Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Messiah

Last weekend we went to a terrific performance of Handel's "Messiah" (not a singalong version).  The program had all the words with their sources.  Although officially the piece is about the birth of Jesus (which is why it's usually played at Christmas), most of the words are from the Old Testament, not the New.

This is because the idea of a Messiah did not start with Christianity.  The Jews had been looking forward to the coming of a Messiah for at least half a millennium before a decree went out from Caesar Augustus.  The so-called Old Testament prophets (Isaiah gets most of the attention, along with Jeremiah and Zechariah, plus a few others) wrote around the time of the "Babylonian captivity," when the Babylonians captured the city of Jerusalem and took a lot of Jews back home as slaves.  (The Jews got back to Jerusalem a generation or so later, after the Babylonians were in turn attacked by the Persians, but that's another story.)

The prophets wrote about how the Jews had brought it all on themselves through their sin and turning from God but also offered hope:  a Messiah would come, someone who would bring about peace and prosperity.  Indeed, there is some debate among scholars whether the book of Isaiah was written by one or two (or more) authors, the despairing, denouncing Isaiah and the hopeful Isaiah.

Jewish hopes for a Messiah continued for the next 2500 years--indeed until now.  During the life of Jesus, many Jews had a more specific hope, that the Messiah would drive the Romans out of their land.  The group called the Zealots were especially eager to give the Romans a violent shove.  The Romans heard Jesus being hailed as the Messiah and decided he was a Zealot and put him to death as a traitor, one working against the Roman state.  (He wasn't, but that's also another story.)

One version of prophecies of the Messiah was that the Messiah indeed appears every generation, but if the people are not ready--not prepared to overcome their sinful ways--they will kill him.  That's why there's a lot in the Old Testament about the Suffering Servant, the innocent man on whom the stiff-necked people turn.  When Jesus was put to death, it appeared to be one more example of a Messiah the people rejected.

But in this case, his followers said that he had come back from death.  This was totally different.  Paul, the person who essentially started Christianity as its own religion (not just a sect of Judaism), understandably found this extremely significant.  His letters, the earliest part of the New Testament, are all about this.  "As in Adam all shall die, so in Christ shall all be made alive."  For Paul, the Messiah was to be understood not only as bringing about peace and prosperity, beating swords into plowshares and the like, but as bringing about triumph over death.

But He was still supposed to be the Messiah prophesied by the Jews centuries earlier.  The Book of Matthew in the New Testament is addressed to a Jewish audience, explaining how Jesus's birth, life, and death fulfilled all the prophecies.  The word 'messiah' by the way is from the Hebrew, which in the Greek in which the New Testament is written became the 'Christos,' the 'anointed one.'  (You didn't think Christ was a last name, did you?  Good.  I didn't think so.)

Once it was determined that Christians would adopt the Jewish Bible as their Old Testament (on which see more here), it became quite easy to interpret all Old Testament references to a Messiah as leading straight to Jesus Christ.  For medieval theologians, looking at a Bible that said all sorts of different contradictory things (not surprising, as it was written over a thousand-year period for a great variety of purposes), the goal was the interpret it all so that it all made sense, making a single, coherent statement.  It was like working with the universe's most complex puzzle, further complicated because not only did they have to make all the different parts of the Bible make sense, but they had to deal with earlier theologians, popes, and councils and their version of what it all meant.

Although the letters of Paul suggest that the glorious new world that the Messiah was supposed to bring in was thought to be imminent during his time, as the years and centuries went by the world we know continued to be as painful and stubborn as ever.  Quickly the coming of the Messiah (second coming in fact) and His glorious time of peace was put off further and further into the future, indeed into the time when death would be overcome, as He had already demonstrated possible.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Jane Austen and the gentry

Jane Austen was not medieval.  Not even close.  She lived and wrote in the early nineteenth century, the century when, as I have discussed elsewhere, a whole lot of the things that we would now consider modern were invented, from electricity to indoor plumbing to factory goods to furnaces to telephones to being able to get quickly down the road by mechanical means (e.g. trains).

But the early nineteenth-century English world that Austen describes, at a time shortly before all these inventions took place, was, for the gentry (the well-to-do), sort of a half-way spot between aristocratic life in the Middle Ages and the modern age.

(If you haven't read any of Jane Austen's novels, I urge you to do so.  Start with Pride and Prejudice.  If they made you read it in high school I hope they told you that it is extremely funny.  Austen found all the silliness, greed, misplaced pride, and lack of education of many of her contemporaries hilarious.  If you have trouble getting into it--and you shouldn't--start by watching the BBC mini series with Colin Firth.)

Austen's gentry lived in large manor houses with servants, as the twelfth-century aristocracy would have lived.  They derived much of their income from agricultural rents and had their own "home farm" lands.  They valued music, art, and literature.  In this they were like medieval aristocrats.

Also like medieval aristocrats, they believed in love as a reason to get married, even though marrying someone from outside one's social class was unthinkable.  Austen's heroines still have their parents and guardians trying to arrange appropriate marriages for their children, as twelfth-century parents had done, though Austen suggests this often led to disaster.

We think of medieval aristocrats as living in castles, and indeed many did, but a castle was too expensive for everyone to have one, so a lot of them lived in large and elegant houses, like their nineteenth-century descendants.  The castles not destroyed during the early modern period would still have had wealthy owners in the nineteenth century, but the interiors had been transformed to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ideas of comfort.

Manor houses were thick on the ground in Austen's day, but by a century later (the time of Downton Abbey if you watched that show), it became hard to maintain them, and many were turned into institutions (nursing homes, schools, hotels, etc.) or torn down.

Like aristocratic households of the twelfth century, the nineteenth-century gentry's big meal of the day, called dinner, was in what we would call late afternoon, around 4 or 5 o'clock.  But whereas medieval people would have been up at dawn, maybe had a quick bite then, worked till dinner, and then relaxed for a short period before going to bed (with or without an additional quick bite of supper), Austen's gentry liked to stay up late.  (See more here on medieval meals and meal-times.)

The nineteenth-century gentry breakfasted at 9 or 10, then had their "morning," which lasted until dinner time (ever wonder why a performance at 1 o'clock is called a matinée?).  After dinner there were many more hours of socializing, playing music, and the like, broken at some point by tea.  The after dinner period was called evening.  This is when one had parties and dancing, and many stayed up until midnight.  A party would be expected to include a light supper.

The gentry provided a lot of military leaders for England, as the medieval aristocracy had defined themselves militarily, but wars were far away, and most young men did not take part in military exercises.  There were still knights, or at least men called Sir, but unlike medieval knights they never charged into combat with long lances and swords at the ready; nineteenth-century knighthood was primarily a matter of status.

