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.


Ecumenical Daffynitions and Release Date Updates

Tithe: noun. The annual activity fee for Heaven.

Adam: the first man to insist that he was not responsible for what his wife convinced him to do.

Choir members: noun. A group of believers who sing mostly the same notes and usually the same words at the same time, while the choir director waves his hands or a stick at them.

Faith: noun. A level of certainty stronger than belief but weaker than knowledge.

Gentile: noun or adjective: 1. Someone not Jewish. 2. Someone not a member of the Latter-day Saints, including Jews. 3. Heathens (aka people outside your denomination), but using New Testament terms so it doesn’t sound as bad.

Wine: noun. An alcoholic beverage made from fermented grape juice that multiple denominations try to pretend is not what the New Testament writers really meant when they used the word “wine.” [And having listened to some of the linguistic and historical pretzels people tie themselves into on this one … It’s far easier to point out the importance of the Temperance Movement in the late 1800s-early 1900s and admit that avoiding all forms of alcohol was the real point.]

Many of these are paraphrased from Orson Scott Card’s very funny little book Saintspeak: The Mormon Dictionary. You don’t have to be LDS to chuckle at many of the definitions. Modify the terms slightly, and they apply to any denomination, or non-denominational congregation.

Book release update: I hope to have the next Merchant book out by mid-June, and the Wolf’s Paws story in mid-July, with a Familiar Generations short-story collection out in late August or early September.

Saint George’s Day

By the western church calendar, today is the feast of St. George. He’s the patron saint of the military, and of England and Catalonia. The George Cross is part of the Union Jack flag, although today celebrating the feast in England is sometimes considered suspect, unless it is a purely religions and private veneration.

This is the statue I did NOT get to see when I was in Lübeck, Germany in 2017. It is St. George doing in a very sincere dragon indeed! It is a copy of a statue in Sweden, carved by and artist from Lübeck. Source:

St. George is one of those saints that lacks firm written sources, and is considered a wee bit suspect by the Roman Catholic Church. He remains popular in the Eastern Orthodox churches, and in the Church of England (or at least with followers of the Church of England.) There’s also a city in Utah named for him, which makes me giggle a bit. He’s not exactly the same sort of Saint as the Saints, Latter-day, who founded the town.

I want a copy for my church, but I don’t think the decorating committee would agree. Or the fire marshal. From:–330381322638029098/

St. George is thought to have been martyred on April 23, AD 303. He was born in what is now western Turkey, and since his father was a Roman soldier, he had to go into the army (like St. Martin of Tours, and several others.) The official version of the story is that he was martyred for refusing to make the sacrifices required by Diocletian’s anti-Christian edicts. There are no dragons in the official version. Alas.

The popular version is that George was in northern Libya, where a dragon had moved in, taken over a spring, and was killing the locals, their livestock, and everything else in the area. Various young ladies were offered to the dragon in hopes of appeasing it. George arrived and said that he, with the help of G-d, would deal with the beast. He did, did not ask to marry the young lady of the day, but instead preached the Gospel and converted the people.

In some versions of the story, he killed a dragon in England as well, thus he is the patron of England, as St. Andrew is the patron of Scotland and St. David (Dawi Sant) protects Wales. (Before George it was St. Edmund the Martyr.)

There was a much more elaborate, highly unofficial version, of the story of St. George that I have only heard and seen once, and that was in a chapel in a castle in the Czech Republic. It is much more detailed, with further adventures, and includes George being killed three times and coming back to life twice. I can guess why that version does not appear in church art or the semi-official depictions of the saint.

St. George also appears as a character in the winter pantomimes (Pantos) in England. Some folklorists see him as a stand-in for the Green Knight, the Oak King, the symbol of summer, killed by the Holly King/winter.

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.

“Why do you Seek the Living Among the Dead?”

