In the Saddle or On the Saddle

It’s a phrase I’ve never, ever really thought about. Why do we say, “back in the saddle” or “swung up into the saddle?” We mount a horse, or get onto a horse, rarely fork a horse (old term, very rarely used today in most places). But saddles are always “into.”

You have to go back to the Middle Ages, and then to the Spanish saddles brought to the New World. Don’t think about a modern English style saddle, which is designed to be light and to allow the rider and horse the greatest sense of contact between them.* Think back to who owned horses and rode them and what most saddles were used for: either stabilizing cargo, or war.

The goal was to keep the rider seated no matter what, especially when you rode with straight, extended legs. The saddles had high pommels and cantles that secured the rider when he was hit from the front or behind. It also helps keep an injured or exhausted rider from sagging and falling backwards or forwards. Sideways is also a bit of a challenge, but you can fall off in any direction if you try. Or the horse helps you.

This is a replica jousting saddle. You get into it, not onto it. Creative Commons fair use. Original source:

Here you see a version of the saddle in action, modified for the rider’s armor. It’s a great article about the how and why of re-creating a medieval saddle, and the results for horse and rider.

A 15th century saddle for show or parade. However, you can see the height of the pommel and cantle. This one is in the Met Museum.

These are the type of saddles most writers talked about, unless they described a specific sort of other saddle – pillion pad, or pack saddle, or box saddle, or side-saddle, or . . . These were the sort brought to the Americas by the Spanish, and used on war horses and mountain horses. Below is a Spanish colonial saddle from the late 1700s-early 1800s. It should look familiar.


To this day, charro saddles and others have higher, more snug pommels (or swell) and cantles than do some other western saddles. Because of this Spanish tradition, it is common in American English to say that you get into the saddle, even if you are riding English style.

Some modern dressage saddles retain the older medieval features if you are doing the Airs Above the Ground (Austria and Portugal, France are about the last places to learn this tradition.) I have a barrel-racing saddle that I love. It has a relatively snug seat, as well as suede on the outside, so the rider fits more snugly for making tight turns and rapid accelerations/decelerations. I got to sit in a replica medieval saddle once, and it really helps lock in your posture and where you put your weight.

And so, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry sang about “Back in the saddle again,” because that’s what vaqueros did, and what modern cowboys do. And reenactors, and advanced dressage, and . . .

*Bareback’s no fun for extended periods, and not stable. For either horse or rider, especially once you shift into the trot or canter.


Who Was Meeting Where?!?

So, some years ago, (like, twenty-five*) I was in Cologne, Germany. The small, family-owned hotel, sat three blocks from the train station and cathedral. It was nice, relatively quiet (backed up to the switching yard, so no wild parties back there) and was convenient. As is my usual habit, I got up very early and went strolling. I got a bite to eat at a stehcafe, a bakery-cafe with shelves for eating off of, but no tables. The name is “standing cafe,” and it was for commuters and working men. I didn’t quite blend in, but everyone ignored me, which was fine. The tea was hot and black and the pastries were fresh.

As I wandered back toward my hotel, I saw a couple guys in leather jackets and pants. Now, the hour being early and Cologne being Cologne, I shrugged. Far me it from me to say anything about people who close the club, then go to a diner until dawn. A few minutes later, some construction guys went by, grumbling about thus and such.

After official breakfast, I heard a mild commotion outside the hotel, and eased my window open and leaned out. In addition to the leather-clad guys, who now numbered well over a score, and construction workers, there were guys in full American Indian regalia, some in US enlisted sailor suits, a few US highway cops, and cowboys. What on earth?

Then the first chords of very familiar music started, and realization dawned. “Young man, there’s no need to feel down, I said/ Young man, pick yourself off the ground . . .”

And of course, everyone danced along with the chorus.

It was a convention of the German Village People Fan Club. The guys were having a grand old time dancing in the street, the rest of us were having fun watching and cheering, and the locals shrugged. Cologne has always been more mellow than other parts of Germany.

I had no idea that there was an international association for Village People fans. There was, might still be, and the members there finished their opening and headed off to the indoor venue. I went back to museum-prowling, art viewing, and history basking.

