Fantasy, mystery, thrillers, horror, historical. . .I write it all, and review it too!

Mar 26, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Mass grave from the Battle of Lützen being excavated

Archaeologists are excavating a mass grave from the Battle of Lützen, a 1632 battle in Germany that was a turning point in the Thirty Years War.

The team has found an estimated 75 skeletons, all male and apparently stripped since no artifacts or traces of clothing have been found. The bones will be analyzed to find cause of death, health, and age. Isotope analysis will determine where they originated from. At the moment it is unknown which army the grave represents.

The Battle of Lützen was fought between the Protestant army of Sweden under the famous general Gustavus Adolphus and the Catholic army of the Holy Roman Empire. It was unusual in several ways, the first being that it was fought in November, when most Renaissance armies preferred to be in winter quarters.

It was also unusual in that the Protestants won the battle and lost in the long term. After a hard fight they broke the Catholic army, which fled in partial disorder. Gustavus Adolphus, however, was cut down by Catholic cavalry and with his genius for leadership and strategy gone, the Protestant cause lost much of the wind from its sails. Sweden lost its prime place in the Protestant coalition, although the war ended in the Protestants' favor.

Mar 19, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Did Saint Brendan sail to America?

Fellow author and blogger buddy Sean McLachlan recently wrote a couple of interesting posts about the Vikings in North America for the travel blog Gadling. One was on L'Anse aux Meadows, the only confirmed Viking settlement in the New World. The other is on the controversial Kensington Runestone and other purported Vikings traces in the U.S. These runestones are problematic to say the least and may be modern forgeries.

There is a whole subculture in the United States of trying to prove that various ancient cultures arrived in the New World before Columbus. One of the more popular theories is that Saint Brendan voyaged to the New World.

Saint Brendan lived from about 484-577. Not much is known about his life for certain. One later account written in the ninth century, Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator, tells a fantastic tale of his seven-year journey to the Isle of the Blessed and back. This isle was supposedly far to the west out in the Atlantic. During their voyage, the saint and his companions meets devils, Judas, and sea monsters, and have many adventures. Time and against the saint protects his followers by calling on God.

While it seems like a Christian fable or morality tale, some people, especially Irish-Americans, think it proves that the early Irish visited the New World. There's no archaeological evidence for this, however and there is no mention of it in any of the Irish records besides the fantastical tale of Saint Brendan. One would think that Irish monks risking life and limb to preach to the native Americans would write an account of their exploits.

Back in 1976, adventurer Tim Severin decided to prove that Saint Brendan could have made the voyage. He constructed a currach, the traditional Irish boat of the times. These boats come in all sizes and are made of leather lashed onto a wooden frame. Severin's boat was 36 feet long and had two masts. A model is below. he and his crew sailed this unlikely craft all the way from Ireland to Newfoundland.

This was certainly an impressive feat. Showing that Brendan could have made it, however, doesn't prove that he did. Severin had the advantage of knowing where he was going!

While Severin was a serious investigator, the same can't be said for some of those searching for the early Irish in the New World. Barry Fell and other authors caused a craze in the 1970s when they claimed to have found numerous inscriptions of Ogam, an ancient Irish script, all over the United States. There's a good page on this controversy at the Council for West Virginia Archaeology website. Well worth a look.

Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Mar 18, 2012

Magic shoes and Christian princesses

There have been two interesting articles on BBC this past week. the first was a feature on the folk custom of concealing shoes and other pieces of clothing in hidden places in bridges and homes in Australia. I talked about the English version of this magical folk practice here. I'm not surprised it got transplanted to Australia. It's interesting that it was going on at least as late as the 1920s!

In other news, an Anglo-Saxon grave from the mid-seventh century has been discovered that includes a beautiful garnet cross. The deceased was a sixteen-year-old woman who may have been local royalty. The seventh century was a time of transition from paganism to Christianity and so this find is extremely important.

I love the BBC. Always some food for thought on there!

Mar 12, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Viking graffiti

The Vikings traveled far. From their homeland in Scandinavia they reached across the Atlantic to North America, penetrated deep into what is now called Russia, circled the west coast of Europe and sailed all around the Mediterranean. Their longship was feared and their knörr was welcomed. If you saw the first, you were about to get raided. If you saw the second, that meant traders were bringing you goods from distant lands.

