Tuesday Tidbit: Finding Plants and Checking Birds

Saxo looks in on the birds.

Mistress Clarey looked from her husband to Saxo and back. “As close as Huw is to rising to journeyman, I think we need another apprentice.”

“Not unless prices for birds rise. And Master Jeaspe says Saxo needs to be trained, in case he has a beast healing gift. Can’t happen until Huw’s better and we finish with the female, and get the entire team ready to sell at the Scavenger’s Winter Fair. Law says the gifted have to be trained, but not that a man ruins his business doing it.” With that he seemed to remember Saxo. “When you finish, feed, then see about the pasture birds.”

“Feed, then the pasture birds, yes, sir.” If he was careful, he could gather some of the herbs of the field while he worked. He’d marked a dozen root plants, the ones that gathered goodness over the summer and had to be dug after the first true cold. Goodwife Eadburg had explained the most important ones to him, and what they could do for people, and maybe for the birds.

Saxo watched as Mistress Carey began turning the paddles inside the box. He broke up several lumps. Green hay always clumped, no matter how evenly spread in the mill. The eich-wood paddles pulled the feed into the metal teeth below. The teeth broke any remaining grain husks and tore up the hay more finely. The birds could eat both without mixing, but they did better during the cold season with the blend. Green and tan trickled out of the bottom chute and into a basket. Once it had almost filled, Mistress Carey shoved it out of the way and nudged the next basket into place, not stopping on the crank. Saxo broke up another lump, then pushed some hay closer to the paddles and scraped the sides of the hopper, just in case. Then he half-slid down the ladder and moved the next basket clear, pulling the replacement into position before returning to his task.

Once they finished, and he cleaned out the bigger pieces of the mill, Saxo fed the great-haulers. He fed the mated females first, since they tended to eat more slowly than the others. He tipped each basket into a long trough, spreading the feed out for the birds. They’d been trained not to come too close to a person with a basket, but he worked as fast as he could. Only a fool let the birds eat out of a basket—they’d eat the basket too, then get very sick or worse. Then he fed the geldings, any one-year females, the full males, and the last bits from the baskets went to the pasture birds. The mated females also got a bit of powdered bone, to keep their natures balanced so the egg didn’t drain their bones of goodness.

Mistress Carey and Goodwife Eadburg had given him some worn cloth bags and old baskets to use for gathering herbs and plants. Saxo took two of the bags and a small wooden digger, and tucked them under his jacket. If he didn’t find any proper roots, at least he’d be warmer with the extra cloth. The wind had begun to blow from the west, bringing wet with it. Saxo checked the birds’ water as he passed the pens. Before he entered the pasture, he stopped at the tiny shrine mounted onto the fence. Miniature images of two gods stood within the ornately painted wooden box. Saxo bowed and murmured, “Thank you, Yoorst, Lord of the Beasts. Thank you, Korvaal, Lord of the Fields, for your bounty and mercy.” He bowed again, then opened the gate for people and wormed his way through. Master Agri did not want the birds sneaking out, and even if a bird got the inner latch open, she’d have to step into the space, close the inner gate, unlatch the outer gate, and then step sideways and around to leave the pasture.

Saxo looked left and right. Three birds rested near the thorn-fruit tree, grey and tan lumps dozing quietly. Four more, including one of the males, made trilling sounds at each other beside the big rock. Saxo averted his eyes. He didn’t see any signs of distress among the birds, so he eased along the fence to his right, one eye on the fence and the other on the birds. The first of the plants he wanted grew near the rough corner, the patch none of the birds grazed. That was good. Saxo found his marker beside the now-withered heart shaped leaves and slender stems of the waybread. He pushed away the dead leaves and other debris, then used the wooden trowel to dig out the soft, black soil from around the roots. He didn’t find any spots or other signs of weakness or decay on the first root, so he dug a bit deeper. Then he worked his fingers under the root and pulled the slender, slightly hairy tuber out of the ground. He brushed every bit of dirt free from the waybread root. Any left would offend the plant and weaken the goodness, or so Mistress Eadburg swore. Using a metal trowel also interfered with the healing powers of the plants.

Saxo dug two more hand-sized roots, then filled in the hole and pushed all the dead grass and leaves back into place. At least four more small roots remained. Gember, Lady of Grain, and Korvaal of the Fields both punished the greedy, and some plants would wither from loneliness without their kin, just like some great-haulers stopped eating when penned up alone. Saxo also pulled up his little wooden marker stick and added it to the cloth bag.

As he worked, one of the geldings, the one with the dark neck feathers and pale wings, wandered closer and watched. Saxo stood slowly. “Chrrrrr, Chrrr,” he trilled, calm and quiet.

