Sunday, July 26, 2015

Medieval architects

In an earlier post on medieval cathedrals, I noted that building a cathedral--or for that matter a castle--was not just a matter of getting a lot of strong backs together to heave stones around.  You needed people who know what they're doing, starting with the architect.

There is now a distinction between the architect, the person who draws up the plans, and the builder, the one who decides how to put the plans into effect, hires the workers, assembles the materials, and supervises the project.  In the Middle Ages the same people did both.

However, once a project was properly underway, the architect/master builder might hand it off to a second in command while he went off on a new project.  Although we almost never know their names now, the best seem certainly to have been well known in their own period and were highly sought after and highly paid.

One of the first steps was to decide how big a building was going to be.  One could make what was essentially the same church in different sizes, by having the basic unit of measure be different lengths.  That is, if it was decided that a church was going to be 10 "units" wide, then one could make it bigger or smaller by lengthening or shortening the basic unit.

For example, the abbey church of Cluny, which was the biggest church in Christendom from the early twelfth through fifteenth centuries, was reproduced in miniature a short time later by the abbey church of Paray-le-Monial, shown here.  (Miniature is probably a misnomer, as the church is still big, though not a contender for biggest church in Christendom.)

Paray is actually quite useful for knowing what Cluny looked like, because most of that church was dismantled by Napoleon to build his stud-stables.  All we have left of Cluny is a few walls, what archaeology reveals, and drawings made before its destruction.

For a long time historians of architecture tried to figure out how long was the "medieval meter,"in the assumption that the "basic unit" for all church building must have been some sensible multiple of the "medieval meter," like 1.5, or 3, or something.  All they had to do, they thought, was find some length (87 cm?) that, when multiplied by a series of sensible numbers, yielded the length of all churches' basic units.  But they never found it because, in fact, there was no medieval meter.  Medieval writers spoke of feet and inches and yards as we do, but there was no universal standard against which these were compared, and for most purposes it didn't matter.  For the architect, the "basic unit" was laid out on site at what looked like a good length.  Everything was measured against it.  It didn't have to be a sensible multiple of anything.

Medieval architects, without knowing calculus or having access to CAD (computer-assisted drawing), and working with Roman numerals, were amazingly good.  They built towers, walls, and arches that have stood up just fine for eight centuries or more.  They did sometimes experiment beyond the limits of what is actually possible, such as in the case of Notre Dame of Paris, the first really big Gothic church, where the walls showed signs of buckling from the strain after about fifty years, leading to the invention and addition of flying buttresses.  At Beauvais, the architects attempted to build the nave higher than any other church, some 130 feet high, but it kept falling down; no one has been able to equal that height without steel-frame architecture.  (At Beauvais, they eventually gave up.)

After the destruction of the French Revolution, nineteenth-century architects tried to reconstruct what medieval buildings "must" have looked like.  The leader here was Viollet le Duc, who made new, rather insipid heads for the kings and queens on the facade of Notre Dame and added the grotesque gargoyles (sorry, they're not medieval).

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

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Medieval ancestry

Anyone who tries to trace their family tree hopes, sooner or later, to find medieval nobles in it.  As a medievalist, I get periodic requests from genealogists hoping to figure out if great-grandpappy really was Duke of Something.  The answer is, "Maybe."

First, if you really were in the official line of descent from William the Conqueror, you'd already know about it.  Noble families have kept very close track of their inheritance since the eighth or ninth centuries.  France officially abolished hereditary aristocracy at the time of the Revolution, but 225 years later there are still plenty of families who know, accurately, that they would be viscounts (or whatever) if it weren't for that pesky detail.  England still has hereditary aristocracy, all spelled out in the Peerage.  So let's face it.  We're all peasants.

But that doesn't mean that there might not be an aristocrat back there somewhere.  Plenty of children got born "on the wrong side of the blanket," as some euphemistically put it (see my post on medieval bastards).  And if a duke's daughter married a count (women were more likely to marry down the social scale than men), the count's daughter married a castellan, and the castellan's daughter married a knight, whose daughter married a rich merchant, and so on, then noble "blood" would be in their ancestry, even if it was forgotten after a few generations.

Given that there are far more people of European ancestry alive now than lived in the European Middle Ages, we're all related to each other and all have some common ancestors.  This is true of most Hispanics and African-Americans as well as us whities.  Alex Haley, who famously wrote Roots in the 1970s about his African ancestors, also had Irish ancestors.  (The story, not sure if it's true, is that Irish archivists were happy to have him searching for his Irish ancestors until they found out he was Protestant.)

