The Complex Reality of Early Medieval Slavery

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Costumes of slaves or serfs

Costumes of slaves or serfs, from the sixth to the 12th centuries, from the 19th century Manners, Custom and Dress During the Middle Ages and During the Renaissance Period, by Paul Lacroix (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

Let me get one thing out of the way: Slavery is evil. No one has the right to own another person and do whatever they want to them.

But early medieval times present uncomfortable complexities to this tolerant 21st century American. Some slaves were better off than their free counterparts. Servants in a noble house were more likely to eat, sleep in a sheltered space, and have decent clothing, but they were more vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.

A peasant’s life was uncertain, especially when it came to food. A bad harvest in the fall meant famine in the winter. Poverty was so widespread that the Church differentiated between killing a baby for the inability to provide for them and to hide a sin.

These tensions come into play throughout The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, where a free Saxon mother and her two children are betrayed by relatives and sold into slavery. In this excerpt, the heroine Leova considers an opportunity.

Emptying the ashes into a clay pot, she held her breath. If she and her children accompanied Naimes to Paderborn, they could escape slavery!

Trying to keep her hands steady, she scooped more ashes. Possibilities flooded into her imagination. Deorlaf could claim his farm and get his vengeance on Ealdgyth and her sons. She and Deorlaf could find a husband for Sunwynn.

Was freedom in Eresburg worth the risk? They would have to travel through the forest, risking demons, nixies, dwarves, and other creatures. If they were captured during the escape attempt, they could be maimed or killed.

Leova had little to complain of in Nevers. Clad in her lady’s castoffs, Sunwynn wore dresses prettier than any peasant’s, and even Leova’s and Deorlaf’s undyed brown woolen garb was better than what she’d had in Eresburg. And other than Lent and some fasts for Christian holy days, she and her children never went hungry. Eresburg held no such certainty.

She frowned, ashamed at considering comfort before honor. That comfort would not last forever, not for Sunwynn. Gerhilda would take Sunwynn with her to Le Mans when she married Pinabel.

Memories of Pinabel’s cruelty—the starving, the threats of rape—made her shudder. They had to take the risk and escape. Otherwise, their chance for justice would be lost, and Sunwynn would be at Pinabel’s mercy.

Why Women’s History: A More Complete Picture

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In recent research, I came across another example an eighth century woman who tried to influence the events around her and protect her child. Chiltrude, daughter of the mayor of the palace, the most powerful man in Francia, caused a scandal when she defied her family’s wishes, ran off with the duke of Bavaria, and bore his son before the year ended.

She will someday have her own post, maybe her own novel if I can pull it together. But today I want use her as an example to discuss something else: why we need Women’s History Month.

In too many minds, women’s history starts with the Suffragettes in the 19th century or even the feminist movement in the 1960s. Of course, I am grateful for the Suffragettes and the feminists, but I worry that women of the past are seen merely as victims rather than full human beings who contributed to their societies – and tried to decide their own fates.

I turn to eighth century Francia because that is the period I’ve been studying for several years. True, arranged marriages for brides as young as 12 or 13 make this era less than ideal, and men did try to divorce unfruitful wives. But that is only part of the reality.

Women had responsibilities beyond wife and mother. The queen’s role, for example, was “to release the king from all domestic and palace cares, leaving him free to turn his mind to the state of his realm,” according to the ninth-century treatise The Government of the Palace. In an age when the personal and political were intertwined, the queen was the guardian of the treasury, and she controlled access to her husband. When houseguests were foreign dignitaries, royal hospitality was key to international relations. So, she was something of a treasurer, chief of staff, and diplomat.

Readers of this blog will know Chiltrude is not the only example of a brave woman who took charge. Here are a few others I’ve encountered in research:

  • Statue of Bertrada

    A statue of Bertrada by Eugène Oudiné in the Jardin du Luxembourg (LPLT / Wikimedia Commons)

    Queen Bertrada was King Pepin’s full partner as they seized the kingdom of Francia in a bloodless coup. After he died, she became a diplomat whose most important mission was peace within her own country. Charles (today called Charlemagne) and Carloman each inherited half the kingdom, and Bertrada needed to keep the rivalry between her sons, ages 17 and 20, from escalating to civil war.