“Trrwee?” The bird blinked, staring down at him. It sniffed the air, then turned and left him alone. Saxo waited until the bird was well out of kicking distance before moving again.

Saxo alternated watching and counting great-haulers, and digging plants. He went as far as the little stream in the rough end of the pasture. His marker had washed away and the stream had revealed one of the roots he sought there. “Thank you, Korvaal of the Field and Donwah Lady of Waters.” He used only his fingers to pull the water dock from the bank. His hands hurt, then went numb and clumsy before he got two of the big tubers free of mud and bits of gravel. Some tiny silver and black spotted fish darted by. Two stopped and sniffed his fingers, if fish sniffed. The water looked and felt whole, not fouled by dung or a rotting carcass. Even so, once he got the tubers tucked into the bag, Saxo went upstream as far as he could, checking the banks and stone-bottomed stream bed. Donwah of the Waters did not tolerate people who found a problem in Her waters and left it for others to fix.  He found tracks of birds, great-haulers and the forest birds, and what might have been a flutter of leaf-tossers. He also found cervi tracks, and frowned. They competed with the great-haulers for forage, especially in winter. He’d need to tell Master Agri so he could get permission from the temple to hunt the trespassers.

“How many birds?” Master Agri demanded when Saxo returned from his chore.

“Twenty seven, sir. All looked well, all moved well. I found cervi track near the far stream.”

His master stomped his left foot in the dust of the farm yard. “Damn. I’ll ask at the temple next Eighth Day.” The wrinkle-faced man scowled from under his hood, back to the wind, arms folded. He stared at Saxo, looked him up and down. Master Agri sniffed. “Master Jeaspe sent word back. He wants to train you. I won’t have my birds go untended, especially since Huw can’t work that arm for at least an Eight Day, probably longer.” He looked Saxo up and down again. “Here comes first. After the Scavenger’s winter feast, you can train. And don’t dose the birds’ insides, hear me? Only the outsides.” One strong, knobby hand, like a great-hauler foot, shot out and grabbed Saxo’s shoulder, squeezed, then shook him.

“Yes, Master Agri, sir. Only the outsides, only things Mistress Eadburg taught or that all men know.” His heart soared even so. He could help the birds feel better!

Another shake. “Right, boy. Now go finish the dung rounds, then see about cleaning the training harnesses. I’ll need the heavy ones, since Huw won’t be fit to help for five days or more.” Master Agri stomped off.

Saxo spread the roots in the place Mistress Carey had given to him in the barn for that, then traded the wooden trowel for the dung shovel. At least he’d be out of the wind and the little spits of cold rain while he cleaned and mended the bird harnesses, Yoorst be praised.

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


Excellent Herbs Had our Fathers of Old

Excellent herbs had our fathers of old–
Excellent herbs to ease their pain–
Alexanders and Marigold,
Eyebright, Orris, and Elecampane–
Basil, Rocket, Valerian, Rue,
( Almost singing themselves they run)
Vervain, Dittany, Call-me-to-you–
Cowslip, Melilot, Rose of the Sun.
Anything green that grew out of the mould
Was an excellent herb to our fathers of old.

I’ve been thinking about the opening of Kipling’s poem “Our Fathers of Old” as I write the current Merchant book. The protagonist is an herbalist-healer, or will be. Perhaps. Back in the day, before modern medicine, and sometimes because of what today we’d call academic medicine, people relied on plants and animals for medical treatment. Which for the author means learning a lot more about medieval and Dark Ages plants.

Readers of the series know that the four humors, more or less, are used in the Merchant world. However, once you move past “it it should be wet, dry it; if it should be warm, cool it,” things become a touch more complicated (Tycho Rhonarida’s fondness for spicy fried things notwithstanding.) What about infections, blisters, burns, fevers, coughs? Some of that comes out in White Gold of Empire, when a respiratory disease hits the city. And there have been mentions of “the summer complaint,” which carried off babies and small children well into the 20th century. What about worms and other intestinal problems? OK, the less said about intestinal parasites, the better, more or less. There are some things I don’t care to be fully realistic about.

Everyone knew some basics, if only so they didn’t poison themselves or their livestock. Nightshade, henbane, wormwood, rhubarb leaves, foxglove, and a few other things were to be avoided because they’d kill you. Watercress had a nasty look-alike in a hemlock that slowly paralyses the respiratory and circulatory centers. Mushrooms . . . best left to experts, or at least don’t eat the ones that everyone knows are bad. People also associated darnel (tars) or false-wheat with hallucinations and death because it hosts a fungus very much like ergot, and can host ergot proper. Other plants are caustic and had medical use but needed to be kept out of pastures and hay meadows.

