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

Dec 26, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Were the Vikings Potheads?

A new discovery reveals that the Vikings in Norway grew hemp.

Examination of material excavated from a Viking farm in southern Norway uncovered hemp pollen dating from 650 to 800 AD. Hemp is Cannabis sativa, a subspecies of which, Cannabis sativa indica, is marijuana. Industrial hemp such as what the Vikings grew can't get you high because it contains almost no THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Instead, hemp can be used for clothing and rope, as well as numerous other products. While the archaeologists stressed that they found no evidence that the Vikings grew marijuana, I have a hard time beliving they didn't have a little patch set aside for those long winter nights. The sagas would have sounded pretty cool while high on a mixture of pot and mead.

They couldn't have smoked too much, though, otherwise they wouldn't have made all those voyages of conquest and discovery. They'd have just stayed home eating Doritos and watching TV instead.

Photo of industrial hemp (not the Grateful Dead kind) courtesy Evelyn Simak.

Dec 24, 2012

Merry Christmas, Byzantine Style!

This is a Byzantine ivory from the 10th century. Mary rests beside the manger with the swaddled Christ Child. Three angels emerge from behind the mountain, one of whom announces the birth of Christ to the standing shepherd on the left. In the foreground, the infant receives his first bath while the seated Joseph watches. The motif of Christ receiving his first bath is characteristic of Byzantine images of the Nativity and rarely appears in western European art.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Dec 17, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Ottonian Ivory

One of my favorite artistic movements of the Middle Ages was the creation of ivory miniatures during the Ottonian Renaissance (c. 951 – 1024). Launched by the German Ottonian dynasty, this was a flowering of art and culture heavily influenced by the earlier Carolingian Renaissance and contemporary Byzantine artistic styles. The Ottonian kings ruled over much of Germany and Italy and called themselves the "Holy Roman Emperors", a title used by many rulers before and since.

The renaissance encompassed all forms of art but I've always been most impressed by the ivory miniatures ever since I first saw them in the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert in London. The photo above is of a diptych made in Trier at the end of 10th century. It shows two scenes: Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and The Doubting Thomas.

This is a situla, a bucket for holding holy water. It's carved with twelve scenes from the Passion of Christ arranged in two rows and was probably made around 980 for the visit of Emperor Otto II to Milan.
This also comes from Milan around 962-973 and was donated to Magdeburg Cathedral by Otto I. It depicts the Flagellation of Christ.

All images courtesy Wikipedia.

Dec 3, 2012

Leather armor in the Middle Ages

In the first chapter of my fantasy novel Roots Run Deep, a team of goblinkin are preparing for a raid on a human city.
Like anyone who lived on the Reservation, Kip went armed at all times. Not that she had much. Her tattered leather jerkin gave scant protection, and for weapons she carried a flint knife and a tfaa, a traditional goblin fighting stick. A balanced, two foot-long rod carved from ironwood, the tfaa didn’t look like much, but in skilled hands it could disarm and cripple a swordsman. Prenta had gotten rid of her showy clothes and dressed in a more practical leather jerkin similar to Kip’s.

These impoverished goblinkin are wearing leather armor because they can't afford anything better and their human rulers forbid them from bearing metal weapons and armor. (This ban doesn't last, but that comes later in the story. . .) Leather armor is a staple of fantasy fiction and roleplaying games, yet many people don't realize just how common it was in medieval warfare. Even knights wore it.

Leather armor goes back to ancient times and continued in use through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. This picture shows the shoulder and upper arm portions of an elegant suit of leather dating to the Italian Renaissance, courtesy of the Schola Forum. As you can see, it looks much like regular metal armor, and many historians believe that it was worn as much as or even more than metal armor. A suit of plate was hot and heavy, so on the march or during a friendly tournament the knight may choose to weather cooler leather. The rank and file would also be fitted with leather and perhaps some portions of metal armor for vulnerable places such as the head and chest.

While leather was much cheaper, it provided pretty good protection. Regular soft leather wasn't much help, but combined with quilted padding provided some protection, especially against blunt weapons such as maces.

More effective was cuir bouilli--boiled leather. If you soak leather in water and then place it in boiling water, it becomes elastic and pliable. It soon begins to shrink, thicken, and harden. As it's hardening, the leather is hammered onto shaped blocks to create breastplates, greaves, vambraces, and anything else. A full suit of armor could be made in this way.

The 14th century French chronicler Jean Froissart claimed that it was "leather that no iron can pierce" and while that may be overstating the case, leather armor certainly gave good protection. Games such as D&D probably undervalue its effectiveness. Modern experiments show that the average sword blow wouldn't get through, although a good English longbow would make short work of a leather breastplate! This basic article (PDF) explains the technique. Also check out this thread from Schola Forum for some more insights and pictures.

The picture below from The Historians' History of the World shows some improvements on leather armor, with overlapping metal scales, discs, and rings. These were all cheaper yet pretty effective alternatives to full plate and variants of these were used from ancient times into the Renaissance.