Monday, June 25, 2018

Book covers

There's an old saying, "You can't tell a book by its cover."  What it means of course is that what something looks like on the surface is not necessarily an indication of what it's really like.

However, when it comes to indie publishing, this isn't really true.

There are something like 7 million ebooks for sale on Amazon, at least half of them written by independent authors.  It's going to be hard to find the book the reader might find most interesting in all those books.  This is where the cover comes in.

A cover is an ad for the book.  It should catch the reader's eye and give a sense of what the book is about.  A look at the cover of my book, "The Starlight Raven," will indicate at a glance that it is teen fantasy.

You may not even have thought about it, but if you go to a regular (physical) bookstore and look around, you will see that the most elaborate, almost-photographic-realism paintings are the covers for fantasy, that horror covers tend toward red and black, that SF has planets and/or spaceships (and rather angular lettering), that mainstream fiction (stories set in the modern world) often show part of a person but not their face, romance has people embracing (or at least standing close), and so on.  (Medieval romance, like my "Sign of the Rose," needs a castle too.)

Non-fiction often is illustrated with a photo, as is my medieval social history book, "Positively Medieval" (see below). Even the font for the title varies with genre.

So a cover doesn't really illustrate the story as much as give you an idea of it.  Its purpose in life is to look intriguing enough that someone who likes that particular genre will read the description (blurb).  (This is what is on the back of a paperback.)  If the description is good, with luck the reader will read the first few pages, whose purpose is to make the reader buy.

But how about physical (print) books?  They need a cover too.  The cover on a paperback wraps all the way around, so if it is laid out flat the back cover is on the left, the front cover is on the right, and there's a strip in between where the spine goes (with title).  You may not even have thought about it.

One of the challenges for indie authors is getting good covers.  You can make your own covers--I made the "Positively Medieval" cover from my own photograph.  But with the explosion in indie ebook publishing, there has also been an explosion in services for the indie author, including providing covers.  My "Starlight Raven" cover is an original painting by Dane of eBookLaunch.  My "Sign of the Rose" cover is from SelfPubBookCovers, where graphic artists with some extra time on their hands create covers that they think would be interesting, using stock photos combined in interesting ways, and authors look through the (extensive) collection to find one that they think would work for their book.  Each of these is sold to someone only once.

Amazon has their own "cover creator" for people who are both unartistic and cheap, where, for free, indie authors can pick an image out of Amazon's collection and put their  own name and title on it.  The problem here is that in a particular genre you may see the same image used again and again for different books.  Better try for something unique.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Science of the Human Past

Most medievalists (including me) rely heavily on the written record.  That is, we spend a lot of time in archives, reading old parchments (medieval parchment has a faint but distinctive smell that makes a person happy), or in the library, reading documents and chronicles that have been printed in the last two centuries.

This is coupled with looking at objects created during the Middle Ages that still exist, whether castles, churches, or beautifully decorated Bibles.  I myself feel that I have a much better sense of what life in a castle would have been like from climbing around a lot of castle ruins.

Historians have not tended to look a lot at biology or information technology.  But now a group at Harvard, called the Science of the Human Past, is trying to integrate the hard sciences into medieval history.  They use geology, archaeology, dendochronology (the study of tree rings), and the like to give a broader sense of the world in which medieval people lived.  They have been able to find out quite a lot from ice cores, taken from Europe's glaciers.

For example, they have recently been able to determine that ash from Iceland's volcanoes reached as far as the Alps during the Middle Ages (where they froze into the glaciers), which means that we have a better sense of really how big were what were described as "big eruptions" at the same time.

By examining air-borne seeds which were frozen into glaciers, they have been able to trace the spread of agricultural practices--for example, being able to tell when woods were replaced by open fields, and which crops were most common.  Similarly, they have been able to look at particle pollutants, for a better sense of what the air quality was like around a medieval city.

One of their early conclusions is that one of the many disasters that marked late Antiquity (fifth through seventh centuries) was crop failure, caused by several years in which volcanic eruptions around the world meant much less sunlight making it to earth, and hence much less plant growth.  The "fall of the Roman Empire" (on which see more here) can be blamed on volcanoes rather than Germans!

The Harvard group is using modern computer technology to integrate the many maps of Roman and medieval Europe, including such things as the locations of churches or pagan temples, trading centers,  roads, and the like.  This makes possible things like determining how long it would take people who lived in a certain place to get to a harbor, and similar findings.

The group has also been doing quite a lot with DNA.  With modern gene sequencing (think about how easy it is now to send in and find out if you have English ancestors), they are hoping to be able to trace migrations across medieval Europe, studying the DNA that can still be found in old bones.

The group is showing that historians can benefit from incorporating other approaches into the study of the past, both to give more context to something we already know from the written record and to help fill in some gaps for information where there is no written record (such as early establishment of agriculture).

