Monday, March 30, 2015

Motte-and-bailey castles

Earlier I discussed the development of castles.  Here I want to discuss one of the earliest versions from the eleventh century, the motte-and-bailey castle.  (They were not called this in the eleventh century when they were invented.  They were just called castles.  But modern historians of architecture like the term because it's descriptive and because it distinguishes this type of castle from other, later types.)

Let's start with the motte.  The term means a mound.  (It does not mean a moat, and in fact most real castles did not have the circle of water with swans swimming in it that one sees in modern fairy-tale books--not even a moat without the swans.)

A castle was of course most defensible if built on a high place, and an artificial mound increased the height.  There is some discussion whether a mound was built first and the keep that was the heart of a castle built on top of that, or, as seems more likely, the keep (tower) was built first, grounded on bedrock, and then a mound was built up around it.  A wall was often built all the way around the base of the motte, providing additional protection for the tower.

In any event, the lower, underground levels of the tower were used for storage, the ground level had no windows or doors, and the first door was one level up.  This required a wooden staircase on the outside, which could easily be taken in or fired in case of attack.  Only the upper levels had decent windows.

In the above image, the tower dates from the twelfth century, not the eleventh, but you can see the typical position of the one door, well above ground level.

The bailey was an open area, inside a wall, where buildings were run up to serve the needs of the castle:  barracks, kitchens, more storerooms, weapons shops, mews (for the hawks), stables, and the like.  Originally the wall encircling the bailey would have been built of wooden posts, more like a stockade than anything, but soon the wood was replaced with stone.

What architectural historians consider the "normal" motte-and-bailey arrangement consisted of two sets of circular walls, essentially looking from above like a figure-8, with the motte in one and the bailey in the other, the two joined in the center.  But as already noted, every castle was different, and the typical arrangement was soon to have a wide, open area at the base of the motte, where all the incidental buildings were built, and a high stone wall encircling it all.

The castle of Gisors seen above, built at the end of the eleventh century, has its central keep on top of a very large mound, a wall around it, and more walls at the base of the mound and beyond it.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015
For more on medieval castles, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Saint Patrick's Day

Saint Patrick's Day was this week, a day celebrated with much more gusto in the US than in Ireland itself.  The Irish note that it is the feast day of their island's patron saint and celebrate with religious ceremonies, but you don't catch people in Dublin or Derry drinking green beer and wearing T-shirts that say, "Kiss me, I'm Irish."

Interestingly, although everybody in an American bar proudly claims to be Irish once they have a few green beers in them, and elementary schools promote the "wearing of the green," a century ago the Irish were looked down on as uncouth and probably dangerously stupid.  They were not even considered really "white."

Unfortunately, this has happened with most groups of immigrants, as people with no money came to the US looking for a better life and were looked down when they arrived because they were poor--and, not surprisingly, not sophisticated or well-educated.  But the Irish, like the Italians and the Poles (though not yet the Mexicans), have gone from a group one would cross the street to avoid to a group that one would pretend to join, at least one day a year.  (Also unfortunately, those with African ancestry, whose ancestors had no choice about coming to the Americas but were here before the ancestors of most European-Americans, can still not "pass for white.")

The real Saint Patrick (Pádraig), celebrated on March 17, was a historical figure.  He was not Irish but British, living in what is now England in the fifth century--it was not yet England, because the Anglo-Saxons had not yet arrived there.  His Britain was a Romanized, Christianized, Celtic community.  As a youth, he appears to have been captured by Irish (and pagan) pirates and taken there as a slave.  After some years, he managed to get home to Britain, where he became a priest.  But he remembered the Irish more fondly than one might have expected and worried about their souls.  Hence, he returned to Ireland, this time as a missionary, and set about converting the population to Christianity.

By the way, although it is sometimes said that he "drove the snakes out of Ireland" (because Ireland does not have the poisonous snakes of England and the Continent), in fact the snakes were killed by the glaciers a great many millennia before Patrick.  When the glaciers retreated and plants and animals returned to Ireland, snakes never made it across the Irish sea.

