Thursday, April 30, 2020

Ebook Covers

There's an old saying, "You can't tell a book from its cover," meaning that what something looks like on the surface doesn't necessarily tell you what it's really like.  It's certainly true literally, that sometimes a very boring cover will be found on an exciting book, or an intriguing cover on a very weak book.  And we all know in getting books from the library that often their hardcover books have just plain, cloth covers in a solid color, with the old paper jacket long gone.

But how about ebooks?  You aren't going along a shelf, either looking for something specific or waiting for a title to catch your eye.  You're browsing a series of small ("thumbnail") images of covers.  As ebooks burgeon in numbers (there are at least 8 million on Amazon), authors try to make their book covers say, "Buy me!" to separate them from the pack.

Now, back when I first published the first book in my major fantasy series, A Bad Spell in Yurt, this was way pre-ebooks.  Books were sold in physical bookstores.  But it had an intriguing cover by Tom Kidd which made it stand out from the other fantasy books on the "new releases" table.  (The image below is the Kidd cover, now the ebook cover on Amazon.  I paid him for the rights to be able to use it again.)

I picked up enough readers with that cover (and have continued to do so over the years) that the rest of the series has sold just fine, with varying covers.

But recently I decided to redo the covers on the series novellas.  A novella is a short novel, and these were designed to recount events in between the events of the six main novels.  They stand alone (that is, you don't need to have read other books in the series), so I was also hoping to lure in new readers.

Originally I published them with covers I made myself using a simple graphics program.  The Lost Girls and the Kobold ebook has magical mountains as a major plot component, so I used a photo I took of mountains (the foothills of the Rockies, between Cody and Yellowstone), and the Below the Wizards' Tower story takes place in a city with towers, on the ocean, so I used a tower (Fougères castle in Brittany).

But are these covers intriguing enough?  I have nothing against my own covers, and my "blog book" (image and link at bottom of this page) features my own photo of Fleckenstein castle in Alsace.  But these novellas had been doing well, so I decided to "reward" them with new covers from Self Pub Book Covers.

Independent book publishing (which is what I do) has, as I have discussed previously, spawned a whole service industry of "helpers," including companies that design covers.  This company specializes in "pre-mades," where the graphic artist designs a lot of covers with different images, and the author comes along and chooses one that looks good and puts their own title on it.

(This works for the graphic artist, who can crank out some "pre-mades" between assignments, and who doesn't have to worry that the author will come back and say, "I know I told you to make the cat a tabby, but now I've decided it should be white.  Plus add a dog. No, not that kind of dog."  It also works for the author who might have trouble visualizing a good cover without some samples.) 

So below you'll see my new covers.  They are by respectively R.L. Sather and Viergacht.  How do you like them compared to the originals?

Below the Wizards' Tower (The Royal Wizard of Yurt Book 8) by [C. Dale Brittain]
© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For aspects of medieval history (rather than fantasy), see my book Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other platforms, both as a paperback and an ebook.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

After the plague

As I have posted before, the Middle Ages certainly had epidemics, most notably the Black Death, usually known now as the bubonic plague (it also had a variant, the pneumonic plague, even more virulent).  I used to have trouble explaining to my students how serious the plague was in the fourteenth century and how much it disrupted what one might think of as normal.  Some would say, Is it like AIDS?  No, because AIDS is not particularly contagious, and people can live with it for years.  In the future it may be easier to explain the plague:  it's more like COVID-19.

Now the plague was far more deadly than our current epidemic.   Estimates are that maybe a third of Europe's population was wiped out within a year or two.  We are nowhere near that figure yet, but there's still time.

Part of Europe's problem in the fourteenth century was that it was impossible to practice "social distancing."  Houses were small and close together, so for most people "self-quarantining" away from everyone else was just not possible.  The same problem, that one cannot put distance between oneself and other people, is why the current disease has spread so rapidly in places like cruise ships, prisons, and Mediterranean countries where houses are still small and close together.  In the case of the plague, the disease could be spread by fleas, so staying 6 (or 12) feet apart was not going to be enough anyway.

Without modern medical treatments and sanitizers, medieval people could try to flee (often taking the disease with them), but the overall response was by necessity something close to what is now described as "ride it out," keep on trying to act normal, and figure that after a while everyone who was going to die is dead, and the rest either are immune or have recovered.

Well, the problem with that approach then (as it would be now) is that an awful lot of people die, and whatever health care facilities you have are overwhelmed, so a lot of those who die might have had a chance to recover in better circumstances.