  • Gerberga, Carloman’s widow, was not about to let her toddling sons lose their kingdom without a fight after Charles seized his late brother’s lands. Likely a teenager, Gerberga took the risky journey of crossing the Alps with two little boys in tow and sought the aid of Desiderius, the Lombard king furious over Charles’s divorce from his daughter. (Royal relations were complicated.)
  • Showing a special courage, Sts. Lioba, Thecla, Walburga, and other nuns answered Saint Boniface’s call to strengthen the church on the Continent. They left the security of their abbey of Wimbourne in today’s England to undertake a dangerous journey and live among strangers in a far-away land.

The reason we need Women’s History Month is that it provides context. The intent is not to denigrate the achievements of men but rather provide a complete picture of the past.

A 17th Century Englishwoman in a Harsh World

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Today, I am pleased to welcome Sheila Dalton to Outtakes as she discusses the inspiration for her latest release, Stolen.

By Sheila Dalton

Sheila DaltonThe 17th century was a tumultuous age. The colonization of the Americas began in earnest; the slave trade, both black and white, was in full flood; new inventions, including the telescope and the microscope abounded, and, in England and elsewhere, there was a great flowering of the written word. It also became known as The Golden Age of Piracy.

I did not know any of this when I began researching my novel, Stolen. I knew only that pirates were active in Devon, and Christian slaves were kept in underground dungeons in Morocco in the 1600s. I had recently visited both places. When I came back to Canada, I began researching white slavery, and learned that raids by Barbary Corsairs took place along the coast of Devon. Because I had coincidentally been to both places, I was more than a little intrigued. I began to wonder whether there was a story to be told.

Mostly, I began to wonder what it would be like to be a young woman alone in such a hostile world. The more I read about the 17th century in England, the harsher it sounded. There were vagrancy laws so stringent that a person so charged could be sentenced to two years enslavement or transported as an indentured servant (a virtual slave) to the colonies. If a woman was found alone in the streets, she was automatically considered a beggar or a vagrant, and thrown into prison. The conditions in the prisons were execrable.

And so Lizbet Warren came to be – a young woman who comes home to find her village destroyed and her parents carried off by Barbary Corsairs to the slave markets of Morocco. It was not such a leap to have her encounter both pirates and black slavers – both so prevalent in this decade – as she attempts to locate her mother and father.

Because Lizbet is in such danger on her own, she falls in readily with a man who offers to protect her. I wanted to show how a young woman, sheltered and brought up with strict Christian attitudes to sexuality, could be seduced by a man who not only tries to dominate her but keeps her from her quest. There is sexual content in Stolen, because it seemed the only honest way to portray a complex character in dire straits.

Penitent Magdalene

A 17th century painting Penitent Magdalene by Maestro della Maddalene di Capodimante (public domain)

Even before the Puritans came to power under Cromwell, attitudes in 17th century England were such that marriage provided the only space in which a woman was allowed to express her sexuality, and even here, her scope was severely restricted. Passionate love between husband and wife was considered undesirable. This resulted in many conflicting aspirations and desires for women, demonstrated by the fact that 25 percent of 17th century Englishwomen had already been pregnant at the time of the wedding!

Though it was a harsh and violent age, I believe Lizbet’s story is uplifting. She battles her way to independence, and though her moral choices are difficult and troubling to her, she has qualities such as a sense of humour and courage that allow her to forge her way against all odds and live up to her new ideals.

Stolen1Sheila Dalton has published novels and poetry for adults, and picture books for children. Her YA mystery, Trial by Fire (Napoleon Press) was shortlisted for the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award. Her literary mystery, The Girl in the Box (Dundurn Press) reached the semifinals in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest and was voted a Giller People’s Choice Top Ten. Stolen is her first book of historical fiction and is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other vendors.

The Accidental Discovery of Radioactivity

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In this installment on the history of the atom theory, physics professor (and my dad) Dean Zollman tells the surprising story of how radioactivity was discovered. After reading this post, I wondered “What if the weather had been good in Paris?” – Kim

By Dean Zollman

Dean Zollman

During the short time between 1895 and 1897, three important discoveries helped define physics of the 20th century. We have looked at two of them –the electron and x-rays – in the past two posts. This month, we will discuss the third – radioactivity.