Halnya Mudryi decorated these pysanky eggs. Pysanky comes from the Ukrainian word, “pysaty,” which means “to write.” Pysanky are intricately decorated Ukrainian eggs with symbols. The custom dates back over 2,000 years. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun) []

Oh, you prefer your Easter Eggs edible?

Actually, in Greece, you “fight” the red-dyed eggs, tapping them against other people’s eggs. The winner will have good luck. Now, this is also the place where, when the priest came out of the dark church bearing a single (very thick) candle and proclaimed, “He is risen!”, the guys fired fireworks off at the priest, so you might just want to eat the bread and have the eggs in a salad. Or devil them.

However you honor Easter (western calendar), have a blessed one. And I hope my Jewish readers are celebrating a blessed Passover with family and friends. Perhaps next year in Jerusalem!

Inventing Deities? Or Just Trying Too Hard?

The book about Baba Yaga and the lore associated with her was very useful. But looking at some of the material in the bibliography . . . I almost get the feeling that some ethnographers and anthropologists tried desperately to find something that’s just not there. Maybe. I suspect that there were indeed female deities in the Slavic and other pantheons, and that some lingered as folk lore or monsters. It’s the details that have me shaking my head.

Part of my wariness is from seeing one too many nods to Marija Gimbutas. Yes, she was right about some things, including the importance of the culture of the pre-Proto-Indo-European Balkans and Danube Basin (“Old Europe.”) That part of her work has been confirmed and expanded on, and has led to some major shifts in the chronology of technology and cultures in that part of the world. However, her fascination with a primordial Great Goddess and peaceful, egalitarian matriarchy that worshiped the Female . . . Has major flaws. A number of ethnographers, anthropologists, and others took the idea and ran with it. And are still running with it.

The idea resonates with some people, for different reasons. In some cases, they truly think that the problems of the modern world were caused by getting too far from recognizing the importance of women as mothers and from the natural world. They want to find a pattern in the past that worked, and that can be returned to or recreated in a way that brings society and the non-built environment back into harmony as they understand it. Ecofeminism is part of it, or was. It’s a version of the Fall from Grace that appeals to some hard-core environmentalists, some people who conflate Christian theology with the Industrial Revolution and it’s “dark, Satanic mills.” Pagan must be better than Christianity, and female-dominated paganism must be even better than male-dominated paganism, so worshiping a Great Goddess means that women and Nature will also be venerated.

If you sense a lot of 1960s-70s hippie woo in that, you’re right. There are also women who blame Christianity and the modern world for abuse they’ve suffered. In those cases, especially when the abuse was justified or defended using twisted Christian or Jewish teachings, I understand why people would go that way. I disagree with their ideas, but I understand the appeal of a world of loving, caring, peaceful matriarchs who were honored and worshiped by kind, strong, gentle men. There’s a strain of Ecofeminism that tracks that way, where Nature is as badly abused as Women and so both need to get away from the Male. For women like that to seek out and dream of a society of goddess followers, or to try very hard to find traces of goddesses and a Great Goddess in Slavic folklore and other traditions makes a sort of sense.

Some people desperately need to find something new for a thesis or dissertation. Been there, was fortunate in that. Again, my sympathies even when I vehemently disagree.

However, I really have trouble accepting that we can reconstruct a full, tribal-centered religious pantheon and belief system from the existing folklore and a few references in the surviving documents from the time of the conversion of the Russian Slavs. Our sources include official documents like The Primary Chronicle of Kiev, some accounts of the deities venerated by Baltic pagans, some church documents condemning the practices of human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, and idol worship, and hints in folklore. The things I’ve seen lean on the folk-lore, in part because the Slavic paganism as described in official texts was strongly influenced by the Indo-Europeans. Going back farther when we don’t have archaeological materials for much of the region being discussed . . . is hard. So you are left with hints, comparative linguistics, and folk-lore.

