Monday, June 20, 2016

Throwing Things Away

Medieval people threw away far less than we do, for the simple reason that they had far less "stuff" to begin with (as I discussed in an earlier post).  In these days, when many Americans fill a 30-gallon drum with throwaways every week, it may be hard to realize how recent are today's landfills.

Throwing things away really started in the late nineteenth century, when food started coming in containers.  If you have a tin can or a glass jar that you don't need any more, you throw it away (or, one hopes, these days you put it in the recycling bin).  With the spread of plastics during the twentieth century, there was more and more to throw away.  Food scraps, broken toys, old newspapers, empty bottles, electronics that have stopped working, styrofoam cups, cracked plates, beat-up cardboard boxes, worn-out tires, stained clothing, unused carpeting from the remodel, off it all goes.

Medieval people certainly generated food scraps, but they would not be thrown away.  For one thing, one really did not leave food on one's plate, because there was not today's abundance of food.  At a castle or well-to-do monastery, food that was put on the table (in serving dishes) but not consumed would be passed on to the poor.  Cooking scraps, vegetables that had gone off, egg shells, cheese rinds, and bits of fat would often be fed to a pig (probably not too good for the pig, but that's a separate issue).  If there was no pig, they could just be composted or buried.

Bones and shells were harder to dispose of.  Bones could be used to make glue, and shells could be ground and mixed with chicken feed, but often these hard substances were just tossed into a pit or a pile.  Such midden heaps are of great interest to archaeologists, because they can determine what kind of animals medieval people were eating from the bones that are left (beef? pork? deer?).  The midden heaps would also get a certain amount of other things (like broken crockery) that no one wanted and were not easy to recycle.  Sometimes other things (rings, coins) would end up in the midden heap by accident.

Clothing would not be thrown away.  Fine clothing that was no longer wanted would be passed down the social ladder.  Peasants wore their clothing until it was literally rags.  Rags were very useful in an era without facial tissues, toilet paper, paper towels, or feminine hygiene items.  Once paper came into common use, rags were also used to make paper.

Rags continued to be valued until the nineteenth century.  If you've read any Charles Dickens, you may recall that very poor people could get a little money collecting and selling rags (the way today someone might collect and return bottles).

These days the "sanitary landfill" (what an euphemism) can be enormous.  There's one near Chicago big enough to have a ski slope.  They are supposed to have "liners" to keep the trash and its effluents out of the water supply; many have doubts.  Sometimes landfills catch fire and burn, literally, for years, because of all the chemicals and petroleum products in them, which of course were unknown in medieval times.  We might mock medieval people because they did not have the minty freshness of people who have daily sudsy showers, but they would mock us for our belief that we can just throw things away and never worry about them again.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

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

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Indie book promotion

As I discussed in an earlier post, one of the big challenges of publishing as an independent (rather than through one of the Big Six New York publishers) is getting noticed.  No one can buy a book if they don't know it exists.  Standing on the corner with a wheelbarrow full of books, like a stereotypical old-fashioned oyster seller, might work, but only for print (physical) books.  It's not going to work at all for an ebook.

So the first question after a new author publishes an ebook (typically through Amazon, B&N/Nook, iTunes, or Kobo) is, "How can I promote/market my book?"  No one likes to hear, "It's a ton of work and probably will have minimal results."  "There must be a secret!" they insist.  No, if there was a secret, either we'd all be doing it (in which case it wouldn't be secret), or else the few who had figured out the Secret would guard it with their lives, not wanting to dilute its effect.

It's actually simple and not secret all.  First, write a book that's as good as you can make it, including editing, cover, and description, as well of course as excellent content.  Make sure it's in a popular genre (tip, romance, SF/fantasy, and mystery/thriller usually do OK, poetry and children's books do not).  Then let everyone you know (especially on social media) know about it.  Then hope the Sales Fairies drop a big load of fairy dust on you.  Then write more books, even better than the first.  ("Your results may vary.")

