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.


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.

Too Into Your Research?

I think I first voiced the idea when I was on Peter Grant’s blog some time ago, and the topic of people taking on roles came up. I pointed out the strange-to-me behavior of Martin Sheen acting as if he dictated foreign policy to the US. My guess was that he’d played the role of president for so long on The West Wing that he somehow thought he was the PotUS. And I know that people notice if I’ve been working in German a lot, because my Grammar more Germanic becomes.

Starting around 2015 or so, several historians who specialized in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union, and some Russian escapees, began claiming that certain US politicians were dictators, or would become dictators, or were just like someone in one of the governments of Europe before 1940, or like Francisco Franco, and so on. I read their arguments, blinked a lot, and wondered what had happened to their powers of observation. I didn’t see that pattern in US politics. Populism, yes to an extent, political posturing of course, but not a slide into dictatorship or European nationalism. What was going on?

After a bit I caught on. Timothy Snyder, Anne Applebaum, and some Russian authors were seeing dictators in US politics because they’d seen so many dictators in their research that that had become all they saw. They had a mental pattern established based on their work. If something started to fit parts of that pattern, they filled in the rest without realizing it. And since the dictators they studied (or fled) were less-than-good, anything or anyone who started to fit that pattern was less-than-good. So Donald Trump was 3/4 of the way to being Putin or Peron, and so is anyone who gains a large populist following, no matter his or her politics.

I can sympathize to an extent, because I’ve had moments where I caught myself not leaving something in the past where it belonged. And it’s easy, when you have been immersed in something, to see bits of it in unrelated things. Too, politicians in the US and Europe copy certain things from Italian Fascism (so did the NSDAP in Germany, Franco, and the Soviets) because the aesthetics and technique work to get people stirred up and excited. No, I’m not seeing the swastika in everything. I do look at certain designs of the US eagle and sigh, because you can see the influences. I roll my eyes at some stage designs for the same reason. Mussolini’s people borrowed from the American Progressive movement, FDR’s people borrowed from the Italians, so did others, and it went back and forth.

The National Recovery Act blue eagle, used by the federal government in the 1930s. Source:

Now look at the example below. They are not identical. But you can see similar nods. The Progressives who became FDR’s cabinet and other advisors were impressed by what seemed to be happening in Italy in the 1920s, and wanted to borrow that success.

Italian Fascist eagle Source:

Likewise, the academics and others see patterns and assume that what happened there is happening here. Martin Sheen dictates foreign policy, Timothy Snyder sees Stalin lurking in American presidential candidates, and Anne Applebaum echoes him in her own way. Refugees from Russia hear echoes of Putin in President Trump’s hyperbole, or in Marjorie Taylor-Green’s rhetoric. We all do it, in our own ways, but it’s been especially striking among some popular historians.

It’s interesting. I will still read Snyder and Applebaum’s earlier work, because it is solid in those fields, but I ignore their most recent writings.

Medieval City Residence

Stadtluft macht frei.

A lot of terms and conditions applied, and the details were the hard part. How do you stay for a year in a small city where everyone has to have a sponsor, a pass, a place, a confraternity, and a job? Where everyone knows each other? And where, if things got rough, you’d be the first one kicked out to “root, hog, or die,” with the emphasis on die? It didn’t stop people from trying, but it was hard. And even then you might be free, but you still were not a citizen, and would be the second one kicked out when trouble came.

We’re used to cities where you can come and go at will, stay overnight if you can find a room or a campsite, and no one demands to know who you are and what right you have to be in, oh, Versailles KY, or Peachtree City, GA, or Chadron, NE. That’s a very modern change. For two thousand years or so, to be in a true city was to be inside walls. Walls had gates. To pass through the gates, unless something very, very special was in progress, meant that you had verifiable business in the city and someone to speak for you, or a letter of permission. No pass? No enter. Once you came in, you went where you were supposed to, did what you were there for, and departed before the closing of the gates. If you stayed for the night, you had to register and stay in that one place. The authorities got and kept a list of who was where, and why.