The gentry still learned to fence, and an insult might end in a challenge to a duel.  Duels were officially illegal but happened anyway, men without shields or armor fencing with foils (light weight swords) until one yielded or was killed or at least injured.  A medieval challenge to single combat in contrast would have required horses, lances, armor, shields, and serious swords, and nobody would have considered it illegal.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

For more about life of the aristocracy, fighting, knights, and so much more, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Sixth-Century Disasters

There have been plenty of low points in European history (think, the first half of the twentieth century).  But one of the definite low points was the sixth century.

As I have discussed previously, one cannot really speak of a “fall” of the Roman Empire.  But the empire certainly lost its power and authority, with economic slowdown evident from the third century on, and an end to expansion and even winning by the fourth and fifth. The disasters of the sixth century broke down the empire's urban structure and communication networks.  The rise of Islam in the seventh century, leading to major loss of Roman territory in North Africa and the Middle East, pretty much finished it off.

Historians and scientists have identified two especially bad years in the sixth century, the volcano of 536 and the plague of 542.  There have been plenty of studies, based on pollen deposits and tree rings, showing a chilling of Europe’s climate in the first half of the sixth century, and now scientists studying particulate matter deposited in glaciers in the Swiss Alps have been able to pinpoint a volcano in 536 that sent so much dust and debris into the air that sunlight was blocked, and there were several “years without a summer.”  Debris in the glaciers indicates the volcano was in Iceland, then uninhabited (the Vikings came later).

(For those who think hopefully that maybe we can stop global warming with a volcano, be careful what you wish for.)

As a result of the volcano, there were massive crop failures and famines.  Urban culture disintegrated, because cities can’t survive without food imports, which means the countryside has to be producing a surplus, which it wasn’t.  Then the weakened population (the parts that had survived so far) was hit six years later by an outbreak of the bubonic plague (Black Death).  It reached Europe from Byzantium (and eventually central Asia).  Justinian was emperor then (headquartered in Constantinople, although he sometimes visited western Europe), and the devastating plague was sometimes referred to as “Justinian’s flea.”

Having killed off a sizeable chunk of the population (maybe half?), the Black Death did not return to Europe for 800 years, when the plague returned, marking both economic collapse and the beginning of the Renaissance.

Somehow sixth-century Europe staggered on after its back-to-back disasters, although with a much smaller population and seriously disrupted trade and communication.  Long-distance luxury trade continued, even if at a reduced level.  Once the volcano settled down it began to be possible to grow crops reliably again.  The economic collapse began to turn around in the first half of the seventh century, after a hundred years or so of very hard times.  One of the markers of the improved economy, also found in the Swiss glaciers, is particles of lead.  Lead is used in smelting silver, in making coins, a clear indication that trade within Europe had picked up, though the urban economy did not fully recover until the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Medieval Recipes

It's Thanksgiving time in the US, the time when people who don't cook much for most of the year feel compelled to pull out the old recipe cards and the roast pan.  You can certainly eat Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant, but this is considered second best.  It's a home event.

The old recipe cards often include things no one would be caught dead eating the rest of the year, like canned green beans mixed with canned mushroom soup and topped with canned onion rings, or canned sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows.  Both of these are baked, but unfortunately not enough to reduce them to a cinder.

But I digress.  Medieval homemakers for the most part didn't have cookbooks and stained recipe cards for the excellent reason that most of them couldn't read.  (They also didn't have turkeys, but that's a separate story.)  Meals were normally cooked at home, because restaurants weren't an option.  Bread and beer could be bought, but villages wouldn't have other sources of prepared foods.  The inns in the cities (and occasionally at crossroads) catered to travelers for the most part, not the locals.  So we know what medieval people ate but not necessarily how it was prepared (well, how many ways can you cook lentils and onions?).

But we do have some medieval recipes!  These were written for cooks at great aristocratic households toward the end of the Middle Ages.  For the most part they give us an insight into foods prepared for great feasts, not for everyday consumption.  But Thanksgiving is a great feast too, so that's okay.

Medieval recipes were far less exact than modern recipes.  Indeed, the idea of having exact measurements for ingredients is really only a little over a century old, having started with Fanny Farmer and her Boston School Cookbook.  Before then there was a great deal of "stir in a heaping spoonful of this or that" and "cook for an hour or so."  Medieval recipes were even more free-form.

The reason of course is that they were aimed at people who already knew how to cook and who had a pretty good idea when something was done or if it needed a little more or a lot more seasoning.  Even now, Chinese recipes, written for Chinese people, just list the ingredients, because of course you'll know what to do next.

Even when medieval recipes call for a "quart" of this liquid or a "pound" of that solid, it's hard to know if their pounds and quarts correspond to ours.  Medieval eggs, we know, were substantially smaller than ours, so you'll want to reduce their number.  So it's fun to experiment with medieval recipes, especially since it's interesting to see ingredients combined in ways that wouldn't have occurred to us, but the key term is "experiment."  Here are a couple to get you started, straight out of medieval cookbooks.

Chickpea soup (this would have been a good everyday supper)
To make eight bowlfuls, take a pound and a half of red chickpeas and wash them, drain them, and put them in the pot where they will be cooked. Add half an ounce of flour, some good oil, a little salt, about twenty crushed peppercorns and a little cinnamon.  Mix with your hands.  Then add three measures of water, along with a little sage, rosemary, and parsley root.  Boil until it is reduced to eight bowlfuls and add a little more oil.  If making for an invalid, leave out the oil and spices.

White cheese tart (this is a dessert, using sugar, which came into Europe at the end of the Middle Ages)
Take a pound and a half of good fresh cheese, chop it fine and pound it well.  Now take twelve or fifteen egg whites and mix them very well with the cheese, adding half a pound of sugar and half an ounce of white ginger.  Also add half a pound of good pork fat and some milk, as much as is needed.  Then make the pastry crust, as thin as it ought to be.  Put in the cheese mixture and bake it nicely, until the top is slightly browned.  Put a little sugar and good rose water on top.

Here are some more medieval recipes if you enjoy these.

A good source for medieval recipes is Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy, by Odile Redon, Françoise Sabban, and Silvano Serventi (University of Chicago Press, 1998).

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Shadow of the Wanderers

I've got a new paperback, and it's the special 25th edition of the novel "Shadow of the Wanderers."

 Here the link to both the ebook and paperback versions on Amazon.

It's epic fantasy, and, as you can probably tell from the cover, with a setting inspired by Norse legend.  I have however avoided the usual myths of Odin and Thor.  The single biggest inspiration was probably the Finnish "Kalevala," folk tales of great heroes and ordinary people.

The world I created is permeated with voima, meaning magic, power, the force of life.  Heaven and earth are ruled by the Wanderers, the lords of voima, but a fated end is coming for them, unless the mortals they recruit can somehow help them.