Medical plants came under some broad categories. Fever tonics, anti-inflammatories, internal medicines, wound-care, pain reduction and sleep aids, and “women’s matters.” Even after Christianity became the official religion, some cures required magic, or were intended to chase off supernatural ills such as being hag-ridden or elf-haunted. Some prescriptions called for the herbs involved to be placed in front of an altar for twelve or so masses, then they were compounded and given to the patient. Psychology mattered as much as pharmacopia. Within the main groups you had sub-groups, some of which were pretty specific. Fevers that recurred every three days needed something different than those that returned after four days, or that came without vomiting. Did the patient have problems urinating because of muscle spasms or because of an enlarged prostate? Each of those had a different plant associated with the remedy.

Often, complicated preparations reveal that some of the herbs balance the others, mitigating some of the effects. For example, one for “wendenhearte” or general malaise and weakness includes: lupine, bishopwort, elfthorn, elcampane, cropleek, hindhealth, radish, and burdock. If you sort the plants, aelfthorn and burdock are sedatives of varying strength, and burdock is also an antispazmotic. Radish and elecampane serve as general tonics and attenuate the effects of aelfthorn, as does hindhealth. Cropleek and bishopwort are antiseptics and “draw out” illness, while elecampane also soothes the stomach and serves as an expectorant. Oh, if you are wondering, aelfthorn is a nightshade, one of the milder ones. [Sinead Spearing Mandrake, Wormwood, and Raven’s Eye: Old English Medical Remedies. loc. 630-31 Kindle]

Battlefield medicine made some use of herbs, although surgery, post-surgical care, and reconstruction were common. The basics such as using poppy and other sedatives, burn treatments, and so on circulated among everyone. Herbwives used what they had and didn’t worry too much about Greek and Roman humors and so on. Physicians used Latin, went to schools, studied for years, and treated the great, powerful, and wealthy. Sometimes, herb wives supplied physicians and apothecaries with things that the men wouldn’t or couldn’t get for themselves.

An herbalist has to know what works for what ailment, how to compound tinctures and infusions, poultices and ointments, common dosages and conversions, and what plants are forbidden under most circumstances. He also needs to be able to identify plants in their natural habitat as well as in a garden, and to know that some things need to be gathered without using iron, or compounded without iron. In other words, it is a very skilled trade, and one that needs a lot of training and education. There’s far more to medieval (and Merchant) medicine than there seems on the surface.

I will also add that while there are some real herbs and compounds used in the book, DO NOT try them at home. Consult a modern herbalist and current books for your region if you are inclined to try herbal medicine for yourself. Some things should only be used for external use, and some really are not that great for you.

Tuesday Tidbit: What Ails The Bird?

A professional comes by to check on the injured great-hauler.

Two days later, Saxo staggered along from the grain-shed to the food mixer. The sack felt as large as he was. Mistress Carys waited by the machine. She’d already put green hay into the mixing box. “Saxo! That’s Huw’s job, not yours.” She planted her fists on narrow hips. “Where’s Huw?”

“Helping Master Agri, ma’am. They are training the new lead female, and Huw told me to bring this to you.” And do all the other things that needed to be done. “All in, or just part, ma’am?”

She pursed her lips, then murmured something firm-sounding as she helped him up the short ladder. She handed him the blunt awl they used to unstitch the top of sacks. “Half. Otherwise I can’t turn the crank. You need to watch the mix. The hay is very wet.”

“Yes, ma’am.” It might clog the paddles, and someone needed to catch it before the machine locked up. He poured in the grain, working it back and forth in an even layer. Mistress Carys took the half-empty sack, and handed him the slender eich rod they used to break up clumps. “Thank you, ma’am.”

She rubbed her hands together, took a firm grip on the handle of the crank, and began to turn the paddles. She was stronger than she looked, but she gritted her teeth as the wooden paddles began to churn the grain and hay together, breaking up the hay and softening the grain. Saxo watched, poked a lump, then bumped some hay back down into the middle of the box. Mistress Carys kept working, her upper body rocking up and down as she cranked.

“Greetings in the name of the Lord of Beasts,” a cheerful voice called, but quietly. Mistress Carys kept cranking, so Saxo waved to Master Jeaspe. The beast healer wore the brown and red robes of Yoorst over thick brown trousers and very sturdy boots. The priest came closer. “Mistress Carys, why are you doing that? That’s work for a man.” He smiled, teasing a little.

She stuck her tongue out as she straightened up. “And greetings to you, too. Because my husband is trying to convince a new female to act as lead. Saxo, please show Master Jeaspe the ailing bird.”

“Yes, ma’am. This way, sir.” Saxo leaned the rod against the outside of the wooden mixing box, climbed down the ladder, and led the beast-healer to the gelding’s pen.