In one of the stories, the hero must win the aid of three sisters, all of whom are called Baba Yaga. Ah ha! say the researchers. Here we have evidence of a survival of the three-part Great Goddess as maiden, mother, and crone. Except . . . all three are old women in the story. There are stories where Baba Yaga is a tester and rewards the brave. Ah ha! say the researchers. Here we have evidence of a good goddess who was brutally suppressed by the Christians and patriarchs. Except magical characters, especially tricksters, often serve as testers and as bad guys.

Baba Yaga is just one of the figures I’ve seen people try to turn into a lingering nod to a primordial Great Goddess. The trouble is that so many faiths came from animism, starting with local spirits and deities that became tribal spirits and deities and then expanded into dynastic deities. In some cases, a new philosophic system also gets tagged in, so you have Buddhism, Confucianism (not popular but the official versions), philosophic Hinduism, some of the Greek-influenced groups we lump together as Gnostics, and the three monotheisms. All of those either pair male and female deities with a patriarchal society, or honor a goddess who gives kingship to her chosen male, who rules as a patriarch (Babylonian, Irish, others).

I read Gimbutas, and Graves, and a lot of When-God-Was-A-Woman type stuff back in my teens and 20s. It didn’t stick, obviously. In many cases, I admire the effort and work the archaeologists and anthropologists and other put into their research and translation work. There’s some fascinating straight science out there. But trying to excavate the ghost of a goddess that might once have existed . . . I don’t think we can find that.

Trying a Little Too Hard to Rehabilitate Baba Yaga

So, I’ve been reading a compendium of various tales and discussions about Baba Yaga and figures like her in Slavic mythology and folklore. Some of it is very interesting, and cautious about reading too much into things. Other parts . . . When the quote begins with a paean to Marija Gimbutas, you know where it’s going to go. Baba Yaga is the misunderstood mother goddess, the Matriarch, the creatrix, the mother-of-creatures, and so on. She was vilified by the mean, nasty, unwashed* Christian priests and turned into an evil monster, but the real Baba Yaga is the Great Goddess who terrified the would-be patriarchs and so—

Sigh. It gets boring and predictable after a while. “If it was before Christianity, it must have been good! Otherwise the churchians wouldn’t say that it’s bad and try to chase people away from it, and women ran the place and everyone lived in harmony with nature and was kind and vegan and loved trees and—” Everything was better either before Christianity, or before the Proto-Indo-European speakers arrived with horses and patriarchy. Which one you choose depends on your starting point and which sort of paganism you assume predominated in the place and time under discussion. I’m still waiting to hear someone talk about how China was so wonderful before the terrible Confucians arrived. (No one seems to beat up on the Xia and Shang Dynasties, even though they were patriarchies that encouraged large scale human sacrifice. And horse sacrifice, once they had horses.) The “prehistory was better” wail has a long history with a lot of predictable variations. Like the Slavic neo-pagan who wants to rehabilitate Chernobog. I stopped reading at that point, because I did not care to know how he thought modern neo-pagans should venerate that particular deity in their family religious observances.

Anyone who has read more than one Baba Yaga story knows that she’s both good and bad. She punishes the arrogant, rewards the faithful (Vasilia the Wise), tests the noble, and can be a force of evil. It depends on the story. That means that she’s old, very old, very complicated, and there are probably a number of other stories and traditions that get lumped in under the name of Baba Yaga. The little house on chicken feet might have one foot, or four feet. It may whirl around constantly, it might peck and scratch around the yard like a “normal” chicken, or it might even be up in a tree (only a few stories). The fence may be a standard fence, it might be made of bones topped by human skulls that glow at night. Baba Yaga might travel in a wooden or iron mortar, driven with the pestle, while sweeping away her tracks with a broom. Or she might ride on the mortar (think something more like an American-style upright churn than the short, squat mortar and pestle mostly used today) like riding a horse.

Oh, and her cat is really a folk-memory of the lions who accompany the Great Goddess. Really.

