Thursday, May 30, 2019

Tiny Houses

There's a trend now to "tiny houses."  Of course most people aren't interested in such things, except perhaps as a backyard studio (for one thing, where would you put all the Stuff?), but the idea of a radically simple lifestyle, a few hundred square feet with just enough space for a tiny kitchen, a bed, a place to sit and a place to eat, has a certain appeal.

Now if a tiny house is going to function today it needs plumbing and electricity and a stove and a refrigerator, at a minimum.  Medieval people (most of them) lived in what we'd call tiny houses, but it wasn't because it was trendy.  It was because that's what houses were like.

Okay, a medieval castle was a pretty big building.  But let's face it.  Most of us our ancestors were peasants, living not in castles but in what we would probably be more likely to describe as a "hut" than a "cottage."  They didn't have plumbing or electricity or stoves or refrigerators or furnaces.  They did however have a place to sleep and a place to sit and a place to eat.  Cooking could either take place over an indoor fire (usually an open fire in the middle of the room rather than in a fireplace) or over an outdoor fire out back.  There might be a spring house to keep things cool, but there was no refrigeration.  There was certainly no plumbing.  There might not even be a privy, though there was always the handy dung heap.

These houses were usually made out of wattle and daub, sticks (not big pieces of wood) woven together and filled in with mud, plaster, or dung, and maybe some stones or old Roman bricks.  (See more here on medieval building materials.)  The floor would be dirt.  You had to be a fancy person to have a tile floor.  Peasants did not however like being dirty, and archaeology has revealed that the floors of a lot of these houses were vigorously swept so much that one might have to step down to get in from outside.

We think of houses in the US as being free standing, but medieval peasants' houses were usually snuggled up to the barn, where the animals were kept.  They didn't actually share their space with animals (other than maybe a cat), but the animals were right on the other side of the wall.  This both made it easier to take care of them and provided extra body heat in the winter.

In town, houses were built right up next to each other.  They might be a little bigger than a peasant's house, in that they could be two or three stories tall, but a lot of people would live in one of those houses, and they were very close to their neighbors.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on peasants and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see the ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Medieval Medicine

There were two main forms of medical practitioners in the Middle Ages, as I've mentioned before, the highly-trained theoretical ones, and the ones with practical experience but little training.  In the first group were those who attended medical school—Salerno and Montpellier both had medical schools by the thirteenth century (and indeed still do).  The second group included barber-surgeons and midwives.  And then there were those somewhere in between.

Much theoretical medicine was based on ancient texts, especially Aristotle.  People who had never looked at an actual dissected body looked at drawings in books and believed them.  One recurrent problem was that the drawings of what was supposed to be the human liver actually portrayed a pig's liver—you can tell the difference because a pig's liver has lots of protruding lobes, which the human liver does not.

Much theoretical medicine was based on the theory of "humours," the four fluids that were supposed to shape not only one's health but one's personality:  blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile.  The idea went back to Hippocrates.  We still use the terms "sanguine" (meaning confident) and "phlegmatic" (meaning rather calm and unemotional), personality traits associated with the predominance of one of the humours.  For medical purposes, it was believed that many ills could be cured by rebalancing the humours, which is why bleeding was long practiced as a way to cure people for whom blood had (supposedly) become too dominant.

Theoretical medicine also assumed that nature gave us hints about curative properties.  So caraway seeds were thought to help cure infertility if glued to one's thigh, the idea being that the seed shape would inspire other seeds to take root.  (The church considered reliance on caraway seeds a heresy.  This didn't stop it.)  If medieval doctors had had kidney beans (they didn't, as they are New World), they would have confidently (even sanguinely) said that they were good against kidney disease.

Medically trained doctors also believed that the worse the disease, the more powerful the medicine needed to be.  If one were given a good dose of mercury, it's true that you wouldn't have to worry about dying of the bubonic plague.

Barber-surgeons, on the other hand, had a good practical knowledge of how the human body worked from having cut up a few.  The prohibition against dissecting bodies only started during the Protestant Reformation.  Barber-surgeons had lots of sharp knives, used both for shaving and for surgery, and they would cut up living people too, to get rid of cancer or to deliver a breech baby (one might survive the former, maybe, but not the latter).  They of course did not have anesthesia or what we would call sterile conditions, though they did try at least for the latter.  After all, even though they didn't know about bacteria (no one did until the nineteenth century), they certainly knew about infection.

Cataracts might be treated by applying a hot iron to the eye.  Thanks, I'll stick with modern approaches.