We assume that you are free to move, unless you are not. Back then, it was the other way around. Only the politically powerful or a few clergy and monks had real freedom of movement, and even then there were conditions and understandings. A free city could lock out the local bishop, or even the emperor (or lock up the emperor if he didn’t pay his bills. See Bruges for details.) Modern Europe is going back a little to “you’re not really free to go anywhere, maybe,” or so it seems at times.

In some ways the medieval city pass was very much like when I was in university in Germany. I had to register with the local police, and got a very elaborate two-page document of permission in my passport saying that I was in town for a valid cause and should be left alone unless I misbehaved. The university also kept a list of who was attending, from where, and on what program/visa/sponsorship.

In order to move to a city and life there full time, you needed to show that you would earn your keep and not be a professional beggar. Or that you had a connection inside the city who would keep you out of trouble (basically post a bond for you). In some places, you had to be approved by your guild, religious confraternity, or monastic order to remain as a journeyman or to join the local ranks. In other places, the town council checked up on people. This meant that “going to the city to look for work” was often a challenge, with a few exceptions. Cities rebuilding after an attack, or after the Plague dropped the population, or international port cities, sometimes had a little more space. But not much.

If a serf, villain, or bound peasant could stay in an imperial free city for a year and a day, he or she was free from any earlier feudal ties. That meant hiding, finding work, staying out of trouble, and praying that nothing happened to cause the city leaders to force out all non-citizens. Once the stranger passed the year and a day point, he was a free man. Which meant that he had even fewer protections and fall-backs than a serf or bound peasant. And he could still be ejected from within the walls.

Someone could live all their lives in a city but not earn citizenship. Once an individual had citizenship, he (more rarely she) participated in juries and government, in civic defense, in religious events, and contributed money and labor to keeping the place running. Oh, and he had the right of protection when war/famine/plague struck. To lose citizenship and be cast out was pretty much a death sentence. Such rights did not come easily, and required proving that you had value to the city as a whole. People like Alberich Dürer and others made special note when they were granted citizenship of a city, and the fact was noted in the municipal records. Stadtluft might bring freedom for a few, but it brought more expectations and duties than a modern urban resident might imagine.

How many people would want to live in a place today if they had to serve on the police and in the National Guard and Fire Department, serve on a jury on a regular business, pay extra taxes, attend a place of worship at least twice a week AND teach religious classes and contribute to suppers and charity works, and show proof of solvency and good behavior?

Saturday Snippet: The Lady and the Wolves

Arnauld d’Loup and his lieutenants study Comtessa Leoni’s lands. With a little help.

Arnauld de Loup bowed. “Then we accept your offer, Comtessa. We will stay and defend your lands, per the contract offered.” Food, shelter, arms, a little coin, and permission to wed if any of the local women and their families agreed—it was far better than their last contracts.

“Good. A drink to seal the bargain.” She snapped her fingers, and her servants began handing out cups of watered wine. That was, it had best be watered, so early in the day was it. Arnauld accepted a plain pottery cup. The seigneuresse drank from fine silver, silver probably mined on the d’Vosges lands. Once all the officers had cups, she raised hers. “To the Wolf’s Paws.”

“The Paws,” the men chorused, then drank. They would give the men their pay-share later, after Arnauld and the other officers signed the contract. She’d sent a copy the month before, seeking them out just as they ended their time with the emperor’s forces on the Burgundian border. The Duke of Burgundy was supposed to be a vassal of the emperor, but he sometimes forgot. 

As they drank, Arnauld studied his new employer. Comtessa Leoni stood taller than he by a head or so, tall and shapely but not lean. She wore dark blue and brown, simple but fine stuffs with red and orange embroidery, and a widow’s cap under her delicate linen veil. A silver and copper chain hung around her neck, the flat links supporting a dark red stone. The chain showed her to be a powerful magic worker, something that explained why she had been able to hold the lands after her husband’s death. She lacked an heir, which explained why she had approached the Paws. Three maids and two old men acted as guards and escorts. The young men— They mined, farmed, or slept underground awaiting the Lord’s return. War had taken too many, and Seigneuresse Leoni needed men, men who could fight. Arnauld let the taste of the wine roll over his tongue before he swallowed. Heavy but not too bitter. Unwatered it might be too much, as most reds from this part of the Frankish lands seemed to be.

