Thursday, March 28, 2019


Medieval themed fantasy often involves unicorns.  I hate to be the one to break it to you.  Unicorns aren't real.

This doesn't keep them from being beloved.  Many a little girl has a unicorn toy.  They sometimes get crossed with Pegasus and have both horns and wings.  Although rainbows may make an appearance, unicorns are almost almost white, graceful, beautiful, and friendly.

(Let's avert our eyes and keep moving.)

People in the Middle Ages, like today's little girls (why not little boys?), liked unicorns.  But theirs weren't friendly beasts.  Medieval unicorns were savage and dangerous.  They also were not simply horses with a horn sticking out of their forehead.  They had cloven hooves, more like a cow than a horse, and a tail described variously as that of a lion or a wild boar.

That's actually an early modern unicorn in the picture, but it's pretty much as medieval people pictured them; you will note the cloven hooves.

Belief in unicorns went back a long way.  The ancient Greeks talked about them as living in India or Persia or somewhere far away.  The Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder described unicorns, and they went into medieval bestiaries along with other fabulous beasts.  Many believe the idea of a unicorn started with a misunderstood description of a rhinoceros.  Narwhal horns, which were traded to Europe by the Norse, were believed to be from unicorns. 

But there was more to medieval belief in unicorns than misunderstood creatures from Africa and the North Atlantic.  Unicorn horn was considered to be medicinal, both curing disease and making polluted water drinkable.  (Similar beliefs flourish in parts of the world even today, which is why rhinoceroses have been pushed close to extinction.)

The horn was also phallic.  (Big surprise.)  To catch a unicorn, it was believed, one needed a virgin girl, who would lure the unicorn into laying its head in her lap.  (In case you missed the "subtle" phallic image....)  Then the hunters could kill it.  The image below is one of the late medieval tapestries depicting the hunt for a unicorn, which has been successfully captured.  I must say, I'd worry about being that girl, supposed to lure a savage and dangerous beast, who had a sharp implement, to get up close and personal with my lap.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Dynastic marriage

Dynastic marriage was crucial in the Middle Ages.  Kings and great dukes and counts wanted their children to marry spouses from the highest aristocracy.  Because for much of the Middle Ages there were strict prohibitions on consanguinity, that is marrying cousins, aristocrats had to look far afield to find suitably elevated non-cousins.

When we talk about avoiding cousin marriage, we usually mean first cousins.  Until the thirteenth century, the prohibition went all the way to fourth or fifth cousins, that is people who shared a common ancestor six or seven generations back.  Given that the number of one's ancestors doubles with every generation (two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc.), this was going to be quite a challenge.

So marriage in the Middle Ages created a network  of family ties stretching hundreds of miles, from England to Scandinavia to France to Spain to Italy to eastern Europe to Byzantium to Russia.  During the tenth century both the Scandinavian kings and the Russian leaders, who announced that they were kings, converted to Christianity, which meant that their family members were eligible to marry aristocrats in the Christian west.  (The Russians, or Rus as they are more properly called, had their capital at Kiev, so maybe they should be considered Ukrainian rather than Russian.)

Among famous long-distance marriages was Theophanu, the Byzantine wife of the German emperor Otto II (d. 983).  From Constantinople she was sent off to Germany, where this Greek-speaking princess had to adjust to a foreign country, a foreign language, a foreign climate, and a foreign court, in which nonetheless she soon wielded considerable power.  Another example is Anna, Russian wife of King Henry I of France (d. 1060).  She too arrived in a court where everything would have seemed completely foreign, although, unlike Theophanu, she would have known about bitterly cold winters before arriving in western Europe.

Interestingly, the name Philip, which became a very common name among French kings, began with Anna's son, Philip I.  She named him for Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great.  The Russians claimed that not only had they adopted an orthodoxy derived from Greek Orthodoxy, but they were really Greek the whole time, only better!  I doubt many people believed this, but connecting the French royal house to a great hero of antiquity was very appealing.

In all these long-distance marriages, the assumption was that women would give their full attention and loyalty to the family into which they married.  In practice, however, these women stayed in touch with their natal families if they possibly could and often arranged advantageous positions or even further marriages for their brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews.

Dr. Christian Raffensperger has compiled a data base of great dynastic marriages of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, with a special focus on those who married members of the Rus, and created a map which shows all the marriage connections over hundreds of miles.  The map is sponsored by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and is accessible here

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For medieval marriage and so much more, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Monday, March 18, 2019


Medieval churches could be places of sanctuary.  That is, malefactors could hide out in a church and be (sort of) safe from attack.  It wasn't absolute, and there were no clear guidelines on where the sanctuary area began (church steps? the cemetery? the altar?).  One also had to hope that the priests or monks in the church didn't throw one out.