Voima is a Finnish word meaning "power"--I believe the word is part of the name of the national electric grid.  Finnish is a very different language than those derived from Old Norse (Norwegian, Swedish, Danish), but there are certain similarities in their approach to legend.  The Finns themselves will tell you their "Kalevala" is totally different from the Old Norse legends of the Elder Edda or the sagas (not to be confused with the Elder Edda), many of which sagas turn on sheep farmers killing their relatives.  But to those of us with a certain distance, we can pick and choose the elements we like.

Here's the description to whet your appetite: _____________________________________________

In the tradition of Norse legends….
Voima: Magic, strength, the force of life and renewal.
Earth and sky are ruled by the Wanderers, the lords of voima. But an upheaval is coming, a time when even the powers of the immortals are fated to end. The Wanderers enlist the help of three young mortals:
- Roric No-man's son, a royal warrior who wants to find his real father.
- Karin, a foreign princess held hostage at court.
- Valmar, the king's son and heir.
Together and separately, the three are swept into the conflict between the Wanderers and those who would overthrow them, not even sure they are on the right side. The conflict becomes a struggle between kingdoms, between the generations, between the sexes, and between the demands of love and honor. Even enemies must sometimes trust each other, as true glory is found only in this precarious mortal world, where there is only so long one can run from fate.

The book, when it first came out 25 years ago, was entitled Voima. For some reason it never sold well, perhaps because the name seemed weird and confusing, which is why I gave it a new title.  It may also not have done as well as Baen (my publisher then) was hoping because it's not like Yurt.

I've got a loyal band of Yurt fans, who love A Bad Spell in Yurt and all its sequels (I love you too, guys!), and this is definitely different.  Some have gone so far as to say they hate voima and all its ways.  Who knows why?  Everyone has their own personal taste.  This one is definitely grimmer, it's told in third-person rather than first-person, and it's set in a pagan universe rather than a Christian one.  It's also not as funny (but Yurt has very serious bits!).

On the other hand, it is the perfect book for the legions of George RR Martin fans who love A Game of Thrones and all its sequels but wish that George would let even the occasional main character survive and prosper.  My book wraps up its plot in one volume, rather than 7 or 8 or ??.  It came out originally two years before A Game of Thrones, and I've sometimes wondered if George had read it and gotten some ideas from it.  ("Mom!  Make him stop copying me!")  It also manages to pull out a (more or less) happy ending, though probably not what the reader expected.

(I also sometimes wonder if JK Rowling got her idea of a wizards' school from me, given that Yurt with its wizards' school first appeared four years before Harry Potter, but there's no point in getting worked up by it, except for wishing that her fans would also read my books.)

At any rate, I hope you read and enjoy if you haven't read this book already.  And if you like it, leave a review!  Thank you!

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

Friday, November 9, 2018

Borders and Boundaries

We like borders and boundaries.  Our maps clearly show where one country, one state, one county, one city starts or stops.  As you drive along, you will see see signs welcoming you to this state or this township.  It's very exciting to have one's picture taken taken where the four states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico all meet.

Medieval people were much less exact about borders, though they certainly believed in them.  The monks of Pontigny, a Cistercian house, noted that if they stood on a bridge near their monastery they would be at the intersection of the bishoprics of Auxerre, Sens, and Troyes.  They found this very significant (for one thing, if one bishop was giving them a hard time they could go to another).

Different monasteries, always in competition with each other, also liked to have the borders between their lands distinguished.  The two Burgundian monasteries of Flavigny and St.-Seine erected a boundary stone, showing Saint Peter (Flavigny's patron) pointing one way, saying his lands were over there, while Saint Sequanus (for whom St.-Seine was named) pointed the other way, to his lands.

But without modern surveying methods, much less GPS, it was hard to be exact.  Rivers always made good boundary markers--the reason that the monks of Pontigny had to stand on a bridge to do the "photo of us standing in three dioceses" thing (not really a photo of course) was because rivers marked diocesan boundaries.  The Rhine was and is the boundary between France and Germany (although the "middle kingdom" of Lotharingia, dating to the ninth century, messes things up, being under German control more often than not over the centuries).  And what did it mean when a river changed course?

It got even more complicated when it came to individual people's lands.  There were no title deeds that described borders such as we have (and even modern title deeds often will say something unhelpful like, "Starting from the stump of an old chestnut tree and proceeding in a northerly direction for about 15 rods, more or less...")

Essentially borders relied on human memory.  If a medieval landowner decided to give a specific field to a monastery, he might describe the borders, but unless there was some obvious physical border, like a road, the borders were described using terms like, "On the west it borders the monastery's fields, on the north Erwulf's fields, on the east my own fields..." etc.  Unless human memory could provide where Erwulf's lands were, much less the donor's, such a description was useless.

If a dispute arose over boundaries, the only reliable method was to get people together who might remember where they had always been and have them swear to their memories.  Even great lords and monasteries would recruit peasants for this purpose (the people who were closest to the land in question), an example of peasant agency.

Peasants were used to remembering borders.  Once the mould-board plow was adopted, the heavy plow that was far more efficient even if a lot more expensive than the old scratch-plow, peasants tended to share both in its cost and in its use.  "Okay, this furrow is mine, but the next one is Ulric's, the next one Rikard's," etc.  Peasants wouldn't write this down--for one thing, almost all were illiterate.  But they remembered.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Thursday, November 1, 2018

It's castle time

Europe is scattered with ruined castles.  In the Middle Ages, there were a lot more (a great many have been disassembled or have just disintegrated), and they weren't in ruins.  Medieval aristocrats loved to build castles.  They first appeared around the year 1000 (after 1066 in England) and continued throughout the Middle Ages, indeed up to the seventeenth century in some areas (like Scotland), but lost much of their military significance after the development of gunpowder in the late Middle Ages.

This is Fouchard castle, in Auvergne, in pretty good shape now, as all castles would have been then.

Building a castle was not trivial.  They were solid stone, meaning built from literally millions of stones.  Initially they were made from field stones, ones just picked up, but during the twelfth century there was increased interest in quarried stones, square and smooth.  But even if the inner and outer surfaces of the wall were quarried stone, the space in between was filled with rubble, small stones and gravel.

Below is an eleventh-century castle wall (Brancion castle, Burgundy) built of field stone, with a thirteenth-century tower of quarried stone at the end--castles were constantly being updated.  Squared stones were also used around the window.

The effort of building a castle is underscored by the fact that a lot of them were built in essentially inaccessible spots.  Aristocrats would see a steep cliff, a high peak, even a volcanic cone, and cry, "It's castle time!"  This meant that water was often a serious issue, because they had to collect rain water and/or carry it up an extremely steep hill.

For example, here is a tower of the castle of Saint Ulrich, in Alsace, perched on a rock on a mountaintop--you can see open air dropping away beyond.  It's built of quarried stone that would have been carried up the mountain on mules.

Here's the view from the tower, to give you a sense of how high up it is.

Although castles were highly defensible, in practice many were not attacked for years, even generations.  They made their own quiet statement, "Don't even think about it."  And of course no aristocrat would have been able to hold his head up if he was not lord of a powerful castle.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Witch and her Daughter

I've got a new paperback!

It's an omnibus edition of the fourth and fifth books in the Yurt series, The Witch and the Cathedral and Daughter of Magic.  It's for sale on Amazon (link here) and coming soon to other bookstores.  (It's also available as an ebook, offered through Amazon at a discount price compared to buying the two novels separately.)

It's a companion volume to My First Kingdom, which was an omnibus of the first three Yurt novels.  These five books were originally all published by Baen as mass-market (small size) paperbacks twenty-five years ago, and if you bought them then they're probably falling apart by now.  These are trade (large size) paperbacks on sturdier paper.

If of course you've never read any of the Yurt books, what are you waiting for?  A Bad Spell in Yurt (the first one) can also be bought as a free-standing trade paperback or as an ebook on Amazon and all other major ebook platforms.  All five of these books are available both as ebooks and audiobooks.

And then there's the series' boffo finale, Is This Apocalypse Necessary? available both as its own trade paperback or as an ebook, and Third Time's a Charm, a collection of three novellas (short novels) that take place in between the main books (available ditto).

So refresh your shelves with new editions, or get started on your holiday shopping!  (If a girl can't promote her own books, whose books can she promote?)

The two novels in The Witch and Her Daughter are all about female magic-workers, confounding (or confusing) the male wizards, especially the wizardly narrator.  The books are surprisingly intense.  When I was formatting the paperback, I had to keep stopping to take a breath.  On the other hand, there are also some very funny parts, like the comment, "I've noticed this before. The Earth never opens up and swallows you when you need it to."

Here's the opening to give you a taste:


That morning I thought my main problem was the three drunk newts.  But that was before I got the telephone call from the chaplain.  He was not in fact the chaplain any more, but then a minute ago the newts had been three drunk students.

I had been sitting in on Zahlfast's class at the wizards' school.  He paused in his description of the basic transformation spell to explain the dangers inherent in its use.  Any magic spell, even illusions, can have repercussions far beyond the expected, and advanced spells if not done properly can lead to loss of identity or even life.

The three drunk wizardry students, sitting together and laughing quietly in the back, had apparently decided to test for themselves what these dangers might be.

We dived for the newts before they had a chance to disappear into cracks in the floor.  "Hold onto those two, Daimbert," said Zahlfast.  "I'll start on this one."

The newts wiggled in my hands as I tried to hold their smooth bodies gently.  The loss of a tail or a leg as a newt would mean permanent damage to the student as a human, and if they escaped as newts we might never be able to return them to themselves.  They were quite attractive, light green with bright red spots, but their tiny newt eyes looked up at me with human fear.

The rest of the class had retreated to the back of the room.  Zahlfast glared at them.  "What are you waiting for?  This is all the demonstration you'll get today."  The students left in some confusion, and he returned to his spell.

It is harder to undo someone else's spell than one of your own.  As I started on one of the newts I was holding, Zahlfast finished with his, and suddenly a student stood before him, or rather slumped.  He was slightly green, but I think that was from feeling ill rather than the after-effects of being a newt.
I finished with mine and handed the third to Zahlfast.  "How can they be drunk so early in the day?  I didn't think the taverns down in the City were even open yet."

Zahlfast spoke the final words in the Hidden Language to break the spell.  "Bottles in their rooms," he said as the last dazed and frightened newt became a dazed and frightened wizardry student.

"We never had bottles in our rooms when I was a student here," I said self-righteously.

Zahlfast looked at me sideways, a smile twitching the corner of his mouth.  "As I recall, you had plenty of trouble at the transformations practical exam, even perfectly sober."

I preferred not to recall all my embarrassment with those frogs, even twenty years afterwards, so I loftily ignored this comment.  I had, after all, become a perfectly competent wizard in the meantime—or at least had managed to persuade the wizards' school of my abilities enough that they had invited me back for a few months as an outside lecturer.

"Now," said Zahlfast to the students.  "Are you sober enough to listen to reason?"

"Spill a spell, spoil a spell," blurted one and collapsed on his face.  I was interested to see that they still excused themselves for magical mixups with the same catch-phrase we had used years ago.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

Monday, October 15, 2018

Mould-board plow

I've talked before about growing crops in the Middle Ages.  But today I want to discuss one particular medieval invention that made it all possible, the mould-board plow.  (American farmers today call it the moldboard plow.  Historians stick with mould-board.  Our students get confused enough as it is without thinking this has something to do with that funny orange stuff you find when you forgot the cottage cheese in the back of the refrigerator.)

Let's start with plowing.  If you've driven through the countryside much you've doubtless seen farmers plowing and wondered vaguely what they were doing.  They were preparing the soil to grow crops, loosening it up, creating crevices in which seeds could lodge and sprout, turning it over so that whatever had been growing there before (say, weeds or grass) would be killed and turned under to rot and fertilize the soil.

Plows have been around as long as agriculture.  For millennia the plow was a basic pointed stick with handles.  The pointy part, the plow-share as it is called, was if possible made of metal.  (Think of the Old Testament hope for a better time, when people will "beat their swords into plow-shares.")  It could be pulled by an ox, a donkey, or even a person in a pinch, with another person walking behind to guide it.

This plow (the Romans called it an aratum, and it's the root of our word "arable," meaning land that can be cultivated) was not very efficient, because fields had to be cross-plowed.  That is, the plow-share would slice the soil, but you had to plow both end-to-end of a field and side-to-side to get the soil properly turned over.  It was however lightweight and cheap.

Medieval people (eleventh-twelfth century) came up with something much better, the mould-board plow, pictured below.

It was called this because it had a mould-board, a curved piece of wood or metal right behind the sharp plow-share.  This would turn the soil over as it was sliced into.  (The word is "mould," meaning soil or earth, not "mold.")  In the medieval image above, it's the dark, curved part of the plow, seen edge-on and hence somewhat cryptic looking (keep reading).

A mould-board plow was called a carruca in medieval Latin, related to "cart," because it was heavy enough that it normally needed wheels.  It also could be pulled a lot easier by a strong animal like an ox or two than by a donkey.

It was also more expensive (because of all the metal), so a lot of peasant families ended up having to club together.  But it was much more efficient, because you didn't have to cross-plow, meaning you could plow twice as many fields (more or less) in the same amount of time, leading to more food being grown.  The heavy, moist soils that could be plowed with the carruca were also generally richer, better for growing crops.  On the other hand, it was so effective at digging up heavy, moist soil that it was never adopted for thin, light soils, such as much of the land around the Mediterranean or on hilltops, where it would be unnecessarily cumbersome and the danger was drying out the soil.