I’d forgotten about that until the other night, when I was chaperoning a school dance. One of the songs the kids played was a re-mixed version of “Y.M.C.A.” Another teacher and I grinned, and I called, “Backwards skate!” That brought even more memories, because the song was a staple at skating rinks when I was a kid.

*I do not want to believe that it’s been that long, but it has. SIGH. I miss that Germany.

Free Cities, Imperial and Otherwise

The free cities of Europe seem to have been one of those odd historical quirks that didn’t arise elsewhere. The first ones go back to the Classical Era of Greece and Rome, and were cities that were founded by a king or prince, and administered by a representative of the monarch, but otherwise governed themselves. A few could coin money. All could defend themselves from interlopers from behind good walls. The pattern continued in the Middle Ages.

Some of the oldest free cities (slightly different from later Imperial Free Cities) were Roman settlements (Cologne, Kempten, Augsburg, Basel). They would later buy or fight their way to free city status, although Cologne never quite made it, leading to ongoing spats between the city and the Prince-Bishops over jurisdiction and taxes. Others developed as foundations made by nobles or abbeys in the 900s-1200s, or were chartered by the Holy Roman Emperors and administered by Vögte (Voigts). The vögte represented the interests of the Emperor and had final say in city management, unless an appeal was made to the emperor himself. These cities took care of their own daily affairs and administration, and had walls. Unless a place had walls and could keep people out for at least two days, it was not a city, most certainly not a free city.

A large number of free cities and Imperial Free Cities date from the 1000s – 1100s. Hamburg, Magdeburg, Lübeck, Rostok, the Hansa cities, were founded or re-founded at this time. Warmer weather with better sea conditions played a role, as did the expansion of Imperial power into formerly Viking-plagued areas. Increasing wealth allowed the cities to buy their freedom. In some cases, if the founder’s family died out, as in the case of Schwäbish Hall, the town became a free city. (Barbarossa wanted the salt revenue, the city wanted freedom, and a bargain was made.) The Imperial Free Cities had seats in the Imperial Diets along with the princes, but their votes counted for less, and so many didn’t actively participate in that part of the Holy Roman Empire’s administration.

When you look at free cities, you will often find that they are based on trade and commerce. All were self governing to a greater extent, all had walls, all had conflicts with magnates (lay or ecclesiastic) who wanted to control and tax them, and all had pretty rigid social stratification based on employment. The Hansa cities* were and are the best known, and Lübeck was the first among equals. Nuremberg too was ruled by the wealthy merchants, the patricians, who made money from metalwork, then weapons, map making, armor making, and engraving (both printed and on objects). Some became city states, but most did not. The numbers waxed and waned as did their collective political power. No major noble liked having a free city in or near his jurisdiction because he could not tax or control them. They provided an option, and some were in some cases amazingly wealthy.

By the 1800s, most cities had lost their independence. The hard times of the 1300s-1400s cost a few their freedom as they sank into debt, or lost population due to plague and war. The wars of the Reformation and the Thirty Years War also took a toll. Napoleon finished off several free cities that did not regain their freedom in the re-mapping of 1815. Without the Holy Roman Empire, being an Imperial Free City meant . . . nothing in legal or economic terms.

*Not all Hansa cities were free cities. London was not. Bruges varied, and even Bruges got cross-wise with Emperor Maximilian, who opted to move the main port to Antwerp. That was the end of Bruges as a financial power.

Arches and Beams

There are several ways to keep the outdoors out of buildings. Flat roofs (which are not really 100% flat in most cases), thick layers of brush and small branches to make a dense layer, mats of woven stuff under turf, wooden beams with sod on top (and cloth or newspaper to slow the leaks and divert falling critters), stone, metal over wood and stone . . .

Heavy wood beams on top of heavy structure, covered in thin pieces of wood. That’s what you do when wood is available and needs to last a long time. I’d guess that the core of this Polish shed went back to the late 1800s. The reforestation of the 1800s had made wood more available than it was between 1600-1820.

