Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Vikings in the New World

When humanity's ancestors left Africa, maybe 120,000 years ago, some turned left and ended up in Europe, while others turned right and ended up in Asia and some, eventually, in the Americas, crossing during the end of the Ice Age when the seas were lower and people could get across between what is now Siberia and Alaska.  (In fact people left Africa in several waves, and many of course stayed, but let's keep it simple.)  When the Vikings met the people they called Skraelings in the Canadian Maritimes around the year 1000, the circle was complete, and people whose ancestors hadn't seen each other for 120,000 years met again.

I've discussed the Vikings before on this blog, but here I want to focus on their visits to the New World.  You can't really say they discovered America, because the natives knew it was there the whole time, and Columbus, not Leif Eriksson, was responsible for permanent contact between Europe and the Americas.  But they definitely got there in their long ships.

The Vikings/Norsemen were a lively lot, with exploration, raids, trade, colonies, and permanent homes from Scandinavia to the British Isles to France (Normandy) to Sicily (where they established a kingdom) to Ukraine, Russia, and Byzantium.  Everybody they met they called Skraelings, "the other," people who weren't them and therefore inferior.

Starting in the late ninth century they headed west from the Shetland and Hebrides islands, where they'd been well established, to see if there were any more good islands out there, and ended up in Iceland.  This became a very successful settlement, where a language very close to Old Norse is still spoken today, and the glaciers are balanced by the hot springs heated by volcanos.  The only big problem was that once they cut down the trees they didn't grow back, not having nearby trees to reseed them (as on the mainland).  But the Icelanders were mostly sheep farmers anyway.

From Iceland they kept exploring west and got to Greenland in the late tenth century.  The sagas tell that the explorers came back talking about how "green" everything was there in order to lure settlers, omitting to mention that most of Greenland is under a sheet of ice a mile thick (unfortunately now melting).  Several Viking colonies were established, which lasted until the late Middle Ages, when the climate cooled and their sheep-farming (their principal occupation beyond fishing) just wasn't working.

In the meantime, explorers kept heading out, going north with the current up the coast of Greenland, where they hunted walruses, then west to Baffin Island, and south along the coast of what is now Labrador.  Here they doubtless encountered Eskimo ancestors (who were heading east themselves and eventually reached Greenland, after the Vikings did, though their descendants survived when the Norse ones did not).

South of the Arctic Circle the Vikings got to L'Anse-aux-Meadows, on the northern tip of Newfoundland.  This seemed like a much better place than what they'd been seeing recently.  They called the region Vinland because wild grapes grew there.  There were already people (ancestors of what are usually called Indians, or in Canada First Nations people) with whom they had an uneasy relationship.  This is all described in the saga of Leif Eriksson, but for a long time it was considered fanciful.  Then archaeologists started digging and found all sorts of Viking objects, as well as the remains of the sod long-houses they had built.  L'Anse-aux-Meadows is now a "living history" site, with reenact ors and everything, as well as ongoing archaeology.  You can visit it, and Newfoundland would love you to do so.

Vinland really was too far out, so although there was at least some Viking habitation there for twenty years or so, including women and families, they pulled back to Greenland.  This has not kept Scandinavian-Americans in Minnesota from imagining that they somehow made it a couple thousand miles further overland to reach their homeland.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

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

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Old in the Middle Ages

As I indicated in an earlier post on growing old in the Middle Ages, medieval people tended to wear out, on average, earlier than we do.  This should not be surprising, given that they lived what we would consider a rough life and did not have the modern medicine that easily remedies things that would have killed a medieval person.  (Medieval medicine was just was not the same.  So much for all-natural cures and the secret wisdom of the ancients.)

This did not of course mean that people keeled over in their 30s.  Indeed, a man who survived childhood and the childhood illnesses that vaccinations have essentially eliminated could expect to make it at least into his 50s, short of death in battle or in a serious farm accident, and some lived substantially longer.  Women could expect to live about the same length of time, short of death in childbirth.

Here I want to discuss a bit more how medieval old people lived--defining of course "old" as they did, not how we do (I consider people in their 60s to be young and fun!).  Old people were a much smaller proportion of the medieval population than they are of the modern western population, however one may define "old," because fewer of them lived to what we'd now call a ripe old age.

There was no specific definition of when one became old.  Different authors came up with different definitions.  However, multiples of 7 appear very frequently.  "Age of reason" began at around 7, the age at which medieval children started their career training.  At 14 one was no longer a child but a youth and could get married.  At 21 one might or might not pass out of "youth"; interestingly, this is the one big turning-point we have kept.  At 35 one might become mature or middle-aged or even "old," depending on who you were talking to.  Or one might remain a youth or young man up to 49.  Everyone agreed, however, that someone past 70 was not just old but very old.  (This was of course approximate, because medieval people didn't really keep track of birthdays.)

