Friday, October 28, 2016

Strangers at the Gate

With refugees now trying to get out of the war-torn Middle East or out of Africa into Europe, there is often a strong reaction, Europe for the Europeans.  But in fact Europe has witnessed waves of migration, immigration, and downright hostile invasions throughout recorded history.  The ancestors of many modern day Europeans (and their American descendants) were migrants or invaders in their day.

Take England.  There were the megalith builders thousands of years ago, heaving Stonehenge and many other huge stone structures into position (while Neolithic Woman doubtless rolled her eyes and wondered when Neolithic Man was going to go hunting and get the family some food for a change).  Then the Celts came over the land bridge that then connected the British Isles with the Continent.  Then the Romans came and conquered (first century BC).  Then the Angles and Saxons came and conquered (fifth-sixth centuries AD).  Then the Normans came and conquered (1066).  Modern England is a mix of all of these, and it would probably have a lot more in the mix if the chalk land bridge hadn't been broken through (well BC), creating the Channel.

In the early Middle Ages, there were plenty of migrants, refugees, and invaders.  The Germanic peoples for the most part came peacefully into the Roman Empire and its margins.  The Franks settled in Roman Gaul and quickly adopted Roman culture and language.  The ancestors of the Scandinavians settled in the northern parts of Europe where the Romans had never gone, as the ancestors of the Swiss settled, with their cows, on mountains the Romans had avoided.

Other Germanic peoples conquered, like the Goths who sacked Rome in 410.  (This was of course a major shock to the Romans, but they rebuilt--this did not cause any "fall.")  But the Goths too ended up settling in Italy and Spain and adopting Roman ways, being indeed recognized as part of the Empire.

Then there were the Huns, who rampaged through Europe in the middle of the fifth century, being stopped from sacking Rome by the pope (Leo I), and whose empire collapsed after the death of Attila in 453.  The Magyars, a related people, ravaged the German kingdom five centuries later, before being stopped by the German king; modern-day Hungary considers itself the heir of both Huns and Magyars.

The Vikings were another terrifying group of invaders, from whom many people in both France and England had to flee--although some Vikings settled in Normandy and some in Yorkshire around the beginning of the tenth century, where they quickly became respectively French and English (but with some of their lively nature still in place).

Any of these invasions of course created refugees.  So did natural disasters like the famines of the fourteenth century, which sent waves of desperate people across Europe, seeking for food.  Even without massive famine, local loss of crops would lead to refugees, who took off hoping to find some place that still had something to eat.

And then there were just migrants.  Europe's cities grew quickly in the eleventh and especially twelfth centuries, as people (the majority young men) gave up farming to move to town for what they considered a better life.  Just as in nineteenth-century America, the migration of people into the cities represented a major population movement.

For much of the High Middle Ages (after the great waves of invasions were over), refugees were treated with pity and concern.  Bishops reminded parishioners of Jesus's saying, "I was a stranger, and you took me in."  This only lasted as long as the economy was strong.  With the weakening economy of the fourteenth century and the accompanying famines (and then Black Death), people lost all pity for refugees, who were considered dangerous and frightening.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

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

Friday, October 21, 2016

Medieval pets

In the modern US, a remarkable amount of money is spent on pets.  Cats and dogs get special foods, their own toys, Hallowe'en costumes, their own blankets, and that doesn't even include veterinary bills.  In the first "Game of Thrones" TV series, both a boy and a beloved family pet were killed at the same time, and the audience was much more distraught over the pet.  Medieval people also had pets, but they were much less common.  Animals were expected to earn their keep.  Peasants had cats to keep down the mice and rats and dogs to guard and to herd, but pets were a luxury for the elite.  (See more here on medieval farm animals.)

Dogs were the most common pet, generally small, fluffy dogs that were considered a sign of faithfulness.  Gisants (tomb sculptures) from the late Middle Ages often show such a dog lying at the feet of their reclining lord or lady.  Indeed, dogs were reputed not to leave the body of a dead master, willingly dying themselves from hunger and thirst rather than abandoning the dead.  (See more here on dogs in the Middle Ages.)

Today people try to make pets out of very large or fierce dogs that were originally bred for hunting or guarding or herding (I have seen people trying to keep a boisterous English Sheepdog in a small apartment, without notable success), but medieval people knew a pet dog should be small and portable.