Sure, she might be a “demoted”deity. Or she might be one of the many characters in human archetypes who shifts her nature depending on the person seeking her power or her possessions. Coyote, Anansi, Frau Pechta, some of the unofficial saint stories, the good ruler in some folk-tales, they can all be good or evil, or be seen as good or evil.

Although I think the “Baba Yaga is a folk memory of aliens” and “Baba Yaga and a male partner were Vedic yogis who brought wisdom to the pre-Slavic peoples of Russia” may be my favorites.

*OK, in some cases the unwashed part wasn’t wrong. Some Russian Orthodox clergy gave up bathing, or stopped bathing in winter and then took a rinse before Easter.

The Appearance of Evil

Apparently, there was a music awards event this past weekend, and someone thought it would be “edgy” and “transgressive” and shock the ‘danes if people dressed up as Old Scratch and she-devils and did something.

Yawn. That hasn’t been edgy since, oh, the mid 1970s, maybe? The Babylon Bee had the right of it, when they interviewed Satan and he distanced himself from the show.

For westerners, when we think of “The Devil,” what comes to mind in most cases, at least at first, is a guy in red with goat horns or something equally small, with cloven hoofs, and perhaps a tail with a fork/arrowhead on the end. (Like on Underwood Deviled Ham, but more so.)

The original. Current versions lack the long claws. Source:

Or Old Scratch night wear a dapper suit and well polished, expensive shoes, but still has horns. See Samuel Ramey doing Mephistopheles for an example. The Church of Satan uses a more medieval image, focusing on the animalistic, goat-like saytr imagery, along with inverted pentagrams and so on. It does shock a little, but more because of their purported belief system and embrace of what most people consider at the very least off-kilter from society as a whole. It’s not the image, but the people who follow it that cause upset. And even then . . . It’s not surprising, alas.

Satan doesn’t shock most people any more. He’s too obvious. “Oh look, they’re trying to upset Christians by pretending to be witches and the Devil. Oh yeah. Yawn.” That’s pretty much the reaction from people after the Grammy™ Award show. Ho hum, it’s the Devil.

I suspect that if an embodiment of evil actually exists, like Satan/the Devil or Ahriman, I suspect he no longer appears in the usual forms. We expect evil to look like the devil, or to be ugly and warped and carry a sign saying “Wanna be Evil? Ask me How!” Evil exists, but it’s supposed to either 1) wear a WWII uniform and be obvious, or 2) dress like a Fortune 500 CEO, perhaps wearing a cross as a tie-tac (if you watch network TV in the US).

I was thinking about this because of trying to come up with an antagonist who is not evil, perhaps, but very intent on a single goal, one that will perhaps cause him to do a lot of harm as he tries to attain it. The goal is laudable, at least in the general sense – provide for his family and recover from a bad business year or three. He’s not evil in himself, although his way of attaining his goal might sink to that level, perhaps. It’s still early in the story.

Modern evil tends to be impersonal in many cases. The bureaucrat is just following procedures and rules, it’s not about you. The government agency is just trying to ensure that everyone is respected and treated fairly. The mugger doesn’t care who you are as an individual – you just register as a likely target. You fit a certain pattern type, and so the teenaged thugs go after you. Wheels grind in the machine, and you happen to have gotten caught up in them. Too bad, you’ll suffer. Sucks to be you.

I think one reason people* seem to prefer genre fiction to literary fiction is that most genre fiction has a clear good guy and bad guy, and good wins over a simple, clear evil. OK, not too simple unless it is a short story. Literary fiction seems to gravitate toward more shades of grey and “the hero is just as bad as the villain, and good is just evil that society approves of for the moment.” Not all literary fiction, to be sure, and some literary-influenced genre fiction boasts about the shades of grey, about being transgressive and edgy and “privileging” something or the other to show how terrible Jewish or Christian norms are for some people. And some genre fiction highlights very corrosive and demeaning relationships (and NOT clearly up front and consensual with both parties fully aware of where things are going to go, or might go.) Those stories imply that unhealthy relationships are actually OK, or even desirable, because, um, well, they feel so good? He must love me to do this to me? He’s a supernatural creature so it is totally great and understandable even if it hurts?