As I mentioned last time, news of Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of x-rays at the end of 1895 spread rapidly through both the scientific and general communities. This new form of electromagnetic radiation was the subject of discussion at the meeting of the Academy of Sciences in Paris on January 20, 1896. Henri Poincaré (1854-1912) noted that the x-rays seemed to be emitted at a point in the Crooke’s Tube where some light was being emitted by fluorescence – a process similar to the way fluorescent tubes work today. Poincaré wondered if other substances that emit light might also emit x-rays. In particular he mentioned types of minerals which glowed in the dark after being exposed to sunlight – a process called phosphorescence. (Many of the glow-in-the-dark objects that we have today emit light by phosphorescence. They store energy in their atoms when exposed to light and then reemit that light gradually over a long time.) A. Henri Becquerel (1852-1908) decided to see if Poincaré’s conjecture might be correct.

Henri Becquerel, Library of Congress

Becquerel was in a good position to conduct the necessary experiments. He was professor of applied physics at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. The two previous professors to hold this position were his father, Alexandre Edmond Becquerel (1820-1891), and his grandfather, Antoine César Becquerel (1788-1878). (Later, Henri’s son would also hold the professorship. So it was a four-generation dynasty.) Both of the senior Becquerels conducted research on phosphorescent materials. So, Henri had a laboratory with a large collection of minerals that had the glow-in-the-dark property. In addition, Henri’s father had experimented with the relatively new process of photography. So, Henri understood this process which, as we shall see, is very important to the discovery.

X-rays were known to penetrate materials that ordinary light could not pass through. Henri Becquerel realized that he could take advantage of this property. A photographic plate could be wrapped in heavy black paper so that no light could reach it. He could then place a material that he thought might emit x-rays next to the wrapped plate. X-rays would pass through the black paper and expose the plate. Then when Becquerel developed the plate, he would see a black area exposed to x-rays.

From his own work as well as that of the previous generations, Becquerel understood that the only pure phosphorescent materials known at that time were salts of uranium. So, he used potassium uranyl sulfate for his experiments. He exposed the material to sunlight, placed it on a photographic plate for a while and then developed the plate. His experiment, he thought, was a success; the photographic plate had a black area on it even though the plate had never been exposed to light. Becquerel’s conclusion was that the uranium salt had emitted x-rays.

He could not explain the mechanism for this process, but it seemed as if exposure to sunlight created some type of change in the salts and that change resulted in the emission of x-rays. On February 24, 1896, Becquerel reported his results to the weekly meeting of the Academy of Sciences in Paris. He promised to conduct more experiments and report more results the following week.

Then the French winter weather interfered in an incredibly positive way. Most of the next week in Paris was very cloudy. Becquerel could not expose his uranium salts to sunlight. He put the uranium salts and the photographic plates in a drawer where they sat and had no exposure to any type of light.

So, these plates should have shown nothing remarkable. In fact, there should have been no reason to even develop them. But on Sunday, March 1, 1896 (119 years ago this week), Henri Becquerel developed these never exposed plates. One of the results is shown below.

Photographic plate by Henri Becquerel

The exposure was just as strong as that of the plate from the previous week. The radiation emitted by the uranium salts did not depend on exposure to the sun and was different from x-rays.

One of the mysteries in the history of science is why Becquerel developed these plates. Apparently, he did not reveal his reasons, so he left something for historians of science to speculate about. Some think he was just being frugal; no sense in wasting the plate. The plates get old, but the chemicals can be reused. Others have thought that he wanted to make sure that his developing chemicals had not become too old.

The most plausible idea (at least to me) is that he had promised new results for the Academy of Sciences meeting on Monday, March 2. He was hoping that he would see at least a weak exposure so he could report something, even though it would not be very interesting. Instead, he was able to report an extremely interesting result.

Becquerel conducted some additional experiments and during 1896 reported on the properties of this radiation, which later came to be called radioactivity. A few of his observations turned out to be wrong, but others helped people understand how this radioactivity was different from x-rays.

Unlike x-rays, radioactivity generated no great excitement in the scientific community. Even Becquerel seemed to tire of them quickly. He published seven papers on the topic in 1896, one in 1897, and none in 1898. He was off investigating other things. (In 1896 alone, more than 1,000 about x-rays papers were published.)

This situation would change when Marie Skłodowska Curie (1867-1934) and Pierre Curie (1859–1906) began a systematic study of radioactivity. I will save that story for next time. (If you want to get ahead of my story, I recommend the 1943 film Madame Curie starring Geer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. It is history according to Hollywood but still somewhat fun.)

