A Delightful Curse on a Lead Scroll

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Only a historical novelist would use the word “delightful” to describe a curse inscribed on a rolled thin sheet of lead. Well, maybe an archaeologist or historian might know what I mean.

In research for my short story “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” I came across this tidbit. Followers of the Celtic deity Sulis would write their requests to her on a lead scroll or tablet and toss it in a sacred hot spring at Bath. When the Roman ruled over Britain, that spring did some double duty as a space for devotion to Sulis and the Roman goddess Minerva. In fact, she is often called Sulis Minerva.

Roman baths

Roman baths at Bath Spa in England (Photo by David Iliff, license CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

To polytheistic Celts, it was not a big deal. They could still worship Sulis and let her know their wishes, a lot of them calls for justice. If the Romans wanted to call her Minerva and ask for her assistance, fine. The Romans cared little about the religion of the people they conquered except for one thing: acknowledge their emperor as a god. A lot of polytheistic religions likely greeted this with a shrug. What was one more god after all? They could even distance themselves and say that the Romans have their gods and we have ours.

The Jews were having none of it, but they were not proselytizing. So their belief was confined. Christians posed another problem. Like the Jews, they refused to accept any other deity, and they were trying to convert other people to see the world as they did. That was one reason Christians were persecuted, especially when a natural disaster like a drought hit. Pagans and Christians believed the cause was an angry deity, but they disagreed on who offended what supernatural being.

Christians got a break in 313, when Constantine the Great proclaimed they would be tolerated. Their faith became mainstream in 337, when the Roman emperor accepted baptism shortly before his death.

Sulis Minerva

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet religion among Britons in the fourth and fifth centuries was fluid. Seemingly disparate sets of beliefs could coexist not only in society, but within the same person. No one would fault a midwife who whispered a spell to an expectant mother to ease her labor. Nor did wearing an amulet alongside a cross draw much attention.

Some habits are just too hard to break. When your harvest or victory in battle depended on pleasing deities (or at least not angering them), it didn’t hurt to hedge your bets.

A request to Sulis Minerva on a small scroll of lead is more tangible evidence of Christianity and paganism existing side by side. About 130 such requests, or curse tablets, were excavated from Bath, and many more remain buried. Throughout Britain, there are about 500.

These tablets are thin pieces of lead or pewter inscribed in a somewhat formulaic way. In the case of theft, it’s a complaint, name of the thief or catch-all phraseology if the perpetrator is unknown, name of the victim, and the appeal to the goddess. The piece is then rolled and folded to be legible only to the goddess and pierced with a nail.

Folded curse

Folded curse from the Temple Courtyard in Bath (photo by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The reason I find delight in one from a guy named Annianus is that I am hearing the beliefs of an ordinary Christian in his own words (in translation).

Annianus, son of Matutina, signed his name, so it’s not like he’s hiding anything. Annianus is believed to be Christian because he used the word “pagan,” a term only an early medieval Christian would use to distinguish other religions. Apparently Annianus doesn’t know the thief, but on the back of his request, he provides Sulis Minerva with 18 names, probably people he suspects.

What Annianus asks for is anything but Christian: “Whether pagan or Christian, whosoever man or woman, boy or girl, slave or free has stolen from me, Annianus, six silver coins from my purse, you lady goddess are to extract … the blood of him who has invoked this upon me.”

Apparently, Annianus set aside that part of no other gods for the moment, and that part about forgiving your enemies hadn’t gotten through to Annianus.

In Annianus’s defense, those lost coins might have been six days of wages. One of those coins would have bought enough wheat for 20 loaves of bread. If he were a soldier, six silver coins could buy him a pair of boots and a good cloak.

The fellow likely just wanted his coins back. Appealing to Sulis Minerva might have been his best chance at justice.

Sources

Daily Life in Arthurian Britain by Deborah J. Shepherd

Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, edited by John G. Gager

Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint by Brian Wright

Curse Tablets of Roman Britain

What Were They Worth? The Purchasing Power of Ancient Coins,” CoinWeek

Originally published Aug. 23, 2017, on English Historical Fiction Authors.

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Announcing: ‘Betrothed to the Red Dragon’

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Today is launch day for my short story “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” my interpretation of Arthur and Guinevere—or Artorius and Gwenhwyfar as I call them—and why they marry.

This is somewhat intimidating. There are countless interpretations of the legends and the characters, and yet here I am, adding my version to the mix.

