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Medieval Peasants Had More Vacation Time Than You

Breugel

We think of the Middle Ages as a time of bone crushing drudgery but recently I’ve discovered new research that suggests that the medieval peasant didn’t work even as many hours as we do!

“Plowing and harvesting were backbreaking toil, but the peasant enjoyed anywhere from eight weeks to half the year off. The Church, mindful of how to keep a population from rebelling, enforced frequent mandatory holidays. Weddings, wakes and births might mean a week off quaffing ale to celebrate, and when wandering jugglers or sporting events came to town, the peasant expected time off for entertainment. There were labor-free Sundays, and when the plowing and harvesting seasons were over, the peasant got time to rest, too. In fact, economist Juliet Shor found that during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th-century England, peasants might put in no more than 150 days a year.”  Read More 

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More to Battle the Sexist Assumptions of Paleontologists

Seated Goddess of Catalhoyuk

I am currently reading A People’s History of the World: from the Stone Age to the New Millennium by Chris Harmon, and it makes me bristle, again, over many traditional assumptions about human history, human nature, and the position of women:

  • Harmon’s analysis of the Paleolithic period recognizes that for tens of thousands of years humans lived in cooperative groups that were completely egalitarian, with no sign of accumulated wealth or social status. (It’s a fascinating concept that I’ll be digging into later.) Read More 

Queen Margaret I of Denmark, The Lady King

Effigy of Queen Margaret 1 from 1423 on her tomb in Roskilde Cathedral

In studying for an upcoming trip, I have come across Queen Margaret I of Denmark, who was the “builder of the greatest personal position ever achieved in Scandinavia.” Ruling in the 1300s, she governed with “farsighted tact and caution.”

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Empress Deng: A Just and Capable Ruler in Second Century China

In my search for women to write back into history…I’ve discovered three (so far) in The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of the Revolutionary Invention, by Alexander Monro.

Monroe is suggesting that the inventor of paper was a Chinese second-century government official named Cai Lun. While Cai is “traditionally credited with inventing paper in A.D. 105… papermaking is in fact at least three centuries older than this, but it was nevertheless Cai who refined paper for more widespread use and who first appreciated the enormous choice of possible ingredients.” However, it was the Empress Deng who rose “up like a conductor and signaled the launch of Cai’s carefully honed substance across China, in a quest to harmonize the country to this new medium.” [Page 13]

“Deng Sui was the granddaughter of a Han prime minister. (Sometimes translated as Chancellor, this was the highest administrative post and involved setting the government budget.) She was born in 81 in Nanyang in the cattle country of the near North. By the age of six she knew Confucius’s Book of Documents and at 12 she had read the Classic of Poetry and the Analects, according to her official biography.  Read More 

A Salute to Our Stone Age Sisters

Studying history means actively looking for surprises, despite the fact that it is focused on events from centuries and even millennia in the past. And I know enough to understand that “progress” through history is not a consistent march uphill but a journey during which we have frequently gotten lost, sometimes forgetting things for hundreds of years before circling back and re-learning them.

What has surprised me most recently is the number of important concepts and everyday items still in use that were developed in the Stone Age – the Paleolithic time from 2.7 million years ago up until 10,000 years ago.

Here’s what One Million Years in a Day(1) and other sources say that our Stone Age Sisters knew to create or use:

The sewing needle, the oldest of which dates back 60,000 years , which also means an understanding of the components of all clothing elements – the hat, cape, sleeve and pant; form-fitting boots and shoes; and the geometry to construct them
Linen, developed 30,000 years ago
Jewelry, the necklace, earring (including for pierced ears), bracelet and pouch – 40,000 years ago
Plates, bowls and vessels
Insect repellent and mattresses, “…ancient mattresses were lined with leaves from River Wild-Quince, a tree that naturally produces an insect repellent chemical, and this may have minimized the lethal scourge of malaria.  Read More 

Chicken or Egg? Hobby or Character Development?

Where can I learn to be a blacksmith, I muttered to myself last week, as I decided to put a blacksmith in a new book/project. Might be fun to learn, I thought.

The night before I had packed away my (at this point fairly extensive) collection of chocolate molds and tools, having recently sold my new novel, Straight Uphill: A Tale of Love and Chocolate to Fireship Press.

So it made me wonder: which came first, the desire to learn something like confectionary, or the desire to have a character work in a trade that, for the sake of verisimilitude, I need to learn. I don’t necessarily need to master the craft, but I need to know the smell of it, the heat, the feel of the tools in my hand. One can learn the process from a book but there’s so that you have to actually experience.

So, which came first?

I wrote the chocolatiers in Straight Uphill because I was taking on chocolate as a hobby. (I’ve never actually had a hobby. Work, writing, motherhood, relationship, house; that was all I could handle. I had never even asked myself what I might want to do as a hobby, that’s how remote the prospect was.) Chocolates moved from a temporary pastime to a dedicated hobby when I realized that I had just spent hours, transfixed, as I worked with the stuff. The ‘languid quality’ described in the WWII section of the book is how I felt making my first ganache. So, in the case of Straight Uphill, the hobby came first.

I learned to ride a horse for two reasons:  Read More 

New Book Club Discussion Guide for The Mandrake Broom

Book Club Guide for The Mandrake Broom

Description of the book: A historical novel set in Europe 1465 – 1540, The Mandrake Broom dramatizes the courageous fight to save medical knowledge during the witch burning times and answers the question “what if the witches had fought back?” Based on extensive research of historical sources, herbal remedies and the medicines of the time, this novel has been called “is "stunningly good...tremendously involving and impressive." Meet:

Luccia Alimenti, daughter of a medical professor at the University of Salerno, Italy, destined to carry ancient texts and herbal lore into the dangerous and groundbreaking future.

