Saturday, April 22, 2017

Voluntary poverty

Everyone today, except for the truly homeless, would be considered rich by medieval standards, because of everything they own or have access to, from electricity to plumbing to furnaces/air conditioning to cars to TV to refrigerators to phones.  But as I discussed earlier, there were plenty of people considered wealthy in the Middle Ages, and gradations of wealth down to the destitute.

Too often today one hears suggestions that those poor in the modern world somehow chose not to have enough money, being lazy and shiftless people who prefer to survive with handouts.  This isn't particularly true now, but in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there really were people who deliberately chose to be poor and to live by handouts.  They were considered holy.

In the New Testament, Jesus is described as wandering from place to place, without having any sort of permanent home, preaching as he went and accepting food and hospitality.  The apostles followed him, and indeed the Bible notes that Jesus said that others should do the same.  Now I personally (but I am not a minister!) think a person can be a good Christian without wandering barefoot around the Sea of Galilee, but the Bible is remarkably explicit on this point.

Following this example, there were a number of people in the High Middle Ages who deliberately gave up all material possessions and comforts, either to live a life of prayer as hermits separate from the world, or, increasingly commonly, to wander around and preach.  Monks had been around in the West since the fifth century, people who lived in groups and who shared all their possessions (following the Acts of the Apostles) while leading deliberately simple lives.  Hermits were rarer but still found, men who lived a solitary life of simplicity and prayer, far from human habitation, although they had to be close enough to humans for people to come and make offerings.

But wandering preachers were different.  They were disruptive and meant to be.  They considered themselves to be following the New Testament, including all the indications that Jesus was considered threatening by the well-established religious leaders of his time.  For that matter, the secular governors (the Romans in first-century Palestine) considered him disruptive enough to execute him.

With any self-proclaimed holy disruptive person, the question is always are they genuinely inspired by God or genuinely a crackpot.  The bishops of the twelfth century tended toward the latter explanation.  Wandering preachers would come into town, preaching about salvation and damnation, and leave with a new group of followers, often disproportionately women.  Now a lot of these new followers would quietly return home within a couple days, realizing that not having much to eat and sleeping out in the rain was not a comfortable lifestyle in spite of the promised salvation.  But some would stick it out.

The bishops wanted these preachers to settle down and become monks, and especially they wanted to make sure they got a good religious education, because it was unclear what their message of salvation and damnation was based on.  Some of these preachers spent much of their lives skating along the edge of heresy, promising to settle down and be monks and then heading off cross-country as soon as the bishop's back was turned.

But absolute poverty and wandering preaching became officially accepted by the organized church with the Franciscans (founded by Saint Francis), recognized by the pope in 1215.  They took voluntary poverty to a new level, living entirely by begging, refusing to touch money, not even saving an apple over from one day to the next--eat it if you're hungry, if not give it to someone who is.  People were stunned by their holiness and similarity to Christ and the original apostles, a connection made explicit when Francis received the stigmata.  The absolute poverty he adopted started being modified shortly after his death—it really was an almost impossible standard.  Later in the thirteenth century, those Franciscans who said they were sticking with Francis's original message got embroiled in an apocalyptic heresy, which sort of ended that branch, but the ideal of holy voluntary poverty long persisted.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Medieval taxes

Today is income-tax day in the US, so I will blog about medieval taxes.  I discussed medieval taxes once last year, but this is a topic that can always stand revisiting.

A tax is, by definition, something charged by a government, to pay for things that government does, theoretically for the good of everybody:  defense, infrastructure, help for the weak.  Private individuals can and do charge rents and fees but not, strictly speaking, taxes.  This distinction was also found in the Middle Ages, though it would have been more blurry than it is now, because the public-private distinction was not as sharp as we now try to make it.

The one kind of tax not found in the Middle Ages was income tax.  This is because essentially no one had what we would call a regular income.  Payments of rents and dues, or the equivalent of salaries for servants, were generally made once or twice a year and were subject to change without notice.  Farmers who sold part of their crop would have a lot of money coming in at some times of the year, none at other times.  Extremely few people would have kept close track of how much they received in a year.  There were however plenty of property taxes and sales taxes and head taxes.

The Roman emperors had collected taxes from all their provinces.  These were collected once a year, each province expected to come up with the amount Rome felt they owed, and it was basically up to each local governor how to find that much coin.  When the emperors left for Byzantium these taxes were assessed much less rigorously, especially with the breakdown of trade routes and urban culture in the sixth and seventh centuries.  But the kings of western Europe continued, at least intermittently, to collect taxes from what were called fisc lands, that were attached to the crown rather than to the person who happened to be king.  (This is the root of the modern word fiscal.)