“What ails the bird, Saxo?”

“I think he was stung, or bitten, or got a bramble in his leg, sir. It swelled around a white-centered lump, and felt hot to the touch. He favored that leg.” Saxo started to open the gate to the pen.

Master Jeaspe held up one hand, stopping him. “Let me see from here, first.” Saxo stepped well clear of the gate and waited. The gelding strode over to study the beast healer, turning his head from one side to the other. The gelding’s eyes were bright and clear, and his long neck had no swellings or missing feathers—the warning signs of throat-apple. The gelding moved better, and the swelling on his injured leg had gone down by at least half. The bird blinked, then turned and walked over to get a drink. The healer said, “He looks almost well. I’ll check him now.”

Saxo opened the gate, then closed it once more when Master Jeaspe entered the pen. The healer made soothing noises as he approached the gelding. The healer’s head was almost as high as mid-neck on the great-hauler, even though he didn’t look that tall. Or was the gelding smaller than most? Saxo hadn’t noticed before. As the healer hummed, Saxo felt himself relaxing like the bird did.

The gelding blinked and turned, presenting his injured leg to the beast healer. Master Jeaspe called quietly, “Saxo, what did you use in the poultice?”

“Betony, clary root, lumpwort, and one leaf of stinging stem, pounded with cold water,” he recited. “Goodwife Eadburg said to rub it in line with the hair. I put it on with a cloth, not my hand, and ran down the feathers, not against.”


Saxo blinked as the man held his right hand just above the injury. He saw something, maybe a little reddish brown glow? Master Jeaspe nodded and inspected the leg, still making soothing sounds. The gelding remained calm, crest feathers relaxed, wings still. The beast healer straightened up and eased back with slow, smooth steps. He kept his eyes on the gelding until he reached the gate. Saxo opened it once more, and the healer eased out.

“It was a thorn. Here.” He held out his hand, revealing a black-thorn spike as long as the top joint on Saxo’s little finger. “Your poultice drew it out as well as keeping the healing humors in. You did very well, Saxo.”

Saxo looked down at the dirt. “Thank you, sir.”

“Well? How bad’s the injury?” Master Agri demanded, stomping up to them. Huw followed behind, holding one arm. Dirt covered Huw’s sleeve, and Saxo hid a wince. The female had kicked him, or nipped. Probably kicked, since the fabric wasn’t torn.

“It could have been very bad.” Master Jeaspe showed the others the thorn. “These have a poison in their nature. Saxo’s poultice drew out the poison with the thorn and cooled the heat. Another day, and you can use the gelding for light work. Don’t ask him to pull a full load until after the next Eight Day.”

“Huh.” The bird breeder glared at Saxo. “So the boy’s got a knack. Good to know.”

Master Jeaspe folded his arms. “Who are your gods, Saxo?”

“Born for Yoorst, born to Korvaal, although the priest wasn’t sure on that,” Master Agri said. “Priest thought he might be born to Scavenger, depending on if he was born before or after noon.”

The healer frowned and rubbed his chin. “Saxo, have you ever had temple training?”

Master Agri jumped in before Saxo inhaled to speak. “No need, Master Jeaspe. He’s a charity child, so he can read names and numbers, and count. He doesn’t need more than that.” The healer’s frown grew deeper, and the farmer added, “Does he? Did the law change?”

Master Jeaspe glanced to Saxo, then Huw, and back to Master Agri. “Not the law. He may have the gift for herb healing, and that needs to be trained. The Great Northern Emperor has reaffirmed the decree that all gifts are to be trained, even if the bearer does not use them again. If Saxo has the gift, he needs to learn how to use it properly, so he doesn’t accidentally do more ill than weal.”

Saxo risked a glance at Huw. The older boy’s face had folded into a ferocious scowl, anger burning in his dark green eyes. What was wrong? Suddenly Saxo remembered. The feed mill! Mistress Carys needed him at the feed mill. Saxo bowed and hurried back to the machine. He shouldn’t have stayed with Master Jeaspe. “I’m sorry, Mistress Carys,” he called as he slid on the dirt. Two baskets of mixed feed needed to be moved. “I won’t forget again.”

“You didn’t forget. The beasts come first, and you’d gotten all the lumps out for me. Move the full baskets to the barn, and I’ll load these two.” She nodded to the two full containers of fresh feed.

“Yes, ma’am.” Saxo wrestled one off the ground and staggered with it to the barn, then returned for the second one. A third waited by the time he finished. They were more bulky than heavy, but even so, he felt tired when he finished moving the fourth basket. “I’ll get more fresh hay.”

