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.