In ninth-century England, King Alfred fought to keep the Vikings confined to northeast England and levied a tax, one penny per household, that was used both to pay for the fighting and to serve as a bribe to keep the Northmen in the territory known as the Danelaw.  This dane-geld, as the tax was known, continued to be levied in subsequent centuries, becoming a more or less general property tax.  Ironically, the Norman kings of England, descended from Vikings themselves, continued to collect this tax (now called simply the geld) long after the Danelaw Vikings had settled down to become Yorkshiremen and were no longer being bribed.

In the twelfth century, when the trade fairs of the Champagne region became established, the counts of Champagne, that is the regional government, became responsible for making sure that tradesmen were safe and that order was maintained.  To pay for this, they charged sales taxes on every transaction.

Medieval cities levied property taxes to pay for things that cities did:  paving the streets, maintaining the bridges, hiring mercenaries to fight other cities (in Italy), hiring guards and watchmen to keep the peace, hiring judges, building municipal buildings like city hall, erecting walls, caring for the destitute, paying to keep things (sort of) clean.  These taxes were all property taxes, assessed by deciding how much each individual household was worth and coming up with a figure of what they therefore owed.  Cities also assessed sales taxes in their markets.

Modern American income taxes are actually not particularly high compared to most western countries, but they very complicated, with all sorts of pieces of paper to keep track of, amounts to enter in the right place, lots of extra forms to file if one has done this thing or that thing.  So maybe we'd be happier with medieval taxes?  Do you like the idea of a city clerk, probably accompanied by a member of the municipal guard, coming to your door and just announcing what you owe this year?

© C. Dale Brittain 2017

Thursday, April 13, 2017

When did the Middle Ages end?

Officially of course the Middle Ages ended around 1500.  I say "officially" because that's when modern textbooks about the Middle Ages stop.  (Some British versions stop in 1485, the end of the War of the Roses.)

Nobody at the time of course saw 1500 as a major turning point, and for that matter they didn't know they had been living in the Middle Ages.  (The Italian Renaissance humanists who coined the term thought they were Modern, though in fact they lived pre-1500 and were, by our standards, medieval.)  But changes on either side of 1500, including the printing press and the Protestant Reformation, make 1500 a good round date.

In many ways, however, the Middle Ages lasted until the nineteenth century.  Technology drives society, more than probably we like to think, and through the eighteenth century the technology wasn't that different from medieval technology.  They had gunpowder and printing presses, respectively fourteenth- and fifteenth-century inventions (and hence medieval!) and had made advances in sailing ships, navigation, and carriages.  But most people most of the time were small farmers, struggling to make a living in the same way their ancestors had for a thousand years.  Horsepower quite literally powered most things, other than the mills, run by wind or water as they had been since the twelfth century.

The big change was the Industrial Revolution, which started in England in the last decades of the eighteenth century and had reached other western countries by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Factories began for the first time to mass produce goods, especially fabric and steel.  The machines were driven initially by steam, from water raised to boiling by coal.  We now tend to think of the English countryside as green and bucolic, but a lot of it was full of coal dust and polluted streams at the time.

By the time you get to the 1830s, railroads were starting to come in, making it possible to get from one place to another far faster than one could on horseback (also spewing coal dust).  Semi-universal education came in at the same time, meaning a major proportion of the population could at least (sort of) read and write and do arithmetic.

It has recently been argued, quite plausibly, that the biggest technological-social changes for the west came in the century 1870-1970.  Some people would say that the internet and cell phones, both dating back only 25 years or so, have also been profoundly transformative, and I would argue for the major significance of factories and railroads, but let's think about this "century of innovation."

A lot of things we now can't imagine living without weren't there (except maybe in prototype) in 1870 but were standard in the west by 1970.  Here are some examples.  Communication?  Think about a world without telephones.  Long-distance, across the country or across the world, was possible in 1970, but there were no phones in 1870.

Transportation?  There were trains but no cars or buses in 1870, certainly no airplanes.  Most certainly there were no moon landings (first one in 1969).  Steamships were the exciting new thing in the late nineteenth century, but sail was still around.  Not by 1970, except for recreation.

Speaking of recreation, how would your life be different without radio, without TV, without movies, without record players/CD players?  And those all need electricity.  Houses didn't have electricity before 1870.  They didn't have gas furnaces.  They didn't have stoves the way we think of stoves ("ranges") or refrigerators, much less microwave ovens, so food preparation would have been very different.  For that matter, there were no processed foods or supermarkets.

