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 ch√Ęteau).  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.