But because those in the church resisted bloodshed and capital punishment, churches could be good places to which to escape.  In the Merovingian era, when brothers and cousins in the royal family often plotted against each other, one prince spent months in a monastery hiding from his relatives.

But there was more to it.  One of the chief issues was conflict over jurisdiction.  Although it might seem confusing to us now, in the Middle Ages people had no trouble thinking of the landscape as divided into many different jurisdictions.  So you'd have the duke or count, the local castellan, several churches, maybe a city council, all claiming the right to have cases (both criminal and civil) heard in their courts.  Sometimes this depended on where the crime took place (or whose tenants the claimants were in a civil case), sometimes how serious the case was.

In England the situation was further complicated by the English sheriffs, who both prosecuted and judged criminal cases and who supposedly represented the crown.  Many French cities in the twelfth century worked out elaborate agreements between count, bishop, and city council over who had the right to prosecute which cases.

So the assertion of sanctuary was an assertion that the church had jurisdiction, the right to decide whether or when someone would be brought to judgment.  One interesting story that combined sanctuary with conflict over jurisdiction was told in the town of Bury St. Edmund in England.  Here the major church was the monastery that had the relics of Saint Edmund, a Christian martyr, and the monks collected miracle stories about their martyred saint.

Supposedly a wicked sheriff decided he wanted to prosecute a woman who had irked him (wicked sheriffs are found a lot of places besides the Robin Hood stories).  But she had sought sanctuary in St. Edmund's church.  The wicked sheriff was not happy about this and said, "Let's see who is more powerful, the judge [that is, he himself] in condemning people, or the martyr in freeing people."  (Given that this story was told by people recording the miracles of Saint Edmund, you can probably guess that it is not going to end well for the sheriff.)

So he sent his men into the church, pushing past the protesting monks, to drag the woman out.  The monks cursed them with all the curses of the Old Testament and called on their saint to "unfurl his war banners" and crush God's enemies.

The wicked sheriff stayed outside the church, in fact hiding behind a priest's tomb, in the hope that he would thus avoid committing sacrilege.  As you probably already guessed, this didn't work.  No sooner did his men drag the woman out of the church than the sheriff went mad, falling down screaming and foaming at the mouth.  His men dropped the woman, who quickly escaped, while trying to figure out what was wrong with their boss.  As if they couldn't guess!

He died shortly thereafter and was buried, but his body worked its way back to the surface.  It was widely considered that he was possessed by a demon, both in life and death.  Rather than let him further pollute the graveyard, the city council had him sewn into a calf's skin, weighted down, and sunk in the lake.

Stories like this underscored the importance of sanctuary and warned people about defying the martyr, as well as settling the particular case's question about who had jurisdiction.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Wednesday, March 13, 2019


When we think of medieval foods, do we think of yogurt?  After all, it seems sort of New Age-y.  But it was one of the "foreign" foods that reached Europe during the Middle Ages, as discussed with other examples in my previous post.  Europe was never sealed off from the rest of the world, and if they hadn't gotten a lot of new foods from elsewhere, they might have been eating bread and dandelion greens and not much else.

Yogurt is basically fermented milk, fermented with Lactobacillus, a kind of bacteria that digests milk but doesn't cause disease.  It's quite easy to make, just heat the yogurt to the right temperature in the right conditions, and the bacteria go to work.  (These days commercial yogurt has the right bacteria in the right amounts mixed in, whereas medieval yogurt had to hope they were there.  Not knowing that bacteria existed meant they had to watch for their effect.)

Medieval people had cows but no easy way to store milk.  Pasteurization was not invented until the nineteenth century (which both sterilizes milk and extends its life.)  So milk either had to be drunk very fresh, or else made into butter and cheese, or else made into yogurt, which would last longer than fresh milk though not as long as butter or cheese.

Yogurt probably goes back to the ancient Near East (Mesopotamia), though there is a strong tradition that it was invented by the Mongols, who supposedly filled up their saddle bags with milk, which then thickened and fermented due to the heat of the horse and rider.  (I find this very questionable--how about you?)  The Mongols at any rate eat yogurt today, though the term "fermented mares' milk" may put off the squeamish.

Wherever it began, yogurt became widespread in antiquity in India and the eastern Mediterranean.  The Greeks seem to have eaten it, though calling it oxygala.   The Russians took it up, probably getting it from the Byzantines along with Orthodoxy.  The Turks, who moved into the Mediterranean basin in the eleventh century, were very fond of it and called it yoghurt.

