Saturday, January 30, 2016

Shadow of the Wanderers

In the tradition of Norse legend….

I've got a new ebook, but it's not really new.  It's Shadow of the Wanderers, an epic fantasy.  Three young people are drawn into battles between the immortals:  Roric, a fatherless warrior; Karin, the exiled princess he loves; and Valmar, a reluctant king's son.  Earth and sky are under the sway of the Wanderers, the lords of voima, the power of life and strength.  But even the time of the immortal Wanderers must end.

Originally the book's title was Voima, from a Finnish word meaning power, a term I use in the book instead of magic--and besides, it isn't really magic.  Although Baen launched it with a great deal of fanfare over twenty years ago, it has never sold well.  I think the problem is that it is not like Yurt.  People who read C. Dale Brittain books want magic and wizards and good-natured humor.  But there's plenty of seriousness in Yurt too, as I hope those fans have noticed.  And hey, aren't some of them George Martin fans too?  After all, I very much like Martin myself!  (And Voima originally came out two years before Game of Thrones.)

So I decided to rename the book and give it a new cover, in the hope of attracting different readers.  The cover you see is by Shardel, and I got it through, which I recommend to any self-published author looking for a good cover.  You don't decide what you want on your cover but rather look through hundreds of pre-made covers (without titles on them) and see if you can find one that suits your story.  I thought this one suited by my story just swell.

The ebook is available through Amazon and B&N and Kobo and iTunes under its new title.  The content is the same!  The opening can be read for free on Amazon here, or below for those who don't want to bother clicking.  Enjoy!

* *  * *

Roric put his sword across his knees and his back to the guesthouse wall.  When they came to kill him in his bed asleep, they would find him neither in bed nor asleep.
Swallows swooped through the twilight air, then disappeared back toward the barns as the sky went from yellow to darkest blue.  He shifted on the hard bench, listening but hearing nothing.  Even the wind was still.  He reached into the pouch at his belt and absently rubbed the charm there with his thumb:  the piece of bone, cut in the shape of a star, that had been tied into his wrappings when he was first found.
It would be good, he thought, to see Karin one more time.  But it did not matter.  They had said their farewells as though they knew they would not meet again short of Hel.
The moon rose slowly above the high hard hills to his left.  His shadow stretched at an angle, dark and liquid, across the rough surface of the courtyard.  He bent to tighten a shoelace and turned his head to be certain the soft peep off to his right was nothing more than a night bird.  There was another shadow next to his.  Someone was sitting beside him.
He was on his feet with his sword up in an instant.  But the other, seeming for a second less substantial than his shadow, did not immediately move.  When he did, it was to stretch out weaponless hands, palms up.  “Would you attack me unprovoked?”
Roric did not relax his guard.  “You intended to do the same to me!”
The other gave an amused chuckle.  He wore a wide-brimmed hat that shadowed his face from the moon.  “So that is why you are sitting outdoors when all others are asleep.”
“If you are not come to kill me,” said Roric cautiously, “and you have not come to warn me, why are you here?”
The other did not answer for a moment, and when he did it was in a soft voice.  “Perhaps it is because we could use you.”
“Me?” said Roric bitterly.  “A man who may be dead before morning, and if he lives will be an outcast at least, and probably outlawed as well at the next Gemot?  No one needs me.”
“I do not think you will be dead before morning.  But I must agree,” with another chuckle, “that you will be of less use to us if you are.  I need to ask you several things, and I am interested in your answers.”
Roric leaned on his sword, listening but still hearing nothing ominous among the quiet sounds of the night.  The other person, whoever he might be, was not a wight or he would not cast a shadow.  But his soundless materialization on the bench suggested someone of great voima:  a Weaver, perhaps, or a Mirror-seer—even a Wanderer.  But if he were one of these, he should already know the answers.
“All right, then,” said Roric, and a smile came and went for a second across his face.  “We may as well talk while we’re waiting for the attack to come.”  In the moonlight this man—if he was a man—seemed so unreal, so much a product of his own vision, that he could have been talking to himself.
“Then what have you done, Roric No-man’s son, to make your fellows want to kill you and cast you out?”
“I’ve loved a high lord’s daughter,” shortly.
“And so your king has come to kill you?”
“How did you know a king wants me dead?” demanded Roric, raising his sword again.  This person who knew his name but apparently not much else could in fact be one of the king’s men, here to distract him from the coming attack, only seeming insubstantial because of night and moonlight.
But the other again gestured with upturned palms.  “This is a royal manor, and the crown on your shoulder-clasp suggests royal service.  Is your king planning to kill you himself?”
“No, not with his own hands.  He couldn’t!” with a grim laugh.  Roric lowered his sword again; whoever this person was, he did not seem one of Hadros’s men.  “The king is my sworn lord, and he would be outlawed himself.  But I wondered at the time why he sent me to this manor on such a trivial errand.  Still, I did not suspect treachery until I saw the warriors arrive by stealth:  three of them, my king’s fiercest fighters.  I would not have seen them at all if I had not forgotten my knife in the hall at dinner and gone back for it.”
“Sit down by me,” said the man.  Roric had still not seen his face.  “I do not like having to look up at an armed man when I’m trying to talk to him.  Now tell me,” when Roric had slowly seated himself, his sword again across his knees, “do you intend to kill these warriors?”
“I will not stand quietly while they kill me!”
“But are they not beneath your notice?”
“One of them I could certainly outfight,” said Roric, “probably even two.  Three I think will be harder . . .  My tale is already short, because it starts with me, but the end should be very interesting.”

