as any engineer will tell you, is far from simple.  It has to be strong enough to carry the load.  Unless it is very short, it has to be supported in the middle, which means putting pillars down into the river.  The pillars have to be sturdy enough to withstand the pressure of running water and probably ice and flotsam.  And then there's maintenance.  Covered bridges in the nineteenth century were built that way so that the roof would help protect the timbers.

Bridges were very important in the Middle Ages both for commerce and for communication.  One can kick a horse into a river and hope he swims faster than the river carries him away, but this doesn't work with a cart full of goods on the way to market.

Timber bridges were certainly found in the Middle Ages, but if possible they were built of stone, the roadway wide enough for a cart, with low walls on either side.

All market towns built bridges on the approach roads to facilitate merchants bringing goods to town.  These were usually operated as toll bridges, where those with the carts would willingly pay rather than hunt up and down stream for miles for a shallow ford.

Within a town there was almost always a bridge, because almost all towns were built on a stream or river.  The bridge made communication and commerce between both sides of the river much easier than they would have been otherwise.  Often a bridge would lie right below a castle or fortress, so that anyone crossing the bridge would know they should not even think of getting out of line.

Under the bridge, if the river was swift-flowing, mills were often build between the pillars.  On the bridge itself, if it was fairly long, little shops might become established.

A surprising number of Europe's medieval bridges still survive after eight centuries or so, a tribute to the planning and workmanship of medieval engineers who did not have computers, slide rules, or even Arabic numerals.  These bridges are mostly now pedestrian-only, but some still take cars.  (The one above, located in Mende in south-central France, is pedestrian-only now.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

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

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Saint Nicholas

It's Saint Nicholas Day, December 6, earliest sunset of the year, so I think I'll talk about Santa, Jolly Old Saint Nick, and the question of how the saint whose feast day is almost three weeks before Christmas has gotten associated with Christmas.  (Hate to break it to you, but medieval Christmas was completely lacking in both Santa and Christmas trees.)

(And for that matter, isn't "Old Nick" another name for Satan?  And if you rearrange the letters in Santa, what do you get?)

There really was a Saint Nicholas, by the way, who lived in what is now Turkey in the later days of the Roman Empire.  He had various stories told about him, including that he saved some girls whose destitute father was going to sell them to the local brothel; the saint saved them by secretly throwing bags of money through their window.  He also supposedly brought back to life some boys whom a nefarious innkeeper had cooked up and was getting ready to serve.  These stories made him the patron saint of children.  (See more here on how he became the patron saint of poor working girls during the Renaissance.)

By the seventeenth or eighteenth century, well-to-do Dutch were celebrating Saint Nicholas day (Sint Niklaus or Sinter Klaas as they called him) with small presents for the children.  In the Netherlands, the saint still comes up the canal in his canal boat on the 6th, bringing toys for the good children, but his assistant, Black Peter, puts coal in the wooden shoes of the bad ones.

Santa as we know him (say Sinter Klaas fast and you'll see where the name Santa Claus comes from) is a specifically American invention, that started in the early nineteenth century with Washington Irving, the same person who wrote about the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow.  He was trying to create a vision of an "old fashioned" sort of family celebration, based on Dutch heritage--with the war of 1812 and all that, the British weren't as welcome in New York State as the Dutch still were.

But it was Clement Moore's poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (aka "The Night Before Christmas") that single-handedly moved Santa from December 6 to the 24th.  By the middle of the nineteenth century, Santa was well established, driving out alternate gift-givers.  Thomas Nash, a newspaper illustrator (whose Santa is above), was the first to come up with the North Pole toyshop--I guess someone dressed in furs and driving reindeer just had to live in northerly climes.

But the jolly, red-dressed figure, with a bushy beard, big black boots, and a sack of gifts only really took the appearance he has now in the twentieth century, with Coca Cola commercials, where he chugged a frosty bottle of Coke, rather than puffing on a Dutch clay pipe as he had earlier (and is doing in Nash's illustration).

The Byzantine saint certainly has had many transformations in the last 1600 years, to being considered a secular symbol of Christmas, acceptable where a manger scene would not be (wait! aren't saints religious by definition?), most visible sitting in the mall in December where terrified children are forced to sit on his lap.  Ho ho ho!

For more on Santa and Christmas in the Middle Ages, see my essay, "Contested Christmas," available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Medieval Wedding

These days, it sometimes seems as if it's not a "real" wedding without a few hundred guests, elaborate food, music and dancing, and limousines.  Many (including me) dispute the need to spend tens of thousands of dollars just to get married.  But except for the limousines, a modern blow-out wedding bears many resemblances to a medieval aristocratic wedding.

Earlier I posted on medieval marriage and its slow acceptance as a sacrament, complete with rules against incest (which included marrying quite distant cousins) and against divorce.  Here I want to discuss in a little more detail the wedding itself, which took a form far older than Christian marriage.

The Romans had believed in a big, fancy wedding, with feasting and elaborate clothing.  The bride would process through the streets to the house of her new husband.  A Roman bride was expected to provide a dowry, and in fact she was considered a concubine, not a real wife, if she couldn't produce one.  The males in both the bride and groom's families made most of the arrangements.

Early medieval weddings followed the same pattern.  A priest might be invited in to bless the bed, but if he had any sense he went home before things got too raucous.  By the Carolingian era, however, a priest would commonly perform a nuptial mass, having at least some say in the events.

But the heart of a valid marriage was the oaths exchanged by the couple, commonly symbolized by the exchange of rings.  Modern weddings still have the couples recite (or repeat) oaths to stay true to each other forever.  This was supposed to take place before witnesses, who would be able to say later that the oaths had indeed been exchanged if there was any doubt.

Because an oath is only valid if given by free will, neither party could be forced into it. This did not of course exclude strong moral suasion by one's relatives.  But then, as now, a shotgun wedding doesn't count and can be annulled.

For peasants, a wedding was simple, promises exchanged before family and relatives, often standing in a ring.  If a priest came by at some point, he might bless a marriage that had been in effect for several months already.  (The idea that lords had some sort of "first night right" to peasant brides is completely imaginary, having been created by over-excited Victorian minds.)

For aristocrats, unlike peasants, the exchange of vows, which often took place on a church's front steps, was followed by a nuptial mass inside the church, and then the feasting and dancing.  One could be married in a parish church or a cathedral, but most emphatically not in a monastery or nunnery.

One of course dressed up for a wedding, but medieval brides did not wear white--indeed there was no particular color that was considered most appropriate.  White wedding dresses only became popular in the nineteenth century, in imitation of Queen Victoria's wedding with Albert.

Because a couple was not fully married until they had consummated their union, they would be tucked into bed together.  The wedding guests would often provide helpful tips through the window or sing naughty songs to get the couple in the mood.  There was no honeymoon trip; rather, the feasting might continue for several days.  The whole event could be so expensive for the bride's father that in England lords often demanded that those who held in fief from them should help pay for the oldest daughter's wedding.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

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

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Medieval families

Families in the Middle Ages were both like and unlike modern American families.  But what, exactly, are modern American families like?  It's actually hard to tell.

