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.