The basic medieval design for a mould-board plow lives on.  Today they are pulled by tractors, not oxen, and often they will have multiple sets of cutter (plow-share) and mould-board side by side.  But if you look at the modern plow pictured below, you will see that the basic design is the same as the twelfth-century plow, even though there's a cutting wheel instead of a pointy plow-share.  There is still a plow-share, but it's now attached to the bottom of the mould-board (you can see it in the left-most of the three mould-boards pictured below), which is mounted horizontally rather than vertically (as in the medieval plow pictured above).  And of course there are three sets of cutters and mould-boards next to each other in this modern plow.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The twelfth century and the nineteenth

In many ways life for most people continued remarkably unchanged from the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century.  Sure, there was now a whole New World full of new foods (corn, potatoes, tomatoes, turkeys, chocolate...), and books were printed rather than handwritten, and there was gunpowder, and more organized institutions meant more people got a basic education and were taxed more regularly, and the cities were bigger, and more laws got written down.

But in 1800 the majority of Europe's population still lived in country villages and farmed, using human power and animal power rather than mechanical power.  If they wanted to go somewhere, they went on foot or horseback, and the roads were unmarked and a muddy mess.  They heated and cooked with fire, made their own clothes, used latrines, and sent messages over long distances by having someone travel with the message.

Even though we now live in an age of rapid technological change (the web is only about 25 years old, and a generation ago no one had cell phones, much less apps), in many ways the nineteenth century has us all beat for rapid technological change.

The things we take for granted, the things that separate "civilized" life from "third world" in our thinking, are electricity, telephones, indoor plumbing with running water, and furnaces/AC, plus being able to get quickly down the road.  We also take for granted factory-made goods, from clothing to cell phones to cars.  These are all nineteenth-century inventions.  Before trains, before all the rest of it, the daily life of an ordinary person at the beginning of the nineteenth century would have been a lot like life in the Middle Ages.

But the twelfth century was also a great age of invention.  Architects were trying new and exciting techniques to build churches taller and lighter than they'd ever been built before.  Windmills and watermills revolutionized the grinding of grain and hence the ease of making bread, as well as performing other useful mechanical chores.  Cities and commerce grew rapidly.  Metallurgy was greatly improved, leading to better tools, weapons, and cook pots.  Advances in plowing and crop rotation increased agricultural yields.

But you'd still rather live in the nineteenth century than the twelfth, you say.  Or would you?  The twelfth century had a functional society.  It can't have been comfortable by our standards, and child mortality was high, and the food was awfully bland, and everyone probably smelled of wood smoke.  But there were support systems and a general knowledge of how things were supposed to work.

The problem with the nineteenth century is that it disrupted everything.  Monoculture agriculture, supposedly more efficient, led to such disasters as the great Irish famine.  There were multiple revolutions and the origins of communism as reactions to a perception that everything was getting much worse very fast.  The growth of cities and factories were a big part of it.  One can talk on an elevated level about the separation of the worker from the product of his work, but it was more simple than that.

People were crowded into cities with a level of unsanitary crowding that never would have been allowed in a medieval village.  (New York City had a problem with dead horses piling up in alleyways.)  People worked not out of the home but in the factory, where 16 hour days were common and the thought of safety devices on the machinery was laughable (to management).  Pollution filled the air and the rivers, again at a level that medieval people would never have allowed.

And I would think that for those who did not have running water or furnaces or electricity, when those around one did, life would really have been grim.  (I'm talking here about Europe--don't even get me started on the situation for slaves in the American antebellum south.)

The well to do did just fine in the nineteenth century, but I've got to think that for the mass of the population, those whose ancestors had been on the farm just a generation or two earlier, it must have been awful.  Cities promised a chance to get ahead, but most weren't able to get ahead, and it was too late to go back.

So would I rather live in the twelfth century?  Actually I prefer the twenty-first, but that's just me.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Monday, October 1, 2018

Reform of the Church

Reform has been part of Christianity since the beginning.  Although one usually associates the word "reform" with the Protestant Reformation, in fact there had been numerous waves of reform in the preceding fifteen centuries.

The "reformed" branch of modern Judaism is made up of people fitting in with their society, keeping their traditions and holy days but not getting hung up on things like bacon or head coverings or not walking too far on the Sabbath.  However, in Christianity "reformed" always meant the opposite, more strict.

Christianity was always based on radical calls for personal reform, for separating oneself from the mundane concerns of the world and becoming a better, more spiritual person.  This is hard.  Repeatedly over the centuries, people within the church decided that standards were slipping, that it was getting too easy to be a "Christian on Sunday," and that changes were needed in the institution to bring people back to the path to perfection.

Monasticism, for example, began in the third century when Saint Anthony decided that proper observance of Christianity demanded that he go out in the desert and become a hermit.  As the Roman Empire became thoroughly Christianized, bishops worried that the church was becoming too much a part of everyday life, rather than something to transform people's lives.  They urged priests to stop what they saw as pagan practices, like wearing amulets, consulting auguries, or exchanging gifts on January 1.

During the reign of Charlemagne, a series of reforming councils (as they were called) sought to create a more accurate version of the Bible, stressed that priests had to be well educated, and ordered monks to follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, to make sure they had not become lax.

The eleventh and twelfth centuries were a great age of religious reform.  Reformers tried to stop laymen interfering in the affairs of the church (including choosing its leaders), a process that began with Pope Leo IX; decided that monks had to be even stricter than they had been, a movement exemplified by the Cistercians; and set out to define the sacraments.

One aspect of this reform was trying to simplify.  The eleventh and twelfth centuries were a time of economic growth and social mobility, when, in contrast, poverty became embraced as a sign of holiness.  Cistercian churches rejected the rich decorations of many twelfth-century churches, as in the example below.

The late Middle Ages had numerous heresies (such as that of the Cathars) where the heretics proclaimed that they represented the true faith, because they were stricter, more reformed, more radical than the organized church.  These were rejected, but they were part of a constant, on-going effort to make the church better, quite literally to re-form it to its original purpose.

So when Martin Luther came along in 1517, he considered himself working in a long tradition.  He had no idea he was about to split western Christendom.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Age of Faith?

The Middle Ages is often characterized as an Age of Faith.  It's not entirely clear what this term is supposed to mean, but the assumption appears to be that everyone in the Middle Ages was a devout Christian, living in some odd combination of the stereotypical view of modern evangelical Christians and the Monty Python version of the Spanish Inquisition.

But this vision is false.  By far the majority of the medieval population was at least nominally Christian, as is also the case today in the US and the UK, but this did not mean that their Christianity was anything simple, or that its church enforced certain beliefs on everyone.