Though yogurt was common in the Mediterranean region in the Middle Ages, northern Europe was slow to take it up.  One story says that it only became popular in France in the sixteenth century, when an Arabic physician cured the king of a digestive upset by feeding him yogurt.

Because the English and the Germans who were the primary settlers of the American Thirteen Colonies had not eaten yogurt at home, it was slow to reach the US.  It really only became common in the early twentieth century, being pushed as a healthful way to eat better and live longer by Mr. Kellogg, who also invented corn flakes (marketed for the same purpose).

Many now claim that yogurt is digestible even for all of those who are lactose-intolerant—which is a high proportion of a population that stops drinking milk once weaned from mother's milk.  It is also claimed that yogurt can restore a healthy bacterial balance in one's digestive system.  These may all be true, though there's still enough New Age-y overtone to American yogurt that one has to wonder.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Monday, March 11, 2019

Foreign food in the Middle Ages

A lot of foods that Americans now take for granted were once considered foreign foods.  Pizza, now one of the most popular American things to eat, really only appeared in the US after World War II.  (I've heard it said now that anyone who knows how to make a good pizza can get a job anywhere in the country.)  Chinese stir fry, sushi, tacos, Greek olives, and so much more have similarly been thoroughly domesticated.

In the Middle Ages, "foreign" foods were also introduced and taken up.  A lot of them came originally from Asia.  Dishes and ingredients that had already been popular in India spread to Persia (modern Iran), and from there to the Muslim Mediterranean.  The Spanish peninsula, which was at least partially under Islamic control during the Middle Ages, was a conduit for new dishes to reach western Europe.

An important migrating vegetable was the eggplant.  From India it spread to Persia, where an eggplant-lamb dish became very popular among the upper classes, and from there onward eventually to Europe, which it reached in the ninth century.  Eggplant however will not grow everywhere in Europe, as it needs lots of sun and also lots of irrigation, so northern Europe did not take it up until more recently.

Why is a purple vegetable called eggplant?  The version first introduced into England was white, not purple (you can still get white eggplant at farmers' markets) and more round than elongate, hence looking sort of like an egg with a green stem, as seen below.  The French call it aubergine, a word that might suggest something grown and served at an inn, but which is in fact a corruption of al-badinjan, the Arabic name for it.  Aubergine is also now the name of a dark purple color.  (Recipe tip:  always use lots of olive oil and spices when cooking eggplant.)

Spinach made a similar journey, reaching western Europe in the ninth century.  Spinach, however, will grow readily in many conditions and does not need nearly as long a growing season as eggplant, so it very quickly spread across medieval Europe.  Spinach has iron (as Popeye knew), so it provided needed nutrients to the medieval diet when in season.

Apricots also spread across Europe around the same time.  The trees are more cold-tolerant than peaches, which helped their spread.  The name is a corruption of the Arabic al-barquq.  The fruit bruises easily,  so it really does not transport well (which is why apricots in the store are usually disappointing), but people who had had the fruit liked it so much that they planted orchards of their own (no problem transporting the seed).

One dish we may now think of as "foreign" is lasagna.  Italian, not English, right?  But in fact it was known both in England and in Sicily in the thirteenth century, as cookbooks from then attest.  In both cases, they probably got it from the Normans, who may have invented it.  Now it wasn't the same as our lasagna, because there was no tomato sauce, but it was a dish with layers of flat noodles and lots of cheese.

Much of the information in this post is based on the important scholarship on food being done by Dr. Katie Peebles.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Medieval measurements

Medieval people used the same measurements still used in the modern US and UK—or at least had measurements with the same names.  But their units and ours do not work out to be the same, and there was remarkable variety in different places.

Let's start with the mile.  The mile goes back to the Romans, who said that a "mile" was one thousand paces (one thousand is mille in Latin).  A pace was left-foot-right-foot, so we would say that each pace was a bit over five feet if using our mile.  They said a mile was 5000 feet.  How long was a foot?  As long as a person's foot! (that was easy).  But whose foot?  One emperor suggested that his foot was the standard, but there was nothing like the modern standard.  We do know, based on surviving Roman mile posts, that their mile was somewhat shorter than ours.

(And don't get me started on nautical miles, which even today are slightly longer than regular miles.  Knots today are nautical miles an hour.  There's a reason most of the planet went metric.)