Most of us now have more clothes than we need, and for most people their clothing was made in factories.  Even home-sewers use factory-made fabric (except for the one or two who still weave their own--even the Amish buy their cloth).  The dyes that color them came in during the late nineteenth century.

Medical advances were stunning during the "century of innovation."  Think of a world without X-rays, without antibiotics, without vaccines.  In the 1860s medicine had been professionalized, in that doctors had "taken charge," but with their lack of sanitation, fondness for chloroform and powerful drugs, and readiness to amputate, you would probably have been better off in a medieval hospital, where the nuns would keep you warm and give you chicken soup and saint dust.

Photography had begun before 1870, but it was an arduous and expensive process, and all in black and white, whereas by 1970 anyone could take color pictures with a little box camera.  Computers were definitely around in 1970, even though there would be less computing power in a main frame that filled a room than you have in your cell phone.  Tools like washing machines and dryers, power saws, vacuum cleaners, and dishwashers made household chores much easier.

And speaking of washing things (including you), let's not forget indoor plumbing and running water and water heaters.  This is all post-1870.

So in 1970, like today, you could (while wearing factory-made clothes washed clean in the washing machine) drive to the movies with your friends, not worrying about catching a dread disease because you were vaccinated, come back to someone's house and get some snacks (food taken out of the fridge and heated up in the microwave), listen to music while chatting, get a phone call from your Mom that you needed to get home now, and drive home beneath the streetlights.  None of this was remotely possible in the first half of the nineteenth century, any more than it was in the twelfth century.  The Middle Ages is over.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017 

Friday, April 7, 2017

An Autumn Haunting

It isn't autumn right now, it's spring, but my newest book takes place in the fall and is called An Autumn Haunting.  Here's the cover, thanks to Dane at eBookLaunch.

As you can probably tell, it's fantasy with a teen-age heroine.  For those of you who have been C. Dale Brittain fans, it's the second book in the "Yurt, the Next Generation" series, the sequel to The Starlight Raven.  It's about Antonia, daughter of a wizard and a witch (a very rare union), trying to find her way as the only girl at the all-male wizards' school.  In this book she's in her third year at the school, and is hoping things will look up now that they've finally admitted a second young woman.  But her life is complicated because too many of the male students seem unduly interested in her, and then a terrifying haunting shows up….

(And let us all note that I had already been publishing books with a wizards' school for many years before "Harry Potter" showed up.)

It's available both as an ebook and as a paperback (your choice), available through Amazon here.  In the near future, it should also become an ebook on other e-tailers.  Amazon assumes most ebook readers will read on a Kindle, but they have free apps so you can also read on your computer, on a tablet, on an iPad, or even on your phone if you like reading one sentence at a time.

For those of you thinking, "Gee, haven't you been writing a lot of books lately?" the answer is that I've finally been able to retire from that pesky day job and get back to some stories I'd sort-of written as long ago as a dozen years, and get them into final form.  (Besides, aren't more books good?)

Here's the opening to whet your appetite:



To the left of me, Chlodomer gasped.  “They’re not supposed to do that!”  Something very strange was happening to his rats’ tails.
To the right of me, Harduin’s rats were growing bigger and bigger, until the wires of the cage made deep dents in their fur.
But mine, giving me what I could have sworn were reproachful looks from their little pink eyes, just keeled over, paws in the air.
“Antonia,” said the Potions teacher from the front of the room, “if the spells are beyond your abilities, you know you should have come and talked to me.”
This was not “beyond my abilities.”  I’d known exactly what I was doing.  This couldn’t be happening!  Unless—
“Hey, ’Tonia,” said Chlodomer in a whisper.  “What a change!  You messed up even worse than me!”
Five more minutes.  Potions Practical would be over in five more minutes.  If I gritted my teeth I could make it out of the room before rather than after I started screaming at somebody.