She stopped him with a raised hand and a small frown on her round face. “No. Rinse your hands and break your fast. I know you didn’t eat what I sent, so do it now.”

Thanks be to Gember! “Yes, ma’am.”

He rinsed his hands, then bolted the food and followed with several gulps of water. The heavy, sausage-smeared bread filled the hole inside him. He trotted to the hay pile and grabbed an armload. He’d learned how much he could carry without wasting any. He hurried back to the feed grinder and climbed up the ladder. Mistress Carey steadied it, and him, as he dropped the hay in the box. He made sure it was evenly spread, then ran back to the pile and got a second load. He’d finished, and was adding the last of the grain by the time Master Agri and Huw finished their business.

Huw’s left arm looked fatter. “That’s why you need to watch the crest feathers,” Master Agri reminded him. They start going flat, and you hear that hiss, you need to either get clear or step so close the bird can’t put force in the blow.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll never forget, sir,” Huw assured the beast-raiser. He sounded tired. Saxo looked away, picking up the eich rod and pretending he had not seen or heard.

“Go rest,” their master ordered. Huw bowed, sort of, and staggered a little as he went to the barn. Once he’d left, Master Agri growled, “Of all times to get kicked. Just a muscle bruise, but a bad one. Master Jeaspe agreed to ease it, then applied something to pull out the heat.”

Saxo bit his tongue to keep from making a sound. That meant Huw couldn’t do even the little things until he healed. It wasn’t fair. Everyone knew you stayed far away or very close to an untrained great-hauler, or one that acted agitated. Well, Radmar had turned His Wheel, and Yoorst only know what Huw had done, or not done, to irritate the young female.

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

Tuesday Tidbit: Ailing Great-Haulers

In which a great-hauler needs some TLC . . .

“Saxo, what are you doing?” A firm hand grabbed the back of his neck and collars and hauled him upright. “Boy, I told you—” Master Agri stopped. “That bird’s leg.”

The young, grey-tan great-hauler gelding walked back and forth in his pen, nibbling a little of the fresh food Saxo had given him after he poulticed the bird’s leg. A green smear and lump showed the thick blend of herbs just above the feather line at the base of the skin-covered lower leg. The gelding moved more easily than he had that morning. He swallowed the grain and greens blend, blinked, then ate more.

“Sir? It hurt and couldn’t pull. I tried to help it stop hurting.” Saxo tried not to whine. Master Agri had told him to make the bird comfortable and to take care of it until the beast healer came in two days. “It’s the same poultice that Goodwife Eadburg uses on people.” He’d been washing the container he’d blended the herbs in when Master Agri caught him.

The wrinkled man scowled. “What made you think it would work, boy?” He shook Saxo.

“It did before, on the lead female on Goodman Folker’s team after she got bitten by the stinging flies before Rella’s summer feast, sir.” He didn’t like seeing beasts in pain, and Goodman Folker had been happy to let him try the sticky, green paste that worked so well on people’s bruises and swellings with carbuncles. It helped the birds as well as it did people, and had even made the stingers pop out of the leg flesh. The bird stopped trying to scratch and chewing at the leg. That alone made the leg heal faster, even before the power of the herbs rebalanced the bird’s natures, drawing out the extra heat.

Master Agri stared from the bird to boy and back. He shook Saxo again. “Don’t do it again unless the beast healer gives his permission, hear me?” A third shake came with the words.

“Yes, sir.” How was he to ask? Not a good question. There were no good questions for Master Agri, unless it was “What else needs doing, sir?”

The bird-raiser let go of his collar. “Clean that, then get on with your work. Huw can’t do it all.”

“Yes, sir.” Huw never did all his work, just the half he wanted to do. He left the dirty, nasty, hard things for Saxo, unless Master Agri or Mistress Carys watched him. But Huw was almost a journeyman, and was an apprentice under contract, not a charity apprentice.

Saxo finished washing out the little clay pot and the scrap of cloth, then put them in the shed with the other containers. Then he got the dung scoop and eased into the large pen holding six mated female birds. They liked to nip if they thought he was too close. He kept one eye on the birds and one on the ground, scraping up the mounds of droppings with the curved wooden shovel. The metal edge keep the old wood from breaking. Saxo piled the dung just outside the bottom of the pen, slipping the scoop’s blade between the wooden rails and tipping out the contents. The light brown four-year-old female snapped, crimson crest feathers slicked back. He flattened himself against the side of the pen. She nipped hard and left big, deep bruises. The female snapped again, then ignored him. He waited until her crest feathers fluffed, then several heartbeats more. Only then did he gather the last bit of waste. Task done, he eased out of the pen and made triple sure that both latches closed and locked. The pale grey female had learned how to undo one latch, but not the new one. Yet.