And what happens then?  Well, in spite of happy hopes one sometimes hears expressed, you can't just restart an economy devastated by a pandemic.  In fourteenth-century Europe, trade routes had been completely disrupted, cities (the centers of economic exchange) decimated, churches and law courts emptied, and any sense of optimism for the future dealt a pretty significant blow.  You can't just put an economy back together when a lot of the people on whom the economy depends are dead.

Europe's cities shrank and did not return to their pre-plague size for at least another century.  Italian merchants who survived stopped putting their money into commerce, which looked decidedly iffy, and started patronizing art instead, kick-starting the Italian Renaissance.  Religious expression became far more morbid, with "dance of death" a common artistic scene:  Death is portrayed dancing across the countryside, bringing everyone with him, rich and poor, young and old, men and women.

Many started creating what might be considered double-decker tombstones, two depictions of the deceased carved in stone, one above the other like bunk beds.  In one the deceased would be seen dressed and peacefully sleeping, as seen in elite tombs for generations.  In the other, the deceased would be depicted as partially decayed, complete with worms carved in stone.

The only ones to come out of the plague better off (besides the Italian artists) were the peasants, if one can put "better off" and "many friends and family members dead" in the same sentence.  Europe had been overpopulated, without enough land (using fourteenth-century techniques and crops) to adequately feed the population.  Losing a third to a half of the population certainly solved that pesky problem!  Peasant families could start farming more land, because a lot of their neighbors were gone.  Landlords who relied on peasant rents and labor had to lower rents or pay more for labor if they didn't want to have to grow their own food themselves, because there was competition for the surviving peasant workers.

In some places landlords fought back.  England for example passed laws trying to keep peasants from demanding higher wages or lower rents.  These were not nearly as successful as hoped.  The peasants in turn fought back, becoming aware, really for the first time, that they had common cause with peasants around the country, resulting in the great Peasants Revolt of 1381.  But that's a story for another time.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval disease and other aspects of medieval history, see my book Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook  and on-line platforms.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Peasant rents

As I have discussed before, medieval peasants were not slaves.  By our standards they worked like dogs and died, worn out, at an age we would still consider young and fun.  But they had a perhaps surprising amount of control over their own lives, and in the High Middle Ages one might consider most of them agricultural tenants.

They paid rents, no more the slave of their landlord than people who rent an apartment now are the slave of their landlord.  The rents however were not the checks that we might write.  Rather, they were a mix of produce, other agricultural products (like wine or animals), manual labor, and coins.

A typical example is provided by a charter issued for the nunnery of Marcigny in 1104.  A widow named Rotrudis wanted to "take the habit" (as becoming a nun was called) and gave Marcigny all the land she had inherited from her father.  (Monasteries and nunneries expected entry gifts, because the monks or nun was going to be fed and clothed for the rest of their life.)  The land came complete with the peasants who lived on it.  They had been paying their rents to Rotrudis, and now they would pay them to the nunnery.  The charter spelled out what the nuns could expect to receive each year:  forty-two loaves of bread, forty-two bushels of oats, forty-two gallons of wine, four sheep, four piglets, four adult pigs, nine chickens (capons were specified), and twenty-three pennies.

(I note the recurring number 42--wasn't that supposed to be the "meaning of life, the universe, and everything"?  Credit The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.)

The peasants clearly had fairly prosperous farms, to be able to pay this amount in rent and have far more left to feed their families.  One will also note the mix of grain, animals, wine, and coin.  Although this particular charter did not mention labor dues, other charters from the same period often mentioned that a peasant family would send someone to work on the landlord's fields once or twice a week, or that the peasants might be expected to help with work at harvest time or provide carts for bringing the harvest from a distant field to the landlord.

Here the rents that Rotrudis had been receiving, and which the nuns would receive in the future, were spelled out in writing.  However, this was probably the first time that this had been done.  The peasants knew how much they owed.  Rotrudis knew, and presumably her father had known, back when the land in question had been his.  But since normally rent obligations were not written down (and the peasants would not have known how to read anyway), memory had to keep everyone honest.

One should also note that not all peasants were tenants.  Some held their property as "allods," land that they owned outright.  In practice, most peasants probably had some allodial land and rented other land, often from more than one landlord.  Memory was expected to keep track of a lot.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval peasants, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other ebook platforms.  Also available as a paperback!

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Medieval grandparents

All human societies have a role for grandparents, people who are no longer as active as they once were but are full of accumulated wisdom and are eager to pass it on to their children and grandchildren.  Today the ideal (though not attained nearly as often as one would hope) is to have children grow up with all four grandparents in the picture.  This was less likely in the Middle Ages.

