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