In the original story of Tristan and Isolde, Tristan gave his lover a small pet dog with a magic bell on its collar whose ringing tone would banish all sorrow.  Isolde deliberately broke the bell off because she didn't want to be happy when Tristan was far away.  (Okay, this adulterous couple had issues.)

Cats were less common as pets.  They were considered cunning, and indeed medieval bestiaries said confidently that the word catus meant cunning in Greek.  As on modern farms, there would have been semi-feral cats living in the barn, catching and eating the rodents that also lived there.  Kittens were as fluffy and adorable then as they are now, but they would not be made lap pets the way small dogs would be.

Birds in cages were another occasional form of pets.  Exotic birds (like parrots) were unknown in the Middle Ages, but magpies were reputed to be able to learn human speech.  Pigeons and doves were not pets but they were still semi-domesticated, as dove-cots might be set up on an estate where the doves could nest, until they became dinner.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

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

Sunday, October 16, 2016


Everyone has heard of crypts--scary dark places down underground, probably with dead bodies.  Well, this does describe medieval crypts, except they were not supposed to be scary.

Medieval churches were built on two layers, the ground-level church and the below-ground-level church.  Main services were held in the ground-level church, which, by the twelfth century, was often very high and airy.  But more private, more special services were held in the crypt.  This is also where early bishops and saints were often buried.

The earliest Merovingian-era churches in France were built with crypts.  In some of these churches, the crypt floor would quite literally be made of stone sarcophagi, laid next to each other.  Others would have far fewer sarcophagi but would still have the tomb of a founding bishop or comparable relics.  Saints' precious bones were considered safer in the crypt than up in the church.

This is the sarcophagus supposedly of Saint Benignus, first bishop-saint of Langres.  He is buried in the crypt of St.-Bénigne, which was a monastery in Dijon in the Middle Ages, dedicated to him.

Even though there are extremely few medieval churches still in existence built before the eleventh century, because the High Middle Ages believed in rebuilding higher and lighter (on which see more here), many crypts under these churches are far older.  Some churches still have their Merovingian-era crypts.  Others had the entire church, crypt and all, redone in the ninth or tenth centuries, and then this crypt would continue to exist under a twelfth- or thirteenth-century church.

Whenever they were built, crypts would need sturdy pillars to support the church above.  The pillars would often have carved capitals.  This image is of a capital on a pillar in the eleventh-century crypt of St.-Bénigne of Dijon.  Twelfth-century capitals were much more elegant, but down in the crypt one was back in an earlier time.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Peasants and labor dues

One often hears that medieval peasants had to pay a certain percentage of their harvest and an unlimited amount of their labor to their landlords.  This (along with so many other myths about the Middle Ages) is not true.  They certainly owed produce and labor, but it wasn't unlimited.

This is because medieval peasants were not slaves, as I have discussed earlier.  Indeed, in the early twelfth century even serfdom, being legally bound to one's "lord of the body," disappeared in France (see more here).  But both serfs and free peasants owed rent, just like anybody who rents an apartment today owes rent.

The rents were generally a combination of money, of produce (like two bushels of wheat and a chicken each year), and labor (like having to work on the lord's land two days a week).  Rents were fixed and were not supposed to be raised.  You will note that they weren't a percentage of the crop; the only "percentage of the crop" in sight was tithes to the church, which many peasants did not pay at all because most villages out in the country did not have a church.

The labor dues were often the most valuable part of the rent to the landlord.  Unless he planned to be out there with the plow and the ox himself, he needed to have people working his fields to grow the food for his household--and to grow food that he could sell at market (thus generating cash to buy horses, silk, spices, jewelry, and all the other things aristocrats felt they needed).  If every tenant household had to provide someone to come work on the lord's land (his demesne) at least one day a week, the necessary work got done.

This labor in fact could be beneficial to the peasants, although they probably didn't appreciate this fact.  The chief way it benefited them was to acquaint them with new, expensive technologies, like heavy mould-board plows, which they would have been (understandably) reluctant to try themselves, knowing that if they didn't work as promised then their families would starve.  The landlords, however, could afford such experiments (as well as affording the equipment).  Once peasants had seen that something worked, then they could adopt it themselves.

