Now What?

Saturday, I couldn’t figure out why my ability to focus seemed to have gone out the window. I’d gotten the edits for the next Merchant book in, those that had already come in. I’d finished the d’Vosges story draft. Day Job was pretty much wrapped up aside from one admin thing that had to wait on a third party. So why was I staring at a story, unable (or unwilling) to buckle down and write? I had a similar problem reading. I have a thick TBR stack to get through this summer, and sitting and reading for more than a chapter at time seemed impossible. I had too much energy, or I was fighting to stay awake.

The weather played a role. We’ve gone from drought to flood. Literally flood, as the Canadian River is reaching levels not seen in over 25 years, and other streams are bursting their banks and causing major transportation snarls as well as inundating homes and businesses (Hereford, Texas and Rita Blanca Creek did not get along well this past weekend.) Palo Duro Canyon state park has had lots of flooding and road closures, and the hiking trails were also closed because of wash-outs and mud. Lakes that people assumed were empty forever abruptly have water in them again. This is great, but it also gets old if you are not used to daily rain and high humidity. The constant grey and other people’s worries were chewing on me.

Part of it is trying to sort out transportation to and from an event. In the big scheme of things, it’s a very minor concern, but it’s still there.

Then I realized the problem. A chunk of my feeling scattered came from the lack of urgent deadlines and pressure. This spring has been odder than usual, for a host of reasons, most of them far outside my control. Everyone around me was running at flank speed from April 15 until this past Thursday, or so it felt. As event and deadline piled on each other, tension got higher. Some things happened that left grumbling, muttering, and frustration in their wake, mostly because it was a case of “Oh please, not NOW. I have no time to deal with this.” Except my associates and I dealt with it. That’s what grownups do.

And then it stopped. Everything stopped. No more race-stop-race. Welcome or unwelcome, everything wrapped up. There was no gradual taper down as often happens, no steady slowing. Instead it just ended, period. That’s … odd. And so I found myself without a looming deadline, without stacks of incoming and outgoing pages. No outside pressure remained. I stared at the screen, thinking I had to be doing a lot of something else, or fighting off a nap. (The cool, humid, grey weather wasn’t helping that bit.)

Once I realized what the problem was, or rather, the lack of problem, I pushed through and got things done. I can force myself to get back into the habit of concentrating. But it still feels odd not to have an external deadline trying to run me over.


Tuesday Tidbit:A Damp Discussion

Age, mileage, the Comtessa’s lands, and company business. All of which can land a man in hot water.

As the feast of the holy birth drew closer, Arnauld d’Loup mulled over the state of the d’Vosges lands. He did so in the steaming warm comfort of a mineral spring two valleys west of the keep, eyes half closed as he listened to the other men and to the sounds of the forest. His shoulders, back, and legs lost some of their aches in the wet heat. Now he understood why the old emperor had liked the waters at Aachen so well!

The Romans had, perhaps, improved the spring. The bench-like stones that allowed a man to sit with the waters not quite to his chin suggested that someone had added to what the Lord had left. Other hot springs flowed in the d’Vosges lands, including a boiling pool with brimstone-tinged waters that flowed straight from Hell. He’d watched a miner gathering the foul yellow stuff. These waters pleased him far more.

“What think you of the news from the east, Captain?” Serjeant Jean Blanc sounded hesitant, as usual.

What did he think? “If the story is true, it should be a matter for the Church and the emperor, unless the magic worker thinks to come here.” Merchants coming from Strasbourg claimed that a new lord had been named to the region, a duke of Lotharingia, one who dabbled in things forbidden by both the Church and the emperor. “Since the Duchy of Lotharingia and the bishops of Freiberg, Strasbourg, and the Abbey at Basel have earlier titles, and the emperor has two sons, I doubt anyone who says he has been named to govern this area. As a palatine, perhaps, but not as duke.” Still, something bothered him, had been bothering him since the trader passed the news. And it was not the price in good silver of the fine fabric and the book he’d purchased for the Paws to give to the Seigneuresse during the feast of Christmas.

Noises of agreement came from the others. With a swallowed grumble, Arnauld sat straight, then eased out of the pool. The chilly afternoon air encouraged haste as he dressed once more, drawers, trews, tunic, leather jerkin, socks and boots. He raked his hair back with his fingers and wrung some water off the tail in the back. He needed to cut it before Christmas. He’d been told he had his mother’s darker coloring, almost southern, with brown hair, black beard and brows, and dark green-brown eyes. He’d not looked in a mirror or pool for two years and more. The last time he’d seen himself, he’d noticed white streaks in both hair and beard. They matched the white scars on the rest of him.

“Has the miner on Stinking Creek forgiven Left-handed Paul?” Karl asked Sergeant Jean.