That’s evil. Or rather, the social and editorial forces that encourage that sort of story are evil. It’s not overt like a guy in red with horns, but it still corrodes, and hurts and causes damage in some people. Evil implies that being honorable and faithful and liking clearly defined heroes who are not just one shade of morality better than the villain is wrong. Evil uses cries of “justice” to invert real justice and oppression. Sometimes, evil is obvious, lying and tormenting people because it can, because it enjoys watching suffering, because “those over there are not really people.” Or are unbelievers. Or belong to a different tribe, however tribe is defined.

I don’t like sneaky evil. I also don’t like people pretending to be Satan and his minions. They numb viewers to true evil, and they are uncreative. “The ‘danes” aren’t shocked by that, not after, oh, Madonna’s music videos, or the Killing Fields of Cambodia.

*Some people really enjoy literary fiction and prefer the slower pace and focus on the inner life, or on the beauties of language. Some literary fiction has clear good and evil divides. I like some High Literature. Just, not a lot of modern literature.

Now To Conclude Our Christmas Mirth . . .

The tree has been taken down, ornaments stored, wreaths changed out for another year. A few Christmas cookies remain to be eaten, and some lebkuchen, but with the feast of the Epiphany, Christmas has ended for another year (unless you are Orthodox Christian, in which case, Merry Christmas! Or if you follow the tradition that Christmastide lasts until Candlemas and the feast of the Purification.)

January 6th is Twelfth Night. The Three Kings visit in some places, leaving gifts for children. Or perhaps La Befana comes to call, she who was too busy to go with the kings and so trails after them, seeking the Christ Child. It ended the official feasting and parties of Christmas, and the Solemnities of Christmas as well. It was time to return to work and the long nights of winter. The days are growing longer, but also colder in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Winter has a way to go yet.

“Three great wonders fell on this day: a star brought kings where an infant lay/

Water made wine in Galilee, and Christ baptized in Jordan.”

Three feasts fall on January 6, only one of which do I remember noticing as a child. My current place of singing does two – Epiphany and the baptism.

In Hoc Anno Domini

Every year, the Wall Street Journal publishes this editorial in the issue closest to, or on, Christmas Eve. I have a copy, carefully cut out and put away. Christian or no, the warning about other Caesars and the return of darkness still holds.

The opening of the editorial is below:

“When Saul of Tarsus set out on his journey to Damascus the whole of the known world lay in bondage. There was one state, and it was Rome. There was one master for it all, and he was Tiberius Caesar.

Everywhere there was civil order, for the arm of the Roman law was long. Everywhere there was stability, in government and in society, for the centurions saw that it was so.

But everywhere there was something else, too. There was oppression—for those who were not the friends of Tiberius Caesar. There was the tax gatherer to take the grain from the fields and the flax from the spindle to feed the legions or to fill the hungry treasury from which divine Caesar gave largess to the people. There was the impressor to find recruits for the circuses. There were executioners to quiet those whom the Emperor proscribed. What was a man for but to serve Caesar?

There was the persecution of men who dared think differently, who heard strange voices or read strange manuscripts. There was enslavement of men whose tribes came not from Rome, disdain for those who did not have the familiar visage. And most of all, there was everywhere a contempt for human life. What, to the strong, was one man more or less in a crowded world?

Then, of a sudden, there was a light in the world, and a man from Galilee saying, Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.

And the voice from Galilee, which would defy Caesar, offered a new Kingdom in which each man could walk upright and bow to none but his God. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. And he sent this gospel of the Kingdom of Man into the uttermost ends of the earth.

So the light came into the world and the men who lived in darkness were afraid, and they tried to lower a curtain so that man would still believe salvation lay with the leaders.”

For the rest of the editorial: