Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Historicity: Welcome to Elfland 4/6

It's Wednesday again...

I think there'll be one more installment of this guide-to-Elfland, after this one, plus a bibliography of useful media. After that, I think I'll have covered all the bases of this subject.

Why so vague?
Some of my writing, in this series, may come across as vague and non-specific, but that's a very deliberate effort, because I do not want to confine the subject matter to a particularly tiny well-known and well-sourced subset of medievality, such as Norman and Christian 12th and 13th century England. I'm trying to write text that is equally applicable to 9th century Denmark (still Germanic but pagan) or 8th century Russia (neither Germanic nor Christian).

What people wore
Most clothing was made of wool, spun and woven, a somewhat labour-intensive process, especially very early on before the spinning wheel became widespread in the 11th or 12th century. Most women would spend a lot of their time working wool into thread suitable for weaving, using a distaff and a spindle, as a well-practiced and not-really attention-demanding process, while also doing something else, such as gossipping or minding small children (or sheep), or teaching older children. And that wasn't to make thread to sell, but simply to create the necessary replacement clothing for their immediate family.

Flax was also used, to make linen, something I don't know much about. Like wool but perhaps more so, linen could be worked into coarse thick threads, or very fine thin threads, and the resulting clothing would then be coarse and rough to wear, or smooth and quite comfortable, but of course weaving the finer cloth required many more hours of work, simply because there'd be more threads per square centimeter.

Cotton was also used for clothing, but was an expensive import in most places, grown in warm-climate countries like Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa, and silk was of course even more expensive, and was in many places strongly associated with the upper class.

Far between the rainbows
The poor, which means most people, would tend to wear undyed cloth, or at best cloth dyed with cheap colours that were rather lacking in vividity and often faded somewhat after just a few month's of exposure to the summer sun. A variety of materials were used to make dyes - one I remember is using the shells of nuts, to make a brown dye. A semi-black cloth colour was often achieved by piling on huge quantities of a dark-but-not-black dye, such as blue. This would have been expensive, in terms of using a large quantity of dye on  a small piece of cloth, and probably produced some unattractive fading effects (the Benedictine monks wore black robes, but didn't spend much time in the sun). The poor commoners mostly wore browns and greys, although blues and reds were also doable, and presumably white or at least light grey via various forms of bleaching.

The upper class, and the more well-to-do-middle class, often wore more vividly coloured clothes, sometimes made from expensive imported silk or cotton, and often colours that lasted longer, with the most expensive colour in most places being purple, which was actually red or reddish, but was quite vivid, and instead of being faded by sunlight it was improved by it! During some parts of the Roman period, only the upper class (the "knights" and the senators/patricians) were allowed to wear purple at all.

The poor, and even the middle class, would sometimes wear the same outer clothes for many days in a row, perhaps even a couple of weeks. That sounds filthy and unpleasant, but underneath they'd have inner clothes, a sort of underwear, that they changed daily. That makes sense since doing the laundry was a labour-intensive process: The outer clothes would be subject to all sorts of difficult-to-remove stains such as from rain, mud, dust, and perhaps the blood of one's enemies, while the inner clothes would be easier to clean, being only subject to sweat and perhaps small quantities of other bodily fluids.

Bodily decorations and modification
Tattoing and scarification was quite rare, to put it mildly, in medieval Christian lands, but was practiced be some pre-Christian pagans. The Picts, who may have been just a subset of Kelts or have been the remnants of an earlier pre-Keltic folk (which is what I'm going with in my Ärth setting), were famous for being excessively tattooed, but the other/real Kelts did so as well. Ibn Fadlan describes the male "Russians" at the Volga trading port as being tattooed all over, and it is possible that tattoos were also common among other Scandinavians.

Most kinds of piercings were dangerous, because of the poor hygieine, but Harrison and Shippey refers to fishermen with silver ear rings, in "The Hammer and the Cross", so that in case they drown at sea and are found, the silver can pay the cost of a Christian burial, and based on both my knowledge of human physiology and general observation, the earlobes are probably one of the safest least dangerous places to pierce.

