Tuesday, December 17, 2019


Jerusalem is an unusual city.  For starters, it's the only major city in the world not built on a body of water (lake, river, ocean).  This is because it had its start as a religious center, whereas all other major cities had their start as commercial centers, and until very recently transportation of goods required easy water access, to say nothing of the necessity of drinking and washing water for a large population.

Jerusalem is also a holy city to three different religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  They are all Abrahamic religions, sharing some version of what the Christians call the Old Testament as a crucial text, all monotheistic, believing in only one god—in fact the same God.  So from the point of view of, say, Buddhism they may look fairly similar.  But these three religions all consider followers of the others infidels, which understandably leads to tensions.  There are plenty of other holy cities, such as Mecca for Muslims or Rome (or at least Vatican City) for Catholics, but no others where three religions vie for dominance.

Jerusalem was founded roughly 1000 BC, traditionally by King David, and was important as a religious center.  Its original Temple, supposedly built by David's son King Solomon, claimed to have the Ark of the Covenant, a symbolic representation of Noah's Ark and the agreement that God reached with Noah not to flood the earth again.  It was a small city, maybe a few thousand people at most (in even smaller footprint than what is now the Old City), but very important as a religious and cultural center.  When the Persian Cyrus the Great of Babylon defeated the Jews and captured Jerusalem in the sixth century BC, the Jews could hardly wait to get back and rebuild the Temple.  When the Romans drove most of the Jews out of Jerusalem  in 70 AD, they spent over 1800 years hoping to get back soon.  When the modern state of Israel was founded in 1948, with only a small slice of Jerusalem as part of the new country, they could hardly wait to capture it all, as they did in 1967.

Jerusalem has great symbolic value.  The New Jerusalem is a biblical metaphor taken now to mean heaven.  Even today, Jews at Passover promise, "Next year in Jerusalem," an old call to return to the Holy City, which is now interpreted to mean establishment of peace and prosperity for Jews.

Meanwhile of course Jerusalem also became a Christian holy city when Jesus was crucified there around 30 AD.  It was from there that the Christian religion originally spread, and it was thoroughly Christian under the late Roman Empire until it was conquered by Muslims in the seventh century AD.  Christians (and a few Jews) continued to live there, but Islam became the dominant religion both in Jerusalem itself and in the broader region the Romans had called Palestine.  Especially important for Islam was the mosque known as Dome of the Rock, built on top of the ruins of the second Jewish Temple, and containing the rock that was supposedly both the altar on which Abraham was going to obey God and sacrifice his son Isaac and the place from which Mohammad miraculously ascended into heaven.

For medieval Christians, Jerusalem continued to be a holy city.  Churches were oriented toward the east, symbolizing pointing toward Jerusalem.  Throughout the Middle Ages people made pilgrimages to Jerusalem to see all the holy sites, like the Church of the Sepulcher or the Mount of Olives, and to walk "on the ground where Christ's feet trod" as they put it.

In 1095, when the Byzantine patriarch needed some assistance in fighting the Turks and called on the pope for help, he got to his surprise not some companies of soldiers to help him as he'd hoped, but a whole army that intended to capture Jerusalem from the Muslims.  Much to everyone's shock, including their own, this First Crusade succeeded, and the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem was established in 1100.  This included not just the city but much of the Holy Land.

It lasted however only about three generations, being constantly attacked by Muslims who wanted back what they considered their country.  After steadily losing territory, the city of Jerusalem itself fell in 1187 to Saladin, ending Christian rule but not Crusades, which continued throughout the Middle Ages though with increasingly less success.

Modern Jerusalem, or at least the Old City in Jerusalem, is one of the richest archaeological sites in the world.  It has remains of buildings, streets, water courses, and human habitation going back to the Canaanite civilization pre-David, and remains from the era of the Hebrew kings, and on top of that Persian ruins, a lot of Roman and Byzantine-era buildings, Muslim structures, Crusader fortifications and churches, and Turkish remains—and that's just the pre-1500 material.  The December 2019 issue of National Geographic has a big article on "Jerusalem underground."  As you can imagine in a city already divided by three antagonistic faiths, archaeology itself is a fraught subject.

For that matter, the Christians can't all agree.  The Church of the Sepulcher is divided up between different Christian denominations, and no one is supposed to touch anyone else's spot.  It was a great scandal when it was discovered that a stepladder had been moved, a few years back.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin is a remarkable object, a piece of linen with an image of a dead man depicted with dark red stains that might (maybe) be blood.  The man is shown as a photographic negative, light for the parts that would have been dark and vice versa.  Since the Middle Ages the linen has been thought by many to have been a burial shroud for Jesus after the Crucifixion.

Turin shroud positive and negative displaying original color information 708 x 465 pixels 94 KB.jpg

 On the left is a modern photograph of the face on the Shroud, the way it appears if you just looked at it now.  On the right is a photographic negative, showing how the image comes alive when one photographs it using black and white film and then looks at the film (the negative) rather than printing it.  Understandably, this has raised major questions, because this couldn't have been seen before the invention of photography in the nineteenth century (it wasn't indeed noted until around 1900).

The Shroud first showed up in the fourteenth century in France.  It was in the possession of a man known as a notorious relic-monger.  Indeed, the bishop of Troyes declared it a fraud in 1390, saying it was designed to mislead the gullible, tricking them into visiting the church that had it and making offerings.  The bishop also announced that the artist who created it had confessed.  Medieval people believed in relics but also made clear that one should not believe everything presented as such.

Nonetheless, the Shroud has continued to attract attention and belief over the centuries.  In the sixteenth century it was acquired by the cathedral of Turin, where it has been ever since.  It has become a major tourist attraction there, even though one cannot actually see it, instead just seeing the chapel where it lies.  Actual viewings are very rare but also very popular. 

There are enough odd things about it that many still assert its authenticity, even though it's hard to explain where it could have been for 1300 years and why no one knew about it.  The strange "negative" effect has been discussed as the product of rays (?) emanating from the dead man, which of course would make more sense if the dead man were supernatural.  Some people however have claimed to have reproduced something that looks a whole lot like the Shroud using medieval techniques.

Some have said (though it's been disputed) that the plant pollen found on the fibers are more typical of the Middle East than medieval France, though even if this is the case, it might only show the Shroud to be a fourteenth-century Middle Eastern creation.  The carbon-dating of the fibers indicates a medieval date, though some have asserted that those who did the carbon-dating were misled by skin cells and the like left behind by people who touched and kissed the Shroud in the medieval period.