There was another faint chuckle from beneath the broad-brimmed hat.  “So your intent is to give up your life to make a glorious song?  I would not have thought a life for a song a good bargain.  The song will not cause your king much distress, nor comfort the lady.”

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Medieval wine

In an earlier post I discussed beer in the Middle Ages, the all-purpose drink.  Today I will discuss wine, the other alcoholic drink then.  There were no distilled spirits (whiskey, bourbon, brandy, gin, etc.) until the invention of modern distilling and bottling methods after the end of the Middle Ages.

Wine was a more aristocratic drink than beer, more expensive and scarcer.  Almost any region in Europe would grow barley, but grape vines are more finicky.  They need a warmer climate and the right mix of sun and soil.  Then, as now, the best wine-growing areas had worked out by the twelfth century that it made more sense to produce a whole lot of wine and sell it than to try to grow all food locally.  Burgundy and Alsace have been major wine-producing regions for a very long time.  Burgundy was especially well situated, because it is downriver from there to Paris, so barrels could be loaded onto barges and easily transported.

Beer can be made essentially year-round, but wine can be made only when the grapes are ripe, in the fall.  Since ancient times, when the grapes were ripe everyone came together to gather them and press them to get the juice out, which was most fun if done by stomping. The grape juice was then put in casks and allowed to ferment.

The new wine was greeted with great excitement, and those selling wine to big cities could command a high price, because without modern bottling wine will turn to vinegar.  By late summer the wine was almost undrinkable, unless one perked it up with a lot of spice.

As well as being a sign of aristocratic status, wine was necessary for the liturgy.  Communion was bread and wine, not bread and beer (although in some parts of Scandinavia they might substitute).  This meant that parts of Europe really unsuitable for wine grapes, like most of Britain, would still try desperately to grow at least some.

In regions like Burgundy where vineyards could be very profitable, landlords and peasants worked out a system called complant.  This was a way for a landlord to turn some of his land into profitable vineyards without having to do the work himself, and for a peasant to acquire a vineyard without having money upfront.  The lord would buy the rootstock and the necessary tools and provide the land, and the peasant would use them to establish a vineyard.  Once it was producing, usually after about four years, the peasant would start paying rent, but if he had done a good job his vines provided him an excellent income.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

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

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Peasants and their Animals

My most popular post of all time is the one on farm animals.  Not sure why it's so popular--maybe readers are thinking of becoming medieval farmers themselves?

Here I'd like to discuss a little more about the relationship between peasants and their animals, which, any farmer will tell you, has not changed over the centuries as much as you might have expected.

Primarily, someone who owns an animal is responsible for it.  You cannot have a cow and expect it to take care of itself.  It needs to be fed, guarded from predators, kept clean, and, if it is producing milk, be milked.  You cannot "skip" the milking.