When wood is in short supply, you build with imported wood, then cover it with plaster and thatch. The thatch weighs less than a tile or slate or wooden roof of the same quality, allows better air flow but retains heat, and lasts for 30-40 years when done properly. A good thatch roof in northern Germany (Schleswig-Holstein in this case) is up to 24″ thick. In the case above, the materials are reeds brought in from the Low Countries and England, since the local reeds are not numerous enough, or grow in protected areas and can’t be harvested in the needed quantities. A wooden frame supports the thatch. Fire isn’t as much of a hazard as you’d think, at least in that part of Germany, because it tends to be wet.

However, since fire was one of the greatest hazards of urban areas in the Middle Ages, those places that could required slate or tile roofs. In the north, in the German lands, Low Countries, and Poland, brick replaced the non-existent stone and very expensive imported wood.

Slate, lead, and copper over wood and brick, with some stone. This is Lübeck, the center of the Hansa trade network, and very wealthy. Fire-resistant roofs replaced thatch at a relatively early date. Brick also took the place of both wood and stone. The large holes in the “spine” of the building on the left are to allow the wind through. The stepped roof lines serve a similar purpose – North Sea winds are fierce when they get going, and there’s not many hills or other things to break the flow of air over the land. Ground floors often served as floodways. You didn’t store or build anything on the ground floor that you weren’t willing to either sacrifice or have get wet. The water came at you from both directions up in this part of Europe.

I mentioned timbers?

Mind your head when you get up, or when you stand quickly near the washroom. This is from an old hotel in Olomutz, Moravia, Czechia. Wonderful place, but not for the tall or forgetful. It had a tile roof, probably synthetic tile because of the weight and because of hail. I was on the top floor because, well, I’m small, can carry my luggage up medieval staircases, and don’t mind hiking up steep and narrow medieval staircases. (The porter meant well, but I was in a hurry and other people needed his help a lot more than I did.)

When you have more wood than you need, so to speak, you can do this:

This is down almost on the Polish/Slovak border, in the mountains. Wooden roof because fire is not a danger, wooden building because wood was cheap in terms of labor and supply both. Cheap being relative, however. Parts of Eastern Europe, like western Europe, had occasional shortages of the desired types of wood, even if wood in general was plentiful to “not scarce”. I couldn’t get into this church because a service was in progress. The interior is plastered and painted.

When we think of wood and timber shortages, most of us think about England and Britain in general, because that was one reason given for sending people to the Americas – find wood. Also, the traditional history of the Industrial Revolution centers on a lack of wood for fuel, so coal came into use, which along with the pump led to the use of steam and mechanizing factories and . . . As always, the story is more complicated, but good building timbers tended to be relatively scarce going back to, oh, the Roman Era. When you build things like:

Another, older church is below. It goes back to the 1100s, although I suspect the roof joists are not that old. It was the the first church in England built to honor St. Olaf, and is in York. It was a parish church, and is still active. The oldest surviving beams below date to the 1400s.

If you can’t afford any of those, or your trees are all too short?

Thatch and turf on turf. It works.

Sharp Pointy Things (and the Men who Wielded Them)

Readers know that I have an interest in swords, both for fencing* and as actual weapons. Scotland is rather well known for a history of solving disputes with blades (and armies, and ambushes, and daggers, and . . . ) It also has a very strong martial tradition and has hit above it’s weight class in terms men involved in England and Britain’s wars, as well as their own local conflicts.

The Church of the Holy Rood, Sterling.

Regimental banners at the Church of the Holy Rood, Sterling.

“Hindoostan,” with the Duke of Wellington. York Minster military chapel, York Minster. Several churches had small side chapels for multiple regiments and wars.

The church of the Holy Rood (Cross) is fascinating, and is only one of a number of old churches that I meandered around in. And got cricks in my neck, staring up at the timbers.

I noticed the split in the top beam after I took the photo in the Church of the Holy Rood. Who knows how long it has been like that? Decades? Centuries?

And then there’s the “armory” at Sterling Castle, which has a selection of pointy things.