The modern Catholic church does not consider the Shroud a relic.  A relic, as I've noted before, is either a body part of a saint or something a saint touched and used (the latter being so-called second-class relics).  Rather, Pope Francis has called it an "icon."  Like paintings or other depictions of Christ (including Byzantine icons) it is considered to have value in orienting the thinking of the faithful toward divine subjects, even if the object is not divine itself.  The Holy Hanky of Cadouin, once thought to be stained with Jesus's sweat until its "decorative border" was revealed to be a statement of Muslim faith in Arabic, is similarly revered today as something to make the faithful ponder the life and death of Christ.

The Shroud thus indicates that people in the Middle Ages and the twenty-first century have reacted very similarly to relics:  some want to believe, some are dismissive, some say there's a deeper meaning regardless of historical accuracy.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Medieval burial

Cemeteries are important.  Just because someone is gone, leaving only their body behind, that doesn't mean that their loved ones consider the body something to be tossed away.  In the Middle Ages as now, people most commonly buried the dead, and the places where they were buried, the cemeteries, were special places.

Of course cemeteries as special places had a long history before the Middle Ages.  In classical Rome, the dead were buried outside of town, because the living didn't want them coming back as ghosts at night.  But the dead were still honored, often with monuments erected over their bodies or ashes.

This is a Roman memorial stone erected to honor a carpenter.  If you look closely, you can see that he is sitting at a bench with his tools.

Under the late Roman Empire, important people started being buried in stone sarcophagi (that is, a stone coffin), often elaborately carved.  As the Empire became Christianized, these images became Christian.

Early medieval saints had sarcophagi that were incorporated into the foundations of churches and continued to be revered over the centuries, as in the example below.  A lot of early medieval churches were built quite literally over the dead.

Sarcophagi are expensive, however, so even the wealthy eventually gave them up.  By the twelfth century people were buried in simple wooden coffins in church yards.  Unlike modern cemeteries, however, there were no grave markers with the dead person's name.  Indeed, because the church yard was fairly small and was used over many centuries, people were buried on top of other people once the old coffins had disintegrated.  Being close to the church was still important, and they were places of memory and ritual.  Being buried in a monastery's cemetery was an important side-benefit of making generous gifts to a monastery.

Starting in the thirteenth century, "gisants" were often erected over the graves of the wealthy and powerful, in a way going back to Roman-style monuments, in that the gisant was supposed to represent the dead person.  The image below is of the gisant erected over the body of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

By the early modern period, these gisants could become quite elaborate.  Cemeteries also were expanded by what were called litchfields, places to bury horrible sinners and unclaimed bodies, who might or might not deserve to be buried next to the church, since the churchyard was reserved for the faithful.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Friday, December 6, 2019

Medieval climate change

Just as we are discovering now how much climate change can affect us, so medieval people were also affected by climate change.  In both cases, humans seem able to mess things up much more easily than we are able to fix them.

(Any climate change deniers out there, don't bother.  The science is completely clear.  Even the oil companies are now shamefacedly 'fessing up that they've known that burning fossil fuels heats up the planet since the 1970s.)

The early and late Middle Ages were marked by mini ice-ages.  The first one, starting in the sixth century,  seems to have been precipitated by a huge volcano (maybe in Indonesia, reports vary), which threw so much dust into the air that there was a "year without a summer."  Coming as this did at the same time as the outbreak of the Black Death in Europe, the population crashed.  Even once the volcanic dust settled out of the atmosphere, the reforestation of lands that had been cultivated (no one was there to cultivate them anymore) helped keep the European climate cool for another couple of centuries.  Just getting along and staying alive was a challenge.

This mini ice-age started to pass off in the ninth century and was definitely gone in the twelfth.  Things were warming up, and from western Europe's perspective, this was great.  More reliable growing seasons (less fear of early frost), along with better technology led to rapid population growth and an overall improvement in diet and living standard (which of course helped population growth).  Towns began to grow for the first time since the days of the Roman empire.

Then, in the fourteenth century, another mini ice-age showed up.  By the late thirteenth century Europeans had been farming more and more marginal land, as they had already cultivated all the best farm land but had more and more people to feed.  So the population was already stressed when, in the early fourteenth century, a year without a summer and a repeat performance of the Black Death showed up at the same time.

We have much better documentation on what happened in the fourteenth century than the sixth.  But the evidence of economic and population collapse in the later period certainly suggests that the earlier too must have been pretty awful.

This mini ice-age continued through much of the early modern period (that is, post-medieval).  This is why, back in the early 1970s, a number of scientists thought we might be heading toward a new mini ice-age:  the planet seemed to bring them around every six or seven hundred years.  But hah!  We fooled mother nature by starting to burn fossil fuel, which has prevented any such thing.

For the Middle Ages, cold was the problem.  We have replaced it with heat as the chief problem.  Medieval people did not burn fossil fuel, except very occasionally in a few places where pieces of this strange flammable block rock was found lying around, mostly on beaches.

Kind of depressing to realize that humans can improve things on earth much less than we hoped.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Wednesday, November 27, 2019


Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the US, so it's a good time to blog about the holiday.  It's a harvest festival, which of course has a very long history, a time to celebrate the harvest being successfully brought in and settling down for winter.  They had harvest festivals in the Middle Ages even though not Thanksgiving as we know it.  A common day for such festivals was Saint Martin's day, November 11.  (Incidentally, Canadian Thanksgiving comes earlier than the American one, usually celebrated on the day Americans celebrate Columbus Day.)

In the US we focus on the arrival of those we call the Pilgrims in what is now Massachusetts in 1620. The grocery store today, where people are coming to the realization that a 35 pound frozen turkey probably won't thaw by tomorrow, has adorable pictures of boys in buckle shoes and Indian maidens in buckskins interacting with cooked turkeys.  Well, it wasn't quite like that.  There's a reason that the descendants of the Massachusetts Indians of 1620 have been holding Days of Mourning at Plymouth on the last Thursday of November for fifty years now.