Betrothed to the Red DragonMy story is based on a legend that places Gwenhwyfar as monarch and Artorius as a general. The dynamic of a woman holding power in her own right intrigued me.

The plot is my imagination, but the setting and culture are as true as I can make them. The story takes place in fifth century Britain, when very little was written down, and the accounts are biased. We don’t even know if Arthur existed.

My Gwenhwyfar is a strong-willed queen, content to rule alone, but the Saxons are fighting their way west. When her own captain dies, she turns to an outsider—the general Artorius—for assistance. What he wants in return is more than she bargained for: her hand in marriage.

You will need to read the story to see how this turns out, and you can get it on Amazon. If you have Prime or Kindle Unlimited, it’s free. Get “Betrothed to the Red Dragon” now.

Tiff over Tonsures

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In The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, my heroine’s 9-year-old daughter asks an interesting question about accepting an offer of baptism: “Do we have to shave our hair in that strange way?”

The reply from Anglo-Saxon priest Father Osbald: “No, child. The tonsure is an honor reserved only for men of the clergy.”

To Father Osbald, there is only one true tonsure, the Roman style, or that of Saint Peter, in eighth century Europe. It’s the style we’re most familiar with – the head shaved except for a circle along the outside, resembling the Crown of Thorns.

But he would have been aware of a century-old controversy over which tonsure is the right one, the Roman or the Celtic, associated with St. John. (The other type, the Eastern, or St. Paul’s, where the whole head is shaved, was not part the dispute.)

Clerics with tonsures

9th century illustration, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Speculation about the shape of the Celtic tonsure varies. Either the back of the head is shaved ear to ear, or the forehead is shaved in a similar fashion, or the shaven area resembles a triangle. Scholar Daniel McCarthy, who examined primary sources, believes the Celtic tonsure was triangular, with the apex forming a V above the forehead. As the name implies, the Celtic tonsure was favored by the northern Irish and the Picts, especially those who followed the Rule of Saint Columbanus.

The controversy existed at least since 672. In a letter to the king of Cornwall and Devon, Aldhelm, abbot of Malmsbury, is none too pleased to hear rumors of clerics in that area refusing to wear the tonsure of Saint Peter. Aldhelm goes on to allege that the Celtic style was worn by Simon Magus, a sorcerer who appears in the Acts of the Apostles.

Eighth century writers would echo Aldhelm’s claims of the Celtic tonsure’s link with Simon Magus, even though the evidence Simon wore his hair that way is hearsay at best. However, the triangular shape might have been favored by magi in Biblical times and resembled a style worn by druids.

The controversy over the clerical haircut, along with when to celebrate the Resurrection, would continue through the eighth century and at least into the ninth, as evidenced by an 817 order from Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, to the Abbey of Landevenec to conform to the Roman tonsure.

A clerical dispute over a haircut might seem a bit baffling to us in the 21st century. But in medieval times, a hairstyle was a statement of faith. According to a legend on the origin of the tonsure, people who wanted to mock Peter shaved his head, but Christ blessed his apostle, transforming the dishonor into a crown “with the stone and rock of faith,” as Germanus of Constantinople puts it.

Priests and monks would want to imitate Saint Peter, the first pope, not a damned sorcerer.

Sources

On the Shape of the Insular Tonsure, Daniel McCarthy

Tonsure” by William Fanning, Catholic Encyclopedia

On the Divine Liturgy by Germanus of Constantinople

This post was originally published on Sept. 17, 2013 at English Historical Fiction Authors.

Germanus is OK with the Forced Tonsure?

When I read a saint’s story, every once in a while I find something hard to believe. And I’m not talking about the miracles.

In this case, it’s about Saint Germanus and how a bishop forced him into the priesthood. Germanus, a high-ranking military official living in luxury, accepted it as God’s will.

Wait a minute. He’s OK with this? His wife and her powerful family are OK with this?

Apparently, they were. Read my post on English Historical Fiction Authors for more.

St. Germanus

Stained glass window in Truro Cathedral, c.1907 (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Did I Get Age 50 Right?

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Sometimes I feel like a fraud as I write my novels. How could I know what it’s like to be an early medieval teenager whose family is seeking a husband for her to build a political alliance? How could I have any inkling of what it’s like to be an adolescent boy of any era, let alone the Middle Ages?

This comes to mind as my 50th birthday draws near and I think about Sister Elisabeth, a nun who appears in The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. I created her when I was in my 30s and needed a motherly character to take care of my wounded hero in my first novel.

