Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Trade in the Dark Ages

Okay, to start, the Middle Ages was not the Dark Ages.  The term "Dark Ages" was coined by British scholars to describe the period, basically the sixth century, between when Angles and Saxons arrived in Britain (c. 500) and pretty much obliterated the Christian, Roman culture that was there in England (including the historical King Arthur), and when Christian missionaries reconnected England to the European mainstream (c. 600).

Now of course England is not the world (although to listen to some Brits, you might think so).  (Gee, they're almost as bad as Americans!)  But the sixth century was tough in a lot of places.  The Roman Empire (then centered in Byzantium, capital Constantinople) had shrunk, and the areas that are now France and Spain had "barbarian kingdoms" (respectively Franks and Visigoths) that were only very nominally in the Empire.  Then there were such disasters as global cooling and the Black Death.

And yet trade continued through this "dark" period, with sixth-century Byzantine coins, pottery, silver dishes, glass beads, even fabric found all over the Old World, especially Eurasia, as indicated by dots on this map.

This map was worked out by the British archaeologist Dr. Caitlin Green, on whose blog it was originally posted.  She gives a lot more detail, which I recommend.  Here note that while the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century (solid brown on the map) was fairly restricted to the Mediterranean (and not even all of that), including what's now Italy, Greece, Turkey (then Byzantium), the Near East, and bits of north Africa, Byzantine artifacts from the period have been found in Africa, in Asia (including India, China, and Japan), and in western and northern Europe, including Anglo-Saxon controlled Britain.

Now Byzantines themselves didn't go to all these places, but trade routes did.  Ships sailed down the Red Sea, and either continued down the African coast or went around the Arabian peninsula and on to India, where many artifacts have been found.  There were trade routes carrying Byzantine goods across the Sahara.  The silk roads across central Asia to China carried great luxuries to the Mediterranean.  A Japanese monastery still has a silk cushion cover (pictured below), given to it by the Japanese emperor in the eighth century, which was created in sixth-century Syria, from silk imported from China, and which then followed the silk roads back.

Byzantine gold coins have been found in Scandinavia, where the local people had long traded fur and walrus tusks—used as ivory—to the Romans and continued to do so.  Indeed, Scandinavian settlement of Greenland was, centuries later, driven by catching walruses for the ivory trade.  Although the Scandinavians themselves did not have a coin-based economy in the sixth century, they certainly recognized their value.  This gold coin minted in the early sixth century for Emperor Anastasius was found in Sweden and was pierced for use as a pendant.

Much of what archaeologists have found comes from burial sites—in England the bodies buried with them sometimes have DNA suggesting a North African origin.  Others were hoards that were buried when the person who buried them must have intended to hide them until able to come back, but then never came back.  Some, like beads and pieces of pottery, were lost accidentally or were tossed out when broken and no longer wanted.

The vast spread of Byzantine goods along trade routes, routes that continued even in a politically, socially, and economically deeply troubled time, indicates that there has never been a time when people could shut themselves up behind high walls and pretend the rest of the world didn't exist.  (On this see more here.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

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

Monday, March 13, 2017

Ashes of Heaven

I've got a new ebook that's just come out!  It's quite different from anything I've previously published and is titled Ashes of Heaven.

The brief description is "Passion and betrayal in mythic Cornwall."  It's based on the old Celtic stories of Tristan and Isolde but with my own twist.  Lots of love and tragedy and sword fights.  Also people between the sheets--it is not the PG world of Yurt.

It's available from Amazon both as an ebook and as a paperback and is also available on all other major ebook platforms.  Here's a teaser from the opening:

PART ONE - Brothers and Sisters

The passenger stood by the railing, watching the shore slowly emerge from darkness as the eastern sky lightened from grey to yellow.  A light breeze came up with the dawn, tugging at his cloak until he pulled it tighter around him.  Behind him, the sailors emerged from the hold, yawning, and began unfurling the sails.  It was too early for shouting or song, and they belayed the lines and raised the anchor in silence.

