Thursday, May 6, 2021

Were medieval people white nationalists?

 Short answer: No.

As I have discussed earlier, medieval people were not advocates of "whiteness."  Sure, they were intolerant of religious difference, especially of Christian heretics, but skin color was well down the list of things they would get upset about.  This has not stopped a lot of people recently from trying to claim the Middle Ages as some golden age of white nationalism.  As a medievalist, I must object to their careless and a-historical use of medieval ideas and symbols.

One of the more recent efforts is to talk about the US as a land where "Anglo-Saxon" values should predominate.  But what is meant exactly by Anglo-Saxon?  The Saxons, from Saxony in northern Germany (hence the name), were raiders and attackers in late Roman Britain.  At that time you had Germanic peoples moving into Great Britain as the Romans pulled out, setting up their own kingdoms.  They called themselves English (England is named for them).  Only really in the nineteenth century did "Anglo-Saxon" become a collective name for these people who made England their own.

And what "values" did they have?  Well, they were ruled by kings.  The US hasn't had kings since 1776, and I hope we aren't going back.  For the first century after Angles and Saxons arrived, they weren't Christian, yet those who now want us to adopt Anglo-Saxon values also want to impose their version of Christian values.  (Protestant!  Obvious heretics by medieval standards.)  They had slavery, gone in the US for 150 years.  British scholars see Anglo-Saxons as part of the German wave that led (supposedly) to the Fall of the Roman Empire.  (And aren't we of the US supposed to be the reincarnation of Rome?  Minus slavery and imperialism and patriarchy and, well, never mind.)

At any rate, medieval society was not uniformly white and Christian.  Trade with other parts of the world continued throughout the Middle Ages.  Silk from China and spices from southeast Asia ended up in the Mediterranean, as did traders from those places.  For that matter, the Mediterranean was predominantly Muslim.  The Middle East was always of interest to medieval Christians, as site of the Holy Land.  Every city of any size had a Jewish population, tolerated during the early Middle Ages, regarded with increasing suspicion in the eleventh and later centuries, but still very much part of society—kings of both France and England relied on Jews as a source of loans.

For that matter, medieval people would not have struck us as "nationalistic."  The areas that a king considered part of his kingdom might or might not have agreed they were under him.  People identified themselves by culture and language by not necessarily by geographic boundaries.  The French epics talked about how "the French" were brave and honorable, but that was a cultural marker, not a geographic one.  People identified much more with their city or county than with their country.  The word nation (natio in Latin) meant something closer to family than country.  The Jews were considered a nation, no matter where they lived.

Medievalists get irritated when modern people try to appropriate  some medieval symbols and use them in ways medieval people would have rejected.  For example, Norse runes and Celtic symbols are sometimes mixed together as some sort of symbol of whiteness.  Well, the Vikings and the Celts were both fair-skinned.  But the Celts of the British Isles, the people who had been there before the Romans and who persisted after the English arrived (especially in the areas now called Wales and Scotland, plus of course Ireland), were attacked by the Vikings in the eighth and ninth centuries.  They would not have agreed that one could mix and match their symbols.  For that matter, the Normans of what is now France were only a few generations from Viking settlers, Vikings who had treated Christian churches as their rightful prey.

In the nineteenth century a lot of men's social groups decided they were really knights.  Some members of the Ku Klux Klan declared they were knights, "defending" their "way of life" which apparently was a way of life of prejudice and cruelty.  Knights really first appeared as a group at the beginning of the eleventh century, being persuaded by swear mighty oaths not to harm the weak.  Burning a cross on a terrified family's lawn hardly counts as not harming the weak.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

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

Tuesday, April 27, 2021



 In the Middle Ages, beards were mostly worn by old men.  Venerable old men were described as having long white beards; in the epic Song of Roland, for example, Charlemagne is described like this.  The length of the beard indicated age and wisdom.  Hermits also would typically have beards.  The image below is of a reliquary at Aachen containing part of Charlemagne's skull; you will notice he is shown with a beard.

But young or middle-aged men did not have beards, nor did monks, those who tried to follow an austere religious life in a group (the monastery) rather than individually as hermits.

This meant that they had to shave.  They didn't have modern safety razors, much less Norelco electrics, and certainly no shaving cream in a handy aerosol can.  Water or, with luck, soap and water got the beard ready, then a sharp knife was used to cut the bristles, ideally not cutting any skin or blood vessels in the process.  One could shave oneself, but in the towns and aristocratic courts one was usually shaved by a barber.

Barbers also functioned as surgeons.  They had lots of sharp blades around the place, so they would do any amputations that seemed necessary.  They were also skilled in figuring out how to stop bleeding.  Alternately, they knew how to cut someone carefully and precisely if they needed to be "bled," getting rid of the bad humors, to allow someone to heal more readily (before you mock bleeding, recall that it continued into the nineteenth century).  After a battle, the barber-surgeons went out to check on the wounded and see if they could be saved.

Getting back to beards, the "clean shaven" look was not exactly what we would call clean-shaven.  In certain circles today the two-day-growth look has become popular (you can buy trimmers to keep your beard constantly at that length), and medieval men would have fitted right in.  No one bothered to shave every day.  Young men, however, were normally depicted with smooth cheeks, often rosy.  Because they were also depicted with shoulder-length hair, it might at first glance be hard to tell the men from the women in many a medieval illustration--but in fact it's easy, because men wore knee length tunics, women floor-length dresses.

It has been suggested that young men didn't wear beards because they would catch in their helmets.  This seems unlikely, because peasants and townsmen too were always depicted as beardless until they became old and venerable.  Also, until the late Middle Ages a helmet just covered the crown, back of the head, and top half of the face.

In the monastery, monks not only shaved their beards but also the top of their heads, the so-called tonsure.  The effect was something like male pattern baldness, except the rim of hair went across the front of the head too (unless the monk actually had male pattern baldness).

The monks were thus distinguished from the rest of society at a glance if they tried to run away from the monastery.

Monasteries normally shaved everybody, face and head, on Saturday to be ready for Sunday.  Saturday was also the time for the weekly bath.  They might also be bled at the same time if they were feeling too frisky.  The barbers at the monastery had a long and busy day.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

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

Thursday, April 22, 2021

A Bad Spell in Yurt

 Thirty years ago this summer, I published my first fantasy novel, A Bad Spell in Yurt.  I've been writing stories since I was in kindergarten, and I'd already published two scholarly books and a number of articles, but this was very exciting.  Fiction uses a different part of the brain than scholarship.

Yurt went on to be a national Science fiction/fantasy best-seller and is still my perennial best-seller.  Originally it was published as a mass-market (small size) paperback by Baen, a New York SF specialty publisher.  Its excellent sales meant that Baen was happy to publish the next four books in the series, as well as a couple of non-series books.  I had originally rejected the idea of a series, because the story was (and is) complete in itself, but my husband talked me into it.  I'm glad he did, because Daimbert, the wizard hero, is an excellent character and had lots more adventures ahead of him.  Also, fantasy readers like series.

In spite of Yurt's success, Baen became bored with me when each book did not sell more than the last one (their plan).  So I ended up publishing the sixth book in the series, Is This Apocalypse Necessary? the boffo finale, with a small press (Wooster Book Company).

Fast forward ten years.  The Yurt books were all out of print, so I started bringing them out as ebooks, first on Amazon for their Kindles, then at the other major ebook platforms, iTunes (now renamed iBooks), Nook (for Barnes & Noble), and Kobo.  A gratifyingly large number of new fans appeared!  Because a lot of them, including me, still prefer to read a physical book rather than read on a screen, I started bringing the books out in new editions in trade paperback (large size), mostly in omnibus volumes with more than one book per volume.