All images are public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dean Zollman is university distinguished professor of physics at Kansas State University where he has been a faculty member for more than 40 years. During his career he has received four major awards — the American Association of Physics Teachers’ Oersted Medal (2014), the National Science Foundation Director’s Award for Distinguished Teacher Scholars (2004), the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Doctoral University Professor of the Year (1996), and AAPT’s Robert A. Millikan Medal (1995). His present research concentrates on the teaching and learning of physics and on science teacher preparation.

Previously

What Are Things Made of? Depends on When You Ask.

Ancient Greeks Were the First to Hypothesize Atoms

The Poetry of Atoms

Atom Theory in Ancient India

Religion, Science Clashed over Atoms

Medieval Arabic Scholarship Might Have Preserved Scientific Knowledge

Rediscovering a Roman Poet – and Atom Theory – Centuries Later

Reconciling Atom Theory with Religion

Did Atom Theory Play a Role in Galileo’s Trouble with the Inquisition?

Did Gifted Scientist’s Belief in Atoms Led to His Obscurity?

Does Atom Theory Apply to the Earthly and the Divine?

A Duchess Inspired by Atoms

Separating Atoms from Atheism

Isaac Newton: 300 Years Ahead of His Time

Issac Newton and the Philosopher’s Stone

When Chemistry and Physics Split

Redefining Elements

Mme Lavoisier: Partner in Science, Partner in Life

With Atoms, Proportionality and Simplicity Rule

Despite Evidence of Atoms, 19th Century Skeptics Didn’t Budge

Mission of the First International Scientific Conference: Clear up Confusion

Rivalry over the First Periodic Table

The Puzzle of Dark Lines amid Rainbow Colors

The Colorful Signature of Each Element

Light Waves by the Numbers

Even Scientific Dead Ends Can Contribute to Knowledge

Discovery of the Electron Took Decades and Multiple Scientists

‘Wonders of the X-ray’

Walburga and Her Family Ties

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By early medieval standards, Saint Walburga had a cushy lifestyle at the double monastery of Wimbourne.

Well, strictly following the Rule of Saint Benedict is hardly a life of luxury, but this daughter of a West Saxon under-king was in a safe place and could be reasonably certain of when she would eat. She would pray at the bells, pursue her studies, and do chores assigned to her.

But when she was in her late 30s, far from young by the standards of her time, her maternal uncle Saint Boniface asked her and other nuns to uproot their lives for the sake of Christianity in today’s Germany.

For more about Walburga, read my post on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Saint Walburga

A 19th century painting of St. Walburga (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons).

A Post-Soviet Princess’s Autobiographical Satire

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Today it’s my pleasure to host my friend author Marina Julia Neary on Outtakes as she introduces her latest release, Saved by the Bang, based on her experience growing up after the disaster at Chernobyl. Her book is an eye-opener, especially for those of us who remember the Cold War (for more, read my review). – Kim

By Marina Julia Neary

Marina Neary author photoAfter years of being nagged by my readers, I finally wrote something autobiographical (God forbid!) Most of my fiction deals with the Anglo-Irish conflict, even though I’m not Irish by blood. I spent the first 13 years of my life in Belarus, a former Soviet Republic, which is now a sovereign country that has managed to stay out of world news. Nothing remarkably good or bad happens there.

The last major tragedy dates back to 1986, when one of the reactors blew up in Chernobyl across the Ukrainian border, drenching Belarusian cities in raw radiation. The full scope of the damage was not communicated to population to prevent an outbreak of panic. The authorities could not stop the flow of radiation, so they stopped the flow of information.

Chernobyl sign

2013 photo by Paweł “pbm” Szubert via Wikimedia Commons, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Almost 30 years later, people are still paying the price. Leukemia, lymphoma, thyroid cancer, and birth defects will continue to afflict the generations to come. Since I as an author specialize in disasters, I decided that my next novel would deal with one that I had experienced firsthand. It’s an opportunity for me to showcase my dark humor. As one of the reviewers mentioned, the novel is “not for the faint of heart.” Some readers will be disturbed and offended by the fact that I inject so much humor into my narrative depicting such tragic events.

The joke is that every Chernobyl story has to feature a girl named Maryana, just like any Jane Austen novel has to feature a girl named Elizabeth. Maryana was the name my biological father had originally picked out for me. He liked the archaic, folksy, old pan-Slavic slant. My mother hated it for those very reasons, so they settled on a more cosmopolitan Marina. Maryana is my alter ego, a privileged yet suffering child with a Jewish heritage, a lonely, old soul watching the world around her quietly slip into chaos.