The Vikings left traces of their passage. The photo above shows Runic graffiti in the Hagia Sofia, the main church of Constantinople (modern Istanbul). It was probably made by a Varangian, one of the Byzantine emperor's personal bodyguard. Byzantine politics was a deadly game and the emperor liked using foreign mercenaries who were loyal only to him, or at least his ready supply of gold. I can just picture poor Halvdan standing bored through a long Greek Orthodox service and inscribing his name on the railing.

Several other Runic inscriptions have been found in the Hagia Sofia. Like Halvdan's inscription, they're faint and hard to read. If you ever visit, take a good look at the walls and you might discover more!

Next we have this crude carving of what many believe is a Viking ship, found on the wall of a palace in Palermo, Sicily. It may not have been made by a Viking since Viking ships were a common sight in the Mediterranean. It's still a tantalizing image.

Of course, Viking graffiti is more common in places where the Vikings actually settled. In the Orkney Islands, a neolithic chamber tomb is covered in runic graffiti. We actually know who did some of these carvings and when, because the event is preserved in the Orkneyinga Saga as well as the runes themselves. A group of Scandinavian Crusaders, either leaving for or coming back from the Crusades, broke into the tomb to hide from a storm at Christmas time 1153.

The longest inscription chronicles the event: "Crusaders broke into Maeshowe. Lif the earl's cook carved these runes. To the north-west is a great treasure hidden. It was long ago that a great treasure was hidden here. Happy is he that might find that great treasure. Hakon alone bore treasure from this mound (signed) Simon Sirith"

What was this treasure? Nobody knows. Some Neolithic tombs contained gold ornaments, which would surely have warmed the Vikings' hearts on that cold Christmas.

Other inscriptions were a bit earthier: "Thorni fucked. Helgi carved." Interestingly, Helgi is a male name, and I believe Thorni is as well. Is this evidence of gay Vikings?

Here's another boast: "These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean."

Most of the rest of the 30 inscriptions are more prosaic, simple names or the common formula of "so-and-so carved these runes." You can find the whole list of them here.
Photos courtesy Wikipedia.

Mar 5, 2012

Medieval Mondays: The Man-Catcher

Here's one for all you fantasy romance fans. This unusual looking polearm is called a man-catcher. It's not so much a weapon as a rather nasty police enforcement tool.

A quick jab would catch someone in the spring action and the spikes would discourage them from moving around.This would be very effective for catching criminals without killing them. It would certainly hurt them, but curbing police brutality was even less of a priority in the Middle Ages than it is now. While it would have been of little use against armored targets in a battlefield situation, it would prove effective in pulling a rider off his horse.

This type of weapon was long lived. There are examples from the Middle Ages (although like the flail, its origins are unclear), the Venetian police used a type of man-catcher in the Renaissance with hinged blades, and police in New Guinea used a rather nasty type right into the twentieth century.

The New Guinea example was a loop of rattan with a spike at the end of the pole. The loop would go around the fleeing culprit's neck, and a quick jerk brought his neck up against the spike. A strong enough pull would save a lot of paperwork back at the station.

Photo courtesy Jeremy Hunsinger.

Mar 2, 2012

Down in the Dungeon gets a four-star review!

My latest publication, the short story collection Down in the Dungeon, has received its first review, getting four stars! A.M. Donovan of Night Owl Reviews says:

"This is an enjoyable 50 page collection of short stories by someone who has fond memories of late nights with friends, rolling the dice and using our imaginations. Hey, it worked for Dragon Lance. He reveals a wicked sense of humor while telling stories of battles between good and evil, adventure, skull duggery and daring do. Like with real life, good does not always win, but likewise, sometimes evil does good. Wither to prevent a greater evil (or quite by accident)."

Donovan is right; I did base these tales on teenage memories of fantasy roleplaying, as the back cover blurb attests.

The orcs of Grimwood summon an ancient evil. . .

A mountaineering expedition to retrieve a griffin's egg goes horribly wrong, at least for most of the climbers. . .

A soldier believes his commander is not what he seems. . .

A dungeon door poses a problem for an experienced party of adventurers. . .

A unique trap appears to be inescapable, but for one desperate plan. . .

Here are five tales set in the good old days of fantasy gaming, when friends sat around the kitchen table late into the night rolling dice and sharing adventures. Relive the spirit of the past (or even the present!) with stories of epic combat and base trickery, stories that any adventurer would be proud to tell over a mug of ale at the local tavern. Includes the short story The Trap, co-written with special guest author Tony Rudzki.

Price: $3.99

Word count: 28,427

Available from Writers Exchange Ebooks, Amazon, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.