The stereotype is Mom, Dad, Sis, and Junior, all living together, but this is in fact a small minority of households these days--there are the childless couples, the people living by themselves, the people living with three generations, the step-parents, the people living with people they aren't related to or married to, and so on.  Many of these groupings consider themselves family.

The "household" is a (more or less) recognizable unit, and the medieval Latin term familia meant household.  Thus a medieval familia could include several generations of related people, servants, permanent house guests, and so much more.

In practice the basic medieval economic and social unit was the nuclear family, Mom, Dad, Sis, and Junior as we would consider it.  This was true both of peasants and lords.  Others might live in their households, but this grouping was the center.  With a higher level of mortality than in the modern West, many of the adults would have been widowed and remarried, but probably not a greater proportion than those in modern times who have divorced and remarried.

Superimposed on this readily recognizable unit, however, was another definition of family, consisting of people who all descended from a common ancestor.  Medieval people were much more conscious of their ancestors than are modern Americans, where most would have trouble coming up with the names of their great-grandparents, or maybe even grandparents.  For aristocrats, ancestry was important because nobility depended on noble blood, being descended from nobles of whom one was very proud.  Peasants too knew their ancestors, because most of them lived on land that had been in the family for generations and had heard ancestral stories all their lives.

But knowing that one was related to someone else did not mean that family feelings always predominated.  Two brothers or two cousins who both had their eye on the same inheritance could end up seeing the other as the enemy.

And exactly who was and was not "family" varied with each individual.  For a husband, his wife was not entirely an insider, belonging as she also did to her natal family.  To her children, however, Mom was a central part of their "family."  Aristocrats making gifts to a monastery might ask for prayers for relatives to whom they would never have left any inheritance.

Within a nuclear family, the oldest son had at least some precedence, but it was not automatic, and younger sons and daughters were considered full family members, with at least some right to their parents' property, and certainly a claim on any prayers their parents might win.

As modern Americans sit around the holiday table with a mixed collection of in-laws, siblings, parents and grandparents, children and cousins, aunts and uncles, and probably a few assorted friends and neighbors, everyone still calls it a "family" dinner.  Family was just as flexible in the Middle Ages.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Third Time's a Charm

My first foray into independent print publishing, "The Starlight Raven," was quite a success.  So I'm going to try again with an omnibus of the three Yurt novellas.  Its title, appropriately enough, is "Third Time's a Charm."

It's an ebook, available on Amazon and all other major ebook platforms, and also available in print as a paperback.

I've been working with a graphic artist, Jan-Michael Barlow, who did the cover.  Most of my ebook covers are just my own photos of scenes in Europe, but I figured I should try to up my game a bit.  Feedback welcome!

A novella is a short novel, with events taking place over a certain period of time, challenges and character development, but not nearly as many subplots as a full-length novel.

The three novellas came about in the last few years because fans kept asking for more stories about Daimbert, and, what can I say, he's a favorite of mine as well.  They are self-contained adventures set in between the six Yurt novels, but they continue the overall story arc, of a young wizard who originally doesn't have a clue to what he's doing, but gradually gains experience and ability and has to take on responsibility as the plots he barely knew existed begin to thicken.

The first novella, "The Lost Girls and the Kobold," falls between "The Wood Nymph and the Cranky Saint" and "Mage Quest" in the overall Yurt storyline; the second, "Below the Wizards' Tower," between "Mage Quest" and "The Witch and the Cathedral"; and the third, "A Long Way 'Til November," between "Daughter of Magic" and "Is This Apocalypse Necessary?"  The three novellas are also available individually as ebooks as well as in this omnibus.

Here's the book description:  "You would think that life as Royal Wizard of the tiny kingdom of Yurt would be easy, but somehow it never works out that way. Daimbert the wizard expects things to be simple: finding a girl lost in the mountains, visiting old friends at the wizards' school, or taking a trip in a gypsy caravan. But then he discovers that the mountains are more than they seem, a doppelgänger threatens the school, and his pleasant trip turns ugly with suspicion and bigotry. Good thing he knows how to improvise!"

I realize that, although the whole series is called the "Yurt series," more often than not they don't actually take place in the kingdom of Yurt itself.  In fact, most commonly they are set in Caelrhon, the kingdom next door to Yurt, the second-smallest (after Yurt) of the Western Kingdoms.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Monday, November 16, 2015


The Middle Ages is so influential that there is a special branch of study, medievalism, which looks at romantic versions of the Middle Ages.

The romantic Middle Ages really started in the nineteenth century.  During the Middle Ages themselves, of course, when everyone thought they lived "now" rather than in some "middle" period between antiquity and modernity, writers might wax nostalgic for some imaginary past, but they didn't call this past the Middle Ages.

The Italian Renaissance (which is actually late medieval Italy in disguise) invented the idea of a "middle" period between antiquity and them, who were of course "modern."  The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century deliberately broke with medieval religion.  By the time we reach the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the Middle Ages was labeled an age of superstition and darkness.

So what happened to stop this slide of the Middle Ages into the "middle-evil" period one may see on student exams?  (I have to tell mine that this is not a funny joke.)

Basically it was the Industrial Revolution, that got off the ground in England toward the end of the eighteenth century and really spread in the nineteenth.  While radically dropping the price of manufactured goods and making all sorts of new inventions possible, industrialization also created massive pollution, a sharp separation between the artisan and the manufactured product, and people working in factories where they were treated as interchangeable cogs.

In response, there was a new yearning for a time before all this happened, and the time chosen was the Middle Ages.  In this age of chivalry and faith, it was assumed, the leaders were brave and honorable, beauty was cherished, the sturdy yeoman farmer took pride in his labor while knowing his place, and life was full of passion and rich meaning.  Well, maybe.

Sir Walter Scott, author of Ivanhoe, really started this romanticism.  He was a contemporary of Jane Austen, although from looking at his stories of knightly derring-do and hers of country gentry trying to get their daughters married one might never think so.  (He admired her very much, though noting that one one but he himself could do as good a job at what he called "the big bow-wow scene."  I think you had to be there.)

The most famous promoter of a romanticized Middle Ages was Richard Wagner (d. 1883), whose opera "The Ring of the Nibelung" is based on two medieval epics, the "Volsung Saga" and the "Nibelungenlied."  These two medieval epics, though coming out of the same long oral tradition, where tales of Merovingian-era kings were mixed with the old story of Sigurd the Dragonslayer until they were almost unrecognizable, both rejected major aspects of the other's story.  The Saga is set in a pagan universe, where the gods are very active and Sigurd has a hot affair with Odin's daughter Brunhild.  The Nibelungenlied is set in a Christian universe, where Siegfried had never had a relationship with Brunhild, queen of Iceland.  (He does get to slay a dragon in both, however.)

This did not bother Wagner (pictured above), who picked and chose what he liked from both, to create a series of operas of epic proportions, where industrialization was bad, heroes were half-way to being gods, and a search for wealth was very evil.