Benedictine nun

A Benedictine nun from F.A. Gasquet’s 1904 English Monastic Life (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

At the time I was revising the manuscript, a couple of my critique partners were going through menopause, and I appropriated their experiences. Describing Elisabeth’s hot flashes and insomnia was a way to establish her age. And those symptoms helped make her real to me.

In a couple of weeks, I will be Elisabeth’s age. My first thought was I would soon learn if I indeed got the 50-year-old Elisabeth right, although I know my wonderful critique partners would never steer me wrong. But the truth is, everyone’s experience with this age is different, and more important, Elisabeth’s life as a 50-year-old in 8th century Aquitaine is a lot different from mine in 21st century America.

Elisabeth did not have angst over a milestone. Like most early medieval people, Elisabeth doesn’t know her exact age, yet she is well aware she has lived longer than most people, especially the women who died in childbirth. Her father chose the convent for her—no medieval child was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up—and she runs a hospital. All her life, Elisabeth has been reminded of what awaits her in the afterlife. She is keenly aware of her mortality but knows she still has a lot to contribute.

I enjoyed writing about Elisabeth, and she struck a chord with my critique partners. As I confront stereotypes about what older women should be—witch (or something that rhymes with “witch”) or sweet, submissive little old lady—she strikes that same chord with me. Elisabeth is neither harridan nor pushover. She is devout yet devious when she needs to be, and she is a competent leader with intelligence, compassion, and courage.

Hedging Religious Bets

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The Romano-Briton Annianus was miffed. Someone had stolen six silver coins, the equivalent of six days of wages. What was he to do?

Although Annianus was apparently a Christian, he turned to someone else for justice, the deity Sulis Minerva in Bath.

For more see my post on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Sulis Minerva

By Hchc2009 (CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Saint Boniface: A Man on a Mission

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In 750, Archbishop Boniface anointed the upstart Frankish King Pepin in Soisson. A Saxon in his 70s, he could have had influenced Frankish politics, or he could have retired to a monastery. Instead, a few years later, he embarked on a mission to preach to the Frisians, a mission that cost him his life.

That’s the striking thing about Saint Boniface. He could have had an easy life, by early medieval standards, but again and again, he repeatedly gave up power and the privileges that went with it to pursue his missionary work.

Saint Boniface

An 11th century image of St. Boniface baptizing converts and being martyred (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Details about Boniface’s early life are sketchy. He is believed to have been born to a noble family in Saxon kingdom of Wessex in the 670s–his date of birth is unclear. He was called Winfrid until he took the Latinized version of his name, either when he joined the Benedictine order or when he was consecrated bishop in 722.

Although he received a religious education, his parents intended for their son to have a secular life. But missionary monks visited his family’s home, and they must have made quite an impression on him. Did what they say about the pagans in Saxony cause him to worry that thousands of fellow Saxons faced eternity in hell?

With his father’s hard-won permission, he went to the abbey of Adescancastre (site of today’s Exeter) and seven years later the abbey of Nhutscelle (between Southhampton and Winchester). There, he furthered his education, joined the Benedictine order, and was ordained a priest. (The lines between priest and monk were loose then.)

He could have basked in the praise of his scholarship and preaching, but that’s not what he wanted. He wanted to preach to the Continental Saxons, pagans who lived in today’s Germany and might have practiced human sacrifice as a thanksgiving after a first battle. At this point, he was probably in his late 30s or early 40s.

He made a foray into Frisia but found the political situation too unstable and returned to Britain. About a year later, toward the end of 717, the abbot of Nhutscelle died and the monks elected Boniface the abbot. Abbots often had political influence, and although the abbot at Nhutscelle chose an austere lifestyle, many lived as aristocrats. Boniface rejected the abbacy and instead convinced the bishop of Winchester to have the monks elect someone else.

He then traveled to Rome to receive the pope’s blessing for his mission. When the pope determined Boniface had the right morals and motivation, he sent him to lands in today’s Germany.

What Boniface found was that officially Christian countries had lapsed, often following a mix of Christianity and paganism. With the exception of a couple of visits to Rome, he spent the next decade preaching, converting pagans to Christianity, founding monasteries, and appointing abbesses. Some of his tactics will bother a tolerant 21st century audience. He felled a sacred tree and made a chapel from its wood, and he destroyed an idol.