Social media promoting can be difficult because, if your Facebook is nothing but "Buy my book!" no one will bother checking it out.  Same goes for Twitter.  I blog (well, duh, you say as you read my blog), but I doubt I get many sales of my books as a result.  Most people who come to the blog just seem to want to know about medieval farm animals (or, as one person recently asked, "Why were chickens sacred in the Middle Ages?"--hard to know how to answer that one….)

This is why promotion companies have sprung up.  Authors give them money, and they send out an announcement of a Special Sale on an ebook to a mailing list made up of people who have specifically asked to be notified of books on sale in their favorite genre.  This is targeted selling at its best, much better than randomly tweeting "Buy my book!" to anyone left on your Twitter feed.

The biggest and best (and most expensive) is Bookbub.  In the fantasy genre, they have roughly 1.8 million folks on their mailing list, and they anticipate that, on average, about 1800 of these will buy a particular book as a result of their mailing.  This is 1/10 of 1%, even though the recipients of the promotion email specifically asked to be notified, and indicates why most authors' own random mass blasts don't have much effect.

But 1800 sales in a couple days is good.  It is believed that a decent proportion of all Amazon ebook sales are due to a Bookbub promotion.  Sale of a first book in a series will, if the book's any good, lead to follow-on sales for the rest of the series, at full price.  This is why authors line up to give Bookbub lots of money.  There are other, less expensive promoters of this sort, but BB has by far the biggest mailing list.  They can afford to be very picky about which books they promote, which in fact helps, because the recipients of the emails know the books have been pre-screened for decent writing.  (Though some good books never get picked!)

I had a Bookbub promotion this weekend, A Bad Spell in Yurt on sale as an ebook for only 99 cents, on Amazon and other e-tailers.  As the first in the Royal Wizard of Yurt series, it's the gateway drug to the rest of my books.  I managed to sell over 2500 copies at the sale price, so I'm hoping that readers will want to continue with the whole series.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Abacus

Medieval people used Roman numerals.  The Arabs had used what we call Arabic numerals (big surprise), 1, 2, 3 etc., having probably gotten them ultimately from India.  Arabic numerals first became known in the West around the year 1000, and were pushed by the Italian scholar Fibonacci around the year 1200, but they were really not used widely until the late Middle Ages.

It is very difficult to do arithmetic with Roman numerals.  Try adding the following, and you'll see what I mean:


The answer of course is LIII.  But you knew that.

Because arithmetic was (and is) very useful for a lot of things, medieval people used the abacus.  The most basic version is a series of wires with beads, set in a frame.  The bottom wire is for the "ones place," the next for the "tens place," and so.  (You learned about "tens place" in school, right?)  So the number LIII (53) would be represented by three beads pushed along on the bottom wire and five on the next wire.  The use of the abacus goes back at least to the ancient Greeks and probably Egypt and Babylon.

In the twelfth century in England, the royal treasury used what was essentially a checker board for the same purpose, putting stones on the squares rather than moving beads on a wire.  England's treasury is still known as the Exchequer.

Medieval people thus conceptualized numbers as we do, even if they wrote them as Roman numerals.  This is not at all strange.  Think about the following:

+ eleven

We switch them into numbers in our heads to get the answer and don't even think about it.  Medieval people did the same thing.

Medieval arithmetic was complicated by not having a zero.  They of course knew about "nothingness." The number "ten" on an abacus was a 1 in the "tens place" and nothing in the "ones place."  But when counting backwards, minus-one was next to one, without a zero in between.  Thus, when AD-BC dating was invented in the fifth century AD, the year 1 BC came immediately before the year 1 AD.  Zero came from the Arabs and was first really explained as a number by Fibonacci.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

Tuesday, June 7, 2016


A martyr is someone who dies for their faith.  Originally in the early Christian church, only a martyr could be a saint.  Once Christianity became the dominant religion, however, it became much harder to die for one's faith, and "confessor" saints became the norm, people who "confessed" their religiosity through the holiness of their life and the miracles they worked (especially after death).

Interestingly, in the US after 911 "martyr" has become a pejorative term.  Those who crashed planes into the World Trade Center claimed they were willing to die for Islam.  (Many Muslims point out that this sure doesn't look like the faith they know, but that's a separate issue.)  Thus "martyr" and "terrorist" have been linked for many in the twenty-first century.  But in the Middle Ages martyrs were greatly admired.