Initial interactions between the white arrivals and the local native Americans were (fairly) peaceful in the 1620s.  They do indeed seem to have celebrated together in 1621, after the Europeans had managed to survive for a year (or at least half of them did) and even get in a harvest.  They knew all too well that the first English settlers in Virginia, which was where they were heading before being blown off course, had all died, so just being alive was worth celebrating.  But the legacy of European-native American interactions, as the Massachusetts Indians learned soon enough, was one of oppression and genocide, as vast swatches of  the natives were killed off, either deliberately (right up through the later nineteenth century) or by disease.

Miscellaneous fun fact:  the people we know as Pilgrims didn't call themselves that.  That term only became applied some two centuries after their arrival in Plymouth.  The term (common in the Middle Ages) meant taking a trip to a holy site, which the Americas were not.  The English folks of 1620 were dissenters, people who disagreed with the Church of England and wanted a place where they could force their own beliefs on people without anyone telling them not to.  The term Puritan may work better.

Other miscellaneous funk fact:  the Puritans didn't call it a Thanksgiving.  Their feast only started being called that in the nineteenth century, when there was an effort to bring it out, buff it up, and present it as a time of Europeans and natives getting along well, as the realization started to dawn that maybe killing off all the "savages" had perhaps been the tiniest bit cruel.  In 1621 the Europeans called their feast a festival (and included such events as foot races and target shooting), because to them a "thanksgiving" would have required prayer and fasting, hard to do when you're eating a lot.

Now we've lost track of most of that history (or transmogrified it into adorable pictures), but Thanksgiving has become a good holiday in its own right.  It's important to take time to think about all the good things in one's life.  Even though Christmas decorations have been in the department stores for weeks, and Black Friday deals are all over the place, Thanksgiving is a good day to pause before getting all Christmas-frantic.  It's become a holiday without a lot of fanfare, but one where  families get together, eat special foods, and talk to each other.

Thanksgiving foods are almost all from the New World.  Turkeys of course are--the Puritans brought domestic turkeys, descendants of Mexican wild turkeys, on the Mayflower with them.  The corn for the cornbread stuffing is New World.  So are the cranberries in the cranberry relish, the potatoes, and the pumpkin in the pie.  Medieval people had feasts of course, but their dishes would have been very different.

The conversations around the Thanksgiving table are part of the holiday.  Grandparents are urged to pass on family stories.  There is great concern about how families are going to deal with sensitive political issues with weird old Uncle Frankie.  It's interesting that "conversations around the Thanksgiving table" are a big thing, but no one worries about conversations around the table at Easter or Christmas, much less around the barbecue on Fourth of July.  (Turkey makes one talkative?)

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Friday, November 15, 2019

Heretic Wind

I've got a new ebook!  It's called "Heretic Wind," and I wrote it with my husband, Robert Bouchard.  It's a fantasy set in an alternate version of southern France in the thirteenth century.  Mystery, passion, sword fights, conflicts between heresy and orthodoxy, and lots of magic-working.

The following is the book's description, and here's the link to read the first chapter and to download it from Amazon.

"Galoran, scarred count of Peyrefixade, believes things are finally going well for him when the duke's beautiful daughter Arsendis agrees to marry him.

But heretics threaten the duchy, and the conflict becomes deadly when they kidnap Arsendis. Galoran and his magic-working spiritual advisor Melchior face treachery and betrayal as they pursue the kidnappers into the high mountains. They must make alliances with their enemies to try to rescue Arsendis, but before they can, even darker plots are revealed.

Set in an alternate version of southern France in the Middle Ages, the story is told from the alternating viewpoints of the two main characters. The outcome turns on mystery and passion, as they are forced to question their very beliefs to determine where true loyalty lies."

The book is the sequel to Count Scar, a book we wrote together about twenty years ago.  But we thought there was more story possible and decided to write and publish it.  This book can be read without reading Count Scar first, though it's the same characters in the same setting.  (We figured even if people had read the first book a long time ago they probably wouldn't remember it, so we made sure it wouldn't be necessary to read that one first to enjoy this one.)

The geography is essentially southern France along the Pyrenees, though we've moved a few things around.  The people however are our own invention, inspired in some cases by real medieval figures by not meant to represent anyone.  The social setting however is mostly historically accurate—other than the fact that there's magic!

Because real medieval priests studied all sorts of knowledge, including works of classical (pagan) antiquity, we decided to have magic studied by priests in this world.  Makes it different from most other fantasy books (including mine!), where magic and religion are on different sides, if religion appears at all.

The political machinations are simplified from real medieval political history, though some people who read Count Scar thought there was a lot of politics there and will probably think the same here.  In fact real medieval political history is enormously complicated; that may be where George RR Martin has gotten stalled, trying to make his "Game of Thrones" world be as complicated as late medieval England really was.  The biggest simplification was to leave out the fact that northern French forces invaded southern France in an effort to wipe out the heresy that informs a lot of the background for the story.  (There was enough going on already without bringing in the Albigensian Crusade.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

Wednesday, November 6, 2019


Medieval-themed fantasy often includes dragons (mine does).  But where did the dragons come from?  The fact that western Europe, India, and China all have dragons in their folklore has made some speculate that dinosaurs somehow survived in hiding until a few centuries ago, coming out just often enough to be seen and join the folklore.  This is of course wildly improbable, but it's fun to imagine.

But let's look at what dragons are supposed to look like.  They are now usually portrayed as having four legs plus wings, as in the above image from 1890.  (Does this mean they are a form of insect?  I'll say No.)  This makes them quite different from Chinese dragons, which while long and snaky and (usually) four-legged do not have wings.  They do however tend to have big floppy ears.  The image below shows the Chinese flag from the Qing dynasty (c. 1900).  Chinese dragons are not nearly as ferocious as western ones, but you still wouldn't want to tangle with one.

Medieval dragons in the west might have neither wings nor legs.  They were indeed often called Worms.  Twelfth- and thirteenth-century images of Saint George or Saint Michael overcoming a dragon (such as seen below) usually showed a long, scaly creature closer to a snake than anything else.  Our modern word dragon indeed comes from Latin draco, meaning a huge serpent or sea-serpent.

By the late Middle Ages distinctions were sometimes made between dragons, which had four legs, and wyverns, which had only two (plus wings), but really they were all dragons the whole time.  They became common in heraldry, and kings and armies adopted them as symbols of courage and might (as in stories of Arthur Pendragon).  For that matter, Roman legions had often used dragon-heads on their standards.