As the ship began to move, the water murmuring against its side, the passenger gestured toward the captain.  The captain came to him at once.  The man had paid enough that the voyage would have been worthwhile even without the cargo.  He had been a model passenger, giving no trouble, never sick, eating the same hard biscuits as the crew without complaint, even though demanding better for the woman and little girl who accompanied him.  But something about him always seemed to suggest that ferocity waited just beneath his good manners.

“Is this the coast of Cornwall?” the man asked, his voice soft with the accents of the south.  His hair and eyes were black, his chin clean-shaven in the southern style, and his cloak of patterned silk, but a two-handed broadsword was strapped across his back, and his boots were heavily worn with long use.  He, the woman, and the girl had come aboard with no more luggage than the clothes on their backs—and a heavy pouch of gold.

“This is still Bretagne,” the captain answered.  “We will cross to Cornwall tomorrow, and from there it will be on to Eire.  The journey will be over in another week.”

The man nodded, and when he seemed to have nothing more to say, the captain excused himself and went up to the prow.  The water was foaming now along the sides of the ship, and the rigging hummed as the sun rose over the coast of Bretagne.

The passenger caught a flicker of motion from the corner of his eye and turned, quick as a cat, one hand already on the knife in his belt.  But then he smiled, slipped the knife back, and beckoned.  “Are you feeling better, Brangein?”

The little girl emerged from behind a coil of rope.  Her curly hair was tangled, half hiding her bright black eyes.  “Yes, I felt much better as soon as Isolde gave me the potion.  But it’s stuffy in the cabin.  And I can hardly wait to see Eire.”

“Only a few more days, little cousin.  Another week is all, the captain tells me.”  He pulled her over to stand beside him, under a fold of his cloak.  She was shivering; the early morning sun had done nothing yet to dispel the night’s chill.  “Is my sister still asleep?”

Brangein nodded.  “I tried not to wake her.”  The two watched in silence for several minutes as the jagged black rocks of the coast slid by.  At one point a line of standing stones marched across the thin grass of a headland and right down into the sea.  Seabirds sailed overhead, their calls high and mournful.

Brangein went to the rail and put her head back to watch them.  Their broad circles and the steady movement of the ship under her feet made her dizzy, but she did not look away, only clung to the railing until it was slippery under her hands.  For a moment, looking straight up into the morning sky, she felt as though she had shaken free of ship and sea and might herself soar on the salt wind.

When her neck grew stiff and she looked down again, Isolde had emerged from the cabin and was standing beside her brother.  She was nearly as tall as he was, black-haired like him, with the same suggestion of carefully restrained ferocity.  She wore a necklace of silver besants and silver rings on all her fingers.

“I am sick of this ship, Morold,” she said, though in a low voice, that none but they might hear.  “Could you not have chosen some court closer than Eire?”

“Closer courts might be better informed of affairs in the south,” he said with a shrug.  “And we know the king of Eire is unmarried.  A few more days, and you will never have to sail anywhere again.”

“I like sailing,” piped up Brangein, slipping back to Morold’s side.  “I like seeing new places.”

“Eire will be new,” he promised, and bent to give her a one-armed hug and tousle her hair.

Suddenly she pointed, her arm emerging from under his cloak.  “Look at the castle!”

The castle emerged from behind a promontory, located on its own narrow bay.  Not very wide but very tall, its towers rose toward the sky, far higher than the mast of the ship passing below.  The castle walls were as black as the rocks of the coast, but the roofs were tiled in bright geometric patterns, red and blue and gold.  Everything about it suggested newness, order, and harmony.  Pennants snapped from the highest towers, and a faint line of smoke indicated that someone was cooking breakfast:  something doubtless better than hard and stale biscuits.

“I like that castle,” Brangein announced.  “I want to live there.”  She leaned her chin on the rail, straining to see better, all thought forgotten of flying with the seabirds.  Several boats floated in the bay, none of them rigged.  She spotted no people, but two cows appeared beyond the far side of the castle and wandered off toward pasture.

