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, Fran├žoise 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.