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