Here's their website:

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Bawdy plays

We think of medieval people as pious and refined in their entertainments.  In part this is because the medieval plays that are normally seen now are the so-called mystery plays, based on Bible stories and saints' lives.  But medieval people also enjoyed bawdy plays.

During the late Middle Ages, there were roving bands of jongleurs, players, who would come into town and put on entertainments.  There might be religious mystery plays, there might be songs and instrumental music, there might be bawdy plays.  The players were considered low class, dangerous people, practitioners of sexual immorality and potentially heretical--in spite of putting religious plays in their mix.  This attitude did not keep townspeople from flocking to see them.

Even though we now tend to think of Shakespeare and his plays as high-brow and very serious, in Elizabethan England there wasn't a big difference between what his troupe was doing and the activities of jongleurs a century or two earlier.  Probably the biggest difference is that his troupe had a lot better playwright.

Now that most of us can turn on the TV any time, or go to the movies or watch a video, we probably would not be nearly as impressed at a rather scruffy group of people putting on rough entertainments for pennies.  But without our plethora of entertainment, medieval people were eager to attend.

A number of the scripts for the bawdy plays survive.  They were both off-color and funny, if not exactly works of great literature.  There were several quite common plot lines, considered hilarious every time.  The reason they are not better known now tells us more about modern editors and translators, who tended to find them rather distasteful, than about what was actually performed in the late Middle Ages.

One popular plot line was about a young wife with a strong sex drive, married to a cold-fish husband.  She managed to persuade her husband that the man next door was a noted doctor, trained in Salerno.  So when she unexpectedly collapsed, showing all sorts of odd "symptoms," the husband hurried her over to spend a private afternoon receiving "treatments" from the "doctor," which worked so well that she was completely cured by evening.

In another play, equally "hilarious,"  a matron, fearing her husband has taken a mistress, gets her neighbor and best friend to dress up as a priest, and they trick the husband into confessing his sins by telling him he looks to be dying.  The plot thickens when the husband 'fesses up to "riding the pony" with the teenage girl next door--the pretend-priest's own daughter!  Now both women have to pound him.

A number of these plays have been translated into modern English, suitable for performance, by Jody Enders, in The Farce of the Fart and Other Ribaldries (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).  (Enders has done such things as substitute modern topical references and catch-phrases for Old French ones, to get the modern audience a similar experience to the original.)  Click here for details on a couple more of them.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Friday, June 8, 2018

Competition Between Churches

It's easy to think of medieval priests and monks and nuns as other-worldly, focused on spiritual issues, above the normal strife of life.  And indeed this was their own ideal.  In practice, different churches were often in fierce competition with each other, "survival of the fittest," "red in tooth and claw."  (Not quite that bad, but...)

For starters, bishops and the monasteries/nunneries in their regions always differed on who was the most holy.  The bishop claimed, with a certain plausibility, to be "apostolic," to be the successor of a first-bishop in the region, who had been sent out by a bishop of Late Antiquity who had been ordained by a bishop who had been ordained by a bishop who had (etc.) back to Saint Peter, leader of the apostles.

The monks couldn't claim a similar apostolic heritage (since monasticism only began a few centuries AD), but they certainly could assert that by living in common, sharing their possessions, they were following the life of the earliest Christians, as described in the Bible, in Acts of the Apostles.  Hah!  Apostolic after all!  This meant they felt they really shouldn't be judged by a bishop who lived like an aristocrat, with his own house, his own servants, his own meat for dinner rather than bread and stewed leeks (plus maybe some nice lentils).

The monastery of Cluny, for example, spent much of the eleventh and twelfth centuries claiming exemption from their local bishop, the bishop of M√Ęcon.  The bishop was not convinced, even when the monks got the pope on their side.

Even if a bishop and monastery were not fighting about oversight, they often disagreed over which one the saints of the region loved best.  At the city of Auxerre, for example, all the bishops, starting with the fifth-century Bishop Germanus, were buried at the monastery soon named St.-Germain for him.  So obviously the early sainted bishops must love the monastery best.  The bishops at the cathedral differed.  (The image below is the cathedral, though the current structure  dates to the thirteenth century, not the fifth.)

At Tours, there was comparable competition between three churches, the cathedral, where Saint Martin had been a bishop at the end of the fourth century; the monastery (Marmoutier) he founded outside of town; and the basilica where he was buried.

Within a particular region, different monasteries would compete for which one had precedence.  In Ghent in eleventh-century Flanders, on what was then the border between the Holy Roman Empire and the French kingdom, two monasteries both claimed to have been the original foundation of Saint Amand, who first brought Christianity to the region centuries earlier.  Saint Peter's, up on the hill above town, rewrote the vita (a saint's biography) of Amand, explaining how he came wandering into pagan Ghent and decided that up on a hilltop was the perfect place for a monastery.