In the US, medieval architecture became very popular.  The simplicity of white New England churches was replaced by neo-Gothic (or neo-Romanesque) styles.  Office buildings and apartment buildings were often built to have a medieval look (think Richardsonian Romanesque).  Ironically, these buildings used modern industrial techniques.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015
For more on medieval and modern social history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Autumn in the Middle Ages

"Winter is coming."  It's not just a saying from Game of Thrones, but something that would definitely worry medieval people at this time of year.

As now, autumn meant both big feasts and battening things down for the winter.  Battening required getting in firewood to keep warm during the cold months and long nights ahead (see more here on keeping warm in the Middle Ages).  As anyone with a wood stove will tell you, a person can go through an awful lot of wood trying to keep warm in the winter--and modern stoves are far, far more efficient than medieval fireplaces or fire pits.

Autumn also meant stockpiling food.  It would be a long time until the new crops came in.  Fruits were dried, meat smoked and salted, beans dried.  They did not have the canning methods we now take for granted, so no peach halves in syrup.  Especially important was making sure that there was enough grain on hand, because bread was the chief source of calories for upper and lower status people alike.  And of course the wealthy would want to make sure they had plenty of wine.  (Beer could be brewed on a weekly basis.)

But before everything was battened down, it was time for heavy eating (we think of our big Thanksgiving dinner as going back to the Pilgrims in the seventeenth century--it's a lot older than that). All animals, including humans, get hungry as it gets cold.  We have thousands of generations of ancestors telling us to fatten up now, because they (the ancestors) "know for a fact" that in four or five months we'll be lucky if we can find some dandelion greens to eat.

November was the month of the medieval pig slaughter; it was even commemorated on churches.  Pigs, which had been running wild all summer, fattened up themselves in autumn on fallen acorns (called mast).  They were then rounded up, slaughtered, and eaten.  Everybody put away as much fresh pork as they could manage, and the rest was salted and smoked (extremely heavily by modern standards) to last the winter.

In a way eating heavily is not just a way to fatten up for winter.  It is also a last-hurrah of the good times of the harvest, when food is abundant, and a defiance of shortage and want--you won't get me this time!

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Witch & the Cathedral

"The Witch and the Cathedral."  Sounds like an interesting scholarly book about women and heresy during the twelfth century, doesn't it?

Well, it's not!  This is me in my fantasy-author mode, not my medieval-scholar mode.

One of the things that I think makes my fantasy different from most of the genre, however, is that I have real, working Christianity in it.  It's not that my books are pious, however--the wizards are always leery of religion, and the priests are leery of wizardry.  But as a medievalist I would have trouble creating even a semi-medieval setting for my stories without including a functioning church.

In this book, as well as the tension between religion and magic (a thinly disguised version of the modern tension between religion and science), I also focus on the tension between the sexes, the female magic-workers the wizards distrust and call witches versus the male version of magic.

And besides, the book is funny.

The reason I'm talking about it right now is because it's just been released as an audiobook, available on, on iTunes, and on Amazon.  You can also get it as an ebook through Amazon (details here) and go back and forth between reading it and listening to it.

If you like the Yurt books but haven't tried audiobooks yet, I suggest you start at the beginning with "A Bad Spell in Yurt."  Eric Vincent, the narrator, does a great job.  In my own head of course Daimbert (my wizard hero) sounds like me, but Eric voices him very well.


© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Richard the Lionheart

Richard the Lionheart (1189-1199) is one of England's most beloved kings.  It helps that he spent less than a year, total, of his reign actually in England.

The nickname comes from a story that he was attacked by a lion.  But when the lion opened its jaws to bite him, he reached into its mouth and down its throat, grabbed its heart, and pulled it right out.  This seems wildly unlikely.

He was actually the third son (out of five) of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine and not originally intended to be king.  Eleanor had been divorced by Louis VII of France for not producing sons, so the fact that she immediately started cranking them out with Henry showed it wasn't her fault.

The oldest son (William) died young, but Prince Henry, his father's favorite, was supposed to be king of England after him.  Richard, Eleanor's favorite, was supposed to become duke of Aquitaine, succeeding his mother in that office, and take over his father's French lands--Henry II held Normandy, as had all English kings since the Norman Conquest, and also had Anjou (the county next to Normandy) from his mother.  So Richard spent his youth in France, not England, and in his teens led rebellions against his father.

Young Prince Henry, the favorite, died before their father, so Richard became the heir to the throne.  Their father died, at the castle of Chinon (in France, illustrated below), just as the Third Crusade was getting underway.  Richard raced off to fight the infidel, delighted not to be burdened with anything as tedious as governing.  The fourth brother, Geoffrey, had also predeceased their father--killed accidentally in a tournament--so the fifth brother, John, was left in charge of England.

Richard had a great time on Crusade, earning the admiration of Saladin, but on the way home through the Holy Roman Empire he was captured and held for ransom.  John had to raise the money to free him, an enormous amount, a "king's ransom," which did not help his reputation with the people from whom money was extracted.  (Between the fact that Prince Geoffrey's little son Arthur mysteriously disappeared while visiting his Uncle John, and the excesses that later led to the Magna Carta, John has never had a good reputation.)

Once freed, Richard stopped by the house long enough to be the "good king" of the Robin Hood stories, but he quickly zipped off to France.  Although he'd survived Crusade, he was shot down while besieging a castle--where it's possible great treasure was hidden.  Dying, he tried to make it to the castle of Chinon, to die where his father had, but only made it into the lower town below Chinon before expiring.  He was buried at the French monastery of Fontevraud--the image from his tomb is below.

By the way, you'll sometimes see the suggestion that Richard was gay.  This is based only on an account that he and young Philip II of France became very close friends--when not at war with each other.  Medieval men, unlike modern American men, found such closeness normal, not a sign of anything queer.  In fact Richard, who was indeed married but left no heirs, seems to have been uninterested in sex with anyone--why have sex when you could be out fighting instead?

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Monday, October 26, 2015

Social mobility in the Middle Ages

In the US, we imagine that we live in a society where social mobility is always possible.  The rags to riches story of the poor kid who ends up making millions (usually as a sports star) is treated as almost normal, whereas of course it is wildly unusual.  Few people these days make great leaps of upward social mobility.

But it's possible.  It was also possible in the Middle Ages, even though even more unlikely than it is now.  Upward mobility was generally a several-generations-long process, and of course downward mobility was also possible, and generally much faster.

For a peasant, upward mobility generally meant becoming a more well-to-do peasant, through careful use of one's limited resources, very hard work in the field, and some raw luck.  A young peasant (generally male) might also move to town in the twelfth century or later, trying to make his fortune there, although the ones who actually made a "fortune" were extremely few.

Among the townspeople, someone willing to work very hard (and who got a lot of raw luck) might become fairly wealthy as the head of a merchant or banking house or as a guild master.  He (or occasionally she) would try to emulate the nobility, wearing silks, educating his children, eating meat.  No one would actually mistake a wealthy merchant for a nobleman, but there were enough of these by the late twelfth century that some in the lower nobility felt threatened.

For downward mobility was also possible, and a lord who overspent on silks and spices, rebuilding his castle, going on Crusade, and acquiring new land could find himself in danger of having to do his own plowing.

Marriage was a way to give upward mobility to one's children.  A wealthy townsman could hope to marry the daughter of a knight down on his luck.  A knight would hope to marry a castellan's daughter, a castellan a viscount's daughter, and so on up the line.  (Note that men hoped to marry up, women had to deal with marrying down.)  A knight could not marry a princess (no medieval gender-swapping equivalent of the pretty waitress catching the billionaire's eye), but within about five generations everybody in the upper levels of society was related to everybody.

One of the best routes to upward mobility was the church, although one had to have at least a decent social background to begin with (few peasant children entered the church, as their parents couldn't spare their labor, and serfs couldn't enter the church at all).  That is, a person from what we would call a middle-class background could become in effect a prince within the church as an abbot or bishop.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

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

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Royal nicknames

We think of royal rulers as having numbers.  The queen of England, for example, is Elizabeth II.  But for most of the Middle Ages, kings with the same names were identified by nicknames, not by numbers.

Charlemagne, of course, was "Charles the Great," Carolus magnus (magnus being Latin for great).  He was doubtless called this during his lifetime.  His grandfather was also named Charles, often referred to as Charles Martel, "Charles the Hammer," because he was a great war leader and defeated a Muslim army in southwestern France in the middle of the eighth century.

These are the kinds of nicknames anyone would be proud to bear.  But Charlemagne's father (Charles Martel's son) was known as Pippin the Short.  One might wonder how Charlemagne managed to be so tall--he was a good six feet tall in an age when few men passed five and a half feet--with a short father. Well, Pippin the Short was married to Bertha Broadfoot, who one assumes was big in more aspects than just her shoe size.

Charlemagne's oldest son was Pippin the Hunchback.  Now, it's not entirely clear that he actually was hunchbacked, but after Charlemagne divorced his mother (to marry the mother of the rest of his sons) he was removed from the line of legitimate succession.  To add insult to injury, one of his younger half-brothers was also named Pippin, their grandfather's name.  Pippin the Hunchback, feeling aggrieved, rebelled against his father and ended up being imprisoned in a monastery for the rest of his life.  (One did not rebel against Charlemagne.)  The "hunchback" nickname seems to have been made up after the fact to explain that he never could have succeeded to the throne anyway.

Charlemagne's eventual successor, Louis the Pious, got off fairly easy in the nickname department, but his own son, who became king of France, was called Charles the Bald, presumably not to his face.  It is in fact not totally clear whether he really was bald or perhaps was just very hairy, and this was supposed to be a joke.

He is depicted above; you can't tell if he's really bald or not because of the crown.  But if being bald is bad, how would you like to be Louis the Stammerer, the next French king?  Or how about his son, Charles the Simple?

In comparison to the Carolingians, the Capetians had more innocuous nicknames, though Louis the Fat probably again would not have been called that to his face.  But his grandson was Philip "Augustus," a nickname intended to invoke Caesar Augustus, and his grandson was Saint Louis.  You don't get much better than that.  Saint Louis's grandson was Philip the Fair, named for his blond hair.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc is the only Catholic saint who was originally declared a heretic and burned at the stake by the Catholic church.

She was certainly a remarkable person by any criteria.  She was a village girl, born in Domrémy in Lorraine (France) around 1412.  By this time, the fifteenth century, people had last names; hers was d'Arc (so she has nothing to do with Noah's Ark, some student exams to the contrary).  From girlhood, she had visions of saints who spoke to her.

There is no question that she heard voices.  In the Middle Ages, the question was whether these were the voices of saints or angels.  Angels were decided on definitively in the early twentieth century, when she was declared a saint, but for many historians the question has been which psychological condition she suffered from.  Different eras seek different explanations.

At the age of 17, under the inspiration of the angelic voices (as she certainly considered them), she set off to meet with Charles VII.  He was living in exile, not yet crowned, because the Hundred Years War was going on, and the English held northern France, including Reims, where French kings were traditionally crowned.  She managed to persuade him that the saints wanted him crowned, and he provided her with armor and knights and sent her off to Orléans, which was held by the English.

Here, to everyone's surprise except perhaps her own, she inspired a great victory.  (You can still buy Jeanne d'Arc refrigerator magnets in the gift shop of Orléans cathedral.)  With this victory, it was now possible for Charles to cross the Loire into northern France, and Joan got him to Reims and got him crowned.

She continued to have success against the English, enough that Charles may have become jealous of her reputation.  When she was captured in battle, he made no attempt to ransom her.  The English tried her for heresy, based in part on the voices and in part on a charge of cross-dressing, found her guilty (no surprise), and had her burned at the stake in 1431.  She was still only nineteen.  (How many of us have led victorious armies in our teens, defying all gender expectations?  It would be good to skip the part about being burned at the stake, however.)

The French never believed she had been a heretic, and in the following years, inspired in part by her example, they finally drove the English out of France and ended the war.  The pope was persuaded to reopen the case in the 1450s and declared that it had not been a fair trial, although she was not officially made a saint until 1920.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

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

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The late medieval Capetians

The Capetian dynasty ruled France from 987 until the French Revolution, when Louis XVI went to the guillotine in 1793 under the name of Citizen Louis Capet.  He was officially part of the Bourbon dynasty, which had succeeded the Valois dynasty, but they were male-line Capetians all the time, just descended from younger brothers.

As I discussed in an earlier post, the Capetian dynasty succeeded the Carolingian dynasty in France--the most famous Carolingian of course was Charlemagne, who had been crowned Roman emperor in 800.  Hugh Capet was not strictly speaking the first king of his family, because both his great-uncle Odo and his grandfather Robert I had been kings (succeeded for a few years by the final hurrah of the Carolingians), but from 987 on there was an unbroken line of kings descended directly from Hugh.

The most famous medieval Capetian king was probably Louis IX, or Saint Louis, after whom the American city is named (pictured above).  He determinedly sought peace and justice in his kingdom, trying to impose what we would call chivalrous behavior on his knights (things like not killing someone without giving them a chance to fight back, or, best of all, not even killing them a little bit).  He went on Crusade twice, though both excursions were disasters.

On the first of his Crusades, they decided to set up a base camp in Egypt, then attack the Holy Land from there.  Instead he was captured and held for ransom.  On the second, they decided that Egypt was too dangerous to go right in, so they decided to set up a base camp in Libya from which to attack Egypt--with predictable results. When the old king and one of his sons were killed, the surviving French boiled him up so that they could get his bones to take home for burial.

His son, Philip IV, got Saint Louis declared a saint.  Philip also is responsible for starting the Avignon papacy by completely intimidating the popes (see more here).  He disbanded the Templars, in the hope of getting their treasure, but unfortunately for him they had no treasure.  Philip IV is called "the Fair" for his blond hair, not his personality.