In part people lived shorter lives, on average.  The human life "span" hasn't changed, as I've discussed earlier, that is the maximum length one might live if everything went very well, but the "expectancy" has gotten a lot longer, that is how long one might on average expect to live, given modern medicine and nutrition (and less back-breaking labor).  Someone who made it to 60 in the Middle Ages, even among the aristocracy, would be more like someone making 80 today.  (Just for the record, someone in their 60s now is young-n-fun.)

Grandparents often lived with their children and grandchildren, or at least nearby.  Among the peasantry, moving far away for a job was far less common than it is in modern America.  Among the aristocracy, the oldest son at least assumed he would life in the same castle or manor house as his parents--and would be eager for Dad to retire so he could take over.  ("Haven't you ever given thought to your soul, Dad?  You know retiring to a monastery can help!")

But until they died or retired, grandparents would be very useful.  As we know, "it takes a village to raise a child," and grandparents, then and now, can be part of this if still around.

Aristocratic young women were more likely to marry far from their parents, who they might indeed never see again after their wedding.  So the new countess (or whatever) would have to make peace with her mother-in-law, who might be the only grandparent her children would know.

There are examples of women continuing to play a major role in their families' lives; Countess Mathilda of Nevers in the thirteenth century, for example, arranged the marriages of her children, her grandchildren, and her great-granddaughters.

Because medieval people defined themselves in large part by their families, they were acutely aware of who their grandparents were, even if they never knew them.  Knowing your grandparents and more distant ancestors' identities was also important for avoiding consanguineous (incestuous) marriages, since medieval definitions of incest stretched out to quite distant cousins.  The male line of one's family was more crucial than the female, as is still the case today, when last names often define "family," and children typically take the father's last name.

(In doing my own family's history, I've found death certificates of women ancestors, filled out with information provided by their daughters, and the younger generation often did not even know their maternal grandmother's maiden name.  Death certificates often ask for names of the deceased's parents, including the deceased's mother's maiden name.)

The medieval Latin term for grandfather was avus, with avia for grandmother.   Going back to great-grandfather etc., the terms were proavus, abavus, and atavus.  Sometimes the ab- and at- got switched.  The same prefixes were attached to avia.  Periodically noble families would draw up elaborate lists of their ancestors, sometimes arranged in a family tree.

In the image above, from a twelfth-century manuscript, a figure holds a chart showing how relatives are named, filius and filia for son and daughter, nepos and neptis for grandson and granddaughter (the same words were used for nephew and niece), avus and avia for grandparents, and so on.  Next to each Latin word is a number indicating "degrees of consanguinity" (1 for a child or parent, 2 for a grandparent, and so on).

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval families, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other ebook platforms.  (Also available in print.)

Friday, April 10, 2020

YA fantasy

An extremely popular form of literature today is what is called YA fantasy.  I write it myself.  The YA stands for "young adult," which in practice means teenagers.  Although medieval teenagers were considered functionally as nearly adults, as I have discussed earlier, modern teenagers (even if called "young adults") are assumed to be at a certain stage and to need literature written just for them.  (There is also a new fiction category, NA, "new adult," for college-age students somewhere between the teen years and full adulthood, but we don't need to worry about that now.)

In practice of course a lot of adults, including me, read YA fiction.  A good, well-written story remains good and well-written no matter who it's aimed at.  In Britain, when Harry Potter first burst on the scene, the books were issued with two sets of covers, one for kids and one more "sober" looking set for adults to read on the train without embarrassment.

In some ways fantasy is the perfect metaphor for being a teenager today.  One is discovering a strange world, which has its own mysterious rules, and which is larger than one realized.  One is facing challenges that require rethinking what one thought one knew.  Are you a peasant boy or a king in disguise?  If the latter, hadn't you ought to start acting like one?  And so on.

Fantasy also allows one to break free of the mundane.  When one is wielding a magic sword to overcome the forces of darkness, one need not worry about whether one's term paper is the right length, if the cool kids with cars look down on those who take the bus, or why the grownups don't understand the complex yearnings of one's soul.

Indeed, in most YA fantasy the grownups are pretty much out of the action (hors combat as the French say).  They are dead, or captured, or just don't understand.  That's why the teenagers have to save the day.  YA fantasy often has a certain amount of moral ambiguity, as the heroes and heroines face complex choices where there are no good answers.  But at a certain point our brave young protagonists have to overcome really really bad people, bad enough that blasting them to smithereens poses no moral challenge at all.