Midwives delivered babies and dealt with other feminine ailments.  They were big fans of caraway seeds.  Women gave birth sitting up (or reclining) rather than lying on their backs with their feet in the air (the twentieth-century method), which gave gravity a chance to help out.  Maternal mortality was higher than in the modern West but lower than in the nineteenth century, when doctors would give women in labor lots of chloroform, having come straight themselves from trying to treat someone with an infectious disease, without washing up.

Then there was the help-the-sick-stay-warm-and-clean approach adopted at hospitals, of which a number were built between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries.  They were generally staffed by nuns; British nurses are still called Sister.  Here the ill were fed chicken soup and sprinkled with saint dust and, with luck, their immune systems would kick in and they'd feel better.  (See more here on medieval hospitals.)

People working at the hospitals tried to create good combinations of herbs that might be medicinal.  They would watch what plants animals ate to see what might be safe.  A typical medicine might be dried quince, rose syrup, and ginger, all cooked together in wine.  (Had to be better than mercury.)

The above is a cabinet of medicinal herbs at a medieval hospital.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Birthdays in the Middle Ages

Birthdays are a big deal in the modern West.  A lot of milestones turn on birthdays, such as being old enough to drive, old enough to vote, old enough to drink, even old enough to compete in the Olympics.  People in the US will sometimes celebrate their 21st birthday by going to a bar on the first day they are legally able to do so.

Birthdays were much less important in the Middle Ages.  One did not celebrate with presents and birthday cake.  (What?  No cake?  I hate to break it to you, but they didn't have chocolate either.)

There was a vague sense of the "stages of life" where one reached the "age of consent" at 7 and the "age of reason" at 14 (details varied a lot depending on who you asked), but no one tried to cling to age 39 or felt that once they were in their 50s things were different, or hummed the Simon and Garfunkel song about "how terribly strange to be seventy."  (Much less the Beatles song about "when I'm 64."  Paul McCartney has said he's changed it to 84 when he sings it now.)

When someone important died, it was often noted how old they had been, but since keeping track of the day or even the year of their birthday was not a big deal when they were little, one cannot expect this always to be accurate.  Saint Anthony, father of monasticism, was said to reach 105.  Maybe.

The only real birthday that medieval people celebrated with gusto was of course Christmas, the supposed birthday of Jesus.  But even that celebration, as I have discussed elsewhere, was far outshone by Easter, which is far more significant theologically.  (And medieval accounts of Jesus's incarnation and birth always looked forward toward his death—the myrrh given to him by magi was used in embalming.)

The real date that was remembered most vividly for an individual was not the day of their birth but the day of their death.  Christians of course believe that Jesus died and rose again, and although ordinary people were not expected to rise again on this earth, the day of their death was a crucial one.  One's death date became one's anniversary.  People would establish what were called anniversaries in the Middle Ages, special prayers to be said on the same day of the year each year for the soul of their dear departed.

This is not unique to medieval Christianity, of course.  Modern people will remember a loved one on the day that they died, and modern Judaism has certain rituals used to honor them on that day.

Every day of the year was celebrated as some saint's day, and which saint went with which day was determined almost always by the date on which the saint had died.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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

Friday, May 10, 2019

A Bad Spell in Yurt

I'm sort of an amphibian author, who has been published both by a traditional New York City publishing house (Baen) and independently (by me), with books available both as paperbacks and as ebooks. But don't worry, I haven't been turned into a frog.

My first published book was A Bad Spell in Yurt, originally published by Baen in 1991.  It was a national fantasy best-seller when it first appeared and has continued to gain new readers ever since.  It doubtless benefited from the fact that I'd had lots of experience in writing stories—one gets better at writing the more one does so, just as one gets better at everything from tennis to cooking with practice.  I've been writing stories since I was five years old, and had first tried to get a novel accepted by a publisher back in high school.  So after 25 years I was an overnight success!

The book is a story of a young wizard who believes the tiny kingdom of Yurt is the perfect place for someone who barely graduated from the wizards' school, after all that embarrassment with the frogs.  But as he takes up his duties as new Royal Wizard he senses malignant forces at work....  Finding out who is responsible and saving his kingdom will take all his ingenuity and all the magic he didn't exactly learn properly in the first place, with his own life the price of failure.

Part of the success of Bad Spell I'm sure was the excellent, eye-catching cover by Tom Kidd.  Although the original Baen paperback is out of print, it's now back in print as a trade (large-format) paperback with the same great cover art.  Tom made my wizard hero, Daimbert, look a lot like himself, even though he's never worn a hat like that in his life.