If I’d had to choose someone to slam into, it wouldn’t have been Prince Walther.
But then it was hard to make a choice, running down the stairs so fast I was barely touching the steps.  Only a quick spell saved me from going right over the railing at the last landing.  When Walther stepped out the doorway directly in front of me, it was much too late even to think of a spell.  We both sprawled across the staircase, and the books he’d been carrying sailed in all directions.
“Antonia!  Slow down!” he said, standing back up and taking me by the elbow.  He sounded as serious and sharp as one of our teachers.  Two words in the Hidden Language drew all his scattered books together, and they tidily stacked themselves on the step beside him.  “You are going to hurt yourself if you’re not careful!”
The last thing I needed was to be lectured by someone the same age as I was.  I picked myself up slowly.  He was smiling, or at least showing his teeth.
But I had to talk to somebody.  “They’ve sabotaged my potions!  And now they’re blaming me!”
He stopped straightening his student robe to look at me, one eyebrow lifted skeptically.
Walther had excellent eyebrows, heavy and black, under a thick shock of dark hair.  I was never able to make one of my brows lift independently, as much as I practiced in front of the mirror.  I could probably have raised one with magic, but that would be unfair.  And I wasn’t about to be distracted now by facial hair.
“We were working on potions in class,” I said, a little more calmly, “herbal potions—some to strengthen, some to make a creature grow, some to give it a new color.”
Prince Walther nodded soberly.  A smile never looked right on his face anyway.
“And we tried them on rats.  Everybody else’s potions worked—some rats turned green, some shrank so small they were almost able to squeeze through the bars of their cages, some got so strong they were able to rip their cages open and the teacher had to stop them with a binding spell.  Chlodomer’s rats all grew a second tail, though I don’t think that’s what he intended.  But all my rats just rolled over on their backs and died!”
When I looked away from him I could still see their reproachful little pink eyes.
“And you think this was sabotage,” he said quietly.
“Well, what else could it be?” I demanded.  “I know I did the spells right.  And everybody else’s were working fine.  But when I told the teacher somebody had been messing with my potions, he didn’t believe me!”
“What did he say?”  Walther lifted an eyebrow again, and he looked as if he didn’t believe me either.
“He told me that I needed to study the chapter again, ‘properly this time.’  And that wasn’t even the worst!  He said that maybe my ‘pretty little head’ just wasn’t made for doing magic!  He thinks I can’t study magic because I’m a girl!”
Walther sat down beside his books.  I noticed absently that the top one was a history of the Black Wars.  He tried to smile again, but it was not a success—he looked for a second as though he felt someone might not think he could study magic.  Which was silly.
I wished I didn’t feel overawed by him.  It was only, I told myself, because he was a prince, and because he was the only student in our year who might be as good at magic as I was, and because he had grown so tall in the time we’d both been at the wizards’ school.
The momentary look of pain on his face was gone as if it had never been there.  “Antonia, don’t start that,” he said, almost lecturing me.  “You’ve a third-year student now, not a beginner.  All the teachers know you’re smart.  You’re one of the best wizardry students in our class.”
“If they think so, then why haven’t they admitted any other girls?  No, they all just believe I’ve done as well as I have only because I’m the Master’s daughter.”
I sat down next to him, wishing gloomily that there was another wizards’ school somewhere I could attend, somewhere I wasn’t related to anyone.  But without Father they would never admit me in the first place.
“If you want them to respect you, storming out of the middle of class isn’t going to make you look responsible,” said Walther severely.  I started regretting having said anything to him.  At one time I’d thought we were friends.  What had gotten into him lately?
“It wasn’t the middle of class,” I said, glaring at the floor.  “We were done.  All that was left was cleaning up.  And I wasn’t about to clean up a potion that someone else had poisoned!”
And it was feeling so guilty about the dead rats that made me want to scream, run, anything but look at their lifeless little forms.
“I would have thought,” said Walther slowly, “that you’d have been very careful to save the sabotaged potions.  They could show you who did it—if you didn’t, of course, just do the spells wrong.”
Why hadn’t I thought of that?  I jumped up, almost knocking Walther over again as he too rose to his feet.  “I’d better get right back!  Sorry I bumped you!” I yelled over my shoulder as I shot up the stairs.  So the apology was five minutes late.  So at least I’d given one.
Back in the classroom, the other students were pouring the last of their potions into the big tub, over which our teacher mumbled neutralizing spells.  The teacher’s assistant, Nivard, one of the older students, was helping clean up.  Right now he was trying unsuccessfully to calm down a rat enough so that it would drink a potion to reverse the spell put on it.  It was one of Chlodomer’s that had grown a second tail, and it bit madly at the tail, squealing with pain and bleeding hard, and did not stop biting.
After a minute Nivard shrugged, took the rat firmly by head and hindquarters, and jerked hard to break the spine.  “Sorry, little one,” he said as the rat went limp, and he dropped the body into the incinerator.
My own dead rats were already gone.  In fact, my bench space was strangely clean and empty.
“I cleaned it up for you, ’Tonia,” said Chlodomer, coming over and smiling.  He gave a quick glance toward our teacher.  “I knew you were upset, and I didn’t want you to get into more trouble by leaving your bench space messy.”  Tall, gangly, and freckled, he was five years older than I was, because I had entered the school much earlier than students usually did, but it was always hard to remember he wasn’t younger.
I forced myself to smile back.  He’d meant well, and I couldn’t expect Chlodomer to have known that I wanted to save the potions, since I hadn’t thought of it myself.
Our teacher saw me and nodded rather distantly.  Some of the potions in the tub appeared to be interacting badly, bubbling and sending off smoke.  He added new phrases in the Hidden Language and poured in another potion that seemed to settle things a bit.
“Let’s go get something to eat before our afternoon discussion section,” said Chlodomer.  “I can tell you how I figured out a potion to make my rats return to normal—all except for that one,” he added regretfully.
I wasn’t hungry, but there didn’t seem any point in hanging around—especially since our teacher might have been planning to tell me that even girls with pretty little heads needed to clean up their own failures.
We slipped out and walked down the stairs, Chlodomer speculating on why a potion that was supposed to make his rats able to run very fast had given them extra tails instead.  He’d been able to reverse the spell by adding a handful of chopped dragon’s-bane to his original concoction, but he still wasn’t sure what had gone wrong in the first place.
When we reached the lower landing, Prince Walther was gone.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The name Constance