One of the more obvious differences between a young or middle-aged man and an old one was that old men grew out their beards.  Youths prided themselves on clean-shaven, sweet faces, to the extent that modern people sometimes have trouble telling the difference between young men and women in medieval illustrations (the clothing is the giveaway).  Active men didn't want a beard that would get in the way of a helmet (for a knight).  Monks were shaved every Saturday whether they needed it or not, and peasants were probably the same.

But an old man in the high Middle Ages would be proud of growing out a long, white beard, which became a symbol of wisdom.  Charlemagne and Arthur were always described in twelfth-century epics as having such a beard.  Even in the image below, probably a tenth-century copy of an image created not long after Charlemagne's death, you can see Charlemagne on the left as having a solid beard and mustache, whereas his son on the right has at most a 5 o'clock shadow.  (Also note the scribe below; see my previous post.)

Medieval old people were expected to pass their wisdom on to the younger generation, stepping back from active farming, for example, as the next generation were able to take up the task.  The Amish still practice this today, where at a certain point the old generation move out of the main house to a small, adjacent house, leaving the main house and the responsibility for the farm to a son or daughter.  Medieval peasants probably wouldn't have the choice to stop working altogether, and they probably wouldn't move out, but they would hand off the heavier chores.

One of the concerns then, of course, as it is now, is who would take care of old people.  As now, one's children were the primary candidates.  But taking care of the old was also considered a "good work."  In part this was because being old and being poor often came together, and the Bible was very explicit about taking care of the poor.  In the late Middle Ages someone wealthy might establish a "hospital" that took care of the indigent poor whether or not they were sick.  Masters were expected to provide small amounts of money to help retired servants.  Servants would be expected to take care of an old master.  Guilds would take care of their members in their old age.  Churches routinely took in old people, as monks or nuns if they were educated enough to take part in the liturgy, or at least as part of the cluster of official poor people whom they fed and clothed.

These days, for most people, a major part of one's total lifetime medical spending occurs in the last few years of life, as serious illness (heart attack, cancer, stroke, broken bones) are treated to give the person another six months or sometimes several years of life.  All of these would have carried off medieval people quickly.  There was no medieval equivalent of the fear about being kept alive by machines.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

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

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Writing in the Middle Ages

We take writing for granted.  Starting in kindergarten, children are taught to write the letters of the alphabet, including their own names.  In the Middle Ages, however, writing was a relatively rare skill, rarer for example than reading.  For us, reading and writing go together, but if you think about it there's no necessary reason that they should.

Charlemagne famously was well educated, able to speak both Old French and Old German fluently, able to read Latin and, he claimed, at least a little Greek, but he couldn't write.  He had never developed that fine motor control of his fingers (why we start kids in kindergarten), and a lifetime with a sword or a horse's reins in his hands had further coarsened them.  He used to keep a wax tablet and stylus by his bed and practice if he woke up in the night.

Writing was rarer than reading because it was highly technical.  Until the late Middle Ages, any permanent writing was done on parchment, sheepskin carefully prepared, which of course was far more expensive than paper.  This is why rough drafts and quick notes were done on a wax tablet, that could easily be wiped clean and reused.

Writing was done with a quill pen--which in fact continued to be the case until the nineteenth century.  So you needed a goose to produce the feather to use as a pen.  (Our word indeed comes from the Latin penna, meaning feather.)  If you were right-handed, you needed a feather from the goose's left wing, so it would curve away from your face as you wrote.  The right wing feathers were understandably cheaper.  This was not quite as big a deal as you might suppose, however, because the feather would be cut down to maybe eight inches long before use (not the enormous feathery pens you may see in movies).

A feather, being hollow, will draw up ink, but the scribe still needed frequent dipping.  As the scribe wrote, the quill would wear down, so it constantly needed trimming with a pen knife.  The knife was also used to split the quill, forming the nib, and to erase mistakes.  Without modern erasers (or the backspace key), medieval scribes had to carefully scrape incorrect words off the parchment.  Depictions of scribes at work, generally writing on a slanted lectern (as in the image above), often showed them with a quill pen in their right hand and a pen knife in the left.

The ink itself was usually made of soot, lampblack or charcoal, mixed with a binder.  The sap of plum or cherry trees was considered to make a good binder.  Some advocated boiling up hawthorne branches to make a thick, dark ink.  Whatever the ink was made from, it would have to be thinned before use, generally with vinegar (that wine that went bad still had a use!).  The prepared ink would be put in a horn for use (in images it appears to be the tip of a cow's horn).  Most "black" ink was actually dark brown, although Italian scribes prided themselves on really black ink.