In addition, peasants could ride along with a lord when he took produce to market.  They might only each have a small amount to sell, but by going with him, and his larger amount, they found it worth it.

But peasants hated labor dues.  They would much rather be putting the effort into their own fields than their lord's.  By the twelfth century, a lot of lords were finding it a total pain to enforce labor dues.  The workers would show up late--with expanding cultivated land, the peasants might live miles away, and you couldn't expect them to leave home before dawn--leave early, and expect lunch.  Many landlords "commuted" (as it was called) labor dues into an extra monetary payment.  Then they could use the money to hire day laborers, who would not get paid if they didn't show up on time and work hard.  Young men could start saving up money by working as paid laborers.

Many a lord who owned unused, woodsy or swampy land would establish "new towns" (actually new villages), hoping to attract peasants (that is, other lords' peasants) to come work on land that hadn't been producing anything before, peasants who would pay rent.  In these new towns, the peasants would not owe labor dues, generally just money rents and maybe a little produce.

In the expanding economy of the High Middle Ages, the cost of hiring labor kept rising, and it became harder and harder to hire good workers on the cheap.  Rents, however, were fixed as they had always been.  What had once been a good deal for landlords no longer was.  As a result, in the thirteenth century landlords stopped commuting labor dues and tried, generally with minimal success, to reinstate them.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

Saturday, October 1, 2016

A Bad Spell in Yurt

I've been writing stories since I was five years old.  Being a published author is a more recent development, however.  It's been just twenty-five years since my first book came out from Baen Books, a New York publisher specializing in fantasy and science fiction.  (Cover below.)

In honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of A Bad Spell in Yurt, it has just been reissued in large format (trade) paperback, with the same great Tom Kidd art on the cover (see below).  Tom did a terrific job making Daimbert, my young wizard hero, look like himself.  Daimbert is not nearly as competent a wizard as he would like to be, but he has still managed to become Royal Wizard of Yurt.  On the cover, Daimbert is trying to work out how to work a magic glass telephone.

The new paperback is available directly from the publisher, CreateSpace, as well as from Amazon and Barnes & Noble--or from your own favorite bookstore.

The characters and situations came to me quite literally in a dream, along with the opening lines:  "I was not a very good wizard.  But it was not a very big kingdom."  (I should have more dreams like that....)  I wrote it in about four months, decided it was the best thing I'd ever written, and Baen accepted it with remarkably little fuss.

It was not of course the first thing I'd ever written, or the first time I'd tried to get a book published.  In elementary school I would fold sheets of manila paper so they looked (sort of) like a book and write and illustrate my own children's stories.  By junior high, I was writing chapter-books (as they are now called) on lined paper.  At a certain point I started typing on an old WWI era typewriter.  It was very exciting when, in high school, my parents bought me a (used) electric typewriter and I learned touch-typing.  By then I was reading "how to write" books from the library (something I'd recommend to any would-be writer), and figuring out things like avoiding clichés, ways to develop characterization, description versus action, how to get in background material, and the like.

In high school and college and graduate school I continued writing for fun, in many different genres, though fantasy was probably the most common (I read Lord of the Rings at an impressionable stage).  I had a whole series of 8 or 10 books that now look (sort of) like what George Martin started doing years later, high adventure in an imagined medieval-style world with fairly minimal magic.  The first was about Airnthal Silverblade, daughter of the king, on a secret mission into the enemy's capital.  I tried it on several publishers; it's probably just as well none took it.

So it was extremely exciting to get Daimbert out in the world.  It became a fantasy/science fiction best-seller and went through three printings in mass-market (small size) paperback.  In some ways, however, that early success has defined me.  Bad Spell was followed by five more novels and three novellas about Daimbert.  I've tried publishing other types of fantasy, but my fans just become distraught, feeling I'm wasting my time writing about anything but Daimbert.  I've recently started a new "Yurt, the Next Generation" series, and some fans can't even deal with that.

So for any die-hard Daimbert fans with a disintegrating twenty-five-year-old Baen paperback, now's your chance to get the new edition.  And now that book reading has branched out, you can also get Bad Spell as an ebook from Amazon and other e-tailers, or as an audiobook from Audible.  (The rest of the Daimbert books are also available as ebooks, and most of them as audiobooks.)  Enjoy!

© C. Dale Brittain 2016