The big two-handed beasts are on the other wall. Some of the swords looked as if they had been used at some point, but you can’t get close enough to tell. I wanted to “check the balance” on one, but for some reason the docent had left the key back at the office. . . Too bad. I mean, I’ve got the right coloring, the right general shape (“sturdy”), DadRed’s family has clan members (McKay among others), and I know that “The pointy end goes into the bad guy, yes?”**

I guess it was a liability thing. Sigh.

*However, having been slashed on the padded arm by an associate who forgot that we were doing foil and not saber, you can still leave serious muscle bruises with a fencing foil.

** One of the great lines in The Mask of Zorro. I love Anthony Hopkins’ expression when Antonio Banderas explains how to use a sword.

A Winter Reverie

When you live west of the 100th Meridian, “running a quick errand” sometimes driving for an hour or so. In this case, it was forty-five minutes, browse then chat then pay, and forty-five minutes to return to RedQuarters. In my defense, 1) the truck needed highway miles and 2) this time of year, it’s easier to fetch then have shipped when distances are so small*.

Given the construction on the main highway, which is extensive, ever-changing, and nerve-wracking to drive through when surrounded by semis, I took a series of county two-lane roads to my destination. These are Texas Farm to Market (FM) roads, so the speed limit is the same as the highways. Prudence and good sense apply, and doing 75 on a twisting, snow-packed road is generally frowned upon by the laws of Newton. That day we’d gotten “it won’t happen” snow overnight, but the roads were dry by the time I headed out of town. The first few miles were mildly interesting because of the mix of vehicles and the people turning into and out of roadside businesses. However, once past the Last Traffic Light, the cars and trucks disappeared. I saw a total of four on my first long leg. Since you can see traffic coming at least two miles away, relaxing and glancing at the sky and the sides of the road is safe**.

It was 39 F when I left town, and bright sunshine. The clouds that had come with the snow formed a white line far to the south and east, low on the horizon. There’s a different sort of look to retreating snow clouds, sort of soft on the edges and glowing under the blue top edge that separates cloud and clear sky. It probably comes from refracted light and their proximity to the ground. These were stratus, low and flat, not too thick. Soft blue arced from horizon to horizon, untroubled by contrails or clouds. The wind rested, although the forecast had that changing at some point in the day. A few golden brown tumbleweeds moved on the edges of the road, but only when a passing vehicle stirred the air.

I kept one eye on the black trail stretching before me, and another on the brown, dark brown, and occasionally bright green land to the sides of the road. New houses have sprouted up here and there as people build subdivisions “to get away from other people.” No, I don’t really understand it, and I’m not fond of it, but it’s not my money being spent (yet). However, past a certain distance and pasture replaced structure. The short, prickly, dark brown remains of cotton plants filled one former wheat field, explaining the globs and small tufts of “snow” that appeared in the ditch from that field into the next town. The winter wheat varied from very good looking (and irrigated) to barely holding down the soil, a faint green fuzz on the dark dirt. We need snow for the wheat. Rain is good, and almost no one objects to more rain, but snow protects and insulates the wheat, helping it survive truly cold temperatures. Pasture grasses catch the snow, holding it so that it melts into the soil and doesn’t drift (much.) Ranchers are fond of snow in moderation, and don’t really like rain after the grasses go dormant. It “washes the goodness out,” leaching out nutrients from the dry grasses. But rain fills the natural ponds and eases the need to irrigate or pump water, so . . . No, farmers and ranchers are never really happy, and certainly almost never happy at the same time.

Some of the grass looked very good. There were several large swaths of native grass pasture along the road, all well cared for. No cactus intruded, no mesquite poked up, and the grazing had been light and even. The lack of grazing’s not a great sign, because one reason for that is that local ranchers have been reducing their herds while prices are decent. The three years of drought are taking a toll on everyone. The road I took passes through an area that was blessed with more rain than other spots, and a little standing water lingered in the folds and pockets of the land. The only growing plants were the winter wehat. The native grasses are warm-season plants, able to tolerate higher temps and drier soils than the cool season grasses back east. Most of what I saw was western wheat-grass, grama grasses, and some un-grazed buffalo grass. Yes, buffalo grass will look like a nice carpet if it isn’t heavily grazed. Otherwise it is a very typical bunch grass, forming lumps and clumps for self defense. What I saw, with one exception, was pretty good. The one exception had been badly managed in the past, and a few cactus are still holding on despite the good grass cover. There’s one other “bad” place, but it is around a water hole, and has been used to stage construction materials and road equipment in the past, so weeds took over.