Once they finished, and signed or marked the contract, the countess said, “Captain, I would that you and two of your lieutenants came with me to my workroom, to see the borders of the d’Vosges lands.” She touched the pendant on her chain. “I lack the strength to show more than three.”

He caught the meaning. “Certainly, Seigneuresse. Bjorn Najalson and Gaston de Akize.” They could tell Karl Von Saxe, Jean Niger, and the others. He turned to the other officers, “Unless you prefer someone else?”

Head-shakes answered. Karl frowned a little, but did not object. It likely had more to do with the open use of magic than not being included.

Arnauld turned his attention back to the countess. “Gaston, Bjorn, and me, Seigneuresse.”

Fair, red-gold eyebrows rose, but she said nothing.  Servants took the empty wine cups. Comtessa Leoni gestured, and the three followed her out of the great hall, down a long corridor, then up the steps of the south tower. The keep had been well maintained, and a few hangings draped the walls between arrow-slits and one glass window. The window faced the inner courtyard, of course. The steps turned opposite what he’d expected, and Arnauld almost tripped.

“Left-handed, Captain,” Bjorn said. He smiled and mimicked drawing his sword. For once he had room to move.

Arnauld nodded, then climbed. The white-painted walls bore a few pictures of saints and hunting scenes. Two servants accompanied the countess, as did her senior maid. The countess unlocked a door and they entered. The servants bowed and returned to the flat area outside the chamber.

Four long tables stood along the walls at the four directions, between the arrow-slits, and a fifth table stood in the center of a circle marked on the floor. A book, containers of strange things, a piece of unicorn horn, and metal things littered the tables. He noted a sword and dagger, both small enough for a boy or a woman. Arnauld glanced out the openings, as did his lieutenants. He pursed his lips. The trees came closer than he preferred. Perhaps there was a reason. He would have to see for himself.

“Here, Captain,” the countess commanded. Arnauld turned and joined her and the others at the center table. A clear globe of glass, perhaps as large as his two hands held with the tips together, rested atop a carved wooden stand. He stared, eyes wide, as mist swirled inside the glass, grey and as thick as the fogs of sea. “You see it as it should be,” she told them. She studied the sphere, then removed her gloves and held her bare hands on either side of the wooden stand, as if she cradled the glass without touching it.

The mist swirled, then took a different form and color. “You see as an eagle sees,” the countess said. Bjorn and Gaston made the Cross. Arnauld leaned forward, watching as green and grey grew solid. “The river border, on the southern edge.” Fields, river forest, and marshes spread to the east of the tall ridge he’d seen as they rode in from the Rhine. The river flowed north, a series of curves and bends that extended north and south as far as the eye could see. The ridge moved, no, the eagle moved to the west. It made him feel almost dizzy.

Comtessa d’Vosges said, “The keep.” Sturdy brown and reddish-tan stone sat on the flat shoulder of a different ridge. The land dropped quickly to the south and west, less steeply to the north. The eagle turned north, following a trail to pastures and meadow, then a stream that grew to a small river. “This is the difficulty at present, Captain. The duke of Bar claims that his lands extend south of this river and mountain. The duke of Burgundy and count of Burgundy also claim lands west of the mountains. The king in Paris too claims suzerainty over these lands, but the d’Vosges family has always looked to the emperor, since Karl the Great.”

The three men nodded. “In the last division, these lands went to the empire, or so we were told, Seigneuresse.” Gaston frowned as he studied the glass. “That has not changed?”

“Not in the time of my husband, his father, or his father, when the last heir of Charlemagne’s blood sat on the throne of Rome.” She lowered her hands and mist filled the glass sphere once more. “Given that the king in Paris also claims all of Burgundy and the southern lands held by the Moors—?” She turned one hand palm up, and half-smiled as she left the rest unspoken.

Arnauld inclined toward her. “Indeed, Seigneuresse.” The mines of the Vosges produced silver, lead, and copper, all highly sought after. The lands also had good sheep, timber and charcoal, and a few other things.