In fact, there is a phrase that is gaining in popularity, "as evil as the villains in YA fantasy."

Women are just as active and resourceful in these stories as the men.  YA fantasy often has young men and women interacting with each other (and facing the evil villain together), but there is very little actual sex.  If so, it happens off stage.  (This is quite different from YA set in modern America, where there may be a lot of sex.)

I had a book, The Witch and the Cathedral, selected by the New York Public Library as Notable Book for the Teen Age.  It was not a book about teenagers, interestingly enough.  The wizard-hero was in his late forties.  I think what they liked was that the sex (off-stage) had real consequences.  (The book is still available as an ebook.)

More recently I started a new series of books, which is the "Next Generation" from the wizard-hero in his forties whom the New York Public Library liked.  This one began with The Starlight Raven, which actually has a teenage heroine.  I've tried hard not to have the villains be Horribly Evil because they're Bad.

(It's available both in print as an ebook.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval families and growing up then, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other ebook platforms.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Holy Week

It's Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week for Christians, the most important religious period in the medieval calendar.  (The Orthodox church still calculates religious holidays based on the Julian calendar, so theirs comes along a little later.)

As I have noted before, Easter tends to be a relatively minor event in the modern world compared to Christmas, more of an excuse to celebrate Mardi Gras with raucous parties, buy a new spring outfit, and justify eating king crab (seafood for Lent!) than a real religious holiday.  Although around Christmas some people insist that one say "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays," and some radio stations blast nothing but Christmas songs for a month, Easter doesn't get nearly as much attention.  No one goes around insisting that everyone say "Happy Easter," recording artists don't all feel compelled to issue an Easter album, and no radio stations play "Peter Cottontail" for a solid month.  And let's just say that chocolate eggs and bunnies are not a big feature of the Gospels.

But Easter was crucial for medieval people, the celebration of Christ's resurrection just at the time when spring itself is rising from the barren days of winter.  The forty days of Lent, the period leading up to Easter, were supposed to be devoted to prayer and fasting (sorry, king crab really doesn't count as fasting).  And you really weren't supposed to have a blow-out party (Mardi Gras) just before Lent started, to get in the mood.  Lent fell at a time when last fall's harvest bounty was starting to run out, which made it easier to give up certain things.

The days of Holy Week were tied to events in Jesus's last week of life as a mere mortal, as outlined in the Bible.  Palm Sunday (which is today) recalled Jesus entering Jerusalem, riding a donkey, greeted by crowds waving palm fronds.  He planned to celebrate Passover there, which is why Easter moves around with the moon, as Passover does.  In the Middle Ages, as now, churches tried to get hold of palm fronds to decorate the churches for Palm Sunday.  Obviously this was a lot easier for churches closer to the Mediterranean.

Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week didn't have a whole lot attached to them, but Wednesday was (and is) Ash Wednesday, a day for sorrowful penitence for all the things you did wrong during the last year and for confession of sins.  Ashes were rubbed on a person's forehead as a mark of penitence.  If last year's palm fronds were available, they were burned to make the ashes (but any ashes would do).

Thursday of Holy Week was Maundy Thursday.  In the Bible, Jesus washed people's feet, demonstrating his humility and service.  Washing feet frequently was a necessity in the ancient Near East, where people walked around on dusty streets in open sandals.  Medieval monasteries had poor people lined up to come in and get their feet washed.

Thursday was also the Last Supper in the Bible, when Jesus encouraged his disciples to eat and drink in his memory, the origin of communion.  Fun fact:  in the cathedral of Cusco, Peru, a painting of the Last Supper shows Jesus and his disciples with a guinea pig on a platter, because guinea pig is a celebratory dish in the Andes.

Friday of course was Good Friday.  Because it commemorates the Crucifixion, I used to be bothered by the term "good," thinking "bad" was a better description.  But it was considered good because Christ's sacrifice led to humans being redeemed.  For medieval theologians, everyone went to hell before this, and Jesus spent the time he was dead rounding up all the Old Testament patriarchs and getting them out of hell and into heaven.

Easter of course was the culmination of Holy Week, the celebration of the Resurrection.  Monasteries would put on a little play, where monks would dress up as the women who came to Jesus's tomb early Sunday morning, only to be told, "He is risen."  Easter service was the one church service a year that everyone was expected to attend.  In the late Roman Empire, all baptisms took place on Easter, though in the Middle Ages they might take place at any time.  Easter was also the time to start eating big meals again after the privations of Lent.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

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