A snort came in reply. “No, and he probably never will, not even if they have four sons. Be damned if I know why not—Paul married her, and she had no prospects or dowry.” Arnauld turned to look at the others. Jean, still in the water, lifted one hand out and shrugged. “I’d be pleased, but she’s not my daughter.”

“No. Your daughter would be selling her—” Splash. The other serjeant’s head disappeared under the waters with Bjorn’s hand on top of it. The lieutenant made a show of counting to four before he removed let Michele back up. “Damn it, I was joking,” the sopping serjeant spluttered.

“And I don’t want the pool fouled with your blood and shit after someone gets tired of your jokes.” Bjorn got out and dressed as quickly as Arnauld had. “That rumor from the east.”

Arnauld sorted through words as he finished arming. Yes, they were on safe lands. But a wise man went ready for anything, because trouble didn’t respect borders or holy days. “If that were the first time we’d heard the rumor, I’d ignore it. But this is twice, both from the same area, told by different people. I think we should start preparing for a fight.” Only a fool fought in winter, fools and the northern pagans.

“Ja. And if the second part of the stories are true, he draws on powers that favor the darkest days of the year.” Bjorn scowled. “Perhaps the Wild Hunt will ride and take him away, if things are true.”

“And perhaps we will awaken to find self-roasting deer and boars that stuff and stew themselves waiting for us under a meat-pie tree.” The old joke drew chuckles and mutters of “Please God may it be so,” from the others as they shook off the waters and dressed.

On Christmas day, after the solemn vigil and mass, Comtessa Leonie began the feast. She sent food out to every settlement on her lands, and to the mines in the west. Venison and some boar graced tables in both the keep and the villages. Several troupes of musicians visited and added their songs and wit to the gatherings, within proper limits. Arnauld kept a close watch on Karl and some of the others who had a habit of drinking past the point of wisdom. Merriment too often turned to bloodshed, something he did not want at all. Neither did the other Paws, or so it seemed. He heard no reports of trouble. At least not from within the d’Vosges lands.

“Captain d’Loup, I was with the Duke of Swabia in the imperial camp two summers ago,” one of the traveling musicians said on the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, three days after Christmas.

Arnauld studied the man, then nodded. “I don’t recognize your face, but your playing I remember.” The man had suffered some attack, by man or beast, and scars and a bent nose marked him now. What did the man want?

The lutenist glanced off to the side, and adjusted one of the pegs on the head of his instrument. “We came from the west and south. The lord there is new but powerful.” He met Arnauld’s eyes. “Perhaps strangely power full. We did not linger, or visit his court. The peasants moved quietly, and the women stayed close to their houses.”

Arnauld crossed himself, as did the musician. “You were wise. We have heard rumors from the east, carried by merchants, but they spoke of a newly named Duke of Elsas. No such person has sent word to the Seigneuresse, nor has an imperial messenger brought word.”

“May God grant that only one such exists, Captain.” The traveler began to play, a quiet, melancholy tune. Arnauld gave him some copper coins and went to take his turn on the wall walk of the keep.

Clouds covered the stars and seemed to press down on the ridge behind the keep. The wind hissed and snarled, pulling at his cloak and driving bits of snow into any tiny gap in a man’s clothing. Arnauld scowled at the sky and pulled his heavy leather gauntlets farther up his wrists. The night disturbed him, but he had no good reason why. He heard faint sounds of feasting in the courtyard below, in those moments when the wind faded. A bonfire burned. Given the news, perhaps a bonfire on the ridge, a warning, should burn instead? He folded his arms and walked, eyes straining against the dark. Unbidden, a quiet voice hissed in his memory. His father had been able to see clearly in the darkest of nights, and to run without tiring for a full watch, or so people had sworn. Why did he not take up that gift? Arnauld gritted his teeth. “Curse, not gift,” he snarled to the poisonous voice. “Get thee behind me, Tempter.”

What was that? He turned to face east, and the ridge, listening. The wind faded. A sound like hounds and geese brushed his ears. He listened harder, mouth going dry. Voices like those of men calling to others on a hunt grew stronger, as did the baying. “St. George defend me.” Arnauld ran along the wooden wall walk, then down the steps.

The Seigneuresse’s castellan met him. “What comes?” the older man demanded, eyes wide.

“Wild Hunt.”

“All under roof, now!” The castellan bellowed. The courtyard cleared, and Arnauld wasted no time himself, ducking into the closest open door.

It closed, and he heard the bar sliding home. “The Hunt, Captain?” the countess’ maid, Matilda, demanded.

“Yes. In the Rhine valley. I heard hounds and huntsmen both.” He crossed himself, and sensed her do the same.