The book is available (both ebook and paperback) from Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, and B&N/Nook.  Here's the US Amazon link.  If you buy the paperback from Amazon, you can get the ebook for a substantial discount.

Here's the opening, to whet your appetite.


I was not a very good wizard.  But it was not a very big kingdom.  I assumed I was the only person to answer their ad, for in a short time I had a letter back from the king's constable, saying the job was mine if I still wanted it, and that I should report to take up the post of Royal Wizard in six weeks.
It took most of the six weeks to grow in my beard, and then I dyed it grey to make myself look older.  Two days before leaving for my kingdom, I went down to the emporium to buy a suitable wardrobe.
Of course at the emporium they knew all about us young wizards from the wizards' school.  They looked at us dubiously, took our money into the next room to make sure it stayed money even when we weren't there, and tended to count the items on the display racks in a rather conspicuous way.  But I knew the manager of the clothing department—he'd even helped me once pick out a Christmas present for my grandmother, which I think endeared me to him as much as to her.
He was on the phone when I came in.  "What do you mean, you won't take it back?  But our buyer never ordered it!"  While waiting for him, I picked out some black velvet trousers, just the thing, I thought, to give me a wizardly flair.
The manager slammed down the phone.  "So what am I supposed to do with this?" he demanded of no one in particular.  "This" was a shapeless red velvet pullover, with some rather tattered white fur at the neck.  It might have been intended to be part of a Father Noel costume.
I was entranced.  "I'll take it!"
"Are you sure?  But what will you do with it?"
"I'm going to be a Royal Wizard.  It will help me strike the right note of authority and mystery."
"Speaking of mystery, what's all the fuzzy stuff on your chin?"
I was proud of my beard, but since he gave me the pullover for almost nothing, I couldn't be irritated.  When I left for my kingdom, I felt resplendent in velvet, red for blood and black for the powers of darkness.
It was only two hundred miles, and probably most of the young wizards would have flown themselves, but I insisted on the air cart.  "I need to make the proper impression of grandeur when I arrive," I said.  Besides—and they all knew it even though I didn't say it—I wasn't sure I could fly that far.
The air cart was the skin of a purple beast that had been born flying.  Long after the beast was dead, its skin continued to fly, and it could be guided by magic commands.  It brought me steeply up from the wizards' complex at the center of the City, and I looked back as the white city spires fell away.  It had been a good eight years, but I felt ready for new challenges.  We soared across plains, forests, and hills all the long afternoon, before finally banking steeply over what I had been calling "my" kingdom for the last six weeks.
From above there scarcely seemed to be more to the kingdom than a castle, for beyond the castle walls there was barely room for the royal fields and pastures before thick green woods closed in.  A bright garden lay just outside the castle walls, and pennants snapped from all the turrets.  The air cart dipped, folded its wings, and set me down with a bump in the courtyard.
I looked around and loved it at once.  It was a perfect child's toy of a castle, the stone walls freshly whitewashed and the green shutters newly painted.  The courtyard was a combination of clean-swept cobbles, manicured flower beds, and tidy gravel paths.  On the far side of the courtyard, a well-groomed horse put his head over a white half-door and whinnied at me.
A man and woman came toward me, both dressed in starched blue and white.  "Welcome to the Kingdom of Yurt.  I am the king's constable, and this is my wife."  They both bowed deeply, which flustered me, but I covered it by striking a pose of dignity.
"Thank you," I said in my deepest voice.  "I'm sure I will find much here to interest me."  The air cart was twitching, eager to be flying again.  "If you could just help me with my luggage—"
The constable helped me unload the boxes, while his wife ran to open the door to my chambers.  The door opened directly onto the courtyard.  I had somehow expected either a tower or a dungeon and wondered if this was suitably dignified, but at least it meant we didn't have far to carry the boxes.  They were heavy, too, and I had not had enough practice with the spell for lifting more than one heavy thing at a time to want to try in front of an audience.
The air cart took off again as soon as it was empty.  I watched it soar away, my last direct link with the City, then turned to start unpacking.  Both the constable and his wife stayed with me, eager to talk.  I was just as eager to have them, because I wanted to find out more about Yurt.
"The kingdom's never had a wizard from the wizards' school before," said the constable.  I was unpacking my certificate for completing the eight years' program.  Although, naturally, it didn't say anything about honors or special merit or even areas of distinction, it really was impressive.  That was why I had packed it on top.  It was a magic certificate, of course, nearly six feet long when unrolled.  My name, Daimbert, was written in letters of fire that flickered as you watched.  Stars twinkled around the edges, and the deep blue and maroon flourishes turned to gold when you touched them.  It came with its own spell to adhere to walls, so I hung it up in the outer of my two chambers, the one I would use as my study.
"Our old wizard's just retired," the constable continued.  "He must be well past two hundred years old, and when he was young you had to serve an apprenticeship to become a wizard.  They didn't have all the training you have now."
I ostentatiously opened my first box of books.
"He's moved down to a little house at the edge of the forest.  That's why we had to hire a new wizard.  I'm sure he'd be delighted to meet you if you ever had time to visit him."
"Oh, good," I thought with more relief than was easy to admit, even to myself.  "Someone who may actually know some magic if I get into trouble."
I took my books out one by one and arranged them on the shelves:  the Ancient and Modern Necromancy, all five volumes of Thaumaturgy A to Z, the Index to Spell Key Words, and the rest, most barely thumbed.  As I tried to decide whether to put the Elements of Transmogrification next to Basic Metamorphosis, which would make sense thematically but not aesthetically, since they were such different sizes, I thought I should have plenty of quiet evenings here, away from the distractions of the City, and might even get a chance to read them.  If I had done more than skim those two volumes, I might have avoided all that embarrassment with the frogs in the practical exam.
"You'll meet the king this evening, but he's authorized me to tell you some of our hopes.  We've never had a telephone system, but now that you're here we're sure we'll be able to get one."
I was flabbergasted.  In the City telephones were so common that you tended to forget how complicated was the magic by which they ran.  It was new magic, too, not more than forty years old, something that Yurt's old wizard would never have learned but which was indeed taught at the wizards' school.  How was I going to explain I had managed to avoid that whole sequence of courses?
He saw my hesitation.  "We realize we're rather remote, and that the magic is not easy.  No one is expecting anything for at least a few weeks.  But everyone was so excited when you answered our ad!  We'd been afraid we might have to settle for a magician, but instead we have a fully-trained and qualified wizard!"
"Don't worry the boy with his duties so soon," the constable's wife said to him, but smiling as she scolded.  "He'll have plenty of time to get started tomorrow."
"Tomorrow!  A few weeks!" I thought but had the sense not to say anything.  I didn't even have the right books.  If I did nothing else, I might be able to derive the proper magic from basic principles in four or five years.  I was too upset even to resent being called "the boy"—so much for the grey beard!
"We'll leave you alone now," said the constable.  "But dinner's in an hour, and then you can meet some of the rest."  I had seen faces peeping out of windows as we went back and forth with the luggage, but no one else had come to meet me.  While I unpacked my clothes, I tried gloomily to think of plausible excuses why Yurt could not possibly have a telephone system.  Nearby antitelephonic demonic influences and the importance of maintaining a rustic, unspoiled lifestyle seemed the most promising.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