Boniface chops tree

Engraving by Bernhard Rode, 1781 (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

His stature and mission continued to grow. In 732, he was elevated to archbishop and continued to found monasteries and build churches and institute reforms. He wanted to resign his archbishopric in 738 and return to mission work, but the pope would not let him. For many years, he held synods, enforced canons, trained monks, and led prayers and meditation.

In 753 or 754, he resigned the archbishopric of Mainz and went to Frisia with his followers. He surely knew that it was not safe. Having lived longer than most medieval folk, perhaps he no longer feared death. During a confirmation on the River Bornes in 754, his party was attacked by pagans. His body was found near a bloodstained copy of Saint Ambrose’s The Advantage of Death.

His body was eventually taken to Fulda, whose establishment he had supervised, and his canonization soon followed. More than 20 years later, the monks at Fulda went to great lengths to protect his relics.

Sources

Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers

St. Boniface” by Francis Mershman, The Catholic Encyclopedia

This post was originally published May 12, 2013, on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Plants and Their Properties: Three Poisons

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Years ago, I saw an amusing thing on an insecticide bottle: “made from plants.” As if that is supposed to make me feel safer. Long before modern chemistry, humans derived poisons from plants – to kill larger beings than bugs.

Here are three plants used for evil purposes that I found in researching my novels set in eighth century Francia, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar.

Hemlock

The word hemlock can apply to several plants and bring on different sets of symptoms. A type that resembles parsley is believed to be the key ingredient in that famous cocktail Socrates drank to carry out his death sentence. In small doses, hemlock had medicinal uses such as inducing sleep. In larger doses, as Plato recounts, the poison slowly paralyzes its victim until the person stops breathing hours later.

Two 19th century poisonings – one a guy experimenting on himself, another whose family thought they were using parsley in a sandwich – are consistent with Plato’s descriptions.

Hemlock

Deadly Nightshade

Often called the devil’s plant, as few as three of deadly nightshade’s dark purple berries can kill a child, and adults have been poisoned after consuming rabbits and birds that ate the berries. Its hallucinogenic properties, including a feeling of being able to fly, are said to make it a favorite of witches’ rituals. Other symptoms: sweating, a flush face, and dilated pupils.

That last symptom may have led women to use this plant in eyedrops to give them a doe-eyed look, hence the name belladonna.

Nightshade

Aconite

With leaves mistaken for wild parsley and roots resembling horseradish, aconite has several names, including queen of poisons, wolf’s bane, and monk’s hood. It’s called bane for a reason. The folk used it to kill what they considered undesirable animals such as wolves and rats. And it’s had its share of human victims. Once it takes effect – about 20 minutes – it produced the classic symptoms of poisoning, vomiting and diarrhea. Death usually occurred within hours.

With these and other poisons ready to slip in food and drink, medieval aristocrats took precautions such as employing tasters. Why would anyone want such a risky job? In a time of scarcity, it ensured enough to eat.

Aconite

All images via Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain or used under the terms of GNU Free Documentation License.

This post was originally published Nov. 13, 2013 on Unusual Historicals.

Sources

Hemlock Poisoning and the Death of Socrates: Did Plato Tell the Truth?” Enid Bloch, Journal of the International Plato Society, 2001

Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs

Travails of Travel: A Day in the Life of a Medieval Pilgrim

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In 779, Sister Elisabeth ­decides to embark on a pilgrimage, leaving the safety of the abbey where she has spent most of her life. With her womanly courses passing, Elisabeth guesses she is 50 years old. Having lived longer than most medieval women, she is keenly aware of her mortality and the possible fates for her soul in the afterlife. A pilgrimage is one way for her to do penance and spend less time in Purgatory, perhaps even avoid it.

With Elisabeth are her good friend, the lay sister Illuna, about age 35, and a man in his late 20s whom she calls Sebastian and introduces as an abbey tenant. If she and Illuna were younger, Elisabeth would worry about the risk to their virtue. At her age, she is more concerned about safeguarding her life and the jewels paying for the journey and has asked Sebastian for protection.

The other pilgrims in the group have their own reasons for travel. They might be seeking a cure for a disease or doing penance for a crime not bad enough to warrant execution.

In this era, Europe is covered with forests, and with progress at 12 to 15 miles per day, pilgrims could spend several days away from civilization in the form of a city, village, or abbey. In the woods, they start their day with sunrise prayers as the fire allowed to burn through the night still smolders. Sebastian and the men are tired from taking turns to watch for brigands. And they fear not only human enemies. Bread was left in the trees to appease kobolds, and the faithful hope their crosses will protect them from ghosts and demons and other creatures.

