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.