Charters would be written in black (or brown) ink, but books usually had rubrics, that is red initials and/or headers to individual sections.  Someone copying a book would thus need to have both red ink and black ink handy.

Although we think of handwriting as very personal, in the Middle Ages different scribes at the same place were expected to write a very similar hand (although there was still some variation).  One can indeed give documents a place and rough date just by the style of the writing.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Medieval color

Medieval people appreciated brightly colored flowers or sunsets or autumn leaves just as much as we do.  But they did not have the option of having those colors on their bathroom wall or on their clothing.

The bright colors we take for granted for manufactured items are products of chemical dyes, first developed in the nineteenth century.  The Middle Ages had to make do with natural dyes.  A few of these could produce very nice colors, but those were luxury items.  For most purposes, one had a choice of off-white, muddy green, subdued red, dark brown, dark blue, and maybe unconvincing yellow.

The white was usually off-white, the color of undyed sheep's wool or linen.  Linen could be bleached in the sun, and elegant ladies in the stories wore shifts of snow-white linen.  Keeping it spotless was an additional challenge.

Black sheep (actually dark brown) produced dark brown wool, which was used for monks' habits (so-called black monks) as well as anything else where you wanted a dark brown/black.  Some of the new monastic orders of the twelfth century, such as the Cistercians, went in for white habits instead, because black sheep were rarer than white and their wool was thus more expensive (and "showier").

Purple came from mollusks from the eastern Mediterranean.  This so-called Tyrian purple (actually closer to maroon) had been reserved in ancient Rome for colored strips on the togas of Senators.  In Byzantium, this purple was so rare that it was supposed to be reserved for the imperial family (hence the expression, "born in the purple" for someone of extremely high birth).

Real red was made from kermes insects, found in Italy.  The secret of this vivid red was closely guarded, so that cloth might be sent from the cloth markets of Champagne to Italy to be dyed and come back with its value more than doubled.

You could get a version of dark red from madder, an herbaceous plant with red roots.  It worked great to dye your hands red while you were trying to get some color on the cloth.  ("No, I don't have blood on my hands!")  Indigo, which came from the sap of certain shrubs, could give you a dark blue.  You could also get blue from woad, a plant in the mustard family.  Yellow was hard, but you could get at least pale yellow from some flowers and especially from pollen (in particular the pollen of crocuses, saffron).  You could get green (sort of) by mixing yellow and blue or by embracing grass stains.

Madder, indigo, and woad were all sold commercially, as was saffron, although the latter was very expensive and mostly used as a spice.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


It's a cold, rainy February day.  A good time to blog about rain in the Middle Ages.

As any farmer will tell you (and there are fewer active farmers all the time in the US), growing food is dependent on a foot or so of topsoil and the fact that it rains.  Without water falling out of the sky, agriculture is just not going to work.  The vast majority of people in the Middle Ages lived on a working farm, and they knew this very well.

But how about irrigation? you say.  Certainly medieval people knew about irrigation ditches, even if they didn't have the elaborate machine-driven irrigation systems used today in, for example, California's central valley.  In the ancient world, the "fertile crescent" between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now Iraq, got much of its water via irrigation ditches from the rivers.  It didn't rain very much in ancient Egypt either, but the barley fields were irrigated by the Nile.  But in these places, as in medieval Europe, where do you think the river water came from?  That's right, rain.

Rain also provided drinking water in many places.  A castle up on an inaccessible mountain, for example, would not have a decent well and thus would collect rainwater, both for drinking and cooking and for everything else water was used for.

Now in the Middle Ages, as now, too much rain could be as much of a problem as it is now.  Floods in a city (and all cities were built on rivers) caused all sorts of problems.  Flooded fields meant that crops couldn't be planted, or couldn't be harvested, or rotted without ripening.  But overall rain was considered good.

On the other hand, it was just as uncomfortable then as it is now to be out in the rain, and they had far fewer things to keep the rain off.  We reach for our umbrellas.  Well, umbrellas only became available in the West in the seventeenth century.  China and Japan had long had parasols (Japan's mostly made of paper, thus better to keep off the sun than the rain), and Europe probably got umbrellas from the East.

The image is a van Dyke painting of a seventeenth-century lady with an umbrella.  It was a new, fashionable invention.  The word umbrella comes the Latin umbra, meaning shade.  The Brits often call them brolleys (derived from umbrella).  Americans, for reasons obscure, may call them bumbershoots.

Medieval people also didn't have raincoats.  Look at the tag in your raincoat.  It is probably made at least partially from nylon or polyester or else has a plastic-based finish.  Medieval people had very tightly woven boiled wool.  Wrap your cloak around you and put up the hood.  At least wool will continue to keep you warm even when it's wet, but it would soak through fairly soon.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017