For me, Saint Patrick's Day will always be the day I first left home to go to Auxerre (in France) to do my dissertation research.  In many ways I have never come back.  As I was waiting for my evening flight to Europe (via Iceland in those days), I saw the mayor of Dublin, wearing a bright green top hat, who had been in town to take part in the Saint Patrick's Day parade, something they didn't have back home in Ireland.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

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

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Medieval night

Modern society essentially denies night.  When it gets dark outside, we turn on the lights and keep going.  Then we snooze well past sunup, at least in the summer.  (The extreme version of this is the Las Vegas casinos, which do not have windows or clocks, so that you'll have no idea how long you've been there.)  The Middle Ages did not have this option.

When artificial light was provided by wood fires and candles, both expensive and neither very bright, people made the most of real daylight.  As soon as dawn began driving back the shadows, when the rooster first crowed, well before the sun came up, people were stirring, getting dressed, going to Mass, getting ready for the day's activities.  This was true of aristocrats and peasants alike.  Sunup was considered the first hour of the day, called Prime (click here for more on telling time then).

At the other end of the day, as the sun went down people started thinking of turning in.  They might have a last snack ("supper") and then went to bed.  This meant that, for half the year, they were (potentially) in bed for 10-12 hours a night, much more in midwinter.  (Click here for more on medieval beds.)

In practice they would not sleep this whole time, even though, as most of have noticed, the hibernation reflex becomes powerful when it is very cold and dark outside.  And snuggled into bed with at least one other person is the warmest way to spend a cold night.  Often they would wake in the middle of the night, maybe just stay cozy in bed and have a nice conversation, or maybe get up and do a few simple chores.  Monks would rise for the night offices, prayers and singing of the psalms.  Any such rising required candles and so was carried out with minimal light.  After an hour or so, they returned to sleep.

In the summer medieval people had the opposite problem, especially in northern Europe--the nights would be very short, much too short to get a full night's rest.  As a result, it was normal to take a nap in the afternoon.

A similar pattern has been observed in some rural villages in Africa, where most of the population will go to bed at sunset.  Some however stay up to watch for predators, and during the night others may rise and take a turn, while the first watchers retire.  Songs and stories around the fire help the hours pass.

What did medieval people wear at night?  Nothing at all.  We now take pajamas for granted (or nightgowns, or a T-shirt with boxers).  But clothing was too valuable to have an extra set just for sleeping.  Monks slept in their robes (probably needed for warmth, because it was one person per bed, and any self-respecting austere house had inadequate blankets), but everyone else slept naked.

Pajamas (or pyjamas), by the way, really only came into regular use in the nineteenth century.  The word comes from India, via the British Empire, and originally meant a loose pair of trousers with a drawstring waist.  The British in India found them great for lounging and then for sleeping.

In the early modern period (sixteenth through eighteenth centuries), it became for the first time fashionable to stay up after the sun went down.  This is when plays and operas began to be put on in the evenings.  Staying up late, because one could sleep late in the morning, was a sign of wealth and luxury, as was being able to afford all the candles that made it possible.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

For more on day and night in the Middle Ages and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The author as wizard

Authors have enormous power.  We can create whole new worlds without the muss and fuss of hiring Industrial Light & Magic or Weta Workshop to do our special effects.  We can terrify.  We can make people laugh.  We can make people get angry or become sad.

We are wizards.

What readers remember most about any good book is the characters.  Here is where the power of the author seems to diminish, because when the characters start to have as much reality to the author as they may (one hopes) to the reader, then they start having a mind of their own and paying no attention to whatever the author wants them to do.

Daimbert, the wizard hero of "A Bad Spell in Yurt," is not me, but he likes to sit in my brain and comment on events.  I myself like to think of the book as "searing," although the most common reviews say "charming" or "gave me a few chuckles."  Daimbert reminds me that that should be expected of a book whose title is a pun.  A sneak preview is below.