Matilda moved farther into the room, away from the door. He stayed where he was. The maid said,  “The Seigneuresse feared that such might move this year.” She sounded troubled. “It’s a bad omen, that the Hunt rides so far west.”

Was it? He’d never heard such, but he’d also done all he could to avoid being out when in places where the Hunt was known to visit. “I’ve heard of the Hunt being roused out of season by battle, such as when the Romans died in the north, but nothing more than that.” He avoided things and men of magic, especially land magic, lest they stir his curse into being. Bjorn, Gaston, Benedict the Short, and one other dealt with things of magic.

“Huh.” She fell silent.

Arnauld listened, waiting. Being out of the wind was welcome, but for how long? He recited ten Pater Nosters and the Credo, then slid the bar away and opened the door. The bonfire yet burned, red and gold and warm. He eased out, listening. His earlier discomfort had faded away. He crept back up the steps to the wall walk. Only the wind troubled the night, and even that seemed gentler despite the snow. Tension left his shoulders, and he resumed his duties. The night remained dark. Sounds of laughter resumed below.

(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Lest We Forget, Lest We Forget

I grew up reading military history and Rudyard Kipling. There’s some overlap there, given that Kipling wrote about wars, both official and unofficial, and about soldiers. Kipling’s “Recessional” served as a warning—this glory too shall pass, and there are limits to the power of weapons alone. I recall thinking, in the political back-patting after Desert Shield/Desert Storm, that we needed more “Recessional” and less “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.”

Memorial Day is to the US what Remembrance Day is to the Commonwealth. It is a day set aside to honor the men and women who died while serving in the US military. I get irked when people conflate it with Veterans’ Day and/or July 4th. No, it should be a sober commemoration of lives lost, and a day to give thanks for the men and women who were willing to die to protect their country and their comrades.

Image source:

From Kipling’s “Song of the Dead.”

We have fed our sea for a thousand years
And she calls us, still unfed,
Though there’s never a wave of all her waves
But marks our English dead:
We have strawed our best to the weed’s unrest,
To the shark and the sheering gull.
If blood be the price of admiralty,
Lord God, we ha’ paid in full!

There’s never a flood goes shoreward now
But lifts a keel we manned;
There’s never an ebb goes seaward now
But drops our dead on the sand —
But slinks our dead on the sands forlore,
From the Ducies to the Swin.
If blood be the price of admiralty,
If blood be the price of admiralty,
Lord God, we ha’ paid it in!

We must feed our sea for a thousand years,
For that is our doom and pride,
As it was when they sailed with the ~Golden Hind~,
Or the wreck that struck last tide —
Or the wreck that lies on the spouting reef
Where the ghastly blue-lights flare.
If blood be the price of admiralty,
If blood be the price of admiralty,
If blood be the price of admiralty,
Lord God, we ha’ bought it fair!

“All gave some, some gave all.”

Spontaneous Generation of Toads (and ‘Skeeters)

All you need is dirt and a generous amount of water. Apply water to dirt. Let sit 24 hours. You will get toads. Wait another 24 hours and the first mosquito will whine its way to your door. Meanwhile, the earth has turned green, the grass suddenly looks lush, and all those weeds you thought you’d gotten rid of? Think again.

RedQuarters has gotten over ten inches of rain (26 cm) in the month of May. This is half the annual average rainfall – 20″ or 60 cm, give or take. Because the house is built on a ridge, we have stayed dry. There is a lot of green space in this part of town so a goodly portion of the rain is absorbed, or is slowed by trees and bushes. The built-up areas nearby still flood, and the bottom of the lake nearby also collects water. That’s what lakes and lowlands do, no matter what you think you can build there. In this case, the city decided to make a quasi virtue of a necessity and deepened the lake, as they have done with several others.

The rainwater (“pluvial”) lake on the way to St. Angus in the Grass School is filling very nicely. Last week I heard toads for the first time in a few years. The playa had been 99% dry, with that remaining one percent mostly mud, as best as I could tell through binoculars. The land is still private, and I don’t trespass without permission. Now, there’s enough standing water in the core that you can see reflections in it. The various rings of plants have begun to come back to life. Open water in the middle, then sedges and cattails that like wet feet appear. Slightly farther up the slope are arrowhead plants (named for the shape of the leaves), then other forbs and grasses that need good moisture (taller grasses, western wheat grass), then the gramas and buffalo grass. This should also drown out the cactus that had begun creeping in.

It only took 36 hours from the lake starting to fill to hearing the “singing” of the toads. They are relatively small and brown, larger than the spring peepers of the upper Midwest. With the toads come insects, mosquitoes (boo, hiss) followed by dragon flies. The birds have also been busy. I suspect the snakes have moved away from buildings and out to where the mice and birds and toads are. The meadowlarks are also scattering out, now that there’s more food. A large hawk or two patrols the area. Western flycatchers and swallows have divided up the intersections in the area, extending the moth season into “anything else” season.