These days, dairy cattle may number in the hundreds at a farm (such as seen above), but a medieval peasant family would have no more than one cow, if that.  There would be a close personal relationship between the family and their cow, who would of course have a name.  This sounds very friendly until you realize that there would also be a close personal relationship between the family and the dung heap.

You cannot house train a cow.  (Trust me on this.)  The cow's barn would normally be right against the house, to make it easier to take care of the animal and to take advantage of animal warmth in the winter.  Every day the straw on which the cow stood would have to be cleaned out and replaced; this is still the case.  Otherwise the cow's hoofs will rot.

So a nice dung heap would be a feature of the courtyard, right outside the front door.  It would just seem appropriate for the family to use the heap for their own deposits.  This sounds disgusting to us in the twenty-first century, but it was often the case in the countryside up through WW I.

One of the challenges for a family was keeping the cow or ox alive through the winter, when there was little or no grass, or it was all under snow.  Hay of course would be stored, but a cow can eat an awful lot of hay.  And without modern mowing and baling machines, cutting hay and making sure it would stay dry until needed could be quite a challenge.  (A hay shock is a way for hay to protect other hay from the rain.)  The work to grow and gather food for animals meant that the peasants had less energy to grow and gather food for themselves.  Modern cows are also fed corn, but there was no corn in the Middle Ages.  At least cows require a less high-quality diet than do horses, which is part of the reason peasants were less likely to use horses.

For the peasants, a cow's milk was a welcome addition to the diet.  Without refrigeration, however, there was no way it could be kept as fresh milk, which is why so much was made into cheese--and for that matter, medieval people were much more likely to be lactose intolerant than modern Americans, who have been drinking milk their whole lives.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Coffee and Tea

In a textbook I was once asked to review, the author was discussing the ancient Romans (but it might as well have been medieval people):  "They did not drink coffee or tea.  They did not drink distilled spirits."  The distinct impression the book gave was that ancient Romans were a bunch of Mormons.

Now of course, as I noted in an earlier post, a lot of what we eat but medieval people did not is food from the New World:  corn, tomatoes, chocolate, potatoes.  But tea and coffee are not New World products.  They still didn't drink them in medieval Europe--any more than distilled spirits (which as the name suggests, requires distilling, not invented yet).  This is because they did not have them.

(Yes, I know, in my stories people drink tea.  This is because, in spite of the medieval-looking setting, my stories are actually set in an alternate version of the nineteenth century, a version where the Middle Ages never ended.  I've explained this.)

Tea originated in China, leaves from a local shrub brewed in hot water.  It was drunk there from at least the first century AD on.  There are various legends about generals ordering their men to drink tea instead of straight water, which required boiling the water, thus killing off germs that were meanwhile incapacitating the other generals' armies.  Although this appears like a tall tale, the bitter infused leaves do seem to have begun as a medicinal drink.  The western word 'tea' is derived from the Chinese word.

From China tea spread to other parts of Asia, especially Japan and Korea.  But it did not first reach Europe until the sixteenth century, when Portuguese explorers brought some back.  In the seventeenth century the Dutch East India Company started importing tea, which became popular as a luxury drink in Europe.  Not until the nineteenth century, when the British began having India (then part of its Empire) start growing tea in order to break the Chinese monopoly, did tea become the all-purpose British drink it still is today.  (Tea has also become very popular in India in the last 200 years.)

Only in the West did tea get drunk with milk and/or sugar; in East Asia it was (and is) taken straight.  Iced tea, which is the predominant American form of tea, is essentially unknown in the rest of the world.

Coffee was also unknown in medieval Europe.  It is brewed from roasted and ground coffee "beans," which are actually the seeds of a berry native to Africa.  It is first known to have been drunk in Arabic regions, probably around the fifteenth century.  From there it spread to the Ottoman Empire (roughly what is now Turkey) and, by the seventeenth century, had become very popular in Europe.  Coffee houses sprang up, where people imbibed this exciting and stimulating beverage.

Louis XIV is reputed to have received a coffee bush from the Ottomans, one that produced especially good coffee beans.  This bush is the ancestor of all "arabica" coffee cultivated today.  Modern Latin America is where most of the world's best coffee is now grown, but it really only began to be planted there in the eighteenth century.  North Americans started to take up coffee drinking in preference to tea during the American Revolution, when the British heavily taxed tea.