To begin, for most of the Middle Ages no one really knew or cared what most of the population believed.  There were no parish churches in rural villages before the twelfth century, so although it was expected that people would come into town to have new babies baptized, church attendance was by no means universal.  Many chronicles took it for granted that the ordinary townspeople and the peasantry would mock the Church and the saints.

One twelfth-century chronicle describes a relic-tour:  the monks needed to rebuild their church and took the relics of their saint on tour, asking for donations wherever they stopped and displayed the relics.  In one town, an ugly crowd approached them, saying, "Ha, if your saint is so powerful, let's see a miracle!"  Then they all laughed.  The monks, terrified, prayed desperately, and to their own shock, as well as that of the crowd, a miracle actually happened (a person healed).

The author of this chronicle was of course trying to demonstrate the power of the saint, but he also assumed that his audience would recognize skeptical townspeople as normal.

There are still plenty of medieval churches scattered across modern Europe, far more than are required for the religious needs of a population now much bigger than the medieval population.  (This is why a number are now ruined or serving other functions, like the theater pictured above.)  But a whole lot of these churches were not set up for the ordinary population, but rather were churches where monks or canons prayed, withdrawn from the world.

If there is one aspect of the "age of faith" vision which is true, it is that far more medieval people entered the church than is the case today.  There are extremely few monasteries in the US or Europe now, but medieval Europe was full of them--and, from the twelfth century on, nunneries for women multiplied as well.  Although these churches did not serve as parish churches, pilgrims and tourists would frequently visit.  It is estimated that perhaps 10% of the male aristocratic population entered the church, even though, of course, there was no "rule," about doing so, and some families sent no sons to the church at all, while others might have everyone convert to the religious life.

The aristocrats and well-to-do merchant families who sent sons to the church produced highly-educated men (and some women) who sought to apply the logic of the ancient Greeks to their own religion.  No one at the time thought the Bible should just be read literally.  It was of course to them the word of God, and therefore it deserved special attention,  but this attention meant having to deal with the contradictions within it (especially between the Old Testament and the New) and the fact that medieval people who considered themselves good Christians were not following Jesus's explicit command to come join him preaching and wandering barefoot around the Sea of Galilee.

So the Bible could certainly be read literally in part (the Old Testament Fathers were real, Jesus's birth and miracles and resurrection were real, and so on), but other parts were to be read morally (urging good behavior), allegorically (so the love poems of the Song of Solomon became a metaphor of Christ's love for His church), or anagogically (so that events of the Old Testament that seemed to make little sense, like Abraham being told to sacrifice his son, were read as prefiguring Christian events, here God sacrificing His Son).

Thus in the supposed Age of Faith, no one worried too much about the majority of the population's rather superficial religion, and the educated leaders of the church devoted themselves to critical analysis of what they sought to believe.

Note:  The Spanish Inquisition began after the Middle Ages were over.  The only time peasant beliefs were a cause for real concern was in southern France in the aftermath of the Albigensian Crusade of the thirteenth century, when an Inquisition (not Spanish though) was begun to try to root out the heresy that had been the excuse for the Crusade.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Lost Girls and the Kobold

I've got a new audio book!

It's the audio version of the first of the Yurt novellas and is entitled "The Lost Girls and the Kobold."  It is about, big surprise, missing girls and a kobold.  Daimbert, the wizard hero, has to find the girls, figure out why and how they disappeared, and deal with the magical forces of the kobold, before rather than after generations-old legends come to horrifying life.  The narrator of the audio book is the same terrific guy who has narrated all the Yurt books so far, Eric Vincent.

It's available from Amazon, Audible, and iTunes, and if you sign up for a new Audible membership, you can get it free.  (You can also just buy it.)  Here the link on Amazon.

In my own head, of course, Daimbert, the first-person narrator, sounds like me, but Eric does a far better job of professionally narrating an audio book than I ever could.  He's now at work on "Is This Apocalypse Necessary?" the sixth and last of the main Yurt series of novels, though there are still two more Yurt novellas I'm hoping to get him to do.

The book mostly takes place in steep, rocky mountains, which is why I have mountains on the cover.  (The picture is of the real Rocky Mountains in Wyoming.  Shhh, don't tell anyone.)

Audio books are becoming more popular, something people can "read" while commuting, jogging, sweeping the floor, sitting in the same room as someone who wants to watch a football game in which you're not interested....  You can even listen for a while and read the ebook for a while, then switch back and forth.

Here's the opening, to give you a taste.


“She put on her best dress, walked out the door and up into the mountains without a word to anyone, and has not been seen since.”
“So how long ago was this?” I asked cautiously.  The woman in front of me had the worn, rangy look of someone who had worked too hard for too much of her life, but her eyes were large, dark, and compelling.  She pushed back a strand of graying hair with a hand red and rough and held my gaze with hers.
My first mistake had been agreeing to talk to her.  My second would be trying to dismiss her.
“Two days.”  She put her hands on her hips.  “A girl can go off with her young man for one day, but not for two.”
“And you expect me to find her?”  A few men with dogs, I thought, could find the girl far faster than I could.  But somehow, with her looking at me intently, I couldn’t manage to say it out loud.
“You’re a wizard, aren’t you?  What else is a Royal Wizard for?”
I could have made several answers.  A Royal Wizard is responsible for protecting his kingdom from dragons and demons.  A Royal Wizard keeps overly energetic knights from killing each other.  A Royal Wizard provides illusions to entertain the court over dinner.
And is bound by great oaths sworn on magic itself to use his powers to help others.  Some within organized wizardry might have made dismissive comments about the extent of my own powers, but I was the only Royal Wizard the kingdom of Yurt had.
“I’ll come right away, of course,” I said, doing my best not to sound resigned.  “You’ll have to show me where she disappeared.”

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

Sunday, August 26, 2018


There's an iconic scene in the '60s movie "The Graduate," where a family friend is giving career advice to a new college graduate.  "One word.  Plastic."

Plastic is not medieval.  It's a twentieth-century invention, and indeed did not become at all common until the second half of the century.  In fact, you can tell if you come across an old dump if it dates to before or after WW II by whether or not it has plastic in it.  These days, of course, plastic is a major part of what we throw away, and the oceans (and ocean birds) are full of it.  (So are we.  The average modern American has several thousand tiny plastic bits lodged here and there inside.)

The word "plastic" just meant originally something that could be molded or shaped into different shapes, which of course plastic can be, to make lots of different objects.  The term now covers all sorts of different materials, including nylon and polyester as well as the versions of plastic that get official recycle numbers on the bottle.

Plastics (polymers) are made out of petroleum.  When you think about how useful plastic is, it seems a shame that we're using petroleum as a fuel and burning it up.  It's also a shame that we don't recycle more.  But these are not what I'm talking about today.

Here I just want to discuss how different a medieval person's material possessions would have been without plastic.