In addition, I decided that Daimbert had had a few other adventures I'd never written about, so I wrote three novellas (The Lost Girls and the Kobold, Below the Wizards' Tower, and A Long Way 'Til November) that took place in between the adventures in the six novels.  (They are also available in an omnibus volume of their own, called Third Time's a Charm).

Now I've taken the next step, and in honor of its thirtieth anniversary, I've brought the original Bad Spell out in hardcover!  It's what's sometimes called library binding, sturdy covers with the cover image printed on them, the same great Tom Kidd illustration that's been with the book from the beginning, rather than a monochrome cloth cover with a paper dustjacket.  Here's the link on Amazon.

And 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.

 © C. Dale Brittain 2021

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Oak trees

 It's been two years today since Notre Dame burned.  How can a stone building burn? you ask.  Well, limestone (such as the church is made out of) will burn when hot enough (it's burned as one of the ingredients in cement), but the real problem at Notre Dame was the roof beams.  The roof itself was lead (and the fire spewed the whole area around with toxic lead dust), but the beams were 900 year old oaks.  After 900 years, as you can imagine, the wood had gotten very dry, and once it started burning it was very hard to put out.

After two years, the building itself is stabilized, the walls aren't going anywhere, and most of the interior decoration, which came through surprisingly well, was rescued.  The biggest damage, besides the roof itself, was to the stone vaulting (ceiling) at the point where the transept (the crossing) crossed the nave (the long central aisle of the church).  In the nineteenth century a spire was erected there, and when it crashed down it took out the vaulting.

Right now efforts are underway to repair the roof, which they are planning to put back more or less as it was.  They are even planning to replace the spire, but I could have told them that was a bad idea (they didn't ask me).  The challenge is getting enough oaks.  They actually have an excellent idea of how the beams worked, because modern timber framers have closely studied all old wood-framed structures, as they sought to revive what had almost become a lost art, and Notre Dame was one of the best examples.

Oak trees, as you doubtless know, are fairly slow growing but produce good, strong wood, and they were appreciated for beams throughout the Middle Ages.  The problem was giving the trees long enough to grow.  Burning wood was the principal way to keep warm, and oak makes a nice, hot fire.  Everyone building something, from a church to a castle to a little house, wanted nice oak beams.  It was considered miraculous in the early twelfth century, a generation before Notre Dame was built, that Abbot Suger was able to find enough oaks big enough for his new church's beams.  And then you have the problem that when people want to plant new fields, forests are the enemy, to be chopped down.

Sad but true: two centuries ago, when Ohio was being cleared for agriculture, they chopped down thousands of oaks and burned them in bonfires that could be seen for miles.

In England in the early modern period, some forward-looking people realized that some of their new halls and churches might need new beams at some points and created oak groves especially for the purpose.  When beetles got into the beams two or three centuries later, the oaks were ready.

Medieval people recognized the value of woodlands around the same time they were being cut down, just as happened in the US centuries later.  Oak woods had been important, even sacred, going back to the Gauls, before the Romans arrived.  It is even believed that the word druid is related to the Celtic word der, meaning an oak grove.

Medieval peasants wanted oak woods because pigs were fattened on the fallen acorns; indeed, woods might be described by how many pigs they would support.  Ships were built from oak planks; the Vikings had fairly untouched Scandinavian forests to draw on for their ships.  Oak galls provided one of the ingredients for medieval ink.  Oak bark was used in tanning leather.

Carpenters drew distinctions between different trees, depending on whether they grew on a hill or a flat area, among other trees or by themselves, on stony or sandy soil, even whether they were on a north or south facing slope.  These things influenced the grain and the strength of the wood.

Europe's modern woodlands are much more thoroughly managed than are American woods.  Those rebuilding Notre Dame are starting to assemble enough big oaks.  Some of the managed woods routinely cut down the oldest trees to allow younger trees to grow up.  Some of these culled oaks are destined for Notre Dame.  The challenge is going to be finding enough of them, especially since the French prefer French oaks, or at least European oaks, not Chinese or North American ones.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

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

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Prince Philip

 Prince Philip has just died, a central part of the British monarchy for almost the last seventy-five years.  The modern British monarchy has retained many aspects of the medieval monarchy, and Philip is an indication of how much is different and yet the same.

There was only one medieval English ruling queen with a husband who was decidedly not the king, and that was Mathilda.  It shows how unusual Queen Elizabeth II is, Philip's widowed queen, that Mathilda doesn't even make it into the official list of kings and queens of England.  She was the only legitimate surviving offspring of King Henry I of England, and when he died in 1135 he designated her as his heir.  Mathilda liked to call herself The Empress, because she had been briefly married to the German emperor (Heinrich V, gotta keep all these royal men named Henry straight), though he had died ten years earlier.

The English barons however did not want Mathilda to rule over them.  In part they weren't sure about a woman, but the real issue was her current husband, Count Geoffrey of Anjou.  The counts of Anjou had been enemies of the dukes of Normandy since well before the Norman Conquest of 1066 (on which see more here).  The Norman aristocrats of the early twelfth century were not about to have some Angevin lording over them, and they turned instead to Mathilda's cousin Stephen.  (He's the one in the official lists.)  For nearly the next twenty years, the Stephen-Mathilda wars were on.

They ended in 1154, when Stephen died childless, and in dying designated Henry II his heir as king of England.  Henry II was son of Mathilda and Geoffrey of Anjou, both now dead.  The barons accepted him, having ended up with an Angevin after all.  But you can see why the question of a ruling queen's husband continued to be an issue for the British monarchy.  Queen Elizabeth I, back in the sixteenth century, never married, both because she liked to dangle the chance of matrimony to keep men properly obedient and because she knew that if she actually chose a husband, he would immediately become a flashpoint of resistance.

Philip did not cause any such problems for Queen Elizabeth II.  He did however continue the tradition that royalty was supposed to marry royalty.  Philip was born in Greece, the son of the younger brother of the king of Greece, a family that was actually an offshoot of the royal house of Denmark.  The Greek kings had been put into power in the nineteenth century by other European countries, which had decided that Greece needed a monarchy and Denmark was a good place to get one.  (Greece had been part of the Ottoman Empire, centered in Turkey, for centuries but had declared its independence.  Their nineteenth- and twentieth-century political history is messy, but Greece is now a republic, with a president, a prime minister, and a parliament.)

Philip grew up in Britain and renounced his non-British titles as an adult, but his royal ancestry made him a suitable match for Princess Elizabeth, heiress to the throne.  They had known each other for several years and were in love in 1947 when they married, doubtless an improvement over the arrangements for some medieval royalty, who met their new spouse on their wedding day.  They were third cousins, both great-great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria, which was fine in the twentieth century, although from the ninth century to the thirteenth you would have needed at least two more "great"s in there.

Philip, born in Greece, was perhaps named for Philip of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great, well back BC.  But his name had first been established in the European royal lineages in the eleventh century.  The French king Henri I (another Henry! they were all distant cousins, all descended from Henry "the Fowler," king of Germany in the early tenth century) had married a Russian princess, one of the few princesses around to whom he was not too closely related (they doubtless met on their wedding day).  Their son and heir, Philip I of France (1060-1108), took a name not found before in the French royal family but which was apparently inspired by Philip of Macedonia.  (The Russians liked to think they were Greek, only better--Russian orthodoxy is a variant of Greek orthodoxy.)  Most French kings for the rest of the Middle Ages were named Philip if they were not named Louis, indicating the name's success.

Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II continued the long-established tradition of naming royal children with royal names.  Their oldest, Prince Charles, is Charles Philip Arthur George, named (in succession) for Charlemagne, for his own father, for King Arthur of legend, and for Elizabeth's father, King George VI.  The next two boys were named Andrew, for Prince Philip's father, and Edward, for Elizabeth's uncle, King Edward VIII.  (Not clear who Princess Anne was named for, but unlike her mother she stood little chance of inheriting the throne.)

Prince Charles did not meet Princess Diana on their wedding day, but it was still an arranged marriage, between the British heir and a young woman with royal ancestry.  She seems to have been in love, but doubts have been raised about Charles.  Their two sons, William and Harry (real name Henry, another one!), have royal names going back to William the Conqueror of 1066 and his son Henry I (Mathilda's father, we've doubled back around to her).  Here's a (much later) picture of William the Conqueror.


Prince Harry and his wife Meghan have named their son Archie Harrison.  There are no men named Archie in the royal ancestry.  Looks like they want to make it as explicit as possible that they don't want to be part of the royal "firm."

© C. Dale Brittain 2021
For more on medieval political and social history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.  Also available in paperback.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Customs of Lorris

 As I have discussed earlier, medieval peasants were neither passive nor helpless creatures.  After all, they outnumbered the rest of the population by a considerable amount, and if they didn't grow the food, the lord would have to be out there himself behind the plow, or else the food didn't get grown.  Peasants were thus a valuable commodity, and at least some lords figured out that making them happy was usually preferable to beating and threatening.  Medieval peasants lived in conditions those of us in the twenty-first century West would find intolerable, but that didn't mean they could do nothing to help themselves.  There was plenty they could do short of revolting.

One of the most notable examples of peasant initiative in improving their position was the Customs of Lorris.  This was a blueprint for how a village might be organized, with the obligations of the peasants spelled out.  It started, as the name implies, in the village of Lorris, early in the twelfth century.  (Lorris is east of Olrleans in central France, in the Loire valley.  This is the bell tower on its medieval church.)

Bell tower

The local lord had granted a series of privileges to his peasants in what was called a "charter of liberty" or a "franchise," and he asked King Louis VI to confirm it, which he did.  The lord's purpose was to make the villagers happy, to attract new villagers to a territory that was being economically developed, and to get a steady revenue stream without having to hassle and badger the villagers of Lorris.  These Customs were then reaffirmed in the following generations by subsequent kings, and they were widely copied all over northern France.

From the peasants' point of view, the principal advantage was regular, predictable obligations, instead of arbitrary or capricious demands.  Each peasant family received a house in the village and sufficient land in the surrounding territory to raise their crops, and the family paid 6 pennies a year for this.  They had no labor dues, no unexpected demands for goods or services.  They could not be expected to join a military expedition unless it took them no more than a day away from home.  No tolls would be charged on peasants heading out of the village to take their crops to market.  The only extra tidbit the king threw in was that the village would have to provide food for the king and queen for up to two weeks a year if they stayed in Lorris.

But most of the Customs granted the peasants autonomy.  Every family in the village paid the same rent, which was unusual in the twelfth century, when there was a patchwork of different obligations, probably a further indication that Lorris was a newly planned and laid out settlement.  Families were free to sell their houses and land if they wished and leave; clearly the lord of Lorris did not anticipate that many would want to.  Fines for various infractions were clearly specified, and it was stressed that no one would be imprisoned unless accused of a crime.

Overall, the Customs gave the villagers of Lorris, and the other villages where they were adopted, identity as citizens of a particular place, rather than just dependents of one lord or another.  Every indication is that they paid good money to their lord in return for the grant of these Customs.  Although the Customs in the form we now have them do not spell out the negotiations that led them to taking the form they now have, but there must have been considerable discussion for the lord to know what the peasants would agree to and what obligations they were willing to undertake.  The autonomy, the ability to determine ahead of time how much they were expected to produce, was from their point of view worth it.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on medieval peasants, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

Friday, March 26, 2021


 Daffodils are one of the most welcome signs of spring, bright yellow, big blooms, that usually (not always!) wait to bloom until after it really has stopped snowing for the season, unlike crocuses, which come out all eager and then get crushed by snow.


Daffodils were also a harbinger of spring in the Middle Ages.  They were especially associated with Easter.  Daffodils were not native to northern Europe, being it appears a Mediterranean-region flower originally, valued for medicinal purposes in ancient Greece and the Middle East.  But they did just fine in France and Britain.  They seem to have been brought to these regions originally by the Roman legions, which apparently treated the bulbs as a tasty treat.  Or at least that is what contemporary accounts report, although given that you're now supposed to call the poison control center if you eat one, maybe the ancient accounts just meant that they were supposed to be used for medicinal purposes.

They were not treated as a food by medieval people, however (who may have realized that something that tastes awful wasn't good for you), and the Roman-introduced daffodils spread only as wild flowers.  The daffodil is not among the herbs and vegetables that Charlemagne ordered planted in the gardens of all of his manors, though lilies and roses were.  Although the Romans never made much in the way of inroads into Wales, that region now celebrates the daffodil as its national flower.  The famous nineteenth-century poem of Wordsworth, where his worried mind was soothed by a sight of a field of blooming daffodils in England's Lake Country, celebrated wild daffodils.

The daffodil's official scientific name is narcissus,  which is what the Greeks called it.  The legend of the youth who ended up unable to move from the pond where he saw his reflection, because he was so enamored of his own beauty, names him Narcissus, for the flower, although the reason for the association is obscure.  The story was that he turned into a daffodil when he died, apparently starving because he couldn't bear to leave his reflection; I guess you had to be there  Extremely self-centered people are now classified as narcissists (with reference to the Greek legend), although that has nothing to do with daffodils.

For medieval people, daffodils were one of the wild flowers in the woods that indicated it was really spring.  Daffodils really only became a domestic plant, bred for size of the bloom and interesting colors, in the post medieval period, starting in the sixteenth century—Shakespeare mentions them.  As was also the case with tulips, the Netherlands became a major center for breeding and cultivating these flowers.  It is said that the English word daffodil came from a confusion in England with the asphodel, but this seems unlikely, given that the two plants don't look at all alike.

This is a picture of a daffodil.  It is not as asphodel.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

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

Tuesday, March 16, 2021


 Medieval people valued silk cloth.  It was smooth next to the skin (unlike homespun wool), it took colors well, it was lustrous due to the structure of its fibers, it didn't fade, it was very strong for its weight, and moths wouldn't eat it.  (Clothes moths have been a perennial issue for people and their clothes--there are clothes moths in the Bible, where heaven is described among other things as a place where moths will not crawl around and chew holes.)

But the early medieval West did not have silk worms.  In fact, the general belief was that silk was spun from some special stone, found in the fabled East.  The Obviously False slur of silk coming from some worm was roundly rejected.

Now in fact silk does come from worms, raised in China for for at least the past four thousand years.  The worms graze on mulberry leaves, then spin cocoons, which can be carefully unwound to produce the filament, after boiling up the cocoons to kill the pupae.  They would emerge as a moth (not a clothes moth! which eats wool, not mulberry leaves) if they lived.  In fact, so-called raw silk or wild silk is made from cocoons where the moth has emerged, breaking through the cocoon and breaking a lot of the filaments, so the result is a less smooth texture.

Silk was extremely valuable in medieval Europe.  One of the things that Charlemagne ordered the overseers of his manors to do each year was count up how many lengths of silk cloth they had, as recorded in his "Capitulare de villis."  The epics and romances showed how luxurious their heroes and heroines were by insisting that they wore silk, slept under silk blankets, and had silk tents.