In the Middle Ages, distances were given in miles, but unless old Roman mile stones were still in use, their exact length was subject to debate.  In England, more important were furlongs, which were supposed to be 1/8 of a mile.  They were "as long as a furrow" which is where the name comes from—furrows were the distance one would plow before turning the plow and going back the other way.  English Parliament came up with absolute standards for the length of a foot, a rod, a furlong, and a mile in 1593, and we've followed them ever since.  (Furlongs are still used in horse racing.)

As for shorter units, a yard was the standard measurement for cloth.  This was supposed to be from a man's nose out to the end of his outstretched hand.  Because most medieval men were less than six feet tall, their yard was smaller than our yard.  It also varied considerably.  During the Champagne trade fairs, cloth would have to be unwound from the bolt and measured and measured again using each town's own idea of a yard.  In England, where there was concerted effort in the Middle Ages for everyone to use the same measurements, the yard was supposedly based on a certain king's reach.

Then there were pounds, another unit gotten from the Romans.  As in the case of yards, if one were selling goods at a trade fair one's goods would have to be weighed and reweighed in every town, to match their weights.  French trading centers would have been mortified to have to use someone else's units of measure.  (Gold is still measured in troy-weight, the measure used in Troyes.)

Medieval documents often gave lengths in perches when specifying boundaries.  The Roman pertica had been ten Roman feet long.  By the early modern period in France, the perche was supposed to be eighteen feet (royal feet).  Medieval perches were, it seems, somewhere in between.  The modern rod is the modern equivalent of the perche and is now defined as 16 1/2 feet long.  Four rods make a chain.  These units of measure are used in surveying today in the US (come on, metric!).

Though using perches for distance, medieval people did not, however, use square-perches as a unit of surface area.  Agricultural land would be designated in jornales, that is how many days it would take to cultivate it.  This of course varied enormously, depending on whether it was flat or hilly, rocky or smooth, and what kind of plow one was using.  But in fact it was a very useful kind of measure, because it suggested how valuable it might be for raising food.

As I've discussed previously, medieval architects did not start with some decision like "this church will be three perches wide."  Rather, on the site, they would create a unit measure that would then be used for the elements of a church.  So suppose you liked a church with its 5-units-high doorway.  You would request the architect to build a church just like it, only (for example) make our unit just a little bigger!

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Friday, March 1, 2019

The Wood Nymph and the Cranky Saint

The second book in a series never gets the love or attention of the first book.  So today I want to talk a little about The Wood Nymph and the Cranky Saint, the second of my Yurt fantasy series.  (Available both as an ebook and as part of the print omnibus, My First Kingdom.  Here's the link on Amazon.)

Here our young wizard hero, who realized in the first book that if he was going to be a competent wizard it might have helped to pay attention in the wizards' school, has been a Royal Wizard for two years and has actually become sort of good at magic.  But then he has to deal with two extremes of renegade magic--the old retired wizard, who learned his magic back before the wizards' school even existed, and a newly-graduated young wizard who is just as feckless as our hero was a few years ago.

Plus cranky religion!  I'm a medievalist, so I've put into my medieval-themed fantasy genuine medieval stories about relics, saints who appear in visions, saints who blast their enemies with lightning, and other exciting tidbits.

For any book, catching the reader's eye is important, and the cover is a big part of that.  The book was originally published over 25 years ago, with the cover below.  I guess it's eye-catching, but the wood nymph of the title here looks sort of like Disney's Snow White, which she certainly shouldn't, and my young wizard hero looks like an old geezer, which he also shouldn't.

So when I made this into an ebook, I did my own cover, as seen below.  It is meant to suggest an old hermit in the woods.  (Did I mention there are hermits in the woods?)

The book is also now an audiobook.  This requires a separate, square cover.  I used an image of a mossy stream, because a lot of the book's action takes place in the woods (the hermits' woods) where there's a mossy stream that comes out of a cave in the side of a cliff.  (The actual stream is in Burgundy, if anyone is interested.)

Now I like this cover just fine, but my narrator finds it unexciting.  So I've created a new cover that now appears on Audible.  This is a reliquary from the Middle Ages and evokes the reliquary of the Holy Toe in the book.  (I told you there were relics in it.)

So if you're interested in listening to audiobooks, you'll get the above cover.  My narrator does a great job, so I highly recommend the audiobooks.  Audible, where they are to be found, is so eager to get new listeners that they're usually running a free trial, so give it a whirl!

Here's the link to the first audiobook in the series, A Bad Spell in Yurt, where you might as well start, for US and for UK listeners.  Enjoy!

© C. Dale Brittain 2019