Saxo got a different shovel and a dung-cart. He loaded the mound of dusty, sour-smelling waste into the cart and pushed the cart to the heap. He’d gotten all the pens cleaned. The birds in the pasture scattered their waste on their own, like the wild birds did. Saxo shoveled the droppings onto the dark brown mound. Goodman Folker would come tomorrow to collect it to spread on his fields. He only had six great-haulers, all the smaller, darker kind from the eastern hills. Master Agri grumbled about that. Huw said that the eastern birds didn’t work as hard as Master Agri’s did. Saxo shrugged as he returned the cart to its place. Goodman Folker’s birds liked him better than his master’s birds did. Only Yoorst knew why, and the god of beasts had other things to do besides explain His ways to charity apprentices like Saxo.

Just before Rella’s light dimmed for the day, Saxo checked on the male in the healing pen. Saxo gave the male more water. The three-year-old, pale brown and grey gelding hissed a little at something on the other side of the pen, then stalked toward the water trough. He moved more easily, and kicked toward Saxo. That was good, sort of, as long as the gelding missed—he still had his claws, and the kick alone could break a man’s arm or leg. The bird’s head and neck feathers fluffed out as he calmed down. Saxo watched the bird a little longer, then plodded toward the barn where Master Agri stored the wagons, carts, harnesses, and other equipment. The apprentices slept there, up in a loft, so they could guard the barn.

Saxo rinsed his hands and face, and brushed off his clothes. Mistress Carys had left his food in the barn. Huw ate in the house, since he was a senior apprentice, almost a journeyman. Saxo didn’t care. The thick bread, pottage with bits of sausage, and wilted herbs tasted very good, no matter where he ate it, and Saxo wiped up every bit of pottage with the bread. It was too late in the season for much fresh fruit, and the dried fruit needed to be saved for later, or so he’d heard Mistress Carys telling her husband. Goodman Folker said that the signs pointed to a mild winter, since there weren’t as many nuts and fruits this season. Saxo shrugged. Great-haulers mattered more to him than wild nuts and fruits.

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

Apprenticeship, Journeymen, and Guilds in the Merchant World

How do you learn a skilled trade that’s not farming, basic spinning and weaving, or other everyday things that all people learn? If it is a non-guild family tradition, you learn from parents and older relatives. If you show magical gifts, you are apprenticed to the appropriate mage guild. Otherwise, you apprentice to a trade of some kind, provided your parents have the funds to pay the fees. (If you are an orphan, things are a little different, in some places, depending on the situation.)

The role of the confraternities and guilds is to ensure quality of products, train (and tame) young men in the crafts, and to protect the interests of the trade. Certain things are guild secrets and are not discussed outside of closed meetings, even with spouses or senior journeymen. Part of passing on the trade and training men is the apprenticeship system. Apprentices usually start at age seven or so, perhaps older in the case of a trade that requires physical strength or is especially dangerous (stone cutting, salt making). Apprentices are chosen for basic moral character, intelligence, good health, and a willingness to take orders. A master can refuse to take an apprentice, and he can release an apprentice if the young man behaves too badly or refuses to learn. The parents or appropriate temple (if an orphan) sign a contract binding the apprentice to serve for X number of years or until he is passed to journeyman. The apprentice agrees to certain duties. The master also agrees to certain duties, including feeding, housing, training, providing medical care if needed, and moral instruction. The master and his lady are, in effect, the parents of the boy from the point the contract is signed until he sets out on his journey year, or he is kicked out for bad behavior.

Apprentices do the basic work of cleaning, sorting (once they know enough), washing, fetching and carrying, and working the bellows or winches. They also study reading and writing, basic math, business and trade law and custom. This is when the boys start to see how to sort wood for quality, how to sharpen tools and why each tool is used for a certain purpose, why some metals are quenched in oil and others in water, the best caulk for a ship, and so on. As they mature and show signs of learning, they shift over to more delicate, or demanding, or precise skills. An herbalist’s apprentice might compound basic tinctures and washes. If he messes up, no one will die, and he gains the needed skills. A cloth trader’s apprentice will sort fabrics into general types, confirm tax tags (but NOT remove them!), and assign goods to different types of storage.

Journeymen go a step farther. Some run shops during quiet times. Others make basic barrels, or pots and dishes, or coarse breads and leb-breads. At some point, all the masters in the city or region will meet and agree that an apprentice has shown enough skill and responsibility to be worthy of promotion. The young man undergoes testing and a ceremony, and becomes a journeyman. He has more responsibility as well as privileges. If he fails badly enough, or behaves badly enough, the masters may break him back to apprentice, as has happened twice in the Merchant series. Commit a serious offense and he will lost all privileges and rights and be expelled from the city or town permanently. He may not practice his skills, either.