In medieval Norse culture, a common man's name was Orm, meaning literally worm (related to our modern English word) but really meaning dragon.  The Vikings put dragon-heads on their ships.  (You may recall that in The Hobbit Tolkien had Smaug called a worm as well as a dragon.)

Dragons appeared in occasional medieval stories, most notably in Beowulf, where the hero went out as an old king to defeat one and save his people, which he did but died in the process.  Siegfried/Sigurd, in both the Norse Saga of the Volsungs and the German Nibelungenlied, got his start by killing a dragon, who had originally been a human before greed for gold turned him into a dragon.

Dragons, you will notice, are bad in these accounts, deserving to be killed.  George RR Martin has kept the ferocity of medieval dragons in his Song of Ice and Fire (inspiration for "Game of Thrones"), even though they can be befriended.  But medieval dragons could take other forms as well.

One medieval monk said that he had seen a dragon (the only account we have of someone saying he really had seen one, rather than telling a story that included one).  His doesn't match any of the stories.  He described it as what we would think of as a blimp, hundreds of yards long, legless, floating in the air.  He was understandably surprised and observed it for an hour or more.  For him, its principal issue was as a sign or portent, and he had to figure out what it portended.  He ended up deciding it was like Leviathan in the Bible.  Leviathan, principally known from the Book of Job as a huge, horrible monster did breathe fire (as do modern depictions of dragons), though the monk's floating dragon did not.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Medieval Allegory

Medieval thinkers loved allegory.  For them it was more than an explanatory technique, or a form of colorful language, as it is now.  "Her eyes were like limpid pools of deep blue water" (that sort of thing—that's actually metaphor, as technically allegory is one thing just standing for something else, but you get the idea).  Rather it was an insight into the way that the universe functioned.

Medieval people wanted to believe (as do we all) that life and the universe have some purpose, some meaning, that it isn't just a series of random events.  Allegories could help us figure it out.  At the most basic level, medicinal objects might contain clues as to their purpose.  So caraway seeds could stand for human "seed" or semen, and a woman trying to get pregnant might stick some on her thighs.  We know this, because priests told women not to do so, as it was pagan superstition (and told them often enough and loudly enough that it must have been fairly common).  But even herbalists in monasteries knew that visual appearance carried clues.  If the Middle Ages had had kidney beans (they didn't, as kidney beans are New World), everyone would have known they were good for treating diseases of the kidney.

In a broader sense, good and evil were associated respectively with beauty and vileness.  So a saint appearing in a vision always had a beautiful face, and devils routinely were accompanied by horrible smells, even if they were not found actually lurking in stinky latrines, which indeed they often were.  When a medieval author wrote that someone suddenly came to face to face with a huge black horse, ugly and with fiery eyes and decayed (but sharp) teeth, it wouldn't be a big secret that it was the devil in disguise.  Surprising how many slow-learner heroes in the stories hopped on anyway.  Were they in for a shock!

On a more serious theological note, medieval thinkers read the Bible allegorically.  In spite of some modern efforts to say that the Bible must be taken literally, that's actually impossible, as there are too many things in it that either contradict each other (like big pieces of the Old and New Testament) or else present unedifying spectacles, like Noah being drunk and naked (they leave out that part in the Noah's Ark stories), or Old Testament patriarchs having children with their handmaidens/slaves.

But allegory presented an excellent way to deal with the parts of the Bible that were problematic if read too literally (some sections, of course, especially the life of Jesus, were read very literally).  The "Song of Solomon" could be a challenge, given that it is a long love poem, in which the lover speaks of kissing his beloved behind the knees and the like.  But as soon as it was decided that it could be read as an allegory of the love of Christ for His church, all the problems vanished away.

Medieval literature also used allegory in a religious sense.  You may have been exposed to "Pilgrim's Progress," a slightly post-medieval work in which the hero, Pilgrim, makes a journey through life, meeting people with names like Good Advice.  Real subtle it's not.  But medieval people would have loved it.

On the other hand, you have the thirteenth-century Roman de la rose (not to be confused with "Romance of the Rose, or Guillaume de Dole").  It starts as a delicate allegory of the would-be lover in a garden, and there's a special rose within a wall, and as he tries to decide how to reach it he has to deal with people called things like (again) Good Advice or, alternately, Bad Advice.  The original author never finished it.  A slightly later author decided the young hero had been hanging around being delicate far too long.  So this later author had the hero pick up a battering ram, with two big sacks slung over it near one end ("for balance"), and ram his way straight in to where the rose was.  Talk about subtlety!

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Married Life in the Middle Ages

I have previously blogged about how marriages were arranged in the Middle Ages and the way that weddings were held.  Today I want to talk about married life, what happened after the wedding.

As I noted before, marriage as a sacrament required the free consent of both parties.  It doesn't count as a sacrament if you're forced to do something against your will.  Families and powerful neighbors might exercise powerful suasion, but medieval marriages all started from the assumption that both parties, the man and the woman, had agreed to it.  (They did not have same-sex marriages.)  Marriage thus was a constant impediment to any attempt to establish a thoroughly patriarchal society.

Still, families with political agendas would try to make sure that their children agreed to marry who they were supposed to.  Betrothals of children to other children could cement an alliance.  In such a case the girl was often sent to live with the family into which she was expected to marry, to learn the customs of the region (and the language in some cases), and to grow up with the boy who, it was hoped, would be her childhood best friend as well as future spouse.

People lower on the social scale had more freedom to pick out their own spouse than did members of the high aristocracy.  But anyone who determinedly said No would be supported by the priests.  The church generally thought that parents should guide their children in the correct path, but forcing someone's will was never acceptable.

As this suggests, in spite of all the official talk about how a woman was supposed to be subservient to her husband (a lot of it with biblical backing), couples recognized that the wife had a great deal of free exercise of will within a marriage.  There are plenty of examples of wives "disobeying" their husbands, and even more of men being guided by sound wifely advice.  Couples normally shared a bed, both for intimacy and to keep warm at night, and wives were often described as giving their husbands useful advice as they snuggled down.

In practice, husbands and wives needed each other.  If a great lord was going to be away (say on Crusade), the normal practice was for his wife to run the castle in his absence.  She would have been familiar with what was required to do because of having been involved in it since the beginning of their marriage.  Much of running a castle was a woman's prerogative anyway, so she just expanded what she was doing.