The story goes that as the head of the Templars was dying under torture, he cursed Philip, that he would not have sons to succeed.  As Philip had three sons, he laughed this off.  But all three died in quick succession after their father, leading both to the Valois dynasty and to the Hundred Years War.  After a great deal of unpleasantness--the Hundred Years War actually lasted over a century--Joan of Arc inspired the French to finally defeat the English.

At this point, the French kings started down the road toward absolutism.  Louis XI (1461-1483) trusted no one, and filled his court with intrigue and spies.  He was known as "the Spider."  He was also intensely religious and always had at least a few dozen bits of saints' relics pinned to his clothing, for protection.  Although true absolutism really only came about in the seventeenth century, with Louis XIV, the trend was there.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Conflict resolution

In an earlier post, I discussed medieval violence.  There was certainly plenty of violence then (as now!), but there were also plenty of ways to defuse conflicts before they became violent.

It used to be thought that, in an era without the courthouses, police forces, and clear law codes we take for granted now, then anarchy was the only possibility.  This was far from the case in the Middle Ages, in large part because everybody agreed on (or at least gave lip service to) the ideal of peace.

If two men (say, in a drunken brawl) leaped at each other, their friends were supposed to grab them and pull them back, not egg them on.  Hot-headed violence was deplored in all the epics and romances, not celebrated.  (Our own movies and TV shows glorify violence a lot more than did medieval literature.)  Local authorities, whether landlord, sheriff, count, or even king, were expected to act as peacemakers.

A quarrel would be brought before a court, not anything like our judicial courts, but the court of a powerful man (or sometimes woman).  Both sides would present their positions.  Long discussion would ensue.  Both sides would bring forth witnesses, oath-helpers, and material evidence.  More discussion would ensue.  The judge would not end up ruling definitively for one or the other, but rather act more as a mediator, trying to reach some sort of agreement.  The only way one party would get a summary judgment against them would be if they failed to show up.

Sometimes one party or the other would volunteer to undergo trial by ordeal.  The other side, realizing no one would volunteer to do something so painful unless completely convinced they were right, would often yield at this point, leaving the other side the winner.  If someone were accused of major crimes, and everyone knew they were guilty, a good defense would be to suddenly become penitent and head off to Rome or Jerusalem on pilgrimage.  By the time one came back, with luck things would have blown over.

If one had a quarrel with a church, or even a quarrel that involved such sacraments as marriage or oaths, one side or the other could stop the proceedings cold by appealing to the pope, from the early twelfth century on.  Both sides would then go to Rome, get in line to await judgment (a line often years long), and usually end up settling it between themselves anyway.  (By the later Middle Ages, popes started just referring most cases back to the local bishops, so appealing to Rome was much less useful.)

Churches would try to forestall quarrels over pious donations by getting all relatives of the donor to agree ahead of time.  This was much easier than the alternative, trying to persuade one's saints to blast the malefactors.  Threats of such saintly blasting, however, could be quite persuasive.

Castles also acted, by their very presence, to forestall violence.  Although one now thinks of castles as centers of fighting, most would not be attacked for centuries.  Their very presence sent a clear message, Don't even think of it.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015
For more on medieval society, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Medieval Literacy

Anyone reading this blog has probably been able to read for so long that the memory of first figuring out that those marks on the paper meant words and sounds is, at best, dim.  We take reading for granted, but it was certainly not the case before more-or-less universal education and affordable books and libraries.

Being able to read was restricted to the upper levels of medieval society:  not just the churchmen and churchwomen, but aristocrats and merchants.  Although late antiquity/the Merovingian era had been a literate age, as most transactions were recorded in writing and stored away in municipal archives.  Yet when urban civilization collapsed in the early Middle Ages, being able to read became much less useful.

Interestingly, in the late Middle Ages/Renaissance period, anyone who could afford it sent their sons to school and recorded all sorts of events and activities in writing.  Notaries flourished, and their records are a treasure-trove for modern historians.

In between the early and the late Middle Ages, reading was a much more widespread skill than writing.  We tend to think of them as going together, but plenty of medieval people who could puzzle their way through the Latin of a charter would have been hard-pressed actually to produce one.  Charlemagne, who read Latin and who could speak Old French and Old German (neither was really a written language yet), could not write.  He had taken it up too late and lacked the fine muscle control needed for a stylus or quill pen.  His biographer told the charming story of the emperor waking up at night and practicing with a stylus on a wax tablet, in case he suddenly got the knack.

Children in well-to-do households got their first education from their mothers.  Boys would generally graduate to a teacher or tutor (often in someone else's house, if for example they entered a monastery or were training for knighthood or were an apprentice in a guild).  Girls generally stuck with Mom unless, as sometimes happened, they entered a nunnery as a day pupil.

Being able to read Latin was necessary because Latin was the language of learning and of law, as well of course as the language of Christianity.  By the twelfth century one was also taught the vernacular--Old French, Old German, Old Italian, and so on.  This was the language of literature, of stories, of epics and romances (on which see more here).

The well-to-do could and did learn to write the vernacular, both to keep track of things and to compose stories and songs to entertain others.  The epics and romances were meant to be read out loud (most were written in verse), to wile away long winter evenings.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

For more on reading and writing in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


Medieval cities, like modern cities, had pawn shops, places where people could deposit something of value and get ready cash for it, even if not what it was actually worth.  The pawnbroker would agree that the person depositing their "pledge" had a certain amount of time to come and buy it back.  The danger then, as now, was that if one was a little slow, someone else might come in and buy it before one could get back and redeem it.

Officially in the Middle Ages one could not loan at interest.  This was called usury and is formally forbidden in the Bible.  We now use the term "usury" to mean high interest rates, but it was assumed then that any interest was usurious.  The Bible provides a loophole--one is not supposed to charge interest to one's "brother," but Jews and Christians did not consider each other brothers, so Jews could be bankers and charge interest on loans.  (See more on medieval Jews here.)

In medieval pawning, officially there was no interest, and the pawnbroker made money from selling goods that were not redeemed in time--and getting more from the buyer than he had advanced to the person who had deposited the pledge.

The Italian banking houses also were involved in pawning; Lombard Street in London is named for the medieval pawnbrokers who operated there.  (See more on medieval banking here.)  The symbol of a pawn shop was three gold balls, which also became the coat of arms of the Medici family in Florence, a banking family that survived the Renaissance with their wealth intact, largely because (unlike other banking houses) they had the sense not to lend money to either the French or English kings during the Hundred Years War.

Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of pawnbrokers, and the story is that the gold balls represent the three bags of gold he gave to a poor man's three daughters as dowries.

But if one needed to raise a lot of money all at once, pawning some jewelry would not be enough.  During the twelfth century, the heyday of the Crusades, those preparing to go to the East would pawn their land.  Here the principal pawnbrokers were, interestingly enough, not bankers (either Jewish or Italian) but Cistercian monks.  They would receive the land in pawn (pignus in Latin), giving the Crusader a sum of money that was substantial but still less than he would have gotten for selling it outright.