The above is a nice piece of silk from eleventh-century Egypt, revered for many years at Cadouin as a Holy Hanky (see more on the Hanky here).

A big part of the expense was getting the silk over thousands of miles from China.  The Silk Road (not really a road, a network of routes) led from China across central Asia and ended up eventually at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.  There in the Middle Ages it was picked up by Italian trading ships and taken to Italy.  From there it was sold throughout Europe.

The Near East was also where spices from southeast Asia were bought by Italian merchants.  The spices had not come via the Silk Road, however.  Instead they had come on Arabic dhows, across the Indian Ocean.  But in the medieval mind, silk and spices both came from the mystic East, which was why Columbus was distraught when the "Indians" he encountered seemed to have neither silk nor spices.

Understandably, the medieval West was eager to find the secret of silk production.  Silk worms appear to have reached Byzantium in the sixth century AD, smuggled there probably from India.  By the twelfth century some Italian cities had figured out about the worms and were raising them in secret, while still putting out the story of the special, magical stone.

 © C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on medieval clothing, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.  Also available in paperback.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Sapphire Ring

 I've published a new book!  As with all of my fiction, there's plenty of magic interspersed with elements of medieval culture.  This one is entitled The Sapphire Ring, and it's the third in the "Starlight Raven" series, also known as "Yurt, the Next Generation."  It's available as an ebook on Amazon (link here).  A paperback version is also available, and ebook versions on other major platforms are coming soon.  Here's the cover.  Note the badger and the chicken-legged house in the background.


Antonia, daughter of a witch and a wizard, continues trying to find a way to combine men's and women's magic, the heritage of both her parents, which is difficult because male and female magic-workers distrust each other thoroughly.  She has been touched by the Starlight Raven, which may mean she is prophesied to save her people, but she doesn't believe in prophecy, and she isn't even sure who "her" people are.  Meanwhile, she's just turned 18, too late to be a girl, not quite ready to be a woman.

Here's the opening, to give yourself a taste:


“I know who you are.”
It took me a moment to locate the voice in the middle of a loud and busy market.  But then I saw her, an old woman with a face wizened like last year’s apple, but with eyes of piercing blue.  At one time I would have called her a witch.
But I was a witch too, a member of the Sisterhood, and we didn’t use that word.  It was a word that men attached to us.
“You’re the one they call the Starlight Raven.”  She motioned me toward her, where she sat behind a table scattered with herbs tied together with string or twisted into a paper cone.
I turned to look out across the market, to where my Guide in the Sisterhood was negotiating for a new cooking pot.  She appeared fully occupied, laughing and gesturing, her long black hair swirling around her.  Half the men in the market were staring at her, and no one was looking at me.
I went over and sat down next to the old woman.  “My name is Antonia, but I’m afraid I don’t know yours.”
She smiled, flashing a gold tooth, but did not answer.  On her knee sat a little girl who gave me a long and serious look.  Probably age two or three, I thought.  I tried smiling at her, but she did not smile back.
“My granddaughter,” said the old woman, nodding at the girl.  “She likes to come to the market with me.  Her mother is probably glad to have a chance to be on her own for a few hours.”
For a moment I felt a pang—jealousy? wistfulness?  I had never known either of my grandmothers.  Had my mother ever wanted to be on her own?  If so, she had never said so—and I had never thought to ask.
But if she’d wanted a chance to live her life without a girl’s presence, then she had had her fill the last four years, while I was off with my Guide learning the ways of the Sisterhood or else studying at the wizards’ school.
“We’ve not given her a name yet,” the old woman continued.  “But Antonia is a good name.  We could name her for you.”
It took me a startled moment to respond.  This woman and child suddenly seemed very alien.  How could one leave a little girl nameless?  It seemed almost to be saying she was not fully human.  I had been baptized when just a few days old—unlike most Sisters, who tried to avoid the church and its male priests as much as they avoided wizardry and the male wizards, but who still had the sense to give their babies names.
“But best not to tell her it’s your name,” the old woman added, “the Starlight Raven, the one who either saves her people or who leads them into final destruction.”
I stiffened but tried to hide it.  Better cut short any notion of some prophecy.  “You can name her Antonia if you like,” I said, trying not quite successfully to chuckle, “but I’m not going to save anyone, much less lead them into destruction.  That’s just a story.”  A story I had almost believed back when I had first heard it, when the strange giant raven with stars glinting among its feathers had flown to me.  But I had only been fourteen at the time.
The old woman reached under her table and pulled out a pack of battered cards.  Her piercing blue eyes held mine.  “Let’s see what the cards have to say to that,” she said, looking amused, as though knowing far more about me than I did.  The voices and clamor of the market were all around us, but here with the old woman, her granddaughter, and her dried herbs, we seemed almost in a little private, quiet island.
She handed me the cards to shuffle.  They felt slick from much handling, edges and corners notched and nicked.  They were larger than the cards to which I was accustomed, and the deck felt thicker.
Both the old woman and her granddaughter kept their eyes on me as I shuffled.  “You’re a woman grown, Antonia,” she commented.  “You cannot deny your future much longer.”
She took the deck back and started dealing them out, face down.  “Earth, air, fire, and water,” she said in a low voice, dealing onto four piles.  “I mind you, I bind you, I call you out, from among the living, from among the dead.”
The hair on the back of my neck rose.  For the second time I thought:  This is a witch.
“Here is your birth, here is your death,” she intoned, slightly louder.  “Here is your loss, here is your love.  And here,” slapping down the next card so hard it bent, “are you.  Turn it and read your fortune.”
A fortune-teller, I told myself firmly, trying to steady my hand as I reached for the card.  Fortune-tellers picked up a few coins at fairs, telling the girls they would meet a handsome stranger, telling the boys they would fall hopelessly in love with someone unattainable, warning both not to trust false friends.  This woman was no different.  Why would I even think she had some ability to see beyond the world around us?
I turned the card.  It showed a young girl, standing in a flowering meadow and smiling.  “The Maiden,” said the old woman complacently.  “I expected that one to show.”
The Maiden was blonde.  I was brunette, chestnut-colored hair my father called it.  Good, I thought.  I don’t have to believe anything else.
“The Maiden,” she repeated, almost in a sing-song.  “A woman grown, yet still a little girl.  Eager for her independence, but almost afraid of it too.”
I was not afraid of anything, or at least not of independence, I told myself.
The little girl had been watching the cards with interest.  Now she gave a sudden and unexpected grin.
“Choose a card from the first pile,” the old woman continued, pointing with a gnarled finger.  Were these supposed to be the cards of Earth?  Or of my birth?  I had seen a few other fortune-tellers, but they had not told the cards like this.  I slipped a card from the middle of the pile and turned it over.
It was hard at first to tell what the card represented.  This really was like no deck I had ever seen.  There seemed to be all sorts of little symbols, drawn very small, in among swirling lines that might have indicated a wind storm.
But the old woman did not hesitate.  “This surrounds you,” she said.  “Magic.  Wild magic, tamed magic, magic in all its forms.  You are brimful of magic, maiden girl.”  She paused, then added, not quite as confidently, “I would have expected rather the card of the Sisters, or perhaps the Mother, to indicate our magic.”
She might think I was the Starlight Raven, but she clearly did not know I had been learning men’s magic as well as women’s.  Emboldened, I pointed at the second little pile of cards.  “So what does Air show?”
“Here we will see what crosses you,” she said, “what forces oppose you.  Choose your card.”  I took the top one.
This time it was “the Sisters.”  I recognized them at once, three young women, nearly identical although wearing different colored dresses, standing and smiling in the same meadow.  This time they were brunettes.
I showed the card to the little girl, since she seemed interested.  She nodded emphatically.
“I had not expected that card,” said the old woman slowly.  This showed there was nothing special about her fortune-telling—or so I told myself.  The first card, the Maiden, she would have known from its back, from long familiarity with the deck, but she had no control over which card I pulled from her little piles.
Whatever opposed me, it could not be the Sisterhood.  I had spent every summer with my Guide, learning the Sisters’ ways, since I turned fourteen.
And now they were supposed to be my death?
The old woman took a deep breath.  “The cards will all become clearer as we continue.  Choose from the cards of Fire.  This shows what is behind you.”
I hesitated, fingering the cards’ broken edges, then pulled one out from near the bottom of the pile.  The woman sighed as I turned it over.
The card showed a flock of crows swooping down into a field of grain.  “The Raven!” she pronounced.
Those weren’t ravens.  Those were crows.  And none of them had stars glinting among their feathers.  That she would try to pass off a flock of crows as the great black bird who had once landed on my shoulder showed she had already decided what she wanted to tell me, and she was going to force her cards to say it.
One pile remained.  “The full story will be revealed now,” she said.  “The card of Water will show what is before you.”
I still didn’t understand entirely how this was supposed to work.  Four piles of cards, earth, air, fire, and water, except the cards didn’t seem to have anything to do with the elements.  She had said they represented birth, death, loss, and love, but it wasn’t clear if those aspects were associated with the separate piles or the overall reading from all the cards.  But apparently the individual cards represented what was around me, against me, behind and before me.
It was going to be interesting to see how she made this into a coherent prophecy.  I reached for the final pile.
As I ruffled through the thick and slightly greasy cards, one slid out into my hand.  I turned it over.
If I’d had any doubts, now I really knew there was nothing here.  The card showed a majestic woman, sitting on a throne, a scepter in her hand and a jeweled crown on her head.  Whatever lay before me, it was not becoming a queen.
The old woman tugged at her lip.  “Magic, the Sisters, the Crows, and the Queen,” she said, half to herself.  I’d known that card was crows.  “The Maiden is facing many challenges here, but a future, with the Starlight Raven as the base….”