Amand had named his house, the monks of Saint Peter's continued confidently, for the leader of the Apostles.  Obviously, they continued, the monastery down by the river in town, Saint Bavo's, was named for some later, clearly inferior saint.  Now archaeology indicates that Saint Bavo's was in fact the first monastery in town, and the monks there had records to prove it! (or so they said).  For a generation the two Ghent monasteries had the same abbot when they were both recovering from Viking raids, and this was an excellent chance for the monks of both to paw through the other's archives and steal or rewrite what they found.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Leo IX

I've mentioned Pope Leo IX (1049-1054) before, but he deserves his own blog post.  An active papacy which actually acted as the head of the organized western church began with him.  (Yes, there had been hints of this on and off earlier, like Sylvester I supposedly getting imperial authority in Rome from Constantine, Gregory I sending missionaries to Anglo-Saxon England, or Leo III crowning Charlemagne, but these all failed to have staying power.)

Leo was not born with that name.  Popes had been taking new names upon election for at least five centuries at that point (as popes still do today).  He was originally named Bruno and was from Alsace.  Alsace at that time was under the German king.  (Alsace has switched back and forth between France and Germany multiple times.  People who live there these days are essentially bilingual.  It's part of France now, but if it becomes part of Germany again they're ready.)

Young Bruno came from a powerful family that controlled multiple castles in Alsace, including Dabo and Eguisheim.  At least three places claim he was born there, though it seems unlikely that he was actually born in all three.  Dabo castle was built on top of a huge, balanced rock.  There's not much left of the castle, but it's a stunning site.  (The church there now is nineteenth-century.  It's dedicated to Saint Leo IX and has a statue of him.)  If I were an Alsatian countess, I would not choose to give birth up there.

Eguisheim is now one of France's most charming villages.  Both the castle on the hill above town and the town square claim to be his birthplace.  The present (ruined) castle on the hill is mostly thirteenth-century, though it has older origins.  The town square is where another castle stood until torn down in the French Revolution.  But it's okay--a modern statue of Leo IX is now erected there.

Young Bruno had been bishop of Toul (in Lorraine) for over twenty years when elected pope.  He was the third German to be elected pope after the (German) emperor Henry III had tried to clean up the papacy by deposing all the Italians fighting in the streets of Rome over the right to be pope.  The first two had quickly died, probably poisoned, and Leo had the sense to get out of town.

He spent most of his five years as pope traveling around western Europe, holding councils, establishing that the pope was the head of the church hierarchy.  The bishops, who had been running Christianity between them for a millennium, took it surprisingly well.

His biggest triumph was the 1049 Council of Reims.  Here he was especially concerned that all bishops demonstrate they had been properly elected, by "clergy and people," rather than buying their office, which would be "simony," a serious sin.  One by one he had the assembled bishops swear on the relics of Saint Remi--the saint who had baptized Clovis--that they had been elected properly.

The first few went well.  Then a noted simoniac started to swear--and suddenly choked, foamed at the mouth, and collapsed.  Whoa!  Several other bishops started tiptoeing toward the exits but were stopped by the papal guard.  Others asked for a "private audience" and were told they could say in public whatever they had to say.

Recognizing that surrender is often a good weapon, many bishops now fell on their faces, sobbing and confessing and offering to resign, offering up their staffs.  The pope accepted the resignation of many, including the liar (who didn't actually die), but forgave a number and gave them their staffs back.  So those who seemed otherwise good moral men, and who could claim that they'd always felt terrible that their families had bought their office without their knowledge, could continue as bishop.  But it was now established that the pope alone had the authority to make the final decision if one could or couldn't be bishop.  Forgiving establishes the power not to forgive but to punish.

One bishop showed up late to the council, saying, "Hot-cha, Holy Father, I hear you're looking into irregularities of how people obtained their office of bishop.  Let me tell you about irregularities!  You won't believe how much I was overcharged for mine."  He was one of the ones who did not get his staff back.

Continuing his travels, Leo consecrated the new abbot of Montier-en-Der (on the Champagne-Lorraine border).  The new abbot was named Wandelgar, but he took a new name as abbot, Bruno (this was unusual, as abbots and bishops, unlike popes, almost never took new names on election).  Wandelgar said proudly that Pope Leo had said he could have the name Bruno, since he didn't need it anymore, and spent the rest of his life as Abbot Bruno.

One of Pope Leo's last acts in 1054 was sending a delegation to Constantinople to try to repair the rocky relations between the Latin (Roman) and Greek orthodox churches.  But the delegation instead excommunicated the Patriarch (head of Greek orthodoxy), who excommunicated the pope and his minions right back.  Leo had died before the bad news reached him.  Only now, nearly a thousand years later, are the pope and patriarch trying to find common ground.

The reform of the western church, getting rid of simony, unchaste priests, and the like, is often called the Gregorian Reform for Pope Gregory VII, a generation later.  But it really should be called the Leontine Reform for the pope who started it.

© C. Dale Brittain 2018

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