Male circumcision was routine among Moslems and Jews (and no doubt used as identifying marks when the Christians were in the mood to persecute the later), with female circumcision most likely only happening in some parts of Africa.

Whether men had beards or not tended to be a question of fashion, rater than individual choice, with a tendency towards long but often well-groomed beards in manly macho cultures, such as the Vikings or the medieval Kelts (iron age Kelts had moustaches). Bradshaw describes Arthur Pendragon in her "Long Wind"-trilogy as having a short beard, which is unusual and indicates that he's a severely Romanized Kelt. In many places, long hair was not seen as the least bit effeminate, but was displayed (when the man wasn't fighting or hunting) to indicate health, status and grooming.

The removal of body hair, such as genital shaving, was a frequent occurence in the classical period, and there's no good reason to assume that it died out entirely in the medieval period, although apart from fashion or personal choice, there were the twin issues of being able to afford the necessary gear (razors, or tweezers - the metalwork being non-trivial - or wax) and having the leisure time to do so. More than anything I think that to the extent it was done, it was a wealth indicator, a way to show off (e.g. at the communal bath house) that you could afford to spare the time to groom yourself so thoroughly, or even better, maintain a skilled servant or slave to do it for you.

Beware, he's carrying a knife!
Just about all men carried a knife, at all times, as an everyday tool, a bit like a Swiss Army knife except having only a single (non-foldable) blade. This was used for all sorts of daily work, e.g. at the farm, and even for eating. In terms of smith-work, making a durable very short blade is not demanding, and any village blacksmith could do that.

Umberto Eco has the infirmerer in "Name of the Rose" not carry a knife, which was almost certainly inauthentic for a Benedictine monk, but I am convinced that Eco chose that to emphasize the medieval distinction between medicine and surgery. Medicine was a learned profession concerned with maintaining or improving health through the administration of medicine, examination of urine (all forms of examination, even drinking it), dietary regimens (to balance the four elemental humours - remember the infirmerer talking about onions vs garlic?), whereas surgery was a rather less distinguished profession, often carried out by so-called barber-surgeons who might give you a shave (if it was culturally approriate for you to have a boy-chin), or set a fractured bone (as best he could - the prospects weren't good), or extract a sore tooth.

Living space
In larger upper or middle class homes, there'd often be a great hall (e.g. a nobleman's hall), or at least a huge all-purpose room, where most people would sleep (e.g. a typical large Viking farmstead), with only the owner of the home having a private sleeping space to share with his wife and/or other frequent sex partners.

Most homes did not have tiled floors, but simply earth stamped hard, and then covered with rushes, a kind of plant, which provided some insulation and also absorbred spilled food and drink, and the occasional bladder-full of urine when one of the menfolk couldn't be arsed to go outside to use the loo. These were swept out and replaced frequently (my guess is once per month or so, but probably less often during a cold winter), and as this sweeping also removed part of the earthen floor, after some decades there'd be a distinct concavity to the floor.

Tables were often trestle ones, with removable or replacable tops. One reason for this was probably to make it easier to move them, to better utilize the limited indoors space, e.g. moving all the tables away to have lots of floor space for dancing, or the rare indoors duel, or to have a fun little sex party game.

Let's all go to the tavern and get drunk!
Ummm, no you won't... A typical medieval tavern wasn't a place you went to to get drunk, but rather the place where townfolks went to eat the mid-day ("dinner") or evening ("supper") meal. They weren't "fun" or "party" places, but rather orderly establishments where you went in, and paid, and then you'd get a quantity of small beer and the meal of the day, with the meal of the day usually being the same every day, changing only slightly based on the vegetables of the season. The late Dianne Wynne Jones rants a lot against stew, but I consider it likely that in most taverns the meal of the day consisted of a slab of bread and a bowl of stew (likely no butter or olive oil for the bread- you were meant to dip it in the stew). Stew is easy to make, and scales well, and there's plenty of potential to save on the meat budget - not that there'd be a lot of meat in the stew of a typical tavern (and none during Lent - probably replaced with fish if they could get it).