Fiona, her Irish godmother  Read More 

The Ascent of Woman: Excellent Series on Netflix

Empress Theodora

 I discovered The Ascent of Woman on Netflix, an excellent piece by Dr. Amanda Foreman that is quite unique in that it isn’t simple, flashy biographies of a couple of women through history, it is a clear, accessible, and well-written series on the overall rights of women through history as well as revelations of great women of the time, not as an anomaly but as key players in history who have been written out.


Dr. Foreman says that the condition of women is not a straight-forward march from darkness to light, from subjugation to freedom but a journey  Read More 

Thurber, Burleigh and Dvorak Were Key to the Birth of American Orchestral Music

Jeannette Meyer Thurber
‘Had Jeannette Meyers Thurber put her name on the institutions she established, she would be as well-known as Carnegie and Rockefeller.’ That statement piqued my interest while enjoying the lecture series from The Great Courses entitled Dr. Robert Greenberg, Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances.

An accomplished but obscure woman? Just my sort of treasure hunt.

Thurber established the National Conservatory of Music of America in 1885 – the first of its kind and an endeavor that some say ushered in the first orchestral music with a distinctively American sound. But in a very radical stance for the day, Thurber championed the rights of women, people of color and the handicapped to attend her school, sometimes on full scholarship. This was 1885—not too long after the Civil War -- and her school was racially integrated, promoted women, and had an inclusive stance toward the handicapped.

“The National Conservatory of Music of America was the outstanding institution for professional musical preparation in the United States for some 25 years or more. At its height in the 1890s it boasted a faculty of international renown…and initiated a course of studies whose features became a basis for the curriculum now taken for granted in the colleges and conservatories of this country. Its achievements resulted from the endeavors of a single visionary: Jeannette M Thurber, a wealthy, idealistic New Yorker who devoted most of her life to the school…Although her innovative design for the Conservatory was influential in shaping the course of American music for the 20th century, Mrs. Thurber and her school have slipped into undeserved obscurity.”(1)

But the conservatory seemed to be her real love, and she grew it from 84 students when it opened to 3,000 students in 1900.(2) Her success was due, in part,  Read More 

Writing on Medieval Craftsmen: Scribes and Illuminators by Christopher de Hamel

I’m always researching new scenes and stories from the Middle Ages. I’m particularly keen on characters who are tradespeople, so I’m looking into information on the length of time it takes to do things in the Middle Ages (re-calibrating your plot is key here.) Today’s investigation is from:

Writing on Medieval Craftsmen: Scribes and Illuminators by Christopher de Hamel.
(italics in the following are mine)
“There is evidence of monastic manuscript-making projects extending over years, and doubtless it was often very much a part-time occupation. An eleventh-century (1000AD) monastic scribe, in no great haste, might achieve three or four moderate-sized books a year. A professional scribe, however, working for a commercial bookshop in the fifteenth century (1400s), was paid by the job and not by the hour. There are manuscripts in which the scribe announces at the end that the work was started and finished
in a matter of days. The Renaissance scribe Giovanni Marco Cinico, who mostly worked in Naples 1458-98, boasted that he wrote full-length manuscripts in fifty-two or fifty-three hours, and he was nicknamed Velox, speedy. Perhaps a Book of Hours might usually be written out within a week, and the miniatures might well be executed at the rate of two or three a day. A professional artisan who knows his job and repeats it throughout a lifetime can often work extremely fast.” (pg. 7)

Here’s a great scene:

“The parchmenter is scraping last week’s skins while this week’s supply is soaking in vats in the shed. Fresh quills are drying out while the scribe is writing with earlier stock. The illuminator during a lunch break checks on the infusions of next week’s pigments in the pantry. Certain devices for speeding the process further were evolved during the centuries, culminating at last in the invention of printing around 1450.” Pg. 7

Another great scene/vivid detail:

“Sometimes too one can see tree-like vein marks on parchment, the result of blood in the skin when the animal died (this ought to be more common in pelts from hunted animals, like deer, than from those killed and bled in a butcher’s shop, but it is difficult to know how to set about proving it.) If the flaws were too rough and pronounced and yet the scribe decided to use the sheet nonetheless, a ring may have been drawn around the blemish and the scribe’s subsequent writing parts like the Red Sea to flow around it. On big pages one can sometimes detect denser ridges where the backbone transected the skin and perhaps on one edge one may observe (aided perhaps by imagination) the scalloped curve which was the neck of the animal.” (pg. 15)

“Until the twelfth century, most manuscripts were ruled in drypoint, that is, with blind lines scored with a stylus or back of the knife…Oblong pieces of lead have been excavated scribed with names like ROGERII and KAROLI SCRIPTORIS in the 13th or 14th century capitals, and are probably plummet markers for just such purposes as ruling manuscripts.” Pg. 23

“No facsimile can ever give the tactile experience of handling and running one’s fingers across soft leaves of medieval parchment. Even the smell is quite different from that of paper, and in fact varies enormously with manuscripts from one country to another. Within moderation, a bit of handling is said to be good for manuscripts because parchment, like leather, responds well to movement and can lose suppleness if untouched for centuries.” Pg. 13 (Love that one could tell where a book came from by its smell!)
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