Happy reading!

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

Monday, March 8, 2021

A Ninth-Century Garden

 What did medieval people grow in their gardens?  A glimpse into what was (at least) possible is provided by a document of Charlemagne, an order he issued around the year 800.  In this so-called "Capitulare de villis," he laid down guidelines for how royal manors were to be organized, including a stone manor house that had a special room for women serfs to weave cloth.  This "Capitulare" also included a list of plants he wanted every royal manor to grow.

(Here's a nineteenth-century statue of Charlemagne, located in the heart of Paris, claiming him for France rather than Germany.)

Now of course this was an aspirational list.  The fact that he ordered all his manors to grow these plants indicates that they weren't necessarily doing so already.  And one certainly cannot extrapolate from might have been ordered for a royal manor and what most people grew in their gardens.  But it is still a very interesting list.

Charlemagne wanted a lot of trees in his orchard, including apples, pears, cherries, plums, chestnuts, almonds, mulberries, persimmons, and quince.  He also specified nut trees, though not what kind of nut (other than the almonds).  Today we have a lot of different varieties of apple, and it was no different in the ninth century, except that instead of Granny Smith and Honeycrisp and Macintosh, the royal document listed, "gozmaringa, geroldinga, crevedella, spirauca, dulcis, and scriores."  If anyone wants "heritage" varieties of apple, maybe they should start figuring these out.


Charlemagne's garden was also supposed to grow a lot of herbs.  Spices like clove and peppercorns would have had to be brought in from southeast Asia at great expense, over thousands of miles, but herbs could be locally grown.  These included sage, fenugreek, rue, chickory, anise, caraway seeds, rosemary, parsley, coriander, mint, and rose madder (the latter used for dying).  Mixed in with the herbs were a number of plants that we would consider ornamental flowers, but which could be used in various botanical preparations.  These included lilies, roses, nasturtiums, iris, and gladiolas.

And then there were the vegetables.  These included peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, beets, radishes, fava beans, peas, lentils, cabbage, kohlrabi, turnips, parsnips, onions, leeks, and celery.   You will notice there were no potatoes or tomatoes or pumpkins, as these are all New World plants.  Nonetheless, there were plenty of vegetables to choose from, at least in the summer, and most of these will keep well in a dry place.  They tend from our point of view to look rather bland, which is why you needed to perk them up with some parsley or fenugreek or, if you could afford it, black pepper.

Some plants were listed with essentially the classical Latin name, like alium for onion, or pastenacas for parsnips.  Some had a name that can be figured out from French and German words, like the medieval Latin porros for leeks, which are poirreaux in modern French and porrhe in German (modern scientific name Allium porrum).  And then there were at least some plant names that made perfect sense in the ninth century but leave modern botanists scratching their heads.  For example, what was parduna, which appears between nasturtium and mint?  They obviously knew.

(Click here for more on the medieval diet.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

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

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Count Scar

I'm a fantasy writer as well as a medieval historian, so I periodically get asked why I don't write straight historical fiction, stories set in the real Middle Ages.  Perhaps the closest I've come is in Count Scar, which I co-wrote with my husband, Robert Bouchard.

It's set in a thinly disguised version of southern France in the early thirteenth century, in the aftermath of the Albigensian Crusade.  But it has magic as well!  The story is about Galoran, a scarred warrior and younger son who unexpectedly inherits the county of Peyrefixade in the Pyrenees, and Melchior, a magic-working priest who is assigned as his spiritual advisor.  The two men do not initially trust each other, but they are forced to work together.  The county is threatened by heretics, who have "sort of" been defeated but have their eyes on the castle of Peyrefixade, rumored to shelter, in some hidden corner, an ancient and enormously powerful magical talisman.

Then there's plenty of betrayal, sword fights, sword & sorcery, a touch of romance, and the like.  Here's the link on Amazon.

We wrote it as a series of alternating first-person chapters, each of us taking one of the two main characters.  See if you can guess which one of us wrote which.  Writing with a co-author can be exciting, because the other person can think up plot details that you never would have thought of, but then they'll add a plot twist at the end of their chapter, leaving you to figure out what can possibly pull this out.

Although the people and the county of Peyrefixade are fictional (as is the magic-working Order of the Three Kings to which Melchior belongs), we tried to make the setting as accurate as possible.  Besides such obvious things as castle architecture, weapons, diet, and oaths of fealty, we tried to give the characters the attitudes and outlook real medieval people would have had:  tolerance of different viewpoints for example was never official policy.  I've never liked purported historical fiction where the characters are just modern people wearing old-timey outfits.  The magic of course is not historical, but given that the medieval church was the main center of learning and education, it made sense that if there was magic, priests would study it.

Recently we've published a sequel, Heretic Wind, with the same main characters, set about a year later.  Enjoy!

 © C. Dale Brittain 2021

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Failure of Prophecy

 The Judeo-Christian world has always been full of prophecy--it is right now.  Prophecy gives clarity:  it explains why things are happening, that they are all building up to something important, that there is some sort of plan behind what might seem like random events.  Even a bawdlerized version of prophecy, like a horoscope or a fortune cookie, can give meaning to what is happening or explain what you can do to improve matters.  And prophecy provides reassurance--as bad as things may be right now, they're going to get better.  But what happens when prophecy fails?