She pulled her gloves back on. Bjorn nodded, as if he had expected the action. The soldiers followed her out of the work room. She closed the door. Arnauld sensed something run around the door, perhaps. They did not linger. The countess dismissed them once they returned to the main audience chamber and collected their men’s pay.

Once out in the warm September sun, Arnauld turned to Bjorn. “What saw you?” he asked.

The big north-man bared tusk-like teeth in a smile behind his pale beard. “The gloves keep her power in, like the animal-callers in the north. It is a powerful magic, but one that can overwhelm body and soul.” The smile faded. “At least it can for those who call down the great ice bears and northern wolves.”

“Huh.” Gaston blinked, then shrugged. “If we see ice bears, it’s time to stop drinking.”

“Aye that!” The broad smile returned, and a large, calloused hand slapped the Aquitanian on the shoulder. “Or throw the steersman out of the boat to the bears.”

Arnauld smiled even as he shivered inside. He’d seen the hide of one of those bears. He did not want to fight anyone who took that power for his own in battle. Bjorn was deadly enough when he went bear-mad. And that had nothing to do with finding quarters for the rest of the Wolf’s Paws and paying them before they decided to pay themselves with someone else’s wine or ale.

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


April 25 is honored as ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand, and in other places where the military from those countries happens to be. It recognizes the veterans and honored dead of Australia and New Zealand, and is as solemn as Remembrance Day for some.

Image Source:

Ceremonies to honor Australia and New Zealand’s war dead began in 1916, as the First World War still raged. April 25 became an official day of solemn commemoration and remembrance in 1927. Today there is a two-part commemoration. The dawn service is a very somber, quiet ceremony, often religious. Later in the day come marches and larger commemorations and perhaps celebrations, along with football and rugby games. It is a more sober day in some ways than is Memorial Day in the US, much closer to Remembrance Day in Great Britain and Canada.

Honoring the day has not been without some controversy as time passed from WWI and WWII, and culture changed somewhat. Recent years have seen a resurgence in honoring ANZAC Day by the general population.

Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and other military members from Australia and New Zealand took part in WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and many other conflicts as part of the United Nations, and to keep peace or assist in restoring peace (East Timor) and to aid in disaster relief in the Pacific.

A salute to all Australians and New Zealanders who served, who are still serving, and those who fell in the field of valor.

The Harrowing of Hell

I took the photo in Colmar, France in June 2018, at the spectacular museum of Renaissance and Medieval art there. The museum is better known for containing the Eisenheim Altarpiece. However, it has many other works of visual art, as well as some items from when the region was a major wine producer.

One thing about the above painting, also once part of an altarpiece, was the unusual depiction of the Harrowing of Hell. Some of you might still recite the Apostles’ Creed with the phrase “… He descended into Hell. On the third day He arose from the dead…” Popular belief and Church teaching held that Jesus descended into the realm of endless death, broke open the gates, and brought out the pre-Christian believers (Adam, Eve, Moses, Joseph, Isaiah, and so on), as well as ending Satan’s power once and for all. The scene was popular in art of the Medieval and Renaissance Eras. Dante, in The Inferno, comments that the gates could not be repaired.

The version of the story shown above depicts Jesus standing on a well-smushed Satan, and leading Adam and Eve out of Hell. I was also intrigued by how nonchalant the angels carrying Jesus’ train look, as if this is just one of those normal court ceremonies they serve at. The hinge-post on the door is a nice detail, and shows how some gates were hung at the time.

Cedar Posts and Memories

The rain on Sunday brought out the scent of the neighbor’s new cedar fence, filling the air with the heavy, piny-spicy smell of cedar. It’s different from a cedar chest of cedar closet, rougher, harder, not as sweet. I sniffed appreciatively as I enjoyed having cool, dust-free air come in the open window.

And for some reason, my mind went to Poland. The scent had nothing to do with that city, down on the edge of the High Tatras Mountains, but that’s what came to mind. Perhaps because so much of the town was built of wood, logs and planks and shakes. I could see the rounded sides of the houses, log on log, and behind them the sharp teeth of the snow-glazed peaks. The air smelled a little of pine, or of rain and hot dirt the afternoon when it stormed. Pine was in the air, because of the pine trees in town, but not cedar. Yet the cedar called up the memories.