I was not a very good wizard.  But it was not a very big kingdom.  I assumed I was the only person to answer their ad, for in a short time I had a letter back from the king's constable, saying the job was mine if I still wanted it, and that I should report to take up the post of Royal Wizard in six weeks.
It took most of the six weeks to grow in my beard, and then I dyed it grey to make myself look older.  Two days before leaving for my kingdom, I went down to the emporium to buy a suitable wardrobe.
Of course at the emporium they knew all about us young wizards from the wizards' school.  They looked at us dubiously, took our money into the next room to make sure it stayed money even when we weren't there, and tended to count the items on the display racks in a rather conspicuous way.  But I knew the manager of the clothing department—he'd even helped me once pick out a Christmas present for my grandmother, which I think endeared me to him as much as to her.
He was on the phone when I came in.  "What do you mean, you won't take it back?  But our buyer never ordered it!"  While waiting for him, I picked out some black velvet trousers, just the thing, I thought, to give me a wizardly flair.
The manager slammed down the phone.  "So what am I supposed to do with this?" he demanded of no one in particular.  "This" was a shapeless red velvet pullover, with some rather tattered white fur at the neck.  It might have been intended to be part of a Father Noel costume.
I was entranced.  "I'll take it!"
"Are you sure?  But what will you do with it?"
"I'm going to be a Royal Wizard.  It will help me strike the right note of authority and mystery."
"Speaking of mystery, what's all the fuzzy stuff on your chin?"
I was proud of my beard, but since he gave me the pullover for almost nothing, I couldn't be irritated.  When I left for my kingdom, I felt resplendent in velvet, red for blood and black for the powers of darkness.
It was only two hundred miles, and probably most of the young wizards would have flown themselves, but I insisted on the air cart.  "I need to make the proper impression of grandeur when I arrive," I said.  Besides—and they all knew it even though I didn't say it—I wasn't sure I could fly that far.
The air cart was the skin of a purple beast that had been born flying.  Long after the beast was dead, its skin continued to fly, and it could be guided by magic commands.  It brought me steeply up from the wizards' complex at the center of the City, and I looked back as the white city spires fell away.  It had been a good eight years, but I felt ready for new challenges.  We soared across plains, forests, and hills all the long afternoon, before finally banking steeply over what I had been calling "my" kingdom for the last six weeks.
From above there scarcely seemed to be more to the kingdom than a castle, for beyond the castle walls there was barely room for the royal fields and pastures before thick green woods closed in.  A bright garden lay just outside the castle walls, and pennants snapped from all the turrets.  The air cart dipped, folded its wings, and set me down with a bump in the courtyard.
I looked around and loved it at once.  It was a perfect child's toy of a castle, the stone walls freshly whitewashed and the green shutters newly painted.  The courtyard was a combination of clean-swept cobbles, manicured flower beds, and tidy gravel paths.  On the far side of the courtyard, a well-groomed horse put his head over a white half-door and whinnied at me.
A man and woman came toward me, both dressed in starched blue and white. "Welcome to the Kingdom of Yurt.  I am the king's constable, and this is my wife."  They both bowed deeply, which flustered me, but I covered it by striking a pose of dignity.
"Thank you," I said in my deepest voice.  "I'm sure I will find much here to interest me." The air cart was twitching, eager to be flying again.  "If you could just help me with my luggage—"
The constable helped me unload the boxes, while his wife ran to open the door to my chambers.  The door opened directly onto the courtyard.  I had somehow expected either a tower or a dungeon and wondered if this was suitably dignified, but at least it meant we didn't have far to carry the boxes.  They were heavy, too, and I had not had enough practice with the spell for lifting more than one heavy thing at a time to want to try in front of an audience.