This has been a problem for quite a while.  The prophetic books of the Bible, especially Isaiah and Jeremiah, are full of excellent prophecies about better things to come, the Messiah who will help his chosen people, who will beat their swords into plow shares and relax under their vine and fig tree.  Yet the Jews are still awaiting the Messiah 2500 years later, and ever since the Romans drove large numbers of them out of their Holy Land in the first century AD, they have been saying, "Next year in Jerusalem."  (Even now, almost 75 years after the foundation of the modern state of Israel, there are plenty of prophecies still waiting to come true.)

The New Testament writers, especially Matthew, emphasized that Jesus was the hoped-for Messiah by explaining how all sorts of details of his life matched the prophecies.  The last book of the New Testament prophesises the Apocalypse.  The so-called Sybilline prophets purported to have prophesied major parts of the Gospels.  If something happens to fulfill the prophecy, it has much more weight than something that just happens.

The Middle Ages always had various prophecies.  Not surprisingly, they tended to appear in times of uncertainty.  Prophets, who announced that they had direct messages from God, appeared with some frequency, even if often labeled (correctly) as heretics.  Even though nobody seems to have expected the world to end in the year 1000, there was a great deal of concern that it might end in 1260, as I discussed earlier.  (Spoiler alert--it didn't.)

One of the biggest problems for prophets and their faithful followers is what to do when prophecy fails.  Sometimes it really doesn't matter, because the end of the prophecy is marked by the end of the prophet, as in the Children's Crusade in the thirteenth century, when some young folks became convinced that God had told them to go to the Holy Land, where their innocence and purity would overcome the Muslims.  As you probably guessed, it didn't work, and they ended up sold into slavery.

In fact prophecy fails more often than not.  Even when there are prophecies now about something like the Super Bowl winner or a presidential election, they are going to be wrong half the time, and the full-blown conspiracy theory type prophecies, where all sorts of startling events will happen and a savior will unexpectedly emerge, tend to be wrong a lot more than that.  For example, as I discussed earlier, the "White Caps" of the late twelfth century were following a prophecy that the Virgin wanted them to attack the bandits and cruel lords who were terrorizing the region.  But apparently the prophecy left out the part where the bishop would raise an army and crush the White Caps.

So what do you do when you believe in a prophecy and it fails?  Or even worse, when you have been the prophet but your prophecy failed to materialize? In 1260, when the world stubbornly refused to end, the most common reaction was to quietly go home and pretend one had never believed it anyway.  One small group of true believers insisted the world really had ended, but they were the only ones with the insight to see it.  (This was not widely believed.)

Few prophets, in the Middle Ages or now, will admit they were wrong, though a few will suggest that maybe they were too prideful about getting direct messages from God and that God wanted to teach them a sharp lesson.  More common is (and was) to say that some aspect of the prophecy was misunderstood and that the amazing events are still coming, but maybe not quite yet.  After a while this gets old.  (Though the imminent Second Coming of Christ has been prophesied for over 1900 years without losing its power as a prophecy.)  Or one can say that God saw all the true believers and withheld His punishment or apocalypse or consuming fire, so it was like the prophecy was really true.

Those who believe in prophecy are hard to shake.  The current global pandemic has produced a number of prophecies, which are often indistinguishable from urban legends.  An interesting comment I've heard about all things pandemic:  "It's easier to persuade people to believe something that is not true, than to persuade them that what they believe is not true."  The prophecy hasn't failed a bit!  You just don't understand.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on medieval religion and society, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available on Amazon and other e-tailers.  Also available in paperback!

Monday, February 8, 2021


 The Middle Ages was marked by two great outbreaks of the Black Death, also known as bubonic plague, also known by the scientific name of the bacteria that causes it, Yersinia pestis.  The second is well known, breaking out in 1346 in the eastern Mediterranean, becoming established in western Europe in 1347, and spreading and killing people for the next several years.  The first, much less well documented, had multiple outbreaks in western Europe in the second half of the sixth century.  That it was the same disease has been proven by the analysis of DNA from mass burial sites from the sixth century, where Y. pestis is clearly found.

The fourteenth-century plague killed at least a third of the medieval European population, maybe half in some areas.  Probably everybody caught at least a mild case.  It was spread by fleas, that would bite an infected rat, then bite a person, passing on the bacteria.  There was of course no vaccine.  The medieval population developed "herd immunity," that is with everybody infected and either dying or recovering with enough natural immunity to fight it off, the disease more or less disappeared after five or six years.

But it was not gone for good.  Over the next several centuries, it came back again (though never in such force) every generation or so, when a new generation had been born that had never been exposed.  The best known of these outbreaks was the Great Plague of 1666 in southern England.  In London it was stopped by the Great Fire, which by burning up a lot of rats and fleas slowed the disease way down.  The last major outbreak was in 1894 and affected people globally for close to twenty years.  As I have discussed earlier, the Black Death is still endemic in rodents (mostly ground squirrels) in the American southwest.  Fortunately it can now be cured with antibiotics if caught early.

Some people now advocate just letting everybody catch Covid-19 to develop "herd immunity" rather than striving for a vaccine.  Thinking about losing a third or more of the population in the process may change their minds.

It is not clear what proportion of the population of late antiquity was wiped out by the plague, but the records that do survive speak of a devastating impact.  Along with three or four outbreaks of the plague in fifty years or so, there was a smallpox epidemic.  Ah, good times.  It is however clear that the plague spread along trade routes and from the cities to the countryside as people fled from the urban centers where the infection rate was extremely high, not realizing they were spreading the disease in the process.

One indication of how devastating the sixth-century plague was is the evidence, from things like tree rings and pollen analysis, that the seventh and eighth centuries saw much smaller rural populations in Europe than in previous centuries.  And the cities shrank even more; in Arles for example the whole city moved into the old Roman amphitheater, building their houses on the rows of seats, and they all fit.

One might consider that the sixth-century plague really ended the Roman Empire (helped along by the seventh-century rise of Islam).  The fourteenth-century plague changed a lot of aspects of society as well as killing off people.  The basic optimism that had marked much of the Middle Ages was gone, and there was a new fixation on morbidity, taking the form in some cases of extreme piety, in other cases a careless "live for today" attitude.

What changes will come from the Covid-19 pandemic?  One assumes there will be more than an increased willingness of companies to have white-collar workers "work from home."

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on disease and health and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon.  Also available in paperback1

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Groundhog Day

 In the US it's groundhog day, when supposedly the groundhog (also known as woodchuck) comes out of his burrow and sees (or doesn't see) his shadow, thus becoming a weather predictor.  (There's also a movie called Groundhog Day, but we won't be concerned with that.)  Did they have groundhog day in the Middle Ages?

Marmota monax UL 04.jpg

No! In part for the excellent reason that they don't have groundhogs in Europe.

They did however have February 2 (you probably figured that out all by yourself).  In the medieval Christian calendar, this was the date of the Purification of the Virgin.  In Jewish tradition, a woman who had given birth was supposed to undergo ritual purification a month or six weeks after she gave birth, so this is when, according to the Gospel of Luke, Mary went up to Jerusalem to do so and first presented baby Jesus at the Temple.  (Wait, you say, I thought they'd fled into Egypt.  That was a different version of the Christmas story.  We won't worry about that now.)

February 2 is an important day in its own right, considered to be halfway between the solstice (shortest day of the year) and the equinox.  Medieval churches celebrated it as Candlemas, the day that a year's worth of candles would be consecrated, nice and pure like the Virgin.  There appears to have been a legend that if it was clear weather on Candlemas day, then it would get very cold and wintery for the rest of the month.