Diesel exhaust to me is Vienna. Why? Because of wandering the oldest part of the city in the very early morning hours, five AM to seven AM or so, when deliveries are permitted. The faint whiff of a truck a few blocks or buildings over conjures up pastel buildings, the Anker clock, St. Rupert’s church, Stephansdom, cool early morning when the sky has sun but not the streets just yet.

It’s odd, how scents work. Just ask Kipling, who asked a soldier from Australia during the Boer War.

(New South Wales Contingent)

Smells are surer than sounds or sights
To make your heart-strings crack–
They start those awful voices o’ nights
That whisper, ” Old man, come back! “
That must be why the big things pass
And the little things remain,
Like the smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain.

There was some silly fire on the flank
And the small wet drizzling down–
There were the sold-out shops and the bank
And the wet, wide-open town;
And we were doing escort-duty
To somebody’s baggage-train,
And I smelt wattle by Lichtenberg–
Riding in, in the rain.

It was all Australia to me–
All I had found or missed:
Every face I was crazy to see,
And every woman I’d kissed:
All that I should n’t ha’ done, God knows!
(As He knows I’ll do it again),
That smell of the wattle round Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain!

And I saw Sydney the same as ever,
The picnics and brass-bands;
And my little homestead on Hunter River
And my new vines joining hands.
It all came over me in one act
Quick as a shot through the brain–
With the smell of the wattle round Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain.

I have forgotten a hundred fights,
But one I shall not forget–
With the raindrops bunging up my sights
And my eyes bunged up with wet;
And through the crack and the stink of the cordite
(Ah Christ! My country again!)
The smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain!

Economics, Coins, and Barter: Medieval Money Matters

We live in a money economy, more or less. That’s pretty new for most people. Even in the 1600s, a lot of business was done by barter. However, as Adam Smith pointed out in 1776, it’s hard to make change with a cow. Before 1500, silver and gold were very, very expensive in terms of the amount of what they could buy, and even after 1550, the bulk of the rural population rarely saw or used coin for expenses aside from some taxes and trade.

For long-distance trade, fabric along with coin, then letters of credit and spices often served as standards of trade. Silver was generally accepted, no matter where the coin started, so long as it weighed properly. But not always. That’s where “money changers” came in. They knew all the currencies and the exchange rates, and charged a fair fee for trading your Florentine duckets for Lübek thalers, or what have you. The Church and public opinion held money changers down there with pawn brokers, even though both provided a much-needed service. Keep in mind, for many, trade was inherently suspect*, because merchants didn’t make the goods they sold and bought. They just moved them around without adding value, yet they charged more than the basic “fair price.” “Bank” comes from the Italian “banca,” meaning the bench where the money-changer sat as he worked. Sort of like the “bank” in “bankrupt.” Except in that case, you add the Flemish/low German term for overturned. A bankrupt literally had his bench overturned and his papers scattered.

However, not everyone wanted the risk of carrying silver, especially if they had to travel overland. And not all coins were equal. As a result, letters of credit and institutions sort of like exchange bureaux developed in the 1200s. Among the Hansa cities of the Baltic and North Sea, the coins and trading houses of the major cities were recognized as “good” for credit. It wasn’t banking as we think of it, but if you were from a respected business or family (or both) in Italy, you could take goods and a letter of credit to Champagne, say, or one of the other great trade fairs, or to Burges in Burgundy, and do business without having coin of your own. Someone coming south would bring the letter of credit back, perhaps counter-signed by a third merchant, and so business proceeded. If you think about Merchant and Magic, Tycho Rhonarida has a letter of credit with his (much detested) brother-in-law. He can go to his brother-in-law’s remove office in Milunis, present the letter, pay the fee, and draw on his b-i-l’s credit in the city. When Tycho returns to Rhonari, he will pay back his relative, or if business goes well, he will repay that Milunis branch of the business. Because Tycho and his relative don’t like each other personally, it works very well – there’s no risk of favoritism.