Tuesday, May 7, 2019


As I mentioned briefly in a recent post on double monasteries, one of the very few double monasteries (a house with both monks and nuns) in the High Middle Ages was Fontevraud, in Anjou (western France).  Both men and women in religious orders, as well as lepers in a separate lazar-house, were under the direction of an abbess, a woman.

Fontevraud is worth further discussion.  It became a royally-favored monastery, where kings and queens of England were buried in the late twelfth century (because these kings and queens also controlled Normandy and Anjou in France), but its origins were far from elegant or royal.  Below is the tomb of Richard the Lionheart.

The monastery was originally founded at the beginning of the twelfth century by a man named Robert of Arbrissel.  He had been a preacher and a hermit in the late eleventh century, like many men who read (or heard) the New Testament's call for radical rejection of things of the world.  He soon gathered other hermits around him to form a small monastery.

But he always wanted to preach as well as to withdraw from the world.  He managed (exactly how has never been clear) to become officially recognized by the pope as an apostolic preacher, and he spent much of his life wandering around, going from city to city to preach salvation and the importance of giving up worldly things.

These days we tend to cross the street to avoid someone shouting about salvation.  At that time, without all the forms of entertainment we take for granted, a preacher was interesting and exciting.  And Robert was apparently very persuasive.  He would often gather a group of penitents who would then follow him when he left town, full of religious enthusiasm.

A lot of these were women.  Probably most of them soon said, "What was I thinking?" and turned back, rather than sleep out in a field on the way to the next town, but some persisted.  This was very disturbing to the local bishop.  He essentially accused Robert of luring women away from their families to satisfy his own sexual urges, especially since some of the penitent women appear to have been prostitutes.  Both Robert and the women said this was most certainly not the case.