At some point, probably in the post-medieval period, a legend grew up in Germany that you could tell how clear Candlemas day really was by whether a badger (Dachs in German) could see its shadow.  When the Amish, fleeing persecution in Germany, settled in what became Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century, they brought this story with them.  There are a lot more groundhogs than badgers in Pennsylvania, so the story got transferred to them.

During the twentieth century, what had been a minor Pennsylvania Dutch story became a media hit in North America.  Soon there was an Official Groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil.  Different places soon wanted their own official groundhog.  Ohio has Buckeye Chuck.  Ontario has Whireton Willie.  Even Nova Scotia has a version of what they call Dax Day (presumably a name derived from the German word for badger).  Something tells me that Nova Scotia does not get springlike weather in February, no matter what the groundhog sees.

Fun fact: woodchucks are scientifically called marmots.  They are related to squirrels, being large rodents.  The name woodchuck comes from the Algonquin wuchak, what some native Americans called them (it has nothing to do with wood or chucking).  The name groundhog is self-evident.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon.  Also available in paperback1

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Indie Publishing

 Being an independent publisher, an "indie," has become more and more common in the last decade.  More books, especially ebooks (as opposed to physical books), are now being published by indie authors than by traditional publishing houses.

As they say, the good news is now everyone can be an author.  The bad new is now everyone can be an author.

Traditional publishing houses long functioned as "gatekeepers," publishing only books that they thought were good and that they thought would sell (not necessarily congruent categories).  Everyone heard stories of authors, from JK Rowling to the Bridges of Madison County guy, who were turned down by multiple publishers before hitting it big.  This is because guessing what was going to sell, as well as interjecting one's own taste into decisions about what's good, has always been an inexact science.

So now there are no gatekeepers for indie authors!  Good books can find their readers without anyone else deciding what they'd like!  Or that's the idea.  It doesn't quite work out that way.

It doesn't because of all the things the traditional publishers have always provided that a lot of indie authors can't manage on their own.  They gave books a good editing, to eliminate typos and misspellings (or at least most of them), and to make sure that the heroine didn't have blue eyes in Chapter 1 but brown eyes in Chapter 6, or that the hero didn't overhear all the details of the nefarious plot in Chapter 4, only to be shocked when he "first" hears about it in Chapter 14.

Traditional publishers always gave books attractive, genre-appropriate covers.  One has heard the saying, "Don't judge a book by its cover," but when there are many books to choose from, the one with the intriguing cover gets picked up first.  A cover with a slightly blurry photo of a backyard bird feeder is not going to sell many romance novels, even if in the story Judy and Jason first meet while buying bird seed.  A drawing of a sailboat is not going to inspire lovers of horror novels to pick up the book, even if the Undead Being manifests itself in a boathouse.  And don't get me started on the picture of Mommy and Daddy drawn by a six-year-old.

Here is the cover of my first published fantasy novel, "A Bad Spell in Yurt." It looks like a fantasy cover, and it looks like fun, and it helped make the book a national fantasy best-seller.  I had nothing to do with creating the cover--it was my publisher.  The artist is Tom Kidd.

The other thing traditional publishers have always provided is marketing.  No matter how good a book is, no one will buy it if no one knows it exists.  Publishers were good at getting books into stores, getting them reviewed in major newspapers and magazines, even getting the authors on radio or TV shows.  A lot of indie authors are shocked to discover that writing a good book is only Step One.  That's why it's called indie publishing--they have to be publishers as well as authors.

(In my own case, the eight books that I published traditionally gave me a fan base (we love you, fans!) that has continued into my indie publishing days, so I have a market for my new books, and people ready to recommend my old titles when I republish them.  Most indie authors aren't so lucky.)

The other thing challenging indie authors is how really bad some of the books being published are (as I hinted above), meaning some readers turn their noses up at self-published books.  So far no one has figured out how to install gatekeepers to keep out the sludge without, you know, instituting gatekeepers.

In spite of everything, some indie authors do very well.  One advantage they have is that there really is a market for books almost (but not quite) like best-sellers.  So traditional publishers wouldn't touch stories of teenage romance with a handsome young vampire after Twilight, but a lot of readers wanted such stories, and indie authors provided them.  Traditional publishers were dubious about more stories of a rag-tag group of men, elves, and dwarves off to conquer the Dark Lord, in spite of the success of Lord of the Rings, but indie authors have filled that need.  Harry Potter pretty much exhausted traditional publishers' interest in stories of wizardry schools (though my Bad Spell had a wizards' school long before Harry Potter appeared), but now anyone who wants such a story can find it.

The most popular indie genres are contemporary romance and soft-core erotica.  In both cases, readers are voracious, and a skilled and prolific indie author can keep cranking out books that will sell.  To get their books noticed, of course, they work more than a full-time job (there's a reason a traditional publishing house has dozens or more employees).  Realistically most indie authors will only sell one or two copies ever, including the sale to Mom.  There are plenty of sites on the web that will, "for a small fee," tell you how to make Big Bucks in Passive Income by being an indie publisher.  Do not believe them.  (Though they seem to be making plenty of Big Bucks themselves.)

Some skilled and fortunate (and very hard-working) indie authors gross seven-figure incomes (though they have to pay for covers and editors and advertising out of that).  They are however a tiny fraction of all indie authors.  That hasn't slowed a lot of would-be Bigtime Authors down.  They figure that less than 1% of the US population has died of Covid-19, so they aren't going to worry, yet on the other hand far less than 1% of all indie authors become rich, so they figure, That's me!  Sorry, it doesn't work that way.

Writing a book, finishing it, making it the best you can, successfully formatting and publishing it has got to be its own reward.  Selling copies to strangers who like it is gravy.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

Monday, January 25, 2021


 Insurrection, rising up against one's government, is serious.  And yet it has a strangely well established spot in American popular culture.  The American Revolution (actually not a social revolution like the French Revolution but a war of independence) is always framed as freedom-loving folks rising up against an oppressive government.  Star Wars is a series of stories about overthrowing the Evil Empire (you'd think they'd figure out that building a vulnerable spot into every Death Star was a bad idea).  The Hunger Games is about a bold, rag-tag group of freedom-lovers destroying the evil, oppressive Capital.

Even gun-rights advocates say that we need guns to defend ourselves against an oppressive government, although the Second Amendment discusses bearing arms as an act under government direction ("...a well regulated militia..."), and, let's face it, even the best-armed private citizen isn't going to have a lot of luck against a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

Nonetheless, the US has been a remarkably stable democracy for close to 250 years.  Certainly there have been isolated revolts against the government (like the Branch Davidians), but the only really concerted insurrection was the Civil War of the 1860s, which was actually more an effort to take the South off to be its own country than an effort to change the central government itself.

 There were insurrections in the Middle Ages and early modern period, usually framed as overthrowing the king.  This was a little tricky because although medieval kings were not "divine right" kings (the way some later kings tried to define themselves), there was a sense that in overthrowing a king one was overthrowing a form of government that, at least in structure, mirrored the Kingdom of God.  That meant that once the king was gone, it was appropriate to put in a new king (here the American Revolution differed, though there was serious thought of declaring George Washington a king).

As I've discussed earlier (see details here), the Merovingians, the family that ruled France in the early Middle Ages, were overthrown in 751 and replaced by the line of Carolingian kings.  The excuse was that the Merovingians had become hopelessly incompetent.