The air cart took off again as soon as it was empty.  I watched it soar away, my last direct link with the City, then turned to start unpacking.  Both the constable and his wife stayed with me, eager to talk.  I was just as eager to have them, because I wanted to find out more about Yurt.
"The kingdom's never had a wizard from the wizards' school before," said the constable. I was unpacking my certificate for completing the eight years' program.  Although, naturally, it didn't say anything about honors or special merit or even areas of distinction, it really was impressive.  That was why I had packed it on top.  It was a magic certificate, of course, nearly six feet long when unrolled.  My name, Daimbert, was written in letters of fire that flickered as you watched.  Stars twinkled around the edges, and the deep blue and maroon flourishes turned to gold when you touched them.  It came with its own spell to adhere to walls, so I hung it up in the outer of my two chambers, the one I would use as my study.
"Our old wizard's just retired," the constable continued.  "He must be well past two hundred years old, and when he was young you had to serve an apprenticeship to become a wizard.  They didn't have all the training you have now."
I ostentatiously opened my first box of books.
"He's moved down to a little house at the edge of the forest.  That's why we had to hire a new wizard.  I'm sure he'd be delighted to meet you if you ever had time to visit him."
"Oh, good," I thought with more relief than was easy to admit, even to myself. "Someone who may actually know some magic if I get into trouble."
I took my books out one by one and arranged them on the shelves:  the Ancient and Modern Necromancy, all five volumes of Thaumaturgy A to Z, the Index to Spell Key Words,and the rest, most barely thumbed.  As I tried to decide whether to put the Elements of Transmogrification next to Basic Metamorphosis, which would make sense thematically but not aesthetically, since they were such different sizes, I thought I should have plenty of quiet evenings here, away from the distractions of the City, and might even get a chance to read them.  If I had done more than skim those two volumes, I might have avoided all that embarrassment with the frogs in the practical exam.
"You'll meet the king this evening, but he's authorized me to tell you some of our hopes.  We've never had a telephone system, but now that you're here we're sure we'll be able to get one."
I was flabbergasted.  In the City telephones were so common that you tended to forget how complicated was the magic by which they ran.  It was new magic, too, not more than forty years old, something that Yurt's old wizard would never have learned but which was indeed taught at the wizards' school.  How was I going to explain I had managed to avoid that whole sequence of courses?
He saw my hesitation.  "We realize we're rather remote, and that the magic is not easy.  No one is expecting anything for at least a few weeks.  But everyone was so excited when you answered our ad!  We'd been afraid we might have to settle for a magician, but instead we have a fully-trained and qualified wizard!"
"Don't worry the boy with his duties so soon," the constable's wife said to him, but smiling as she scolded.  "He'll have plenty of time to get started tomorrow."
"Tomorrow!  A few weeks!" I thought but had the sense not to say anything.  I didn't even have the right books.  If I did nothing else, I might be able to derive the proper magic from basic principles in four or five years.  I was too upset even to resent being called "the boy"—so much for the grey beard!
"We'll leave you alone now," said the constable.  "But dinner's in an hour, and then you can meet some of the rest."
I had seen faces peeping out of windows as we went back and forth with the luggage, but no one else had come to meet me.  While I unpacked my clothes, I tried gloomily to think of plausible excuses why Yurt could not possibly have a telephone system.  Nearby antitelephonic demonic influences and the importance of maintaining a rustic, unspoiled lifestyle seemed the most promising.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Spices and salt