Let's start with clothing.  The chances are excellent that you're wearing something with polyester or nylon in it.  Look at the label.  (Medieval clothing did not have labels.)  Medieval clothing was made of wool or linen or, by the late Middle Ages, cotton.  Let's just say permapress was not known.

Beach sandals (flip-flops) are plastic.  Medieval sandals were usually leather, maybe with a wooden sole or some incorporation of straw.

What did you drink your coffee out of?  At home probably a ceramic mug, and medieval people had ceramic mugs (though not coffee).  But if you got it as a carry-out, it may well have come in styrofoam, a form of plastic.  If you ate carry-out food, there were likely plastic utensils involved.

When you go  to the supermarket, the food comes wrapped in plastic, and you get bigger plastic bags to carry it home in.  Medieval people had cloth or leather bags to carry things, and food did not come wrapped in anything.

Many people now carry bottled water around with them, water that is encased in plastic.  Medieval people would have kept water in a stone or ceramic vessel, or in a leather skin for transportation.  They had glass bottles, but these were too valuable (and breakable) to carry around.

How about in the kitchen?  Your countertop is likely to be plastic.  The stove knobs are.  The interior of the refrigerator is.  The non-stick lining of your pans is made of polymers (plastic).  You stir as you cook with a plastic spoon or a metal spoon with a plastic handle.  Medieval pots were iron (best) or ceramic (not as good) and stirred with a wooden spoon.

Eyeglasses these days usually have plastic frames, and the lens itself is often plastic as well (as of course are contact lenses).  Medieval eyeglasses  had metal frames and glass lenses.

Many a modern house has vinyl siding.  Medieval houses were wood or stone or plaster (usually a combination of all of these).  The plaster often had "natural" things like used straw from the stable mixed in.

Once you become aware of it, it's shocking how many things you touch on a daily basis are made of a material that went from very rare to ubiquitous in the last seventy-five years:  the computer, the car's dashboard and steering wheel and upholstery, the baby's chew toy, bottles of water, stockings, phones, indoor-outdoor rugs, credit cards, camping equipment, picnic plates....  The list goes on.

These days people often want to get plastic out of their lives--dress in natural linen or cotton, only leather for shoes, house sided in cedar rather than vinyl, counter-tops of wood or stone or metal, metal water bottles, bring your own ceramic mug for coffee, ask for paper bags at the supermarket or bring your own cloth bag.  They are fighting an uphill fight against a material culture that medieval people would have thought was great.

 © C. Dale Brittain 2018

For more on what people used during the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Doing History

High school students are often frustrated when their history teacher makes them memorize boring names and dates.  College students are often frustrated when their history professor doesn't want to talk about what they consider the fascinating topic of how many caissons each side had in the Civil War and how their wheels were attached.

So what's going on?  How does one do history, and why do academic historians, including graduate students, love it so much even though their version has names and dates and a general shortage of caissons?

Okay, let's start with the basic fact that History is the study and understanding of the past, not the past itself.  And no, this doesn't mean there is no Truth, or that everyone's interpretation is just as good.  It means that we can't "know" the past the way we know the present, because we weren't there.  And even if we're alive during events doesn't mean we are conscious of them.  Our own personal lives tend to crowd out our attention to even world-shaking events.  It's a lot easier to tell what was important a while after it's happened.

There are an awful lot of events that have taken place just in the 100,000 years or so that there have been the two-legged critters we'd call humans wandering around, and as the human population grows (we're up to about 7 billion) so do the numbers of events.

Of course no one can keep track of them all.  A big chunk of the historian's task is just figuring out what happened in what order.  (It's not like there's some magic recording device at the North Pole that writes them all down.)  Then historians have to figure out which events are important and worth remembering.

Here different people have different ideas.  Political history, the actions and decisions of powerful leaders, the "kings and battles" of your high school text, is one version of History.  Even people who don't do political history have to know at least some of it, the framework on which other events are placed.

Other kinds of history have been with us for a long time, including intellectual history, that is the history of ideas, and religious history or church history.  People don't just come up with ideas, about the nature of the cosmos or the way that Christian salvation works, out of thin air.  They are influenced by other thinkers and in turn influence others, and intellectual and religious history follows their ideas.

More recently, social history has become the dominant form of academic history, that is the study of people in groups.  Social history can focus on anything from family structure to what people ate to the position of women to the experience of poverty to material goods like houses or clothes.  The history of women especially has been a major growth area.  More recently, many historians have started looking more closely at the relationship between humans and their environment, whether geographic factors or such things as trees or climate.

Some people, generally amateur historians, will focus right in on something very narrow, like the caissons, or the names of the original eighteenth-century settlers in a particular village.  Academic historians call this "buff" history.  There's actually nothing wrong with it, and buffs may know more about their narrow topic than anyone on the planet, but academic historians want context.  They want (for example) to know how the caissons were used and how they were funded and the extent to which they did (or didn't) affect the outcome of the Civil War.  Or they want to know where the people came from before founding the village, and whether their experience was similar to or different from those at other villages.

Historians generally base their research on written sources, though they may also add in findings from archaeology or even tree rings.  This means that there isn't a whole lot of history known from more than about 3000 years ago.

The most important written sources, the "primary" sources as they are called, were those written down at the time events took place, by people who were there.  Historians work out their interpretations of what happened and what it means based on reading and analyzing the primary sources.  Works written by these historians are called "secondary" sources.  One can learn a lot from reading secondary sources, but until you get into the primary material, you aren't really a historian.

History doesn't stand still.  Historians are always coming up with new questions to ask (and as suggested above, new groups to ask them about--historians didn't use to be interested in women, for example).  New primary sources may be discovered.  New, better interpretations may replace the old.  There is thus a "history of history," or historiography (though if you're not a graduate student, you don't have to worry about it--yet).

It wouldn't be worth being a historian if everything were already known and understood.  Any academic historian writing an article or book is making an argument, either saying, "Here's an important thing no one else has written about," or else, "Others have written about this, but they are all wrong except for me, and I'll show you why."  That's okay.  History advances with arguments.  After all, so does science.

Fundamentally, History is about people and what they thought and did and why they thought doing so was important.  The most important question is not "What happened?" but rather "What did people at the time think it meant?"  That's why it's so interesting.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Scottish castles

Recently I posted about medieval Scotland.  Today I would like to continue the Scottish motif by discussing some Scottish castles.

On the Continent the era of defensible castles was mostly over in the fifteenth century due to the development of gunpowder and cannons (and many a castle was replaced with an elegant château).  But in Scotland castles continued to be used for their original military purpose until the seventeenth century.  Sure, they were shot at with cannons, but they shot back.

In some cases this was because the castles were so well positioned for defense that it was almost too hard even to try to attack them.  An example is Dunnottar Castle, perched high above the North Sea.

(See more here on inaccessible castle sites.)