For peasants, farming chores really worked better with two adults (as any modern farmer will tell you), and a woman had to know how to plow, cultivate, harvest, and take care of the animals as well as to cook and sew and raise the children.  Among merchant and artisan families in towns, husband and wife typically worked as partners, and widows of guild masters could become masters themselves.

Married couples were assumed to love each other, even if they had not known each other very well before the wedding.  The physical consummation of their union was quite literally portrayed as making love, intensifying their emotional ties to each other.  Letters from Crusaders writing back home to their wives are full of terms of endearment and statements of how much they missed their wives.  In practice, a certain number of wives accompanied their husbands on these expeditions, if there was someone else to keep the home place running in their absence.

Marriage was still oriented more toward the husband and his family than toward the wife, however.  Husbands with concubines were treated relatively indulgently in the early Middle Ages (though by the twelfth century this was increasingly frowned upon), but a wife with lovers was shocking and horrible.  A new couple would typically move to the man's house (or castle or country, depending on social status).  If a husband died, and the wife remarried, she would typically leave her children behind to be raised by her late husband's family.

A lot of widowed people of both sexes, however, never remarried.  A widower with young children might find it expedient to do so, and a young woman still of child-bearing age would be sought after.  But a lot of people who became single, either through death of a spouse or through divorce, just decided to stay single.  One could enter the church as a monk or nun or just carry on in the world.

A good recent book on medieval marriage is by Elisabeth van Houts, Married Life in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 2019).

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2019


One of the things you can do with apples is make cider.  It's the taste of fall (much more so than pumpkin spice latte.)  Cider was certainly drunk during the Middle Ages.  In fact, because medieval apples were much smaller than modern apples, they were more likely to be made into cider than eaten raw.

That's a picture of a modern apple.  Medieval apples would have been closer in size to what we call a crab apple.

Making cider is not very difficult.  Chop the apples coarsely, press the pieces (as in a cider mill), catch the juice as it comes out, strain it to get out seeds, stems, etc.  That's it!  Now you have good raw cider.  It needs to be kept cool or drunk immediately.  This is the cider you get at a cider mill today, and the cider that medieval people made.

Most of the cider you get in the grocery store has been pasteurized so it won't ferment the way raw cider will, and it often contains a small amount of chemicals also designed to preserve it.  I personally can always taste the chemicals and consider them an affront against nature.

So how did medieval people preserve cider?  Well, it was fall, so the spring house would be fairly cool, for at least a few days' preservation.  But much of it fermented, and that was fine too.  It was drunk as hard cider, an alternative to beer.  (Like medieval beer, it still couldn't be kept very long, because pasteurization and bottling were centuries in the future.)  In Great Britain, if you now order cider in a bar you will get what Americans consider hard cider, and the Brits don't really drink what Americans consider regular cider.

Fun fact:  Cider is not the same as apple juice.  Apple juice is made not by pressing raw apples but by boiling up apples, then straining off the resulting liquid.  Perfectly OK but not as good as cider.

Another fun fact:  Johnny Appleseed was a real person, back around 1800.  His father had a cider mill.  He thought it important that, as pioneers headed west, they should be able to have apple trees.  So every year he took a whole lot of seeds from the cider mill and headed west, ahead of the settlers, and planted apple trees.  They resulting trees were all sorts of weird hybrids, but you could always make cider.  The village of Apple Creek in Ohio is so named because when the white settlers arrived, there were already Johnny Appleseed trees along the creek.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Castles in TV/movies

A challenge for American film makers and TV producers is getting good backdrops for costume dramas.  They can manage a story set in the 1950s or even 1930s.  There are plenty of small towns (and even neighborhoods in large cities) with streets where all the buildings were built before WW II, and thus all the producers really need to do is get the modern cars off the streets and make sure the people in the background aren't wearing jeans and hoodies.

But for pretty much any story set before the twentieth century, finding a good location is a challenge.  For a long time movies avoided the challenge by having everything take place on sets constructed for the purpose.  Need a trackless forest?  Paint a picture of it and stick it behind the actors.  Need a scene inside a castle's great hall?  Easy.  Build a plywood wall and paint a stone wall on it.  A little grey paint, and there you are.

This works for live drama.  People going to a play are perfectly aware that they are sitting in a theatre, watching people on a stage.  They can deal with painted plywood passed off as a stone wall.  But those watching movies or, these days, a lot of TV shows want things to look realistic.

European producers have it a lot easier because they have a lot of old buildings on hand already.  American producers will travel to Europe to find good locations.  Now, there's a lot of mix-and-match that producers use with their locations.  The hero may walk down a street in one village, walk up the front steps of a house not actually in that village, and go into an interior of still a different house.  The scenes are stitched together so it looks like the scene is all the same place, but the clever locations manager has found the best exteriors and interiors for the story, even if they aren't all actually together.

Dramatization of  Jane Austen novels, set in the early nineteenth century, can use real places like the city of Bath (a spa town then and now) and have a choice of British country houses for the homes of the heroines, either exterior or interior or both.  If one looks closely one may see the plastic plates on interior doors that are put on to keep a swinging door from being worn down by constant hands, or a sign by the front door that tells you the hours the house is open to tours, but they still do a good job of looking authentic.

Shows like "Downton Abbey" have the advantage that they can use both the exterior and the interior of Highclere castle (not actually a castle, a late eighteenth-century manor house that is in the south of England, not in Yorkshire where "Downton Abbey" is set).  But the old servants' quarters no longer exist, so those scenes at least are shot in a studio.  Highclere itself has benefited mightily from the show, and tours now go there, and you can have tours, enjoy a high tea, and buy souvenirs.

Some of the settings for the "Game of Thrones" show are hoping for a comparable tourist surge.  An example is the castle of Doune in Scotland (shown above), whose great hall was used for the great hall of the castle of Winterfell in the show.  It's smaller than the great, sprawling Winterfell of the story, and it's partly ruined, but it's still a very nice castle.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Friday, October 4, 2019

Wine through the Centuries

Wine was an important commodity for medieval people.  As I've previously noted, wine and beer, not coffee and tea, much less milk and soft drinks, were the principal medieval drinks.  Near the Mediterranean, wine predominated, slowly giving way to beer as one moved north, because wine grapes won't grow where it's too cold.  Wine was also required for the liturgy, so it had to be imported for the purpose to places like the British Isles.