But anyway, a typical medieval tavern is rather more like a MacDonald's than it's like a bar. You go there, you pay (no menu to choose from), and you spend your 25-40 minutes sitting on a bench, next to your work colleagues, eating the food, washing it down with small beer, then you leave. Taverns were important, since many townfolks had working wives and so couldn't eat at home, and were not fed on the job either. Even a medium-sized town may have had several taverns, often with some class specialization, e.g. one large tavern making very cheap food and very thin beer indeed, for the many labourers and craftsmen, and a smaller tavern for the more well-to-do (charging a higher price, perhaps mostly so that its clients wouldn't have to be in the same room as the poor rabble, but also to be able to afford better ingredients for the stew - maybe the meat would be less mysterious). Usually there'll be the same number of customers every day, and they'd crowd in at the same peak hours every day, so it's predictable how many supplies will be needed, and when.

Obviously medieval townsmen did need to get drunk and let off steam, and interact with easy ladies, but I'm pretty sure that rarely happened in urban taverns. More likely there were separate houses for that (houses that were of "ill repute", rumoured to things rather more "sinful" than putting cat meat or rat meat in the stew), sometimes formally combining brothels with what we understand as a modern bar. Guildsmen probably did most of their drinking in the guild hall, though, and may have been more likely to keep a steady mistress (if or when they needed something different from wifey) than to rent a variety of prostitutes.

Learning and education
Medieval societies generally had low literacy rates, although not always super low. Viking Age Scandinavian society in particular had comparatively many literate people, since it wouldn't make sense to raise the many runestone monuments if almost nobody could read them. But whether "comparatively many" means 0.25% of the population or 4% I don't know. Apart from runestones, rarely raised but often read (the runes were painted inside, with dye or blood, to make them stand out more, at least in the years immediately after the raising, not entirely unlike the way Classical Age statues weren't just bare stone but were actually painted in bright colours), Scandinavian traders also communicated by letters, runes carved on pieces of tree bark or on wooden rods (notice how the futhark doesn't have any horizontal lines - it's optimized for carving into wood), but the messages were brief ("the furs I bought from Grimir the Finn turned out 2 b real crappy, plz send more silver..."). The Vikings didn't write anything resembling books, or even (as far as I know) short essays - the sagas were probably created back then, as orally transmitted works, but weren't written down until well after the Viking Age had ended and Christianity had arrived and won, and literacy had seriously declined among the Scandinavians - except perhaps on Iceland?

It's often said that people - everyone - in low-literacy societies and in illiterate societies, had better memories than we modern Westerners do, and I believe that to be true in itself. With paper cheap and readily accessible, we face very little pressure to commit small items of information to memory. Some modern people do that with poetry, memorizing a few poems, sometimes long-ass ones that they for some reason find especially touching, but if somebody tells you a phone number, today, you write it down, on paper or on your smart phone. Much of that is pressure. Or rather, the absence of pressure. We don't have to remember tiny bits in arbitrary order (as opposed to knowledge, which is often more aptly described as being internalized than as being memorized), and so that part of our brain is like a muscle that never gets any exercise.

The arts of Memory
Beyond the "natural muscle training" that occurs, I think simple mnemotechniques were widely taught in medieval societies, taught to almost all children in much the same way that today all children are taught the alphabet. Tricks, methods, for how to commit arbitrary information to memory, fixating it for later easy recall. These are the kinds of things most easiest learned in early childhood, and so I think people who missed out would have had a hard time catching up as adults - many of those never did.

Professional couriers, tasked to convey unwritten messages, probably learned some more advanced methods, as did poets, bards and singers.