No interest was charged.  The monks got the income and produce of the land as long as they held it.  The Crusader generally specified that this usufruct was to be considered a gift for his soul.  He usually was (understandably) worried about his soul, heading off to war, and might make a gift to the same monks who were advancing him money.

If the Crusader made it home alive, he could redeem his land; he generally had six years in which to do so.  But if he never made it home, or arrived home sick and broke (as commonly happened), then the monks kept the land.  They might offer the Crusader extra prayers.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Friday, September 25, 2015

Medieval babies

Some historians who really ought to have known better used to say that parents in the Middle Ages did not love their children.  This is of course totally false--they loved them, cared for them, and mourned them if they died.

The reasons advanced for why they didn't love them were that medieval children were expected to take on adult roles sooner than they do in our society (not sure how this works for the argument), and that since infant mortality was higher than it is now, parents "must" have become indifferent to losing children.  No, they just were sad a lot.

Human infants, born totally helpless, are much more vulnerable when young than, say, baby cows and horses, which can walk almost from birth.  They have to be held carefully, nursed, and kept warm and dry.  Any mother, having suffered through nine months of pregnancy and the pains of childbirth, would not be indifferent to the new baby.

Medieval childbirth was overseen by midwives, not doctors.  Although their success rate did not match that of the modern West, they did have better luck than did nineteenth-century doctors, who used chloroform enthusiastically and often came straight to a birthing from attending someone with a nasty disease.  Medieval women also gave birth sitting up or at most reclining, having the help of gravity to ease the baby along, rather than lying on their backs with their feet in the air, the twentieth-century practice.

A new baby needs to start feeding very soon; childbirth, being squeezed through a too-narrow passage, is as tough on the baby as the mother.  (Cesarian birth was not possible without modern surgical techniques and was only resorted to when the mother was dying anyway, to try to save the child.)  Sometimes now a baby is so exhausted that she does not drink properly.  Or sometimes the mother does not produce enough milk.  These days the answer is easy--hitch the baby up to an IV feed until she gets a little strength back, and then give her baby formula.  Neither of these were possible in the Middle Ages.

A child who did not drink properly was going to fade away very quickly.  So was a baby who caught the kind of disease that modern antibiotics now clears right up, or that can be prevented with modern vaccinations.  The first year or so was an especially dangerous time.

Peasant women nursed their babies for longer than modern babies are nursed, generally for a good two years.  Without pureed baby food that comes in little jars, they wanted to make sure the children would be ready for chewy solid food.  Nursing also provided a partial form of birth control.  Well-to-do urban mothers and aristocratic women, however, often employed wet nurses.

A wet nurse would be someone with an infant of her own, who had been nursing for a while so that the mother clearly had an excellent supply of milk.  She could make a good income from fostering a noble woman's baby on the other breast.  Many aristocratic infants spent the first two years of their lives with their nurses, only returning to their birth family when they were ready for solid food.

Continue the story with medieval seven-year-olds.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

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

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Bible in the Middle Ages

As I noted in my previous post, the western medieval Bible was in Latin, having been translated from the Greek by Saint Jerome around the year 400 so that people in the western Roman Empire could more easily read it.  This meant that, throughout the Middle Ages, Latin remained both the language of government (following the Roman model) and the language of religion.

It also meant that the Latin church and the Greek Orthodox church, which continued to read the Bible in Greek, decided that the other guys did not understand the Bible properly at all.

There never was a single "original" Bible from which all others were copied.  The different sections, or books as they are called, presumably each had an original version when they were first written, but different congregations over time adopted slightly different collections of books and put them together slightly differently.

Add to this the fact that, a thousand years and more before the printing press, everything was hand-copied and thus never precisely alike, and it's easy to see why there was variation.  This worried medieval people.  Because the Bible was supposed to be God's word, they didn't think that a lot of variety was appropriate.

Around the year 800 Alcuin, the head of the school at Charlemagne's court, decided to prepare a definitive Bible.  He and those working with him looked at all the oldest Bibles they could find, comparing them line by line, trying to determine when there was a variant which was the "real" reading. This is the approach modern scholars still take when trying to determine the original or most accurate version of a text.

Then Alcuin had the whole Bible carefully copied out in the "corrected" form, using a new, tidy type of handwriting, called Caroline miniscule.  It looks a whole lot like modern printing, for the excellent reason that modern printing is based on it.  Other churches around Charlemagne's empire were urged to come, look at the Alcuin Bible, and make careful copies of their own of this definitive text.

The Bible in the Middle Ages, like now, was an extremely popular book, with an enormous number of copies made.  Because it is so long, it never existed in a single volume, but rather would be broken up into several volumes.  A volume just of the Psalms, or just of the Gospels, was very common.

Anyone learning Latin (which had separated itself off from Old French, Old Italian, etc. by the ninth century) would do so in large part by studying the Bible.  This meant that Jerome's vocabulary and syntax became the standard for medieval Latin.  Churchmen essentially memorized large parts of the Bible.  Monks would sing their way through the whole Psalter in a week or so, then start over.  Biblical turns of phrase peppered their writings, not necessarily direct quotes but references to biblical ideas.

At the schools and developing universities, the Bible was a major source of study.  No one read the Bible literally, or at least not just literally.  There was far too much in it, from Jewish dietary laws to Jesus's suggestion that his followers needed to give up all their possessions and wander barefoot around the Sea of Galilee, that people who considered themselves good Christians did not adhere to.

Rather, the Bible was to be read at four levels, literally to start, then morally (seeing what sort of message was conveyed), allegorically (so that the love poems that make up the Song of Solomon were interpreted as meaning Christ's love for His church), and anagogically, the last meaning that the Old Testament prefigured the New, so that Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac was considered to refer to God's sacrifice of His only son.

Many, many people wrote Bible commentaries.  In the twelfth century, "glossed" Bibles became common, where the Bible text was written in large letters in the center of the page, and commentary on each verse was written in the margins, or even between the lines, in a much smaller hand.  Often there would be strips of commentary down the side, here is what Augustine had to say, here's what Jerome said, here's what Bede said, and so on.  These glosses became fairly standardized, but again, no two volumes were exactly the same.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Bible in late antiquity

Because the books of the New Testament were all written in the late first century, it is easy to assume that the Christian Bible took the form it has now by around the year 100.  In fact, in took another three centuries.

The word Bible comes from the Greek, just meaning "book."  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all "religions of the book," meaning that there is a specific book for each of them which is assumed to contain the core of their religious teachings.  Other religions certainly have holy writings, but not a single, definitive book.

The majority of the Christian Bible is made up of books from the Hebrew Bible, now called the Old Testament.  These books were written in Hebrew over close to a thousand years, combining laws, the history of the Jewish people, songs, sayings, and stories.  Different groups included slightly different collections and often arranged them differently.  Especially after the Romans razed the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 and drove a number of Jews out of the Holy Land, including that sect of Judaism that became Christianity, it was easy for these groups to lose track of each other.

For the purposes of the Christian Bible, one of the most important of these groups of Jews had had highly-educated, Greek-speaking religious leaders back in the second century BC, who translated their Hebrew Bible into Greek.  This was called the Septuagint, because the (highly unlikely) story was that seventy learned translators (Septuagint just means 70) sat down independently, and all miraculously translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek exactly the same, word-for-word.

Early Christian leaders and writers were all Greek-speaking; it was the learned language of the eastern Mediterranean.  The books of the New Testament were all written in Greek, and early Christians used the Septuagint version of what eventually became known as the Old Testament.

However, the Bible took a while to take shape.  The four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were four separate stories of the life of Jesus, each one explaining what Jesus really meant in their own terms—and implying that the others had it wrong.  Quite early, with no way to choose between them, Christians just lined them all up back-to-back and hoped for the best.  Some other writings, like the Gospel of Thomas--which in spite of its title was just a book of sayings--or stories about Jesus's childhood drifted in and out of early collections.

Even more problematic was the Old Testament.  From the second century on, Christians jettisoned huge chunks of Jewish law, giving up for example the dietary restrictions, male circumcision, limits on travel on the Sabbath, and even indeed celebrating the Sabbath on Saturday, moving it to Sunday.  Some thinkers suggested that since so much to it was seen as superseded, it really wasn't necessary.

But the decision to include the Old Testament in the Christian Bible was a reaction to an early heresy, which argued that God had written the books of the New Testament, but the devil had written the books of the Old.  A council (important church decisions were always made in council) decided that No, God had written the whole thing, which meant that it really did belong.

As Christianity became widely adopted in the Roman Empire, it was considered a problem that it was in Greek.  The western Mediterranean and Rome's conquered territories were Latin-speaking.  So around the year 400 Jerome translated the whole thing from Greek into Latin, using the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Old Testament.  The purpose was to make the Bible accessible to everybody.  This Latin Bible, still the basis of the modern Catholic Bible, is known as the Vulgate, because ordinary (vulgar) people could read it.  It is ironic that it took until the 1960s for Catholics to accept a Bible in something other than Latin--so that people could read it easily, when the original purpose of having it in Latin was exactly so that people could read it easily.

The Protestant Bible is based (as was Jerome's) on the Greek for the New Testament, but it rejected the Septuagint for the Jewish Bible in Hebrew.  The Jewish Bible of the sixteenth century was actually somewhat different from the version the Septuagint translators had used 1800 years earlier, so the Protestant Bible is missing a number of Old Testament books still in the Catholic Bible, including Tobit, Ecclesiasticus, the Wisdom of Solomon, and Bel and the Dragon; Protestants collectively call these these apocrypha.  Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian, and other smaller sects of Christians all have slightly different collections.

Although in Islam only the Koran (their holy book) in Arabic actually counts as the real Koran, in Christianity the Bible is still the Bible no matter what language it is translated into.

Click here for the next installment, the Bible in the Middle Ages.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Unless you've always lived in a city, at some point you've experienced a county fair, draft horses, cotton candy, beef cattle, giant pumpkins, and carnival rides.

Medieval people did not exactly have county fairs (and definitely did not have giant pumpkins), but they certainly had fairs.  Their trade fairs had some of the same elements we now see in county fairs, but rather than showcasing agriculture, they were focused on long-distance trade.

The main fairs in the High Middle Ages were in the Champagne region of northeastern France.  The drink champagne is named for the region, by the way, not the other way around; the drink required the invention of modern bottling and dates in the form we know it to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  (The name itself comes from the Latin Campania, just meaning countryside.)

The Champagne region is roughly halfway between Flanders, where raw wool from the British Isles was woven into cloth, and Italy, both the region where spices from the East entered Europe and the center of important cloth-dyeing.  There were six fairs a year, six weeks each, that rotated among major cities of Champagne.

Here cloth (including silk, linen, and wool, both raw and dyed), leather, spices, furs, weapons, and all sorts of other products would be bought and sold, primarily wholesale.  Huge warehouses were built where the merchants could deposit their wares.  Banking developed at the fairs, as those arriving with money to buy goods needed someplace safe to put their money, and as those arriving with goods to sell might need a short-term loan to tide them over until they had sold enough.  (Click here for more on medieval banking.)

Every fair had its own system of weights and measures, and cloth would have to be unwound from the bolts and measured, using the local yardstick.  Spices were weighed using local scales; "troy weight" is still used for jewelry, and gets its name from Troyes, one of the chief Champagne cities, that had not just one but two fairs every year.

The local citizens profited from the fairs even if they were not merchants.  Many had a room at the front of their house that they could close off from the rest, which they would rent out during the fair.  Inns, prostitutes, entertainers, and farmers from the countryside selling food all enjoyed the influx.

The counts of Champagne also did very well off the fairs.  They policed the fairs and all the roads leading to them, to protect the merchants from bandits, and to make sure that no big fights broke out and that no one was cheated.  In return they collected sales tax and set up toll bridges.

Nonetheless, the fairs always were fairly rowdy.  Sometimes as it gets dark, if one is walking down the midway of a modern county fair, with dark and light curiously mixed, and weird, certainly-fixed games inviting one to play, one can almost feel what seems like the beating of an evil heart.  Medieval fairs felt it too.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Books in Print

We take the printed book for granted.  And yet before the late fifteenth century, every book (or scroll) had to be copied by hand, which meant that every one was slightly different--and expensive!

Think about trying to copy even one page by hand without making errors.  Now think about copying a book as long as the Bible.  Medieval scribes really wanted to be accurate and were constantly checking for slips, but in practice errors were inevitable. Even if the text of two manuscript books were identical, the page breaks and line breaks would vary.

If someone had written a chronicle or treatise of which he (or she) was particularly proud, s/he would loan it to others, who would then copy it.  Two twelfth-century monasteries located near Dijon, St.-Bénigne and Bèze, shared a chronicle, written originally at St.-Bénigne (with a lot about the wonders of that monastery), but which the copier at Bèze modified to make his monastery look more interesting.

Johannes Gutenberg developed the first printing press, producing several Bibles, his most famous production, in the 1450s.  It had long been possible to carve a piece of wood, ink it, and press it onto paper (they had paper by the fifteenth century), but it took an awfully long time to carve a piece of wood, working backwards, and it really didn't work for text.

Gutenberg's big contribution was movable type.  Rather than trying to carve a whole page, one just had to make a whole lot of individual letters.  Then, one assembled a page out of the letters, inked them, and pressed them onto paper, making as many copies as one wanted.  (It's called a "press," by the way, because one pressed the inked letters very hard onto the paper, using a screw mechanism, to make sure the ink transferred.)