So how to find Great-grandpappy the Duke?  It's not going to be easy.  For starters, most Americans have no ideas of the names of their great-grandparents, and that's only going back a century or so.  If your family has been in the US for a while, you can probably figure it out using sites like, which have digitized and made searchable a stunning number of census records, birth certificates, marriage records, street directories, and the like.  I've gotten my own Brittain ancestors figured out back to a Britton who came to New Amsterdam (now New York) from England in the seventeenth century.

But the jump from Europe to the US can be problematic.  For one thing, just knowing one's ancestors were from "Germany," for example, isn't going to make it easy to pin them down, especially if they had fairly common names.  And even if you can get your (peasant) ancestors in Europe traced back into the sixteenth century, it's going to be virtually impossible to get further.

This is because parish registers, recording births, marriages, and deaths, only started being kept in the sixteenth century.  Earlier, no one bothered writing these things down.  And of course parish registers, being local and kept in only one copy, have been lost in huge numbers.

Sometimes people end up tracing just their last name, in the hope that this will identify their ancestors.  But last names, which only started being used for the first time in the late Middle Ages, were usually either nicknames, which could vary within the same family, or loconyms, place names, where everyone, lord and peasant, who came from the same place had the same last name.

Enterprising businesses in the US will sell you "your family coat of arms."  Because there is nothing official about coats of arms in the US, it's easy to do so.  Either they sell you a coat of arms of some aristocratic family with a similar last name, or they'll just make something up.  My dear father-in-law had a "family coat of arms" that he'd bought, mounted over the fireplace.  I never told him that his ancestors were not aristocrats.  His last name came from French peasants (probably from Normandy) who came to French North America in the seventeenth century.

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

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Fantasy and Science Fiction

Modern fantasy and science fiction are now considered more-or-less the same genre.  Although they are shelved together in bookstores, they are quite different in origin and orientation.

Fantasy, as I discussed earlier, is the world's oldest literature, larger-than-life people racing across the landscape, having adventures that include a major element of marvel and the supernatural, adventures that the authors use to make moral points and to critique their society.  Think of Gilgamesh (a Babylonian epic) or, for that matter, the Old Testament.  Modern fantasy is a re-imagining of the twelfth-century epics and romances--but in the twelfth century these stories were not considered "fantasy" but simply literature.

Fantasy became a major genre in the twentieth century.  But when J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings essentially started it in the 1950s, no one knew what to call it.  (There were some earlier examples, but not enough for a genre.)  The terms "fairy tales for grownups" and "super science fiction" were used in reviews of Lord of the Rings.  Fairly quickly people settled on "fantasy" (a term popularized by Ballantine Books in the 1970s), although the word "fantasy" still is used widely to use something completely imaginary, or something like a guy being surrounded by a bevy of lovely and willing wenches.

Today "fantasy" novels are expected to have dragons, wizards, and a more-or-less medieval setting.  This is true of my own novels, Tolkien's, George Martin's, and thousands more.  Some authors start with real medieval history and add magic, which can be considered historical fantasy.  Some authors try to defy the stereotype, putting magic (and sometimes elves or vampires) into the modern world, which can be either considered urban fantasy or magic realism (depending on the number of elves and vampires).  You know it's a popular genre when it spawns a lot of sub-genres.

Science fiction has much more recent roots, yet was established as a genre in popular literature before fantasy.  It began as a genre in the early twentieth century in the wake of the industrial revolution, as people began speculating on where our technology could take us--and whether that would be good.  While fantasy is set in an imaginary past, science fiction is set in an imaginary future.  Most commonly it has spaceships.

Although there has always been an element of "Aiyee! Here comes the tentacled space monster!" in science fiction, true fans prefer what they call "hard" science fiction, which is based on real science and which tries to have a rational explanation if something seems to defy what we would consider the laws of the universe.  Along with the adventures, there will be a lot of "world-building," speculating on what life on other planets or for alien species would be like, and how humans would react.

In spite of being set in an imaginary past or imaginary future, both fantasy and science fiction are really commentaries on our our society--as fantasy has been since the beginning.  This is clearly evident in science fiction.  When modern American society is booming, novels show an optimistic future, with poverty and crime overcome and lots of flying cars and pet robots.  When the American economy stagnates, novels give us dystopian futures, full of evil repressive overlords.  You can learn a lot about the 1950s and 1960s by reading the science fiction written then.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Deals with the Devil

Everybody has (sort of) heard of Faust, who made a deal with the devil in Goethe's book, in order to gain power and strength and the woman he loved.  Gounod wrote an opera about Faust, and Berlioz wrote a concert piece about Faust's resulting damnation.

The idea of making a deal with the devil is certainly an intriguing one.  I've used it myself in my novel A Bad Spell in Yurt.  But are such deals medieval? (Faust is always portrayed as sort of medieval-looking.)  Actually not.