Medieval cooks used a lot of spices.  One often hears that they needed them to kill the off-taste of food that had gone bad, and there was certainly some of that, but spices had far more uses than just covering up unpleasant flavors.  (And you wouldn't want to serve actually rotten food anyway--it will make you sick, spice or no spice.)

First and foremost, spices were used to preserve.  Salt, which we don't tend to think of as a spice, was the major preservative for meat, besides smoking.  Ham was smoked and salted; modern hams, which don't even have to be soaked for a day before cooking, much less have the outer, greenish rind cut off, would have seemed remarkably insipid to medieval people.

(Strictly speaking, spices are the seeds or flower parts of a plant, herbs the leaves or branches, and salt is salt, usually produced by letting seawater evaporate from shallow pans, though there were also highly prized salt springs.)

Salt was far more expensive in the Middle Ages than it is now (now it is mostly mined), especially since a person wants something to perk up a bland vegetarian diet.  At table, salt was served in little saucers, usually one for every two people.  You dipped salt with your little finger, which had to be kept away from the main dish in order to keep from getting greasy.  (This is where the "elegant" touch of eating with your little finger extended comes from.)

Pepper, which we now think of as the black stuff in the "other" shaker (beside the salt), was enormously valuable.  Unlike salt, it had to be imported over great distances.  It was used primarily to help preserve meat.  Its value was such that it was priced by the individual peppercorn.  People buying pepper would have it floated, to make sure no tiny mud balls had been added to the mix.

Besides preserving food and making that big dish of lentils palatable, spices were also used to show off one's wealth.  Anyone who could afford spices used them as a form of display.  Spices also made it possible to drink wine all year round--once it started to turn to vinegar, one just stirred in more spice.  Modern bottling of wine was only invented in the post-medieval period (as was distilling of spirits), so by summer the wine barrels did not seem as enticing as they had earlier.  The wealthy who could afford the wine kept on drinking it, heavily spiced, even as they longed for the new vintage's arrival; the poor stuck with beer.

The spices came mostly from southeast Asia, referred to generically as "India."  It was a very long journey, across the Indian Ocean on Arabic dhows, then up to the Middle East, where they were picked up by Italian merchants and brought to western Europe.  The spice routes were somewhat conflated in the European imagination with the silk road, that brought silk from China, because both ended up in the Middle East.  When Columbus accidentally discovered the Americas, he was in fact looking for a shortcut to the spice islands.

Click here for more on the medieval diet.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015
For more on medieval food, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Chicken and egg in the Middle Ages

Chickens have been domesticated for a very long time.  Modern factory farming, however, only began in the second half of the twentieth century.  In the Middle Ages, and indeed in the West until maybe 60 years ago, eating chicken was a luxury.  But everybody ate eggs.

It is now a big deal to have "free range" chickens.  But chickens until very recently were always free range.  They would have wandered around a medieval farmyard, eating spilled grain and gobbling up insects.  One of the reasons they were kept was for their role in helping control insects.

Since chickens found their own food, very little effort was required, other than to provide a henhouse where the chickens would be safe at night from marauding foxes and other predators.  Even though few people now keep chickens (and even fewer worry about foxes), we still have proverbs and saying about foxes in henhouses.

The other reason that every farm had chickens was for the eggs.  One used to be able to buy "pullet" eggs, and that's what medieval eggs were like, small, requiring several to equal one of today's "large" eggs (much less "jumbo").  The free-range hens tended to hide their nests, so the challenge was to find them before rather than after there was a half-formed baby chick inside (unlike now, eggs were fertilized).

Everyone ate eggs, even monks.  Indeed, in the twelfth century one group of monks mocked another, saying they prided themselves on eating eggs rather than any meat, but then had eggs fried, boiled, scrambled, poached, baked, and so on.

Monks followed a vegetarian but not vegan diet; the Benedictine Rule forbade eating four-footed animals unless one was very sick.  This meant that the monks could theoretically eat chicken as well as fish, although, like other medieval people, they would only eat a hen when she had stopped laying and hence was rather old.  Young cockerels might be eaten, however, once they were determined not to be hens and hence expendable; a farm needed only one or two roosters.

With factory farms, we assume chicken is cheap.  Before World War II, however, chicken was expensive enough that a politician could promise "a chicken in every pot on Sunday" and know that he was promising luxury and high living.  Pork might even be substituted for the more-expensive chicken (one still sometimes sees the term "city chicken," meaning pork).

Click here for more on the medieval diet.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015