The trip passed quietly. I browsed through the shop and as usual left with more than I’d come for. I did not succumb to the lure of the beaver pelts (plews), although it wasn’t for lack of interest. I can justify books and Christmas gifts. A beaver fur for classroom use? Um, not so much. Nor could I justify a vintage men’s XL buffalo coat. For one thing, it was longer than I am tall, almost. Nor did I sign the list for the quarter beef give-away the local ranchers’ group is sponsoring. I have no freezer space, alas. A hair-on gun-rug almost followed me home, but I refrained. The shop owner and I chuckled at people who fussed about the real long-horn head “not looking like a real longhorn.” The visitor then pointed toward the African cattle*** grazing at the edge of town. The lady did not argue with her customers.

On the way back, clouds began filling the sky. Rows and clumps of winter grey dotted the sky, growing thicker as I drove back toward town. A few tumbleweeds danced across the road, chased from north to south. The wind had arrived. The sky reminded me of dollops of dough on a biscuit-topped cobbler. Some times, after being in a place for a few years, you just know what a “winter sky” or “spring sky” look like. This was winter, white and blue-grey stratus sheep grazing their way eastwards over the tawny-coated land.

Two more pickups came into view and then disappeared. Traffic was light on the back road, and light on the little bit of highway I traveled as well. Some schools are still in session, and the Christmas travel rush has not begun yet. Ranchers worked away from the road, and no farm work needed to be done outside, in the cold.

It was a good day to get away and rest my eyes on the land. The world is a lot larger than it feels, some days. It’s good to be reminded of that.

*Small being less than an hour one way at highway speed on dry pavement.

** As safe as looking around at 70 MPH on a rural road ever is.

*** If the horns curve up in a dramatic half-circle, it’s not a native Texas longhorn. You can also tell by body shape and size, and horn spread in some cases. But some things are not worth arguing about.

Winter Gothic

At some point, while looking for something else most likely, I found Erasure’s video of “Gaudete.” I started watching, blinked, and said, “It’s Caspar David Friedrich!” Because everyone borrows imagery from him when they want to do “ancient church in snow at night mildly creepy but maybe not” settings.

Gothic? Check, check. Eerie but not truly scary? Probably check. Winter? Check! Article about CDF:

This one tells a story:


Not all of C.D.F.’s paintings are “moody, brooding, cold,” but some of the most famous are, or at least the most often reproduced and borrowed from.

“Oaks in the Snow with Domlan.” A dolman is a prehistoric marker or burial mound, common (formerly) in parts of the northern German-speaking lands.

So, the video that borrows so heavily from C. D. F and a few others? Note that the video has some creepy and possibly sacrilegious elements, notable the burning candle.

The hard contrasts of dark, bare trees and stones against white snow have been noted by artists and poets for a very long time. Northern Europe tends to be misty and dark this time of year, especially the far northern areas where C. D. F. visited. The sun rises around eight-thirty and sets around three-thirty. That is, if you can see the sun for the heavy clouds. When I was in Vienna over Christmas, heavy skies, snow, and then hard cold reminded everyone that yes, winter had arrived. It was one of the few times that I ate everything in sight and lost weight, because I was converting so much of the snacks and treats into heat. The importance of light, and the turning of the year, was firmly reinforced on that trip. The true cold of winter usually arrives a little later than December, but not always.

One thing I like about so many of C. D. F.’s paintings is that they catch the mystery of things. Christmas and Advent are often too shiny, up-front, and bright for my taste. There’s a Mystery in the familiar story, a hushed and intent waiting for . . . something. Something wonderful, but something also deep and more than a little scary. “He is good, but he’s not safe,” as C. S. Lewis describes Aslan. “Gaudete” calls us to rejoice, but in a minor key, often arranged with slightly discordant harmonies. The turning of the year, the Winter Solstice, brings light but also deeper cold in many places. There’s a mystery, something hidden in the night, in the winter mist and clouds.