In fact, when I went back to work last week in the afternoon for chapel, I heard a commotion. Meadowlarks were mobbing something in a tree near the middle school. First. I’d never seen meadowlarks mob before. Second, well, if they’d treed one of the students, the kid probably deserved it. Just as I crossed the parking area, the tree shook and a Cooper’s hawk erupted from the leaves, with a smaller bird pecking on his head! I was impressed.

The past three weeks have been glorious for ranchers, and for people who were irrigating wheat. Some dryland wheat and other grains have perked up and will make it. It was too late for other places. But now the farmers need the rain to stop so they can plant, and for the weather to get warm so the corn can start to mature. Truly unfortunate places got scythed by 2.5-3″ hail. All you can do is either turn some livestock out to feed on what’s left, or plow it in as green manure and try again with something like sorghum. Several towns have had high-water problems, and Tucumcari, NM completely lost power because of flooding and giant hail that took out a main transmission line. Hereford, TX got seven inches of rain in a few hours upstream of town. Almost 90 houses had water in them, and a US highway had to be closed because of water over the road. What’s good for the land isn’t always so good for the people on the land.

No one is complaining too much yet. I don’t think anyone dares. We needed this, so desperately needed it. El Niño has returned, with all the good things and bad things it can bring. For now, everyone’s just being thankful for the rain. I hear the singing of the toads, the bragging of the meadowlarks and smile. The air is full of green-ness, sweet and clean. ” … as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain,” As King David put it (Second Samuel 23: 4).

“And it was very good.”

Book Review: The Great Transition

Campbell, Bruce M. S. The Great Transition: Climate, Disease, and Society in the Late Medieval World. (Cambridge University Press, 2016.) Kindle Edition

Everyone knows that Europe, and parts of the rest of the world, went to H-ll in a handbasket in the 1300s, and didn’t really regain its footing until the Renaissance. Why? The Black Death. Oh, and the Hundred Years War. Then we added “lousy weather.” It turns out that a whole lot of things were going wrong for Western Civilization, and the Black Death was the final straw.

Bruce Campbell brings together climatology, commercial and economic history, diplomatic history, genetics, and epidemiology to explain why the 1100s-1200s in some ways set up the economic and population stress that were already in place before 1300. The Great European Famine, then the waves of the Black Death, were only the most visible part of the depression in progress. He makes a compelling case for looking back to the late 1200s for the start of the “Terrible Fourteenth Century.” Worse, the stagnant population and economy that followed the Black Death lasted until almost 1500.

Historians have done a lot of work on the Black Death, and on the Hundred Years war between the French and English monarchs. In the 20th century, environmental historians began studying the climate downturn that began in the 1300s and didn’t really end until 1850 or so. As it turns out, the bad weather all over the northern hemisphere played a role in the eruption of a new strain of Yrsenia Pestis and its transmission west. That part might be familiar to readers, although Campbell goes into the genetics of Y. pestis to confirm that indeed, the Black Death was that very bug and not something else.

However, much of the book looks at the economic and demographic conditions of Western Europe (England, the Low Countries, northern Italy). The population was growing thanks to a combination of new technologies, a stable weather pattern that lasted for several centuries, and the greater ease of trade which allowed for moving food-stuffs as well as goods. The open routes east (relatively open) enhanced access to luxury goods, but also turned into a siphon for European silver and gold. If that silver ever ran low, or the trade routes became choked by changes in the Islamic world, trouble might begin. This was the era of the Champaign Fairs, the birth of banking, and increasing stress on the population as subdividing land reached its limits. People pushed into marginal areas, growing mostly grains. Land was scarce, labor very cheap, and nutrition starting to decline.

By 1300, Campbell argues, the system was at a tipping point. Silver had gotten very scarce and even re-opening mines didn’t help. Too many people needed land. Several nobles and the king of France ended the agreements to protect merchants going to the great fairs, and trade began to slow. The loss of the Crusader kingdoms in the Levant and the rise of the Ottomans strangled Italian trade with Asia. Only silver could make up the currency for Asia, and silver had become scarce, depressing trade even farther. And then the weather went bad. Three wet years badly hurt western European grain output. Next came a cattle and sheep disease that eliminated up to 70% of the livestock. The females that survived were less fertile. Without cattle, there was no traction for plowing or heavy transport. Without sheep, no wool for clothing. Famine swept Europe. The Wars of Edward I, II, and III didn’t help England or Scotland. Or France and the Low Countries. And we all know what happened in 1346-52. The second wave of the Black Death, a decade after the first one, killed many of the children born in the interval, as well as killing people who had escaped the first round. Stormy, unpredictable weather continued for the rest of the century. Trade grew more difficult, and only the Low Countries seemed able to do more than just hang in there.