Wine making seems to have begun somewhere around 1000 BC.  In the west, it began with the Etruscans, who were already there in Italy when the Celtic ancestors of the Romans came wandering into the peninsula.  (The Etruscans gave their name to Tuscany, the hilly area of northern Italy around Florence and Siena.)

The Etruscan god of wine was called Foonfel or something like that (written Etruscan presents, shall we say, challenges to the modern archaeologist).  He was depicted as a young, sexually active male, naked and ready for drinking and action.  He was remembered in folklore in Italy well into the twentieth century, when people whose vineyards were not bearing well would chant a poem in which they asked "Fafnel" to come make their vines bear abundantly.

The Etruscan wine god was often depicted with Uni, the Etruscan goddess of love.  In the images she was often larger and more mature than he was, but he seemed to be very happy with this older woman.  She was often depicted on Etruscan wine cups.  She inspired the Roman goddess Juno, who got to be Jupiter's wife in the Roman pantheon, but was really not the same person as the Greek goddess Hera, Zeus's wife.

You will notice here a strong connection between sex, fertility, abundance, and wine.  There was also sometimes a connotation of blood.  We think of wine as something to enjoy with a good French meal, or something to sip while relaxing in the evening.  Ancient people thought of it as connected with great religious festivals and reproduction.

Under the Roman empire, wine grapes were grown all around the Mediterranean.  With the rise of Islam in the seventh century, wine disappeared (at least theoretically) from the Middle East and North Africa, because Islam forbids alcohol along with pork.  Christians however continued to include wine in their religious ceremonies, though without the sex part.  After all, according to the Bible at the Last Supper Jesus had said that liturgical wine was his blood.

Different regions produced different sorts of wine, everything from light white wines to heavy reds that were so dark as to be nearly brown.  Not surprisingly, wine could be an excellent cash crop, and it didn't need nearly as big fields as did grain.  Even today, the wine-growing areas of Alsace have villages only a few miles apart, because they don't need large empty tracts for crops, and the buildings stop abruptly at the edge of the village—no malls or quicky-fills at the edge of town, as that would destroy valuable vineyard space.

In the twelfth century in France, landlords with a piece of land that would make a good vineyard (good soil, right slope facing the right direction) would buy rootstock and tools, then go into an agreement with a peasant, an arrangement called complant.  The peasant would undertake all the labor of planting the vines and tending them as they grew, but once they started to bear in a few years, he and the landlord would split the profits of the wine.

Medieval wine was highly sought out when it first appeared in the fall, because without modern bottling wine didn't keep well and might be close to vinegar by the time the new wine came in.  A good sprinkling of spice helped but not a lot.  Some powerful lords enforced a "wine ban," where they and only they could sell their new wine in the fall for the first three weeks, thus taking advantage of everyone's eagerness to buy.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on medieval crops and food,  see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Iron-age hill forts

Back when iron started becoming widely used in Europe, say roughly 500 or 1000 BC give or take a few centuries, people started building hill forts.  Because they didn't write down what they were doing, clearly having no consideration for their descendants a few millennia later, we aren't quite sure if these were places from which lords looked down in fierce disdain at other people, or if they were villages that felt they needed some sort of protection against wild animals or people from the next village, or if perhaps they were sacred sites where people would assemble for rituals at certain times of the year.  They were at any rate big, with at least a few acres inside their outer walls.

They did in any event take an awful lot of work to construct, which might go on for generations.  Some had earthen walls, with a few openings.  The Mound Builders in what is now the US built similar structures for equally obscure purposes.  (The ancestors of the American Indians did not have iron, however.)  Or an iron-age hill fort might have stone walls.

The image above is a hill fort in Scotland.  It was built with stone walls that are still there, even though they are now stone humps rather than walls.  There are millions of stones up on top of this hill, every one of which had to be carried up there.  Interestingly, there are no loose stones evident anywhere on the hill's lower slopes.  The following image will give you an idea of how high up this spot is.

Now this hill fort is still there, essentially untouched, except by the elements.  But a lot of hill forts have been found under Europe's cities when excavations have been done (for sewer lines and the like).  A good commanding spot with a river or stream at the bottom of the hill remains a good commanding spot over the centuries.

Under the Roman Empire hill forts were found all over Europe (though now used for different purposes), and a lot of them had castles built on top of them in the Middle Ages.  Castles went up a whole lot faster than cathedrals, and my guess is that there's a simple reason:  if there was a good hilltop spot with a lot of stones already collected, that would strike everyone involved as a perfect place for a castle.  Why spend a lot of effort collecting stones when they were already there?

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Early modern and medieval history

I recently realized that historical fiction set in the medieval period shows ordinary life as functional, not blessed with the comforts and facilities of modern (western) civilization, but workable, the way that one can function and enjoy oneself while back packing or the like.

In contrast, historical fiction set in the early modern period (roughly 1500-1800) shows ordinary life as brutal and nasty.  People are ill, victims of violence, hungry, smelly, and surrounded by death.  So of course I started to wonder, why is this?

In part of course it's due to the Enlightenment.  This philosophical movement of the eighteenth century, which saw education and culture as the answer to humanity's problems (to a large extent I agree with them), looked at their past as full of darkness, ignorance, superstition, and misery (here they and I part company).  They saw a possible future with much better lives if only everyone could be educated, exposed to finer things, learn scientific approaches, and have at least a little tiny movement toward democratic institutions.  The Enlightenment inspired both the American Constitution and the French Revolution.

Thus we shouldn't be surprised that the French Revolution was ready to get rid of anything "old fashioned," which included what they called feudalism (see more here about why medievalists don't buy their definition), religion, and the kings and queens carved on Notre Dame, whose heads they knocked off.  (One head recently found is shown below, now in the Cluny museum in Paris.)

But then, early in the nineteenth century, indeed during the Napoleonic era, Sir Walter Scott started writing books set in a romanticized Middle Ages (Ivanhoe has a lot to answer for).  As industrialization ('good' according to the Enlightenment, full of science and machines) separated the workers from their products and filled streams with pollution, people yearned for an earlier, better era and decided it was the Middle Ages.  This golden glow never fell on the early modern period.  The historical novelists followed right along.

That's the Sir Walter Scott memorial in Edinburgh, above.