“That is just a little country castle,” said her cousin with a laugh.  “We’ll be living at the royal court in Eire.  It will be much finer.”

The captain had approached again.  “That is the castle of Parmenie.  If we had been an hour further along the coast at twilight yesterday, we might have anchored in its bay.  Its lord is named Rivalin.  Sometimes when we anchor there he buys goods from our cargo.”

“Lord Rivalin of Parmenie,” said Isolde, turning the words over thoughtfully and looking at her brother.  “Is he married?”

“Not unless he has married very recently,” the captain answered.  “He has not been much at home the last year or two; the castle is maintained by his steward.  The last I heard, Lord Rivalin had quarreled with his liege lord.  He is a fiery young man by all accounts.”

“You would not like that,” said Morold with a wink for his sister.  “A fiery man who quarrels with his liege lord?  Impossible!”

Brangein did not listen to their conversation but continued to watch the distant castle until it disappeared behind another tall headland.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

Friday, March 10, 2017


Everyone sort of knows about troubadours, medieval guys who sang love songs.  But there's more to it.  There were gals as well as guys among the troubadours.  And they wrote the songs as well as singing them.  (The word troubadour comes from trobaire, meaning to compose.)  Some became very famous.

To be a troubadour was to be more than the wandering singer that we may now imagine.  Indeed, troubadours looked down on those who just sang other people's songs, the jongleurs, rather than writing their own.  The person usually considered the "first troubadour" was the Duke of Aquitaine.  The female troubadour, the trobairitz, was often a high status woman, whose songs were infused with classical learning as well as the many other influences on troubadour poetry.

Troubadours were part of the culture of what we would now call southern France during the twelfth century.  It was officially part of the French kingdom, but the French king hadn't been there in generations.  But the region had its own language, Occitan, so called because the people used the word oc instead of oui to mean "yes."  The region is therefore sometimes called Occitania.

(Fun fact:  Latin had no word for Yes.  Many Romance languages went for si for Yes, from the Latin "sic," meaning "So it is" or "like this."  Occitan got its oc from  "hoc," meaning "this one."  Modern French oui comes from "hoc-ille," meaning "this one - that one."  You had to be there.)

Troubadours wrote their songs in Occitan, but their language was close enough to Old French that the French could figure it out.  Many of their surviving songs are written as autobiographical, "I knew a woman …"  It is of course unclear whether they were actually relating experiences or, far more likely, using the first-person "I" the way modern song writers do.  ("I saw her standing there."  "I once knew a girl."  "I should be sleeping like a log."  Hum your favorite Beatles tune here.)

A lot of the women in the songs appear to have been powerful, well-known women, referred to under nick-names or teasing sobriquets, which were probably perfectly transparent at the time but are no longer.  The male troubadours acknowledged how powerful these women were, saying they wanted to serve them, urging them to be kind to the lowly singer.  In some cases male troubadours suggested there had been kisses and more, but the women of the songs were just as likely to Just Say No or to turn on their one-time lovers.

Scholars used to assume that these poems about service to women were part of some institution of "courtly love," where men claimed they were serving ladies, putting them on a pedestal, but it was all a game because the women were actually subservient, and if they were put on a pedestal it was just to get them out of the way.  This is now understood to be based on a complete misreading of medieval sources.

Instead, medieval women really did have a lot of very real power, as I have discussed elsewhere.  Ermengard, countess of Narbonne, for example, led her armies into battle and deliberately married someone whose center of power was hundreds of miles away, so that he would stay over there and not bother her, yet no one else could try to marry her himself and take over Narbonne because she wasn't single.  Ermengard shows up a lot in troubadour poems, often with a sword in her fist.

The original troubadour culture was thoroughly messed up when northern France conquered Occitania during the Albigensian Crusade of the early thirteenth century, but the idea of the composer-singer spread to other Mediterranean countries, to northern France, and even Germany.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017 

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