Campbell’s use of economic records is solid. It’s some of the best work I’ve read in quite a while, and he is careful to show what we can’t know as well as what we can infer. I admit, I skimmed some of the genetics of Y. pestis, because he’s preaching to the choir in my case. It is a useful antidote to some of the odder theories about the Black Death. What I really liked was his pulling together so many different disciplines to give a much more complete picture of the 1200s-1500. I’d never thought about how the European diet changed after the Black Death. It was colder, with fewer people, so grain was less important than wool (for more layers of clothing). Sheep became more important, and meat took up a larger percentage of the European diet. The population didn’t grow again until the late 1400s, when the Black Death really faded out, so people earned more and opted to work less. Urban areas grew more slowly, forcing industry to become more rural. The “green and pleasant land” of small English cities and rural-centered life was actually a result of the Black Death and all that surrounded it, not England just being England.

I recommend this book to historians of the Middle Ages, economic historians, and people with a little knowledge of the period who want more. It’s not a straight narrative history like A Distant Mirror but it’s not statistics and documents like Ole Benedictow, The Black Death.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book with my own money for my own use, and received no remuneration fronm the author or publisher for this review.

Speed, Skill, and Age

A friend of mine and I were discussing a musician colleague of his, and one of the third-party’s compositions. The runs up and down the scale are brilliant, but my friend does not do them as fast as some. He’s not trying to show off, but to be precise and do justice to the piece.

That led to mutters and grumbles about people who think that certain pieces *coughOrangeBlossemSpecialcough* are a race to get through. Especially some Baroque and classical compositions that are *coughWidorToccatacough* used as encores or to show off with. “You lose the power,” my friend sighed. I looked at my notes on the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and agreed. It’s not a race. You have to be steady and precise. Bach is not Brahms or Durufle, where you emote all over the place and can mess with the tempo. Baroque is different.

Then we switched to grumbling about weather changes and mileage. My friend lamented a composition that he’d played frequently in his younger days, but now required checking the forecast before attempting. Otherwise, his arthritis made it too painful and messed up his finger pressure on the instrument. He’s at the point where his physical ability has peaked and is starting to fade a little, even though his knowledge of his craft and its history is still growing. We come from different musical traditions and instruments, but I love listening to him talk about technique and styles, because I always learn something I can use on my own instrument(s). He thinks he’s got four or five more years left, then he will have to retire because his hands and neck will have reached the point of interfering too much with his craft. He’ll still play for his own pleasure, but not as a career.

I do several activities where smoothness has to come before speed. Keyboard music. Vocal music. Shooting. Fencing (sword, not barbed wire). Carpentry. Yes, it is fun sometimes to see just how fast a choir can get through “And He Shall Purify” before the last vocalist crashes and taps out. Or to race through the Toccata of the Toccata and Fugue at top speed, leaving wrong notes scattered all over the place and not caring. But that’s after you already know the piece, know it well, and are funning around. More often, the instructor or conductor will hold you back, insisting on precision and smoothness. We’ve probably all heard choirs who accelerate through the “Alleluia” chorus, leaving the orchestra or pianist/organist two pages behind.*

My voice has peaked. I’m still gaining skill in technique, but I will soon lose more and more of the upper register. That’s what happens with ageing. Since I’m already a switch, meaning I can sing soprano 1, soprano2, and alto 1, in a year or two I will stop worrying about the high Bs and Cs. Right now, high B-flat is the effective end of my register. Yes, I can go higher, if all the stars align, and sound good. Not coluratura or bellcanto good, but “dogs don’t howl and people don’t flee” on pitch and clear. Given the damage I did to my voice when I was a teen, that’s amazing in and of itself. But time passes, and my instrument is not as young as I want to think I am. Technique can only balance time for a while.

There are people who can maintain peak skill until they die. There are people who should have quit a decade before they finally stop (or the Grim Reaper taps on the door.) Frustration is when the mind, ear, and heart want to keep going, but the joints get in the way.

*It usually traces back to the “For the Lord G-d Omnipotent Reigneth” section, and clipping the eighth-notes too short. That leads to shortening the quarter notes as well, and then it’s off to the races!

Travel Back Then: Who Did, Who Didn’t, Why?

Medieval and earlier people didn’t travel. Unless they did. But it wasn’t far. Unless it was half-way around the world and back, perhaps several times. Or they were always traveling. Being able to move around was a symbol of power, unless it was a sign of poverty – voluntary or otherwise.

Confused yet?