In some towns, local currency that remained within a certain distance of the town existed. It replaced “real” coin and supplemented barter. Readers of White Gold of Empire saw it at work in Halfeld Fluss. People in the local market had two price levels – one for outside coin, and one for local tokens. When coins are scarce, but barter’s not ideal, then you get some intermediary. In this case, it is a town token. They are only valid inside the walls or nearby, but they fill the gap. Saxo will see both, as well as the bits of broken silver ring, whole rings, and the occasional copper coin that serve as small change. A standard exchange rate for silver rings always exists.

People will find a way to buy what they want or need. It may be cowery shells, copper ingots, bronze ingots or ax heads, coiled silver or copper arm rings, official coins, whatever. As Adam Smith observed, it’s hard to make change with a cow.

*This seems to be nearly universal, because China and Japan, and other places, considered merchants very, very inferior to those who actually grew or made things.

Sumptuary Laws, Clothing, and Signals

Over at AccordingToHoyt, someone mentioned sumptuary laws and how some people still consider those to be a good thing. The goal was to tell at a glance what someone’s social and economic status was, and where they were supposed to fit into society. What you could wear depended on your income and your job. Servants were not allowed to look like their masters, journeymen had to wear something different from their employers, and if you had less than a certain income, you could not wear certain fabrics or furs. Officially, this was to prevent people from “wasting their substance” on luxury clothing. In reality? It was usually about enforcing status. The world was visual, and what you saw was very important. Sort of like the later plaint of a man writing to the Times of London. It seemed that with the rise of the steel-boned corset, the price for the garments dropped a great deal. Now this man could no longer tell at a glance who was a lower- or middle-class woman and who was a woman of “quality!” Something Must Be Done!

Too, clothing cost a lot of money in terms of percentage of income. A woman’s dress might be intended to last her lifetime and beyond. Even into the early 1800s, in Brandenburg, one of the most important items in a woman’s will would be her “dress of honor,” which was passed from mother to daughter and taken in or let out as needed. She wore it first after her wedding, and then at festivals and important occasions. One dress, meant to last multiple lifetimes. Ordinary clothes often began as someone else’s and were handed down to servants or “the poor.” Shirts, chemises, shifts, and other things worn next to the skin got washed on occasion, but not the outer dress, coat, robe and so on. Keep in mind that fabrics were heavier than they are today, so they were more durable and really would last a lifetime. Even so, new clothing cost more than most people could easily afford. You saved up for a new (or new-to-you) garment.

The other reason this bubbled to mind was a controversy at a local college over something related to clothing and lack-there-of. Clothing was, and is, also a sign or rebellion, especially dressing as someone you are not. Men wearing women’s clothes could be very threatening. “The War of the Women” in France was waged by vigilantes and shepherds, men who wore dresses and kerchiefs and attacked government attempts to limit traditional uses of forest and mountain land in the Pyrenees and surrounding areas in the early 1800s. Men dressed as women would also be part of the raucous charivari or “shivaree” that showed social disapproval of marriages and certain other behaviors. Men in women’s clothes were a threat, when they were not an object of derision (more often symbolic than actual). Modern drag follows this pattern, with men imitating and now grotesquely exaggerating certain aspects of what was traditionally considered female – clothing, cosmetics, behaviors.

Today we can afford to own clothing that suits our personality as well as our status. Very wealthy people “dress down” to show that they have so much they can afford to look like slobs, or as if they don’t care about clothing. Sub-cultures have their own styles, such as punk, goth, western, urban or hip-hop (there can be a difference between the two), biker/MC, hippie-style counter-culture, and so on. There are certain expectations that remain, and within those groups, pushing the limits can lead to harsh reactions. Employers still require employees to maintain a certain standard for safety (no loose, floppy clothes or hair around moving machinery) or cleanliness (overalls, protective jackets). Other places want to project a sense of professionalism – would you want to be represented in court by a lawyer who shows up in a sundress or a Hawiian shirt? The judge wouldn’t allow that individual into the courtroom. Oops.

“Do what you want!” Within limits. And still, despite sumptuary laws, society still puts limits in place. Certain styles, certain rebellions, are often limited in place and time. Breaking those limits signals deliberate rebellion, and raises questions as to motives and goals.