So people were inspired to see the Middle Ages as better than the early modern period.  But there's more to it.  If you compare the twelfth century with the seventeenth, the twelfth has to win.  The Protestant Reformation had given Christians a reason to kill each other, far outshadowing things like the Albigensian Crusade.  In the early modern period you had frequent outbreaks of the Black Death, which had been unknown in the twelfth century (it broke out in the sixth century but then not again until the fourteenth).  Its outbreak in London in 1666 was stopped only by the great fire that destroyed most of London.  (But hey! it worked!  It wasn't actually deliberate.)

This was also the time of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), which European historians characterize as Europe's worst war ever, even worse than the World Wars for destruction of property and civilian deaths.  Cannons had become very effective at killing people.  There was a great deal of urban crowding and slums, which hadn't shown up yet in the small-but-growing cities of the twelfth century.  Slavery had been revived to cultivate the land in the New World, with an accompanying disdain for non-elite people.  The New World had given Europe syphilis, unknown in the Middle Ages (though Europe got their own back, decimating the indigenous population of the Americas with smallpox and measles).  Kings were proclaiming themselves kings by divine right, which had not been possible in the Middle Ages.  There was a great deal of famine and general misery.

So was life in the twelfth century all happiness?  Of course not.  There was plenty of violence, hunger, and despair.  I'm very happy to be living in the twenty-first century.  But if I had to choose, I'd take the twelfth century over the seventeenth every time.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Sunday, September 1, 2019


Alsace is part of France, the area right up against Germany.  But it has been under German control at least as much as French over the centuries, and although everyone speaks French there, and the schools are run in French (and the hotels give you croissants in the morning), the locals speak a dialect of German at home.

So how did Alsace end up in the middle, so that in much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was handed back and forth multiple times between the two countries?  Since this is my Life in the Middle Ages blog, you won't be surprised to learn that a big reason is medieval political history.

Let's go back to that magical year of 843 and the Treaty of Verdun.  Although Charlemagne, Roman emperor, and king of what is now France, Germany, the Benelux countries, and northern Italy, only had one surviving son when he died in 814, he had three grandsons who all wanted to kill each other.  They decided instead to divide Europe between them (hence the treaty).  Charles "the Bald" got France, Louis "the German" got Germany (you probably already guessed that), and Lothar, the oldest, got Lotharingia, the strip between France and Germany and extending down into Italy.  He also got to be crowned Roman emperor.

In the map above, the pink area was under the French king, the yellow area under the German king, and the green area is Lotharingia.

Alsace was already a perfectly good duchy, and it was included in Lotharingia (so was Lorraine, whose name is a corruption of Lotharingia).  As you can imagine, both the French and German kings decided Lotharingia was rightfully theirs.  For most of the Middle Ages, the German kings (who elbowed their way into being Roman emperors too) held Alsace (though Lorraine was French, it's where Joan of Arc came from).

Because it was always a border area, Alsace is still thick with castles.  It also has extremely cute half-timbered villages, the way one imagines places like Bavaria might look like.  Because Alsace was taken very quickly during World War II, it was devastated much less than most of Germany.  Visit cute Germany while still getting croissants for breakfast!

© C. Dale Brittain 2019
For more on medieval kings, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  The cover image is a staircase cut into the bedrock in an Alsatian castle, Fleckenstein.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Light in medieval churches

 In modern times, churches' light is provided by electricity.  Indeed, many medieval churches today have lights where the tourist puts in a euro to turn on the electricity and illuminate some interesting architectural feature for five minutes.  But in the Middle Ages churches of course had no electricity, and candles won't make up the difference.  The builders had to focus much more on sunlight coming into the church, which is why the windows and stained glass were so important.  Architects positioned their churches to take full advantage of the sun.

As I have noted previously, the altar ("choir") end of a medieval church was aimed (or "oriented") toward the east (the Orient), supposedly toward Jerusalem.  But what about the west end, you ask?

The west end was where the main doors of the church were.  As well as opening to let people in, these doors also served to frame the view from inside looking outside.

The image above is looking out from the church of Brancion, on a high hill in Burgundy, where the view is of the countryside.  At the cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand, in the Auvergne, the view is of the highest volcanic peak in the region, Mont d'Or.  Clearly the western view was also significant.

In fact, there is some indication that architects decided on the "east" on which they oriented their churches in part by deciding first on the direction of the main doors, to face west.  Most commonly true west was considered to be where the sun set at the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.

But when was the longest day of the year?  We look at a calendar and confidently say June 21.  But remember that medieval people were still on the Julian calendar, which got off by a day every century.  In cloudy Europe it was sometimes hard to say exactly when the sun set at the furthest north point and when its setting point started moving south again each day by a tiny bit.  So sometimes the doors would be lined up to face the setting sun at the solstice, and sometimes to face it on what they called June 21 and we would call the middle of July.

The other day's sunset to which church doors might be aimed seems to be Michaelmass.  This is the feast of the Archangel Michael, officially September 29, although it seems to have been intended to fall on the equinox a week earlier (and again, there seems to have been some difference of opinion whether to focus on where the sun actually was or on the calendar).  Michaelmass was an important day because it was when quarterly rents were routinely due.

Sometimes different architects had different ideas of east and west.  At the abbey church of Vézelay, for example, the eastern end was built first, in the early twelfth century, pointing toward what the architect thought was true east, but there's a slight kink in the church, because the western end, built a generation later, was done by an architect who had a different idea of how to aim west.  This second architect did do a very nice job of getting sunlight to come straight down the nave from the high windows at midsummer and to illuminate the carved capitals at the tops of pillars at midwinter.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Medieval Music

Many people, including me, love medieval music.  It is evocative and powerful, most commonly religious but sometimes concerned with love or with just having a good time, but always different from later forms of music (baroque, classical, modern, popular) which it nonetheless heavily influenced.

Music in the Middle Ages was considered one of the “seven liberal arts,” the foundation of a good education, along with grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.  Medieval people invented the musical staff we now take for granted (the five lines on which notes are arranged).  They were an inventive lot.

Medieval music today is commonly discussed as though it consisted primarily of Gregorian chant, and indeed such chant was an important component but certainly not all.  Monasteries had monks routinely sing (or “chant”) the Book of Psalms, all of which were clearly written as songs and were believed to have been composed by King David of Old Testament fame.  There were also hymns to be sung as part of the Mass, for liturgical events (like a requiem), and for the celebration of various saints’ days.