Camping near a stream, the pilgrims wash their faces and hands, and those who are hungry break their fast. Beer is the beverage of choice, but water is not out of the question. Then, it is time to load carts and saddlebags. Elisabeth rides a mule, the animal of choice for clergy, and Sebastian rides a horse, while Illuna drives a cart with supplies. Other pilgrims use oxen and horses to pull carts. Those who cannot afford livestock use a handcart instead.

Pilgrims

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The group travels for a few hours. At midday, the pilgrims need to rest their animals and let them graze, so the humans might as well eat. The rounds of bread they brought with them are hard and must be moistened just so they can be chewed. Even then, the travel bread has the texture of wet leather. In addition the pilgrims have brought dried meat along with a few fruits and vegetables. Another option is to boil some grains like barley or oats along with vegetables.

After the meal, more hours of travel follow. Although not on a schedule, the pilgrims hope no one breaks a cart wheel or a spooked horse bolts.

This particular day of travel ends at sunset in the forest, and the pilgrims say prayers and make camp. No one in this group has brought a goat leather tent, shelter for the wealthy, but they can use cloth and sticks, large fallen branches leaning against a tree, or sheepskin cloaks for protection. They are traveling in the spring, facing rain rather than snow.

Sister Elisabeth would rather rest in an abbey. As the daughter of a count, she could ask the abbot or abbess for their hospitality of herself and her two companions. If she were a lady traveling with many servants, she could stay in the hostel for important guests, while other pilgrims use the one for commoners. In a city, she could be the guest of a bishop or count, assuming her family is not feuding with theirs. Commoners might stay at an inn and hope the innkeeper won’t steal from them. In these civilized places, the animals would need to rest for three days before the journey continues.

Here in the woods, someone lights a fire to keep away the night creatures, and the men discuss who will take the first watch. Sister Elisabeth looks forward to reaching the church in the next city, where she can pray before the saint’s relics. Being in the physical presence of a saint is worth the bad food, the uncomfortable sleep, traveling in the rain, the risk of being murdered, and the fear of demons.

This post was originally published Jan. 22, 2014, at Unusual Historicals. Sister Elisabeth and her companions appear in my novels The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. Both books include scenes where pilgrims experience hardship.

That Short Story about Guinevere Needs More Work

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In 2000, I had written a short story, “A Marriage of Equals.” It was based on a legend that Guinevere was a queen, and her betrothed, Arthur, was not a king but a general. I was intrigued that she had status in her own right.

I wrote the story because I couldn’t get the legend off my mind. I was proud of it then but couldn’t find a home for it. In 2000, self-publishing was seen as a vanity project, something for losers. Never mind that getting a short story published in a magazine provided exposure but not much, if any, money. Still, getting published in a magazine meant (and still means) that someone else thought it good, and an author could use that as they sought an agent for a novel.

A lot has changed in 17 years. Although magazines and anthologies are still a good way for a writer to get exposure (and for readers to enjoy), self-publishing has gotten more respectable, and many books are just as good as ones published by the Big 5.

I went indie last year, and as I seek new ways to introduce my writing, I am again looking at my short story. I thought it just needed some dusting off, and I could offer it as a free ebook. But when I reread it, I was not so proud of it. There was no setting, no hint of what my characters look like.

Worse for me, it feeds stereotypes. Medieval women were not damsels awaiting rescue. My heroine, Gwenhywfar, certainly isn’t, but she make a reference to maidens swooning at the sight of blood. They didn’t.

And I have Artorius coming in with armor and sword. Mail was so uncomfortable that warriors wore it only when needed. Guests to noble households had to check their weapons at the door. (Eating knives used by both men and women weren’t considered weapons.)

The title was wrong, too. “A Marriage of Equals” appeals to this 21st century feminist, but it doesn’t say much about the story. My working title now is “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” but I wonder if that’s right. Is it too close to my debut, The Cross and the Dragon?

So I’ve done more research about daily life in 5th and 6th century Britain, and I am making a lot of revisions. And then my critique partners will have at it.

So instead of a dusting, this story needed a cleaning crew.

Arthur and Guinevere's wedding

Speed Lancelot’s 1912 illustration is not historically accurate. (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)