Poems, often called  "oral literature", were rhymed not just as an artistic device (the composer showing off his huge-ass vocabulary) but also to make them easier for reciters to recall. Christian medievals generally used end rhymes, the same way we moderns do, whereas the pagan Norse used alliterative rhyme, called "letter rhymes" ("bogstavrim") in Danish - think start consonant recycling, to an obsessive degree. Classical Age Greek poetry was heavily formulaic in its language, referring to deities, heroes and kings with the same elaborate descriptions, again to make the material easier to recall via massive redundancy, and while I'm far from being an expert on Norse or Christian medieval poetry, it's likely that they used that same trick, at least sometimes.

The iron age Druids used writing very sparingly (they may have made use of the Keltic Ogham alphabet, or used Greek letters - they had contact with the Greeks, at least back in the early Hellenistic period, when Keltic tribes held most of Europe north of the Alps) and instead developped an advanced mnemotechnical method for storing and recalling information, using some form of poetry (but alliteration, or end rhymes, or a third kind of rhyming - I'd like to know!), and according to Julius Ceaser, the amount of material that a student had to commit to memory, in order to graduate as a full Druid, was so immense that the process took 20 years!

The scholars of the Classical Age developped mnemotechniques of their own, usually one based on spatial visualization rather than poetry and linguistic tricks, as depicted in the 3rd Lecter novel by Thomas Harris, and by Cumberbatch in "Sherlock", the "memory palace". Christian scholars of the medieval age had better access to parchment, and a ready supply of scribal labourers in the form of cheap monks, but nevertheless some of them did cultivate the old Art of Memory, probably as a continuation or even development of the Greek method.

Among the medievals, literacy and simple calculation was taught in the cathedral schools, initially only to prepare a few teenaged boys for the priesthood or for positions in the lower clerical orders, but increasingly also to train secular scribes who'd go out into the world to find a patron to work for, and some cathedral schools became popular places for noblemen to send their sons to get educated and to have their minds trained in all sorts of useful ways. It wasn't until the middle of the medieval period that the universities started to appear, late 11th century or so, although fore-runners exist, places of very high learning indeed, not the least of which was the cathedral school at Rheims, for some years run by the genius Gerbert of Aurillac, later to become the coolest Pope in history (sorry St. Francis!). The majority of the graduates from his school could probably read without moving their lips.

As slavery declined, and towns appeared, or recovered after the post-Roman decline, craftsmen begun to take in apprentices. Initially they'd mostly train their own sons, but later on it became customary to teach apprentices instead, as a formal thing, perhaps based on perceived aptitudes ("he has grey eyes, so he must be a natural born tailor...").

It's a huge mistake to assume that it actually took 9 years (or however long the customary apprenticeship duration was) to become a competent swordsmith, as a Russian associate of mine once did. No, apprenticeships were very much a labour exploitation device, and only a little of the time was spent on actually teaching, instead it was largely about the apprentice doing manual labour, fetching water, working the bellows, and perhaps doing simple craft tasks, for no pay at all, only room and board and clothes. Apprenticeship durations were mandated by the local guilds, and if you hadn't done the time and had the papers to prove it, you weren't allowed to practice whatever guilded trade you knew, anywhere within the town walls, no matter how good you were at it.

The Ars Magica RPG is probably generous when it says that a master magus must spend 1/4 of his time on actively teaching his appretentice, meaning the apprentice was available as a slave laboratory assistant only 75% of the time. Mundane medieval guilds would be somewhat harsher than that, I am confident, with perhaps only 1/8 or a bit more of the apprenticeship period being active training, the rest exploitation. If a father wanted to train his son (or daughter) in a non-guilded craft, or in a place where the guild system hadn't arrived yet, and he was able to devote much of his time to it, most crafts could be taught in a very few years, even to a high level of proficiency.

Welcome to Elfland!
did warn you. Elfland ain't Disney. Which do you want? That which is comfortably familiar and boring? Or that which is strange and different? The blue pill or the red pill? Or if you like, postpone your decision until you've read it all...

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

No comments:

Post a Comment