These days people name their children all sorts of different things:  a family member's name, the name of a character in a favorite book or show, a name picked out of a baby book, the name of a celebrity or sports star, some made-up word that sounds good.

Medieval people on the other hand chose names quite deliberately to create a connection, usually with a family member, or sometimes for a lord one wished to honor (which is why we speak of "Tom, Dick, and Harry" as "everyman" names, because they became very common in late twelfth-century England, honoring the saint Thomas Becket and the kings Richard I and Henry I).  This was true of both male and female names.  Today I want to discuss a particular female name in the Middle Ages, Constance, an excellent name.

Its origin is Roman.  The ancient Romans, at least among the aristocracy, had had male and female variants of the same name, so Julius and Julia, or Claudius and Claudia.  Constance (Constantia) was a variant of Constantine.

It was not used in the West in the early Middle Ages, however.  The story gets interesting around the year 900 with the emperor Louis, nicknamed "the Blind."  From his nickname you can tell his story is not going to end well, but before he was blinded by his enemies he had a son, whom he named Charles-Constantine.  The Charles was for Charlemagne, from whom Louis's mother was descended, and the Constantine for the original fourth-century emperor of that name--Louis's wife was Byzantine and claimed descent from Constantine.  Louis wanted his son's name to indicate unmistakably that the boy was born to be an emperor.

It didn't work out that way.  But Charles-Constantine had descendants among the counts of Provence, and among them were women named Constance for him (the male version was probably too audacious to use).  One of these women married King Robert II of France around the year 1000 and became queen.  From then on, the name had royal overtones.

One of the French princesses named Constance married the king of Sicily.  And among her descendants was the famous Constance, queen of Sicily (ruled 1194-1198).  She was a daughter of the king of Sicily by his third wife and was not intended to become queen, because she had plenty of brothers and nephews.  In fact, she did not marry until she was 30, old by medieval standards.

But when she did marry it was a great dynastic union.  She married Henry VI, son and heir of Frederick Barbarossa.  The Holy Roman emperors (kings of Germany) had long considered themselves rightful kings of Italy, and a union with Sicily sent a clear message, especially since the kingdom of Sicily included not just the island but also much of Calabria (the foot part of Italy's boot).  Henry and Constance were crowned emperor and empress in 1190, after Frederick Barbarossa's death.

But Constance did not become queen of Sicily until 1194, after the death of the last of her nephews.  In that year she and Henry finally had a son, the future Frederick II.  She was about to turn forty, so, the story goes, she made sure to give birth very publicly, in a tent in the town piazza, so that no one would be able to say that the baby wasn't really hers.  She made the bishop comes and watch.  She also nursed baby Frederick II in public, to make sure there were no doubters.

When she died in 1198, she commended her child, heir to Sicily and (at least potentially) to Germany (where his uncle was ruling), to the new pope, Innocent III.  Little Frederick grew up telling "Uncle Innocent" that he would be a good and faithful friend of the papacy.  Innocent died before discovering how mistaken he was to trust him.

But that's a story for another day.

© C. Dale Brittain 2017 

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