Most people, especially serfs and others in a state of villainage (meaning legally bound in some way to a place or person, but not owned outright) only went as far as they had to. Perhaps they might go to a small market, or a fair if it was within walking distance and they got permission. Travel was not easy, and hospitality varied a great deal. There are still people today in Britain and Europe who have not gone more than 30-60 miles from their place of birth, and they are quite happy with that. There are some people who are descended from the people who lived in that same area several thousand years ago, which also suggests that folks didn’t wander or mix all that often.

Religious pilgrimages did encourage travel, perhaps as far as Rome or Jerusalem. Often it was to a closer site, like Canterbury, or Cologne, or St. Ives, or Santiago Campostella, or St. Patrick’s Purgatory. Most pilgrims traveled in a group for safety as well as company. How dangerous were the roads? Again, it varied. If you were traveling on business to the Champaign Fairs in the 1000s-1100s and a little later, it was very safe, because a lot of powerful people benefited from the trade and taxes. If you were well-armed but not wealthy looking, or if you were obviously poor and devout, you’d probably be left alone. That left a lot of people who might be the target of thieves, nobles looking for labor, nobles and others looking for ransom and tax money, and the occasional homicidal maniac (like the guy in France who was a mass murderer. People said he was a werewolf. Nah.)

The Holy Roman Emperors and a few other nobles traveled constantly, because they had to. There were no capital cities, unless you counted Rome and Constantinople. After 1066, London grew in importance, as did Paris, but the capital was where the monarch or ruling noble happened to be. Charlemagne was all over the place on the European mainland, as were his successors. I joke that certain medieval figures were “high mileage” but it was literally true. Otto I and Otto II criss-crossed northern Europe and swung down into Italy a few times. Frederick Barbarossa was all over the map, north and south of the Alps, playing whack-a-mole with Moors, frisky nobles (Henry of Saxony), the occasional pope … They also had the infrastructure to support their perigrinations, something normal people lacked unless you were going on a very well known pilgrimage route.

Merchants and raiders, or merchant raiders (aka Vikings) got around. They had to. By the late 1200s, some were moving less because of the development of banking and letters of credit, but goods still had to be moved and sold. The Hansa merchants always traveled, even after the Italians settled down a little. The Vikings? Oh boy did the young men get around. A few of the women, too. Their victims also saw a lot of the world, although not of their own free well. Going from Norway to Ireland to the Byzantine Empire then up the Black Sea and Dnieper to Kiev thence to the Baltic wasn’t rare. One former Varangian Guard ended up in a remote valley in Austria. I’d love to know his story. Perhaps he had a hot temper and needed to relocate often. Or maybe he had an itchy foot. Or perhaps he made a religious vow and became a sort of hermit in the middle of nowhere. All were possible. Merchants tended to cluster together for business reasons, and a Hansa trader or Italian merchant working the Champaign Fairs had a network of inns, confraternity connections, and other places to stay and rest.

Then you have “that one guy,” the dude who never quite settled down. These are the ones that seem like normal blokes until you find out “oh, yes, his parish record says he went to Jerusalem twice.” Or she, in a few very rare occasions. Or they go wander off here there and everywhere and come back with stories and a little money and some interesting skills. Or they are found a thousand miles from home, per isotope studies, leaving everyone to wonder how he got there. There’s always been a part of the western European population that has to go see what’s over the next hill.

I’ve been talking about men. Why? Because very few women traveled. That wasn’t their job. Some noblewomen moved around for marriages, taking a few servants with them. Some unusual individuals, like Dam Margery Kempe, got around. It was not safe, and often laws required women not to go farther than X distance from their home parish unless they had special permission from their family, their overlord, and their parish priest. Noble women who joined the church were a partial exception, but all scholars I’ve read insist that only because of their male relatives’ power did the church women have any authority. I should add, these are all books about France, Britain, and the Rhineland. The eastern part of the Holy Roman Empire was a rather different story, based on German-language works, but I could well be missing something there.

So it is true that medieval people rarely traveled. It is also true that medieval people traveled all over the place for faith, for war, for business, for personal reasons, for all of the above at once. We can make some general assumptions, but there’s always an exception.

Tuesday Tidbit: A Meeting and a Vow

The officers gather and discuss matters of interest.

The next afternoon, all the officers and serjeants met at the roofless building on the eastern side of the ridge to discuss what they had seen so far, and to survey that road better. Arnauld smiled broadly as he told them about the deer. Answering smiles swept across the gathering. “Boar as well, but those only after the second frost, once the claimed pigs are taken in, as the laws of the empire require.”

Karl, arms folded, frowned under his black mustache. “Captain, what about the laws of the kings of France?”