We now take our morning hit of caffeine for granted.  Medieval people would have rolled out of bed and either had nothing to drink or else a satisfying mug of beer.  It would certainly make one's mornings take on a different complexion.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

For more on coffee and tea (and beer!) and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Christians and Muslims

Medieval Christians, as a group, had a very distorted view of Islam.  North of the Mediterranean, most had never seen a Muslim.  Epics like the Song of Roland depicted Muslims as essentially pagans, worshipping the Roman gods Jupiter and Apollo, and probably as gigantic monsters as well.  There was a (completely false) story that Mohammed had originally been a Christian but had turned to heresy.

But along the Mediterranean there were enough Muslims that mutual understanding was at least slightly better.  This did not mean that they were friendly--Muslim pirates were a constant concern for Christian shippers.  But the lines were not as sharply drawn.

In Spain, which in the early Middle Ages was a patchwork of Muslim and Christian principalities, the two religions had to get along at some level.  Muslim rulers often took Christian princesses as their wives, in the hopes that this would make it easier for them to govern their Christian subjects.  The semi-mythic hero El Cid fought at different times both for Christian and for Muslim princes.  The Christian conquest of the Spanish peninsula, the Reconquista, proceeded in fits and starts and was not complete until 1492.

When the first Crusade was launched in 1095, of course, it was based on the assumption that the Holy Land, "the land that Christ's feet trod" as it was characterized at the time, was polluted by being ruled by Muslims.  Christian knights enthusiastically set out to kill Muslims, believing that the warrior skills which would send them to hell if used against other Christians could in fact save their souls if used against Muslims.

But once the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem was founded in 1100, the conquerors had to settle down and live with a predominantly Muslim population.  Many, not surprisingly, adopted much of the local culture, including the food and clothing, if not the religion.  Some took Muslim girls as concubines, even wives.  The motif of a Muslim woman being converted to Christianity and marrying a knight was common in the epics back home in the west, even if in practice not much conversion may have taken place.  Those newly arrived from Europe were often shocked to see this "going native."

Some western theologians were genuinely interested in learning more about Islam, the real religion, not the worshippers-of-Apollo version.  Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny in the middle of the twelfth century (and thus someone with unquestionable Christian credentials), commissioned a translation of the whole Koran from Arabic into Latin.  He took as his starting assumption that it was completely wrong, but he thought the best way to refute its "errors" would be through reason and argumentation, and it would be much easier to argue against it if one knew what it actually said.

Peter is a good example of the twelfth century's happy belief that one could persuade through reason, that a good, logical argument would win the day.  In the twenty-first century we've abandoned this.  (And Peter didn't win any converts himself that way.)

Incidentally, because Christians, Muslims, and Jews all worship the same God and all trace their roots back to the patriarch Abraham, they are "infidels" to each other, not heretics.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Feast of the Wise Men

It's January 6, Feast of the Wise Men, also known as Epiphany (from the Greek, meaning a vision or revelation).  All self-respecting manger scenes today have both shepherds and kings (wise men) bearing gifts.  The Bible version is a little more complicated.

The book of Matthew is the only one of the gospels to mention the wise men.  They come not to a manger but to Mary and Joseph's house in Bethlehem, where they have lived since their marriage.  They are not called kings, just wise men (magi), and their number is unspecified.  The assumption that there were three of them is doubtless due to their bringing three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

These three gifts were intended to illustrate Christ's three roles, as king (the gold), as priest (the incense), and as sacrifice (myrrh was used in embalming).  He both orders and performs the sacrifice and is the sacrifice Himself.

In Matthew, King Herod is not happy to hear about a baby born to be King of the Jews and orders all baby boys under the age of two to be killed.  The Feast of the Innocents, commemorating the slaughter of the baby boys, is usually celebrated on December 28, suggesting that in medieval theology (when all these dates were chosen) it took Herod close to a year to figure out that the wise men who had promised to come tell him where the baby lay (they'd arrived on January 6) weren't coming to tell him about it after all.  In the Bible, they are warned in a dream not to say anything to Herod.