It used to be thought that Pope Gregory I (d. 604) had written the music (“chants”) for all of these, though it has also been argued that Pope Gregory II, over a century later, was responsible for organizing and stipulating the music for certain purposes.  At any rate, once Charlemagne became Roman emperor in 800, his court adopted the Roman form of liturgical music rather than the form that had been previously used in the churches of Gaul.  Churches that could afford it started installing pipe organs, apparently invented in Byzantium.

Gregorian chant was sung in unison.  Ninth-century manuscripts might show the texts with little marks (called neumes) above them to show the overall rhythm and where one sang higher or lower, but essentially those singing learned the music from others.  But in the early eleventh century the musical staff first appears (as noted above).  Its invention was attributed to Guido of Arezzo.  Now one could look at written music and figure out the tune without having to hear it first.

At around the same time, medieval musicians started adopting polyphony, where different singers would sing different notes at the same time, creating harmony.  By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries different singers might be singing different (complementary) texts as well as different notes.  (Think about pop music where one singer has the melody and the backup singers croon out “doo-wap” or whatever.)  Especially if more than one melodic line was being sung at the same time, and the medieval singers were supposed to end at the same time, you can see why better notation would be required.

Medieval music could be played as well as sung.  String instruments included the harp, the lute (strummed, like a banjo or guitar), and the  vielle, the ancestor of the violin, as seen in the image below.  Wind instruments included the sackbut (ancestor of our brass winds) and the bagpipe.

An enormous amount of medieval music was composed.  We know the names of some of the most revered medieval composers.  In the twelfth century the abbess Hildegard von Bingen wrote lovely music for her nuns to sing.  (She also had visions and wrote chiding letters to popes.  She has been taken up by New Age folks and had some of her music recorded with a drum machine line.  She rolls in her grave.)  Starting in the twelfth century, troubadours composed and sang all sorts of songs, of love and glory.  In the fourteenth century Guillaume de Machaut wrote love songs that were widely admired both then and now.

Those who study the history of music are called musicologists.  A number of them put together a book in the “Men and Music” series, edited by James McKinnon, called Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Macmillan, 1990).  It has a lot of good, technical detail on the development of medieval music.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Monday, July 29, 2019

Robert the Bruce

Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) is considered a great Scottish hero.  His name is evoked all over Scotland for his role in making that country independent from England.

(But wait, you say, aren't they the same country?  Emphatically no.  They are both part of the United Kingdom, several different kingdoms under one monarch.  It's been this way since 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England.  From the Scottish point of view, Scotland took over England.  England has never seen it that way.)

So why is Robert called "the" Bruce?  Bruce was the name of his clan.  Last names were just coming in during the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries, so he might also be called Robert Bruce.  But because he was head of the Bruce clan, he was "the" Bruce.  If I were head of my own clan (my siblings would vociferously disagree), I would be Dale the Brittain.

Medieval Scotland had had its own kings, but in the second half of the thirteenth century the English, led by King Edward I,  conquered the kingdom.  Edward's father had already conquered the kingdom of Wales, naming baby Edward Prince of Wales.  So you see the island of Great Britain had not been the peaceful UK we now imagine it to be.

The Scots fought against the English in what were called the "wars of independence," culminating when Robert the Bruce, having killed his principal rival, had himself crowned king of Scotland in 1306.  He was descended in the female line from twelfth-century kings of Scotland.  The glorious (from a Scots point of view) battle of Bannockburn in 1314, where the English were routed, cemented his claim.

Scottish schoolchildren are taught all this in school, and most Scottish castles highlight their connections to Robert.  The church of Dunfermline, where he was buried, was rebuilt in the nineteenth century to celebrate him (image below, note it saying "Bruce king" at the top of the tower; it says Robert on the other side).  It shouldn't be a surprise that when England says it plans to leave the EU, the Scots are seriously rethinking this "united" kingdom.

After Bannockburn, Scotland stayed an independent kingdom until 1603.  Now relations were not always good with England, and there were such adventures as Mary, Queen of Scots, being held captive for years by her cousin Elizabeth I of England--Mary was James I/VI's mother.  But this seems like a good stopping point.

A good biography is by Michael Penman, Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots (Yale University Press, 2014).

 © C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Castles through the Ages

Castles, as I've noted in previous posts, really only first appeared around the year 1000, as a combination of palace and fortress.  There had of course been palaces and fortresses going back to prehistoric times, but their combination in a single defensible structure was new in the eleventh century.

We have very few eleventh-century castles.  The occasional grim eleventh-century square tower is about all that we have, or perhaps an outer wall such as the eleventh-century shell-keep of Gisors in Normandy, seen below.

The reason we have such few remains of eleventh-century castles is because castles were rebuilt a lot.  Siege technology was constantly improving (think trebuchets), and castles had to stay one step ahead.  Besides, castles had to make a Statement, and the bigger, the stronger, and more elegant they were, the better statement they made.  Any castle lord who could afford it would renovate and rebuild his castle every generation or so.

In some ways gunpowder did in castles.  In France, where under Louis XIV his war minister, Vauban, systematically went around the countryside with cannons destroying castles (or at least knocking big holes in them), castles were pretty much given up in the early modern period.

But the castles were still there.  They were built of literally millions of stones and were not going anywhere.  And all that stonework could be made defensible again with some effort.  In some places, like Scotland, where it was harder to get cannons across the lochs and highland hills, new castles were being built in the early modern period, designed pretty much the same as medieval castles.  After all, that's what a castle was supposed to be like.

The image below is of Blackness Castle in Scotland, on the Firth of Forth.  It was used for its original military purpose up through the nineteenth century, when soldiers were quartered there.

For the most part, however, most medieval (and early modern) castles had become ruins by the nineteenth century, with a lot of the best stone carried off by enterprising locals to use in their own building projects.  With the development of the Romantic movement (think Ivanhoe) as a reaction against the industrial age, people decided they liked ruined castles.  Castles were romantic.

Some castles were renovated once again in the twentieth century, becoming elegant homes (by twentieth-century standards) as they had once been elegant homes (by twelfth-century standards) in the Middle Ages.  These aren't ruined anymore, but they sure are romantic.

The image above is the Scottish castle Eilean Donan, on an arm of the Irish Sea.  It's now a house as well as a castle that has been voted "most romantic" by various entities.  It really is a romantic site.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on castles and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other ebook sellers.  Also available in paperback!