Ideally, most journeymen continue on, do well, and eventually qualify for a journey year. The young man goes to a different master to learn more about the trade, or to study a different aspect of it. It also allows other masters to confirm that indeed, the candidate is worthy of elevation and should, in due time, be admitted to their ranks if he proves himself.

Apprenticeship is usually age seven or so to age fourteen, then journeyman to age twenty one or until the young man passes the mastery tests. There are a LOT of young master mages at the time of the book in progress, because so many died from the southerners’ poison. Mages are still scarce. This worries a lot of the surviving mages, because they don’t want untrained but well-meaning people getting into trouble and causing a bad reputation for all magic workers. Also, a lot of guild knowledge was lost.

Some towns and villages don’t have enough craft masters for a confraternity. In those cases, or if all the healers happen to be priests for example, the clergy will take on the role of guild masters and will train apprentices, then send them elsewhere for their journeyman training. That’s not ideal, but everyone agrees that it is better to have a talented child identified and trained in the basics by a priest of Korval than to lose that potential master carpenter. Other guild masters will still have to confirm his skills and readiness to advance to master, or to confirm his journeyman rank.

A Little Too Clear a Comparison

For reasons unknown to any but my hind-brain, I started thinking about metaphors and similes that rural people used to use, and that urban folks might not understand. And a few that need no translation like “We call him Blister because he only shows up after the work’s done.” You might not do manual labor, but you’ve probably crossed paths with that person.

One that stuck in my memory was the phrase, “as cute as a cancer-eyed cow.” Right away you know the speaker is not paying the subject a compliment. Hereford and Hereford-cross cattle are more prone to skin cancer of the face than are darker-colored breeds, so the phrase is used more often when you have a goodly number of white faced cattle. I’d never seen an afflicted cow when I first heard the term. A few years later, I was on the I-40 East frontage road in Amarillo, at a stoplight. A pickup with a livestock trailer pulled up beside me. I glanced over and beheld a Hereford (red and white cow) with a very large and ugly tumor around the left eye. No, not cute at all. There was a large-animal vet nearby, so I presume that’s where the rancher was going.

Another that is very regional is “He lives at 8th and Plum.” Meaning he’s at least eight miles from pave and plumb in the middle of nowhere. I’m not sure anyone now days in the cities says, “I work from can’t see to can’t see,” given how well lit many urban areas are. “Rainin’ like a cow peeing on a flat rock” is another that needs a leeeeetle familiarity with livestock and their habits to make sense of, if you’ve never seen that kind of rain or that kind of, ah, output.

Tracks and Time: Trade Routes in Eurasia

I can’t recall where the image was from, in the sense of which website or private photo collection that the search engine scraped. It showed a Safavid Era caravansarai in Iran (then Persia). Beside the caravansarai ran a modern gravel road, probably a full two lanes wide. A major regional route through the otherwise empty region, in other words. As I looked at the image projected on the screen, I realized that faintly, to the left of the modern road, a long depression as wide as the modern path ran into the distance. It wasn’t quite a “hair on the neck stands up” moment, but it showed just how old that particular way was, and how long it had been used by people.

A comment from DadRed reminded me of the image. He just finished a double biography of Philip and Alexander of Macedon, and is reading Marco Polo’s journals. Polo followed Alexander’s route for much of the first part of his journey, as had traders for thousands of years. Alexander probably followed older ways and tracks, because trade and travel from the Levant to Persia and South Asia go as far as the Neolithic. Routes that worked stay in use, or return to use, century after century. They are there for a reason, in this case, water and ease of movement in a harsh and mountainous land. It’s like the places in Europe and Asia that have layers of habitation that go down to the paleolithic. They provided water, food, shelter, access to other resources, and thousands of generations found them good. They might be abandoned temporarily, but people eventually returned. Vienna is one of those places, Buda Hill in Budapest is another, some of the hills of Rome, places in Spain and Portugal . . .

Barry Cuneliffe, in his wonderful history of the plains of Eurasia, pointed out that once people started getting stuff, be it lapis lazuli, or fancy weavings, or metal, or foods and spices, or jewelry from other places, they always wanted more of it. Even if a route was abandoned for a while and trade interrupted for hundreds of years because of unrest, or plague, or for other reasons, the collective memory of “neat stuff from over there” remained. Eventually someone would to looking, or traders from “over there” would return, and a new form of the neat stuff would be passed hand to hand and ruler to ruler.

Source: https://reconasia.csis.org/historical-atlas/

Note some similarities between the two maps.

Princeton has a nice on-line series of maps in the “Globalization” sub-category. The above link takes you to the Princeton site.