The Falkirk Wheel

How do you move boats up and down hill without using a long series of locks, such as Neptune’s Staircase on Lock Ness? Especially when you have a lot of old, leaky locks, a bridge that’s going to block the canal, and a few other problems? First, you hire a Scots engineer. Then . . .

Until 2002, when boats needed to go from the Union Canal to the Forth and Clyde Canal, they descended 100 feet (33 m) through a series of 11 locks. Each lock has two gates. The gates were opened and closed by pure muscle power. It made for a long, slow, tiring day at best. There had to be a better way to get around Stirling, if you were a boat. Using a crane to lift the boats would have been dangerous and amazingly expensive, because of lifting boats and water up and down requires a LOT of power. or it would have . . .

Enter the brilliant design of the Falkirk Wheel ship-lift. It rotates, using the weight of the water to lift water and boat. [All photos by author]

As you approach the wheel from the uphill (Antonine wall) side, you boggle at the steep hill that you descend and the size of the equipment. If it is moving, the silence is also a bit surprising. for a huge piece of machinery, it makes very little noise.

The base of the lower tower. Note operator for scale.

The idea is simple and amazing. Canal boats or personal boats sail into the box. The watertight doors close, and the mechanism begins turning the wheel. Gravity and momentum take over, and as the weight of the upper chamber pushes down, it raises the lower chamber. Past a certain point, momentum takes over and the boats trade places.

Above you see that the lift is just starting . . .

Boat in the air!

Boat coming down. Note tourists for scale.

I’m an engineering geek. I was oogling the equipment and devouring the tech specs, and so on, the the mild amusement of my guide. My parents are also engineering buffs, so we had fun discussing the physics. The power needed is much lower than you’d think. It needs 22KW to start moving and uses 1.5 kWh to rotate. That’s not much electricity at all.

The Tree of Jesse

The idea of the tree of life is found in lots and lots of traditions, be they “organized religion,” animist, environmentalism-as-religion, neopagan, or just people who see certain trees as having special personal, spiritual significance.

The concept of the Jesse Tree comes from the book of Isaiah. In 11:1, it says, “But there shall come a rod forth of the stock of Jesse, and a grass shall grow out of his roots.” (Geneva Translation) More common is “and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Either way, medieval artists depicted this literally, showing the sleeping figure of Jesse, father of David, with a tree growing from him. This ties back into the Genesis account of the Tree of Life vs the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Tree of Life comes from Jesse.

The above was the only Jesse Tree I found in Scotland. It is in the National Museum, on a panel from woodwork associated with Mary Queen of Scots. Since the reformers in Scotland took a dim view on “idol worship” as they described it, a lot of the visual imagery from the medieval period in lowland Scotland vanished in the 1500s-1600s. It remains in the German lands, however.

From Limburg, Germany. This and the above photo from Swabisch Hall are author photos.

Ceilings are also a tad unusual.

This is another tree of life, the only one I’ve seen thus far on the ceiling of a church. It is inverted, so you can follow the order. Adam and Eve are on the bottom, then Jesse, David, and on to Jesus.

The cross on which Jesus was crucified was called the Holy Tree, or Holy Rood (rod) in Anglo-Saxon and Old English. One of the first surviving hymns in “English” is the Dream of the Rood, where the tree that became the cross talks about what happened. A modern depiction from York Minster that takes the idea literally is below.

Modern art seems to have gotten away from the idea, although I have seen some attempts to reclaim the neopagan tree of life images for Catholicism in particular. That one . . . doesn’t quite work for me, although I can’t pin down quite why. The Latter-day Saints use the image of the Tree of Life, taken from the vision of Nephi, in their faith, sometimes literally as in the case of Mack Wilburg’s song “O Tree of Life” and the dance setting that used it during Christmas a few years ago.

Most Protestants hear the text once a year, during Advent, but don’t see it depicted. We might, rarely, get to hear the song, “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” Although not directly about the Tree of Jesse*, it is often done around Christmas.

*Oddly enough, what I think of with the Jesse Tree is “Behold a star from Jacob shining” by Mendelssohn.