The New Testament itself tells the story of Saint Stephen "protomartyr" (i.e. first martyr), put to death for believing in Christ.  Many churches in the West were dedicated to him, starting in the fifth century.

The West had very few saints before the sixth century, but in the sixth century a great many bones of early martyrs were discovered.  These people, it was universally agreed, had died while trying to convert the pagans of the Roman Empire, or else had been rounded up and put to death by pagan emperors like Nero or Diocletian.  The catacombs of Rome were full of bones, and the Christians were sure that a great many of these were the bones of Christian martyrs put to death in the Coliseum.

Elaborate accounts of the lives and deaths of those who had first brought Christianity to the provinces of the Empire were put together.  The city of Lyon traditionally had 177 martyrs, all supposedly put to death for their faith in the second century.  Attempts were made to name them all, though some of their names, like "Rhône River" or "Mature," seem at best odd.  Other missionaries to the pagans were sent out from Lyon, including Marcellus and Benignus, who in essence had a saint-off contest--they headed north, one on either side of the river, to see who could be martyred first (Marcellus won, or lost depending on your point of view).

By the late sixth century, elaborate explanations were being given for why the martyrs of the second and third centuries were forgotten for a few centuries, only to be rediscovered in the fifth or sixth.  The 177 martyrs of Lyon, for example, were said to have been burned and their ashes thrown in the river--though by the end of the sixth century a church in Lyon would tell anyone interested that it had those ashes, and indeed had had them all the time, since Christians (apparently too timid to be martyred themselves) had secretly pulled them from the river and buried them suitably.

It is easy to doubt the historicity of most of the West's martyr-saints, even though most western dioceses had a (supposed) martyr for their first bishop.  By the fifth and sixth centuries, with religious persecution far in the past, the West instead started producing historically verifiable confessor saints.

Martyrdom was still preferred, however.  Someone practicing extreme asceticism (living in the desert alone, eating almost nothing) was described as almost like a martyr.  Those who left the ordinary world for the monastery were said to be practicing a "bloodless martyrdom."  A priest or monk who was killed by a layman was presumed to be a martyr, though he would still need some good posthumous miracles for real proof.

When knights headed off on Crusade, starting at the end of the eleventh century, it was suggested that they might wear the crown of martyrdom if they died in the Holy Land.  However, dying of disease or shipwreck (as many did who did not make it back) was hard to construe as martyrdom, and even those killed in battle with Muslims didn't look all that saintly to those who might otherwise have declared them saints.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

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

Thursday, June 2, 2016


Everybody probably has a vision of a medieval gargoyle in their head, based on the one on top of a tower of Notre-Dame, with a "I hate Paris" expression on his face.

This gargoyle is however not medieval.  He was created in the middle of the nineteenth century as part of the restoration of the cathedral done by Viollet-le-Duc, who had no trouble adding things that looked like what he would have put there if only he'd lived in the twelfth century.

But grotesques were part of real medieval architectural decoration.  (A gargoyle is, strictly speaking, a stone carving of a grotesque form serving as a waterspout, but people tend to use the term more broadly.  Le Stryge, the official name of Viollet-le-Duc's gargoyle, was never intended as a water spout.)

Grotesques were intended as part of the church decoration that portrayed the whole existential universe, saints and sinners, demons and angels, the saved and the damned.  Demonic figures warned viewers about what would happen if they did not give up their sinful ways.  In addition, some grotesques were meant to represent peoples from other parts of the world, such as the upside-down people supposed to live at the South Pole, or the people with heads of dogs who everyone knew lived off in central Asia or somewhere.

Bernard of Clairvaux, revered abbot of the Cistercian monastic order in the first half of the twelfth century, wrote dismissively of grotesques, saying that they distracted from the contemplation of higher issues.  He said that even if they did not embarrass, one should at least think of the high cost.  Cistercian churches never had grotesques, but everyone else continued to do so.

In addition, on some churches the stone carvers created galleries of what certainly look like real people. One assumes these were the faces of the other workers on the church, preserved for posterity.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

For more about church sculptures and so much more, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.