“The Seigneuresse is a vassal of the emperor.” He raised one hand. “It goes back to Charlemagne. And the emperor is far away, as is the minesterial paletina.”

“Do you want to have to answer to the Dukes of Burgundy or Bar?” Gaston asked as he leaned against the doorframe.

Karl spat. “No. Especially not Bar. He’s a fool, trying to play Burgundy and the Capetians against each other.”

“He’ll find out how the mouse felt between the millstones at this rate,” Serjeant Jean muttered. Nods and rude gestures of agreement followed his words.

“Och,” Gaston said. He glanced sideways, out of the empty window, then returned his attention to the others. “Anyone had trouble with the peasants or miners yet?”

Head shakes and shrugs. Arnauld relaxed a little. It would come, once the first daughter got the big belly, or someone helped himself too generously to the new wine. It always did. “Keep it that way, at least until we show enough of them that we’re not like the others. Bjorn, look at the northern approach. Gaston, take Jean’s men and some others and trace the western trails and find as many of the mines as you can. We need to know more than ‘there are no roads there’.” He didn’t doubt the countess’ word, but things changed, and no miner would allow a woman not of his family near the workings. At least they hadn’t farther east.

Karl nodded, then asked, “Captain, have you heard anything more about Burgundy trying to push his claims?”

Arnauld shook his head. “Not heard a word. But that doesn’t mean he’s not. The emperor’s dealing with the eastern Saxons. Again.” Eye rolls and sighs greeted his words.

Karl bared his teeth. Several of the other officers made rude signs at him, or threw the Horns his way. He repaid in kind. Like Bjorn, he came from a believing family, but that didn’t stop him from acting like a wild Saxon when he got drunk.

“Enough.” They stopped. “The emperor might return to Aachen for the feast of Christmas, or he may choose to stay in the east. Is there anything else? We get paid in five days. Come to the keep to collect for your men and yourselves. Gaston, I’ll hold yours until you come back.” The taller man shrugged. “Unless you want to take copper to the mines?”

Chuckles met his offer. “No thank you, Captain. I’ve got enough from our first pay bag to keep the men happy. Oh, Serjeant Henk wants his horse to fall off a cliff.”

“Only if he goes with it.” It was one of the finest mounts in the company, and Henk knew better. “If someone wants to trade, even trade, let them.”

More chuckles. “Yes, sir.”

“St. George be with you.” Arnauld stood and the others straightened up or stood as well. “Dismissed.” They filed out of the crumbling building. Once it had been a fine house, built of stone and wood. Now owls and badgers denned in the few remaining rafters and under the floor. Why had no one stripped it of wood and stone, or reused it? Arnauld wondered, but would not ask, not in these lands.

Gaston waited outside the door, watching as the others left. “Yes?”

The Aquitanian hesitated, then asked, “Sir, will you marry the Seigneuresse? The men are already placing wagers.” Arnauld’s second in command leaned away.

“No. That would bring Bar, Burgundy, Lorraine, and a dozen others down on our heads, Luxembourg as well. And the emperor. No.”

Gaston nodded. His shoulders lost their stiffness. “That’s what I told them, sir. And the Capetians would probably claim the land as well, or claim the right to charge a fee for the marriage.”

As foolish as the current claimant to the throne of West Francia seemed? Probably. “He would, and then the emperor would step in. I do not care to see if we can fend off four armies at once.”

“By God’s wounds, no, Captain!” They parted ways. Arnauld rode back to the keep with his guards, weighing things. Most of the men assumed that he was a widower, or had kept a leman while they served with the imperial forces. He snorted, but quietly. He’d be dead if he’d tried that. If he couldn’t chance losing control of his “patrimony” to strong drink, how in the names of all the saints could he keep himself in check during passion? No. There was no hell deep or hot enough for his sire.

That night, while on guard duty, Arnauld considered all that he had seen of the Seigneuresse and her lands. She had a man’s soul and will in a woman’s body. She knew the strengths and weaknesses of all around her, and of herself as well. Her people respected her, far more than some lords he’d had the displeasure of working for. That unlamented count from Swabia … Should not have been murdered, but Arnauld certainly understood why a man might kill the treacherous skinflint. The count had made Dives seem like a model of generosity and hospitality. The Seigneuresse, however … She was a noble a man could trust and serve with honor. Arnauld stared at the moonlight bathing the land around the keep and made his decision.

The next day that the countess held formal court, he attended alone. The Wolf’s Paws had no business that needed the seigneuresse’s attention. Comtessa Leonie acknowledged his presence, and he took up a watching guard position at her right hand, behind the green-canopied seat of honor. He had attended before, in order to learn more about her court and how she governed the d’Vosges lands.  He clasped his hands on his wide sword belt, in part to keep them from trembling. Would she accept his homage?