 The Carolingians too had revolts against them.  When Louis II of France died in 879 after a short reign, Boso of Burgundy declared himself French king, rather than the child Louis III.  It didn't work, and he ended up king only of Burgundy and Provence, with his own brother fighting against him, but it is interesting to note that this non-Carolingian king had given himself a royal aura by having his sister marry one Carolingian king and himself marrying that king's niece.  King Charles the Simple was deposed as incompetent in 923 and replaced by Robert I, a hero of the Viking wars.  The Carolingians came to a final end in 987, when Robert's grandson Hugh Capet became king of France, deposing the last, incompetent Carolingian and beginning the Capetian line.  You've probably noticed a pattern here.

In the late Middle Ages, however, the usual explanation for replacing a king was not that he was incompetent but that he was a tyrant.  Late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England witnessed struggles between a number of men of the royal line, all cousins, during the last years of the Hundred Years War (as discussed in an earlier post), and, more viciously, during the War of the Roses, with the argument for insurrection always being that the current king was a tyrant (plus evil).  This continued into the early modern period, with the brief reign in England of Mary Tudor ("Bloody Mary") before Elizabeth I became queen, the deposition and beheading of Charles I in 1649, and, after Charles I's son was (eventually) brought back to the throne, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that deposed (but didn't need to behead) Charles I's grandson James II.

And then there's the French Revolution, which was both a social revolution (ending official nobility) and eventually an overthrowing of the monarchy—originally the revolutionaries were going to allow the French king to stay on as a constitutional monarch (like England after 1688).  But that's a different story.

Maybe the real moral of the story is that those practicing insurrection over the centuries have been strangely unwilling to change the form of government, just the individual at the head, and that tyranny and incompetence are the favorite rationales.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

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

Monday, January 18, 2021

Medieval Costumes

 Creative anachronists and those who enjoy cosplay put great effort into creating more-or-less authentic costumes.  They usually do not weave their own cloth (much less raise the sheep, shear the sheep, and spin the wool), and dying their own cloth is not common, but the more authentically-minded sew by hand rather than by by machine.

Photograph of five people standing together in costume

(Of course a lot of them buy patterns, in their size, and use the pieces of tissue to cut out pieces of cloth in the right shape, but there are limits to how heavy-duty someone wants to be.)


 Medieval Cosplay Armor Patterns | Kinpatsu Cosplay

If one is going to become all authentic about medieval costumes, one of the first decisions is to choose the era one is trying to reproduce.  For both men and women, throughout the Middle Ages, the basic unit of clothing was a tunic, essentially a long-sleeved T-shirt, shorter for the men, longer for the women, as seen in the medieval drawing below.  A long rectangular cloak, generally with a hood, went over this in cooler weather.  But this simple design was greatly varied depending on time and place.

Classical antiquity had had very simple clothing, a lot of it basically pieces of cloth just wrapped, tied, and pinned around the body.  Early medieval clothing seems to have been equally simple, although Germanic men adopted trousers, which the Romans initially found both effeminate and hilarious.

As the Middle Ages went on, clothing became more elaborate.  Elegant women wore dresses cut on the bias, which gave their clothing stretch, allowing their clothes to fit more closely to their bodies.  These elegant dresses did not have zippers or other fasteners (zippers are a nineteenth-century invention), so the woman had to wiggle her way in.  Sleeves were basted on separately, every morning.

Even with fairly simple tunics above and socks or stockings below (no tights), an outfit could be accessorized with brooches, bracelets, necklaces, sashes, and fancy belt buckles.  These were worn by both sexes.  The image below is a modern reproduction of a Frankish belt buckle.


A big advance in the thirteenth century was the adoption of buttons.  Originally they were merely decorative, but quickly women realized they could be used with loops as closings for one's clothes, allowing even more tight-fitting outfits.  Lots of buttons (which were expensive, usually mother-of-pearl or ceramic) was a sign of luxury.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages women started wearing elaborate head dresses, again as signs of wealth and luxury.  Keeping one's clothing fresh and unstained, especially if it was white, was also a sign of luxury in an era with neither dry cleaning nor washing machines.

In the post-medieval period, clothing became even more elaborate for those who could afford it.  Those huge white ruffled collars one sees in early modern Dutch paintings were certainly nothing that ordinary working people could afford or manage.

At the court of Louis XIV in France, clothing was by far the biggest expense for the aristocrats at court trying to impress each other.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on clothing and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon.  Also available in paperback1

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Medieval Armies

 We think of armies as professional bodies, thoroughly trained, wearing uniforms, following discipline, able (in the US) to get their tuition paid to go to college.  Since the era of the Vietnam War, the US has gone from a draft to a volunteer army.

Medieval armies were very different, starting with the lack of uniforms, training, and discipline.  The Roman army had been more like what we think of as an army, young men recruited into a paid professional military force for 20 year hitches, marching together in disciplined phalanxes.  Medieval generals had read about Roman armies (especially the treatise by Vegetius, "the Art of War"), but good luck having anything like that after the economic and social collapse of the Empire in the sixth century.

The Germanic armies that were commanded by early medieval kings and counts were foot-soldier armies, supposedly made up of all able-bodied free men.  Some had originally been hired by the Romans as "barbarian legions," but by the time one gets to the seventh and eighth centuries there was no sense of anyone getting paid.  They were expected to turn out and fight to defend their people.  Their chief weapon was a long sword, and they carried round shields—meant to protect the individual in a fight, rather than the tall, rectangular shields of the Romans, with which one could form a shield wall.  They had helmets but not much in the way of armor.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, once stirrups began to be in use (apparently they began in Persia), and there was enough iron to shoe horses, horses began to appear more and more in armies.  Knights started appearing attached to all armies in the eleventh century, and by the twelfth century knights made up the bulk of most armies, although they always had a significant foot-soldier component.  Great lords, especially in England, were expected to show up for battles accompanied by a certain number of knights.  If you think it would have been hard keeping a foot-soldier army disciplined when they were just young men told they needed to come defend the county, think about a lot of proud knights who were intensely proud of their ability and touchy about their honor.

These armies were still formidable.  Knights and the accompanying foot soldiers went on Crusade, conquering the Holy Land in the First Crusade and establishing the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  They lost it again within three generations, but that was probably inevitable for an occupying army surrounded by an awful lot of people who didn't want them there.

Mercenaries appeared in local wars in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, soldiers who would (at least theoretically) do what they were ordered to do, because otherwise they wouldn't be paid.  They could also (theoretically) be counted on for a long war, whereas knights usually went home from regional wars after a while.  The problem with mercenaries of course is if you stop paying, they will stop fighting for you, even switch sides.

Twelfth- and thirteenth-century knights had chain mail, helmets, lances, swords, and either round or tall, kite-shaped shields (as seen below).  Plate mail, such as you see in Hollywood movies, did not appear until the late Middle Ages.

A lot changed for armies in the Late Middle Ages.  Once gun powder became a weapon of war in the fourteenth century, during the Hundred Years War between France and England, cavalry charges became much less effective, as they could be brought down by cannon fire.  More and more armies were made up of foot soldiers armed with pikes.  Archers, both longbow men and those armed with crossbows, continued to play a major role, because there was nothing like a personal firearm.

The mass of foot soldiers of a late medieval army were treated with supreme disdain by their commanders, who called them cannon fodder, as they might be ordered to march against a bank of cannons and get killed, so the better trained soldiers could rush in before the cannons were reloaded.  These soldiers were "recruited" by officers going around to villages and ordering a certain number of young men to join the army.  They would end up with the poor who didn't have the money to buy their way out, the obnoxious and violent who were pushed to go by their neighbors, and the foolish, who actually believed the promises of military pay.

Yet these armies were tough.  For the Hundred Years War, from which we have fairly good records, soldiers would march 20 miles in a day and then fight a battle.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

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