The castle of Dunnottar is on a headland reachable only by a narrow isthmus.  One has to climb a long way down, almost to sea level (160 steps, we counted), climb partway up the headland, and go into a tunnel, with a few holes in the ceiling where things can be dropped on you, before finally emerging in the castle.

During wars between England and Scotland (the Scots call these wars of independence) the so-called "Honours" of Scotland (the official sword, sceptre, and crown used in the coronation of a Scottish king) were hidden at Donnottar.  When it looked like the English would get in (the castle's problem is a shortage of fresh water, making it harder to resist a siege) the Honours were let down the cliff to the sea and smuggled away, being hidden, buried, in a graveyard until things were safe again.

Later, in a very dark chapter in the castle's history, "covenanters" (a group of people opposing the Church of England) were held prison there, packed in so tight they had to stand, but no one wanted to sit down anyway, because there were no "facilities" and the prisoners were standing in their own filth.  Christianity has been used as an excuse to do horrible things to other people, which seems (shall we say) misguided, given that the religion is based on a pacifist's preachings about love.   Today the castle is clean and wind-swept, with lots of gulls and fulmars and even puffins.

The castle of Urquhart, on Loch Ness, has both a citadel (on the right), probably an Iron Age hill fort in origin and defended throughout the Middle Ages, and the castle proper (on the left).  During the seventeenth century, the defenders held out against the Jacobites (let's just say Scottish history is complicated) because the Jacobites had failed to bring cannons with them.

But they promised to come back Very Soon, better equipped.  The defenders, not wanting the Jacobites to take the castle and hold it against them, blew up the gatehouse, making the castle far less defensible, and fled.  If you look closely, you will see the gatehouse (just past the bridge) is a slightly different color than the rest of the castle, because it has had to be patched back up so tourists can visit.

Children (and me!) love running around castles, but they were not built as happy, fairy-tale places.

 © C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Paganism to Christianity

Europe was Christianized starting in the second century, and by the fourth century Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire.  So why does one often see references to the Middle Ages as semi-pagan?

Part of it of course is an unwillingness to see anything beyond one's own version of Christianity as "real" religion.  Protestants in the past were especially prone to do this, announcing that since modern Catholicism considers itself the unique heir to medieval Christianity (spoiler alert, it isn't), and since (according to these Protestants) Catholicism is Wrong (and probably superstitious to boot), then the label of Paganism can be blithely applied.  I kind of hope medievalists these days have gotten over this.

Another issue is that a lot of medieval holy sites had been holy sites long before Christian missionaries showed up.  Scholars have tended to assume that either the ignorant peasantry didn't know the difference between one version of religion and another, or else the manipulative priests tricked their new flocks by letting them carry on with their pagan practices.

But this doesn't always work.  Some springs, like the sources of the Seine, were clearly holy springs before the Romans even reached Gaul, because wooden votive offerings have been found in them, as seen below, but the springs acquired no Christian cult.  (The sources of the Seine, now owned by the city of Paris, instead now have a nineteenth-century grotto and statue.)

In other cases, springs or wells became holy only many centuries after paganism had died out, so it would be difficult to claim that a holy well was a pagan survival that had lurked undetected for 700 years.  For example, a monastery near Angoulême, in southwestern France, announced in the twelfth century that it had discovered the relics of Mary Magdalene in its well, and for a brief time pilgrims came to drink the well's waters.  But the well had never been holy before, and it soon stopped being so again.  (The monastery of Vézelay in Burgundy, well known for having the relics of Mary Magdalene, loftily ignored what the monks there would have considered nothing but a pathetic fraud.)

And a place can continue to be holy with changes in official religion without either ignorant peasants or manipulative priests.  The great cathedral of St. Andrew's, in Scotland, was destroyed during the Protestant Reformation, as the local populace became Presbyterian and decided they didn't want what they considered nasty Catholic magnificence.

But as seen below, they still needed a place to bury their dead, so the land next to the cathedral ruins, even inside what had once been the (now roofless) cathedral, became a cemetery, used until the early twentieth century.  Even though nobody was a closet Catholic, and even though their ministers weren't trying to trick them, an old church just had the kind of atmosphere that seemed appropriately holy.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Medieval Scotland

Medieval Scotland doesn't get a lot of scholarly attention, outside the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and St. Andrews.  For that matter, a lot of Americans assume that Scotland is "in" England, which it certainly is not (though England, Scotland, and Wales are all located on the island of Great Britain).  Rather, England and Scotland, along with Wales and Northern Ireland, are the United Kingdom, four different kingdoms that all share one monarch (currently Queen Elizabeth II).

From the Scottish point of view, Scotland absorbed England and the rest, rather than the other way around, because James VI (son of Mary Queen of Scots) was already king of Scotland when he was asked to come be king of England as well (as James I).  The kingdoms have been united (more or less) ever since.

But this was in the seventeenth century.  Before then, Scotland was its own country.

In early days, when the Romans were in Britain, what is now Scotland was full of people the Romans called Picts ("painted" people).  They were considered scary and dangerous, which is part of the reason Hadrian's Wall, some 80 miles long, was built across Great Britain, a little south of the current English-Scottish border.  The Romans traded with the Picts and even went up there occasionally, but essentially civilization was assumed to stop at the wall.

There was a great deal of moving around once the Romans pulled out, and people from what is now Ireland, called Scots, moved into the western part of what we call Scotland.  Great battles were joined between Scots and Picts, commemorated in Pictish sculptured stones, though it's hard to say who is who in the carvings.

The whole area became Christianized, in many areas faster than did Anglo-Saxon England (remember, the Christian Romans pulled out of Britain and the pagan Angles and Saxons showed up at about the same time).

Eventually Picts and Scots united in one kingdom, further complicated by the advent of Vikings, who settled in the area and intermarried with the locals.  The MacDonalds, lords of the western Isles, were considered half Irish and half Viking and feared (or celebrated, depending on your point of view).

The thirteenth through fifteenth centuries were marked by repeated wars with England, which kept on trying to invade and take over, but the Scots kept winning.  Robert the Bruce and William Wallace are still celebrated as great heroes in these struggles for independence.  (See more here on Scottish castles.)

By the eighteenth century, when England and Scotland had long stopped fighting each other (okay, there were still Jacobites, descendants of James I/VI who thought they should be king after England had gone in a different direction, but let's stay away from that for now), the Scots were considered sort of dirty and crude.

But hah!  They were able to reinvent themselves in the nineteenth century as full of wholesome natural country virtue, when more industrialized areas were starting to think that sophisticated cities and pollution weren't as good they had been supposed to be.  (The Swiss did the same thing at the same time.)

This "invention of tradition" as it is called created a semi-legendary past for Scotland, including the idea that every clan had (and had always had!) its own distinctive tartan and that bagpipes and kilts were uniquely Scottish.  Everybody needs symbols of national unity.

 © C. Dale Brittain 2018

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