Once a page was set up and locked into place, one could make as many pages as one wanted very quickly, certainly far more quickly than copying by hand, and each one was identical.  When one was through with the page, the letters could be tossed back into their boxes for the next time.  The metal used for the letters was very high quality, having been developed as part of the advances in metallurgy needed as gunpowder became more common (one did not want a cannon that would blow up).

The price of books immediately dropped, putting them in a price range far more people could afford.  Indeed, it has been argued that the rapid spread of revolutionary ideas during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was only made possible by the printing press, which was able to produce pamphlets, broadsheets, and the like.  (For more on medieval books before the printing press, click here.)

Gutenberg's style of printing persisted until the nineteenth century, then was replaced by industrial printers and linotype.  More recently, typesetting has all been done by computers, and a lot of books are actually ebooks, rather than physical books.

But a lot of people, including me, still prefer a printed book, which is why I have had "The Starlight Raven" printed.  It can be ordered directly from the publisher, CreateSpace, by clicking here, and is also available on Barnes & Noble and Amazon; you get a discount from Amazon if you buy both the ebook and printed versions together. It can also be ordered through any bookstore.

And check out this interview!

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Friday, September 11, 2015

Mushrooms in the Middle Ages

Students routinely have anxiety dreams about school--not able to find the right classroom, suddenly recalling a big test coming up.  Professors have these dreams too.

In our case, the nightmares are about realizing that we haven't prepared for class, or we've shown up for class seriously underdressed (though fortunately no one has noticed yet), or we can't find the right classroom, or we've been assigned a class we're totally unqualified to teach.

I once dreamed that I discovered, on the first day of school, that the biology department had assigned me to teach a course on the Fungi.  In the dream, I was trying to figure out if I could somehow turn the course into Mushrooms in the Middle Ages.

There actually isn't that much to say--not a whole semester's worth, anyway, certainly not what the biology students would have been expecting.

Medieval people certainly gathered and ate mushrooms.  These were one of the foods they gathered, rather than growing themselves.  (Click here for more on the medieval diet.)  For them, as for us, the key point was making sure one did not gather poisonous mushrooms.

This is and was much easier in Europe than in the US, because Europe has far fewer poisonous species.  As long as one learns, very carefully and thoroughly, which ones to avoid, the rest are fine.  (Though there is a European mushroom that can make you thoroughly drunk after one glass of wine if you eat it with the wine.)  In the US, in contrast, almost everything is poisonous, so one has to carefully and thoroughly learn which species are not.

Truffles, then and now, are a highly prized and highly valuable version of mushrooms (or at least fungi).  They grow underground on the roots of trees, especially beeches and oaks.  Because they are underground, they have to be sniffed out, usually by dogs or pigs.  These animals, of course, want to eat them themselves, which can be a problem.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Long Way 'Til November

Although most of my posts on this blog are about the Middle Ages, I also reserve the right, as its creator, to talk about my stories.

And I've just released a new ebook!  It's called A Long Way 'Til November, and it's a novella (short novel), set in the world of Yurt.

Here's the description:
"A wizard, a witch, and a bishop in disguise, all off on a road trip in a gypsy caravan. What could possibly go wrong? 
But a pleasant autumn excursion for Daimbert the wizard quickly turns dark when accusations of ritual murder begin to fly and a schoolgirl turns up missing…. 
This novella (short novel) is intended both to introduce new readers to the Royal Wizard of Yurt series and (I hope!) to give reading enjoyment to old friends."

Here the link to buy in on Amazon-US (or .com if you prefer). It's also available on other national Amazons, as well as other ebook platforms.  I've also produced a paperback that includes all three Yurt novellas, called Third Time's a Charm.

The story mostly takes place in a city on top of a ridge. which is why I chose for the cover my photo of Turenne, a city on a ridge in the southern Auvergne.  In the overall Yurt chronology, the story takes place between "Daughter of Magic" and "Is This Apocalypse Necessary?"  For those who would like to see more of the duchess's daughters, they are major characters.

Here's the opening of the story.  Enjoy!

The caravan was painted yellow, with red trim and door and bright green wheels.  I loved it at once.
“I wouldn’t sell it so cheaply,” the Romney man commented, “except that we’re leaving in two days, and we won’t need it any more now that my old aunt has passed on, and we’ve got her much bigger caravan.”
I walked around it slowly, trying to pretend that I was not already imagining myself driving it off into the red sky of sunset.  I doubted he was convinced.
“You can have the pony, too, included in the price,” he added.  A pony, I thought.  We would need something to pull it.  The man was smiling, but the pony looked at me with open suspicion.
“So where are you heading next?” I asked to have something to say, trying to keep from blurting out, “I’ll take it at once!”
He smiled, teeth white against his dark skin.  “South, of course.  Cold weather is coming on.”  The September wind was indeed cool, blowing across the trampled grass of the Romney encampment as evening came on.  “We like to spend the winter somewhere without as much snow.  We have a big meeting, Romneys from all over, every year in November down in the south.  Now you might think it’s a long way ’til November, but we don’t like to hurry.  We take it slow.”
Take is slow, I thought.  I needed to do that more myself.  Just wander across the countryside, without obligations or demands.  I had another vision, rolling down the road in this charming caravan behind the pony.  In this vision it was morning, and slanting autumnal rays of sun warmed us.  The trees would be touched with orange and yellow, and we would be eating apples.  Theodora of course was sitting beside me.  “How do I know this caravan is in good shape?” I managed to ask.
He cocked an eyebrow at me.  “Aren’t you a wizard?  Shouldn’t your spells tell you what’s under the surface?  It’s nice and clean.  And as you can see, we’ve just painted it.”
“Of course, of course,” I said.  I needed someone who knew something about caravans, not spells.  But I tried probing magically, looking for cracks and rust.  I didn’t find any, but then I wasn’t sure what I was looking for.  A demonic influence I would have spotted at once, but who knew what springs were supposed to look like.  Were wheels always attached like this?
The Romney glanced at me sideways from shadowed eyes.  “If you’re unsure, don’t feel you have to take it.  I’m certain we’ll find a buyer before we leave.  One of the shopkeepers was saying he could use it for an extra showroom.  He’ll be looking it over later this evening.”
That did it.  “I’ll take it!”
He looked almost disappointed.  Perhaps I was supposed to bargain more.  But I could not bear to see this beautiful travel caravan made into an extra showroom for some shopkeeper.
At least I had the sense to say that I would wait and give him the money tomorrow, when I had arranged a place to store both the caravan and the pony.  I didn’t entirely trust him not to disappear overnight.  We shook hands on the agreement, and I hurried back through the gates into the little walled city of Caelrhon.
Theodora’s house was on a quiet cobbled street in the artisans’ quarter.  The lamplighters were at work, and curtained windows shone yellow.  The new tower of the cathedral church rose above the housetops, dark against the darkening sky.  This late in the day, the workers had come down from the scaffolding, and I could smell the sausages on their cooking fires.
I burst into Theodora’s house, too eager to tell her about the caravan even to notice that the smells from the kitchen were just as good.  I just knew that my wife would be as thrilled about this as I was.
I was wrong.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015