But Robert was persuaded to found a nunnery for these women, rather than have them continue to wander around with him.  This nunnery was Fontevraud.  Men who had also followed Robert were welcome at Fontevraud, but in a separate structure away from the nuns.  A woman was made abbess of the whole congregation.  Robert ordered that all abbesses should be women who had previously been married and who had experience in worldly administration, rather than women who had become nuns as young girls.

You notice that Robert did not become abbot himself.  This is because an abbot would have had to stay with his monks, whereas Robert was soon off preaching again.  He did not dress in proper clerical garb (or what the bishop considered proper clerical garb), but rather went around looking like a hermit, barefoot, in rough and dirty clothes, and did not bother with hair and beard grooming.  This was very disturbing to the bishop, who accused him of looking like a madman or the village idiot.  Exactly what constituted holiness was contested territory.

Robert's biography was written twice after his death in 1117, probably in the hope (ultimately unsuccessful) that he would be declared a saint.  Both versions of his "life" have been translated by Bruce L. Venarde in Robert of Arbrissel:  A Medieval Religious Life (Catholic University Press, 2003).

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on monks, nuns, and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see the ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other major ebook platforms.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Forgery in the Middle Ages

Forgery is bad.  We all agree on this.  Forging someone's signature on a check, creating a fake ID so one can drink in the bar at age 20 instead of 21, this is all wrong.  So is calling up someone and saying you're from the IRS and unless they wire you thousands of dollars right away they will be arrested.  So is telling the judge in traffic court that the light was green when you sailed into the intersection (where another car inexplicably materialized) and you weren't looking at your phone, no, not a bit!

But how about medieval attitudes toward forgery?  Their attitudes were pretty much the same as ours.  Augustine wrote on lying and why expressing something that wasn't true, whether in speech or in writing, was a sin.  (His attitude isn't surprising--lying is mentioned in the Ten Commandments.)  But just as modern people may consider a tiny fib not really wrong "if it doesn't really hurt anyone,"  people in the Middle Ages were capable of expressing things that weren't exactly true.

Medieval scholars have been interested since the seventeenth century, when medieval studies really began, in separating real from forged documents.  There has been a strong suspicion of any copies of documents made in the Middle Ages, concern that the copy may have "improved" the content of the original or even be a total fabrication.  Because before the eighth century documents were generally written on papyrus, most of which would be totally lost to us if they hadn't later been copied onto parchment, we are really dependent on post-eighth-century copyists for information on the early Middle Ages--or for that matter the Roman Empire.  (The image below is of a thirteenth-century book into which earlier documents were copied.)

For a long time historians were interested in "what really happened," and any forged (or "improved") document was tossed aside, along with saints' lives and anything else that didn't match modern standards.  More recently historians have become interested again in forgeries.  Once we decided that the really interesting question was "what did people in the past think was important and interesting," rather than just "what happened in what order," historians have decided there is value in studying forgery.

Examining forged documents should not be seen as just determining the truth, because, as already suggested, there was a lot of gray area.  Sometimes medieval scribes just made their best guesses as to what a document said when it was almost illegible, or they corrected spelling or grammar--should we call this a forgery because it's not exactly like the original?  Or sometimes they abbreviated a verbose text--is this not an accurate transcription?  Out and out forgeries were fairly rare.

But sometimes medieval monks might nonetheless forge (in the full sense of the word, which is related to forging implements in a blacksmith's shop, taking raw materials and turning them into something useful).  Sometimes they just knew that (for example) Charlemagne had been generous to them, and since inexplicably there were no documents from him in the archives, they created some.  This was part of an attempt to create a "useful past," an account of past events that worked for their present.

At the monastery of St.-Denis, outside of Paris, the monks went so far in the eleventh century as to take some old, genuine papyrus documents they still had in their archives, turn them over, and write new charters on the backs--charters much more useful to them than what the papyrus had actually said.  (They glued the papyrus to parchment, original charter face down.)

In other cases people forged documents to try to win in court.  A well-known example took place in ninth-century Le Mans (now known for its 24-hour car race, an important religious center then).  The bishop was trying to assert authority over a nearby monastery, which thought it should be independent.  Both bishop and monastery appealed to King Charles the Bald, bringing with them a large collection of forged documents saying that half a millennium of kings and saints had said the monks were dependent on the bishop (or vice versa).  Imagine everyone's dismay when Charles said all these documents were forgeries, ordered them all burned, and said the monastery was in fact his own personal property.  (That didn't turn out well for anyone.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

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