So too the physical routes that the “neat stuff” moved along. There are relatively few ways to get from the Indus and Oxus river watersheds to the Yellow River watershed, or to the places in between that have metal ores, furs, weavings, amazing gold jewelry, and the like. Deserts, steppe, mountain ranges, bad water, cold winters, they all forced goods and the people carrying them to follow certain paths that lasted for thousands of years. Long before Alexander the Great, the proto-Indo-European speaking horsemen rode along certain routes, and the men and women who carried metalworking tools and techniques went the opposite direction, from the Balkans across the Iranian Plateau, then south into the Sarasvati and Indus basins, or east on the edges of the Urals and Himalaya to China.

The old ways never really vanish. They get paved, or become long-distance hiking trails, or remain dirt tracks linking water holes that are used by the locals. National borders are a new interruption in some places, but I suspect in the long, long span of human history? The trails will stay alive.

Do What with the Porpoise Hide?!?: Medicine in Anglo-Saxon England

Treating moon sickness was relatively easy. You get the hide of a porpoise, cut it into strips, and beat the sufferer with the strips of hide. Cure follows soon after.

Now, I suspect that most modern medical schools would take a dim view of belaboring a patient with strips of sea-creature hide in order to cure anything. (Not that the faculty have not been tempted to do that to students, or ER physicians to members of that select group known with a distinct lack of fondness as “frequent flyers*.” Nooooooo.) However, it wasn’t all that long ago that slapping someone to break them out of a hysterical trance, or in the case of a small child, dousing him with a large bowl of cool water, was quite acceptable. It worked in most cases. Today? Both would be assault and battery in many jurisdictions, even if the cure worked.

However, the mind and culture were rather different back, oh, 1500 years or so ago, and in the Anglo-Saxon world, some ailments responded best to physical stress, in this case, flogging with a porpoise hide, among other things. The use of flagellation was not rare in Medieval medicine, and seems to have had truly beneficial results in some cases. Porpoise had several magical properties, so and were hunted for food, so the hide would have been available and known by patient and family alike. I’m sure a psychiatrist would have a field day with reasons why the cure worked. I’m not going to speculate. It worked, and was considered a standard treatment, and that’s that.

Once we get into the period after AD 900 CE or so, herbs and prayers replace magical formulae. Mostly. The edges of the world, like the Celtic Fringe (Ireland, western Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Galicia, Brittany) held onto things for much longer. Certain other rites and traditions were retained because they worked, despite what the Church might have said officially. One suspects that a lot of parish priests turned blind eyes when they found small bundles of medicinal herbs tucked close to the front of the altar, and ignored rumors of someone gathering healing plants from the churchyard. The Lord worked in mysterious ways, after all, and the bishop was far away. And better to bless the plants, which the Lord had put on earth to help people, than to encourage a relapse into paganism out of desperation.

So leechbooks** included lots of strange-to-us remedies. As it turns out, several of them work, and in one case work so well that it is used to treat MRSA infections. Others used a combination of natural antibiotics, natural anticoagulants, soporifics (often with a little something to keep the patient from getting too sleepy), fats to prevent drying, and the like to start the body healing. Anti-fever and anti-cough preparations were common. Some of the plants are used today in well-known and respected drugs (digitalis, anyone? Belladonna to dilate your eye before getting an eye exam?) Others, as it turns out, deserve more study. And a few seem to have had magical or placebo effects that we no longer experience because we don’t worry about suffering from elf-shot, or being afflicted by dwarves, or bothered by the evil-eye. Back in the 500s-800s, those were real problems in Anglo-Saxon and Celtic Britain, and needed to be taken seriously by any good practitioner.

I’m not going to leap over into the “natural medicine” side of the argument any time soon, but it’s intriguing to try and imagine the mental world where the leechbooks and other writings came from. I will be incorporating parts of what I’m learning into two books, at least, in two different series. The complicated nature of many remedies implies a full-time herbalist and medical specialist, a leech in the old sense, who did nothing but prepare common remedies and treat the ill and injured. I need to add that to one story in particular, because it fits with the protagonist’s task, and gives him something that he can also do to earn trust when among strangers.

*These are individuals who do not have serious medical problems that truly do need immediate care, but often include people who are seeking pharmaceuticals. Some people who make multiple ER trips have 100% legitimate reasons, and they are NOT “frequent flyers.” When an incoming individual is offered something strong, and demands something “even better” that is a sign.

**”Leech” meaning physician goes way back to the Proto Indo-European root meaning a magic worker or one who gathered words. In Old Gothic and Old English, it carried the sense of enchanter of words as well as healer. The Irish Gaelic term has similar meanings. Words had power.

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.