Matthew has Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt to escape Herod, then settle in Nazareth once they return, rather than going back to Bethlehem.  This is different from Luke (the only gospel to mention shepherds), which has Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth the whole time, but going to Bethlehem to be enrolled/taxed and finding no place to stay but a stable.  Here there is no mention of Herod and no flight into Egypt.  Both of these gospels have Jesus born in Bethlehem and grow up in Nazareth, which fulfills Old Testament prophecies, but they give different explanations for how it happened.

The Feast of the Wise Men is sometimes called Twelfth Night, which doesn't quite work.  If you count Christmas Day as the first day of Christmas, then the twelfth would be January 5.  It is however twelfth night, which would mean it could begin at sundown on the 5th (using the Jewish version that days begin at the previous sundown) and include the 6th.  The "eve" is important to a number of religious holidays, including Hallowe'en and Christmas Eve (but if you start counting Christmas from sundown on Christmas Eve, you still don't get to January 6).  Maybe one should count the "twelve days of Christmas" as starting the day after Christmas--more time for food and fun (note:  there are no partridges or pear trees in the New Testament).

In Italy, children receive gifts on Epiphany.  They are not brought by Santa but by Befana, a wicked fairy (try to guess what word her name is corrupted from--hint, put the letter E at the beginning of Befana, before the B, and say it out loud).  The story is that the Wise Men asked her where to find baby Jesus and she refused to answer.  After they left, however, she got to thinking that maybe she should have gone with them, and she's spent the last 2000 years wandering around giving children gifts, in the hope that one of them might be the Christ child.

December 6, Feast of Saint Nicholas, and January 6, Feast of the Wise Men.  A whole month of opportunities for presents, especially if you include Hanukkah, New Year's (when Romans and medieval people exchanged gifts), and, why not? Kwanzaa.  Parents don't seem to understand their children's logic on this point.

For more on the history of Christmas, check out my book "Contested Christmas," available from Amazon and other online bookstores.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Canon law

Medieval people believed passionately in the rule of law.  The tricky part was figuring out what that law was.  Medieval universities were both places where the law was taught and where people worked out what the law actually was.  This was especially true of canon law.

So what is "canon" law?  It's the law of the church--note that the word has only one -n- in the middle and has nothing to do with big metal objects that shoot cannon balls.  Whereas theology is concerned with issues of religion (like "how does salvation work?"), canon law is concerned with the governance of the church (like "how old does a man have to be to be bishop?").

You might think, "Well, the law is just what the church says it is," but "the church" was not by any means a single, organized group (as discussed more here).  This meant that churchmen spent a great deal of effort trying to work out what canon law involved, working as individuals.

Canon law, like medieval theology, was based on centuries of decisions made by church councils, by popes (including a lot of forgeries attributed to popes), and by church fathers like Augustine and Jerome.  Just finding all these decisions was a challenge.  Starting in the Carolingian age (ninth century), several scholars started trying to organize canon law, making a coherent body out of messy and often contradictory rulings.  This effort, often sponsored by local bishops, increased in the eleventh century.

But canon law really became organized only in the twelfth century, with Gratian, a professor of law at the University of Bologna.  He was not commissioned by the pope or anything of the sort; rather, he was trying to create a clear textbook of canon law to teach to the students.

Gratian used the so-called scholastic method, as created by Peter Abelard, to organize canon law.  Like Abelard before him, he divided the law into a series of questions, answered both Yes and No, with citations and support on both sides--quotes from the Bible, rulings of councils or popes, quotes from Augustine, and the like.  He then used logic and reason to find what he considered the correct answer.

Though his "Decretum" as it was called was not commissioned, it immediately was recognized at the papal curia as an excellent work.  From the middle of the twelfth century on, almost all popes were trained in canon law at Bologna before becoming cardinals (and eventually pope).  Recognizing the way that law kept changing to meet changing needs, popes issued pronouncements meant to become part of canon law, called "decretals."  Legal scholars at the time collected and organized these.

Canon law covered not just the workings of the church but also anything to do with sacraments, such as oaths--which included marriage.  The law of marriage was always a major part of canon law (and some wise-acre law students at Bologna would make up questions like, "So what happens if someone's uncle's cousin marries the second wife of…"  You get the idea).

The impact of Gratian's "Decretum" is seen in the fact that it continued to be the statement of canon law in the Catholic church until the early twentieth century--when it was not so much superseded as reworked.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016 

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