One did not in fact "deal" with the devil in medieval theology.  Demons came and tempted people into sinning, but mostly they did horrible things to them, tormented them and poked them and carried their souls away with evil laughs.

By the late Middle Ages, however, particularly wicked people were considered to consort with demons, riding around with them at night and having sex with them.  Joan of Arc in the fifteenth century was accused of witchcraft, but she got off because she was proven to be still a virgin, having thus clearly never had sex with demons.  (So they burned her for heresy instead.)

An influential book of the fifteenth century on demons and witches, written by someone we would consider seriously disturbed, was one of the earliest books printed with the invention of the printing press.  It stressed that sinners liked carrying on with demons (twelfth-century sinners, as in the carving illustrated above, hated doing so because it was extremely unpleasant).  In the sixteenth century, with the Protestant Reformation, when Protestants and Catholics decided the others were heretics, they accused each other of being witches and demon-lovers.

By the seventeenth century, after all the destruction of the wars of religion, countries mostly settled down to have just one religion.  Now accusations of witchcraft and demon-consorting were used not against people of other religions but people of one's own religion, who seemed scary or weird or different somehow.  This was the age of the Salem witch trials in the American colonies.  Witch trials, note, were extremely rare before the seventeenth century.

The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century led to the educated deciding that there were no such things as demons and witches, and that these were fables for the unsophisticated.  (Medieval educated people, in contrast, had been very concerned about demons.)  Thus, when Goethe began writing his Faust around the beginning of the nineteenth century, he could use demons and the devil himself not as creatures of objective reality but rather as metaphors for dark desires and innate sinfulness.

In many ways the nineteenth century, including those who later set Faust to music and composers like Wagner, were trying to struggle with the same ideas Freud did, but Freud hadn't come along quite yet.  Emerging was the idea, that in a post-Freud world we now take for granted, of the darkness possible in the human id and ego.  So Goethe was asking what someone would be willing to do, what would he sacrifice to get what he most desired.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with the development of fantasy and science fiction, we have a whole genre of metaphor.  People (like me) who write about wizards and witches aren't really writing about magic systems in which we believe.  Instead we are commenting on the human condition and the results of power and stark choices, wrapping it up in an exciting adventure.  Setting it in some version of the Middle Ages (for fantasy) or an imagined future (for science fiction) just makes it more cool.

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Medieval archaeology

A lot of what we know about the Middle Ages is due to archaeologists digging things up.  Because the peasantry, the majority of the population, did not write things down, we know about them primarily through mentions in the records of people who did write things down (especially churchmen) and through archaeology.  Preliterate people, like the Anglo-Saxons before about the seventh century, are also known mostly this way.

Villages can be reconstructed through archaeology, especially ones that were abandoned--and thus do not have modern villages built on top of them.  With the population collapse of the fourteenth century, due to famine and the Black Death, many villages were permanently abandoned.  They were silted over or fell into collapse or had their materials carted away for building elsewhere or were plowed over to make new fields.  In England especially, low-flying planes have been able to see the outlines of old streets and houses under modern plowed fields, telling the archaeologists where to dig.

Archaeologists also dig up old cemeteries.  It is possible, based on teeth and the relative proportion of head, torso, and limbs, to tell how old someone was when they died, as well as determine their sex from hip bones and pelvis.  DNA from the bacterium of the plague (Black Death) has been recovered, allowing certainty as to what disease it actually was.  Archaeologists can see if someone had a broken bone that healed, or a crushing skull wound that probably killed them, or a nasty leg infection that got into the bone and the like, thus revealing much about people's everyday lives.

Grave goods, the materials buried with someone, are also very interesting to archaeologists.  A lot of warriors in late antiquity were buried with weapons.  Stone sarcophagi carved with biblical scenes indicate that a population took Christianity seriously.

Archaeologists also dig up "midden" heaps, what one might also call garbage piles.  One can tell, for example, if the local populace was eating beef if there are a lot of beef bones with gnaw marks.  The presence of salt-water fish bones inland from the coast indicates that fish were traded by the coastal people.  A lot of information about the medieval diet comes from these midden heaps.

Archaeologists will get very excited about a piece of pottery because there actually is very little in the midden heaps that is not outright garbage.  In a pre-industrial age, people held onto their material possessions rather than throwing them away.  Thus every shard that is discovered has meaning.

One has to wonder about archaeologists of the future digging up our landfills.  They will find far more than they will know what to do with.  Think about it the next time you open a gallon of milk or bottle of orange juice or container of cooking oil:  there, under the screw cap, is a round piece of foil and/or plastic, manufactured for the sole purpose of being ripped off and thrown away.  One wonders if the archaeologists of the future will decide they had a special ritual function.

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