The last petitioner departed. Arnauld took a very deep breath and moved to stand where she could see him clearly, and cleared his throat. The countess acknowledged him and beckoned him forward. He rested one hand on his sword hilt as he walked to stand before her. He saluted. “Yes, Captain?”

The words fought him, then broke free. “Gracious lady, I wish to pledge fealty past our contract.”

She startled, one slender, strong hand going to her throat and the chain of power that rested there. Then she nodded. “I will accept such a pledge, if it is made without compulsion and in full knowledge of what is offered and asked.”

A good condition, and a wise one. He went to one knee. “No man or woman compels me, gracious lady, and I know the duties and price of vassalage.” He drew his sword and held it out on open hands.

She removed her gloves, then stood and walked to him. She slid her right hand under the hilt and lifted the heavy weapon as if it were her distaff or another light tool. He swallowed, then said, “I, Arnauld Ambrose d’Loup swear allegiance and obedience to you, Comtessa Leonie Seigneuresse d’Vosges, my liege, St. George and St. Michael as my witnesses.”

She lifted the weapon higher. Silver and red flowed down the blade before she lowered it once more. “I, Leonie, Seigneuresse d’Vosges, accept your allegiance and obedience as vassal, Arnauld Ambrose d’Loup. In turn I swear to protect, advise, and support you in honor and body, so long as you remain in my service, or until all oaths are rescinded.” She tapped his right shoulder with the flat of the blade, then reversed it and held it in both hands. She inclined toward him. He took the sword, kissed the relic in the pommel crossing, and sheathed it once more.

He held his hands up, palms together. She put hers around his and met his eyes. Something prickled around his hands—her magic? She said “By my life and honor, I swear to uphold the laws of God and men, and to protect Arnauld my vassal, to provide defense should he be attacked, and to defend his honor should any man question it without due cause. May the Lord strike me if I break my word.”

He stared into the bright green depths of her gaze as he slipped his hands out of hers, then placed them around hers. “By my life and honor, I swear to uphold the laws of God and men, and to serve and protect Comtessa Seigneuresse Leonie my liege, to answer her call in time of need and to defend her lands and honor with my sword and body. May God strike me if I break my word.” He had seen others swear, but had never dared to speak the words for himself before.

Father Bernardo, her household priest, stepped forward. “Seen, heard, and witnessed by all present, and by the Lord. May the Lord hear and seal these vows, and give strength and wisdom to those who swear them. Amen.”


Arnauld released the countess’ hands. She stepped back, pulled her gloves on once again, and sat. “You may rise, Captain d’Loup.” He stood and bowed to his seigneuresse.

Garden Adventures

As of Friday morning, RedQuarters has gotten over six inches of rain in the month of May. That puts us over the yearly average (Jan-May), and suggests that the long-awaited El Niño is at last arriving. Rain is great for the plants, better than sprinkler water, in part because it falls more evenly, and in part because it doesn’t have all the minerals that city-water brings with it. The roses have really hit their stride, in part because of the cooler weather. Instead of the low 100s like last year, we’re back in the 50s-60s. And wet. On Friday morning, after a 2.5″ overnight rain, I could see water in the playa lake on the way to Day Job, and heard the frogs (toads) singing for the first time in two years.

And saw a mosquito. Alas.

At long last, Firesprite has finally settled in. I’ve been watching this rose for over five years, and this is the first time it’s bloomed like this.

One of the Knockout™ roses. They are almost Alma proof, except for the yellow ones. No yellow rose really likes RedQuarters.

None of us can remember what the sprawling red rose in the foreground is. Gertrude Jekyll™ is the one in the back. That central cane is eight feet tall. So are some of the side canes. You don’t want to be around that plant in a high wind. Trust me. We have three of them, all over twenty years old and still going strong.

Gertrude is from David Austin Roses. They have a terribly dangerous catalogue. Dangerous because it tempts you to buy things that might not do well in your area, despite the official zone. Hybrid teas, for instance, do not do well in the Panhandle. Anything grafted is also a potential problem, at least at RedQuarters. The rose place in Tyler, Texas is safer for us, sometimes. And there’s the occasional, “It looked good at the nursery, so let’s give it a try.” Some of those have been great. Others? Nope. And at $35-50 per plant, the experiments are getting a wee bit too spendy (as they say in the Midwest.)

Why we put up with being attacked by Gertrude Jekyll™. The flowers have a magnificent scent, and are so beautiful. And did I mention that once established, the plants are hardy?

The snails have not emerged yet. Once they do, DadRed and I will spend up to half an hour every morning tossing them into the street or the alley. Nothing eats them, alas. They are toxic. We do use slug/snail bait, but some always manage to avoid the stuff.