The City of Swans and Violets

Much of the action takes place in Gomel, a squeaky-clean, low-key riverfront city famous for its gorgeous flower beds and summer folk concerts. The city’s coat of armor shows a muscular bobcat, a trademark Belarusian animal.

Panorama of Gomel

Panorama of Gomel, by Dennis Sviridenko

During World War II Gomel was occupied by the Nazis, and 80 percent of the city was destroyed. Luckily, the most prominent landmarks like the Rumyantsev-Paskevich Palace compound and the gorgeous Orthodox church were spared. The city has everything to satisfy an average person’s intellectual and cultural appetites. There are several universities, a drama theater, a swan pond, museums, and countless cinema art houses.

Of course, there will always be those who’ll wrinkle their noses and say that Gomel is a provincial hole. But guess what? Not everyone can live in Moscow or St. Petersburg. As far as medium sized cities were concerned, Gomel offered enough opportunities to work and play. Growing up, I don’t remember being bored. Children had an ample selection of educational activities. Art, music, and dance lessons were accessible and affordable.

I’ve been asked on several occasions, “So what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain?” Personally, I’ve never experienced the horrors of draconian censorship. By 1980s, most people had grown disillusioned with the Communist ideal so successfully force-fed to them in the previous decades. It was still customary to celebrate Communist holidays like the October Revolution Day (which actually falls on November 7, according to the new calendar) and Workers’ Solidarity Day (May 1). Most people used that time to party and get drunk, forgetting the symbolic significance of those holidays.

Gorbachev, an impressively progressive and democratic leader for his time, promoted free speech. Criticizing Socialism as a political and economic model became more commonplace. The West was no longer demonized. American pop music, bestselling novels, and blockbuster movies became widely available.

A Child of Dangerous Privilege

An only child of classical musicians, I was considered privileged – by the standards of the time. We belonged to what was called “artistic intelligentsia,” which automatically placed us in some imaginary capsule. In a socialist economy, in which fiscal mobility is severely limited and professors do not get paid significantly more than factory workers, your class was measured not by how much you had but by how much you knew, how many languages you spoke, and how many musical instruments you played.

Respectable professions were not always well compensated, and prestige did not translate into money, yet members of intelligentsia were adamant about setting themselves apart from the rest. I firmly believe that this quest for superiority is one of the fundamental human drives. People will find creative ways to rise above their peers. If they cannot do it through material possessions, they will do it through mannerisms, special skills, and knowledge.

In my novel, Maryana lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her parents and grandmother. An American reader might find such living arrangements horrifying, but by the standards of late Soviet era, this family is considered well off. Having famous parents and a high-achieving engineer grandmother makes the girl privileged.

At the same time, that privilege and her ethnicity make her a delicious target for her less fortunate peers. There were no anti-bullying campaigns, and teachers and school administrators looked the other way. Pedestrian anti-Semitism was widespread, and if a student of Jewish ancestry was assaulted verbally or even physically, the authorities would shrug it off as “Kids will be kids.”

Saved by the Band coverMarina Julia Neary is an award-winning historical essayist, multilingual arts and entertainment journalist, published poet, playwright, actress, dancer, and choreographer. She has written several books set in 19th and 20th century England and Ireland. Her latest release, Saved by the Bang, is available on Amazon.

When a Final Resting Place Is Not a Grave Matter

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Bertrada and Pepin in Basilica of St. Denis

Thirteenth-century effigies depict Charlemagne’s parents, Bertrada and Pepin, at the Basilica of St. Denis. (From Wikimedia Commons, used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, photo by Sailko.)

In my post about Charlemagne and Fastrada for the Lovers theme on Unusual Historicals, I omitted something: where Fastrada is not buried.

What? I hear you ask. Where she’s not buried? Why would that matter?

Well, it doesn’t, but I’ve seen nonfiction authors place meaning in the fact that Charlemagne’s fourth wife is not buried at Basilica of St. Denis near Paris, the resting place of many monarchs, including the king’s parents. Apparently, we should interpret this as a sign that Fastrada was hated and was the cause of rebellions against her husband, as his posthumous biography says.

But this supposition starts to fall apart when we put this in context. Fastrada was interred within a church, the most desired of hallowed ground. In her case, she is at Mainz, near Frankfort, where she died.

When we look at the other two wives Charles loved and outlived, we see a similar pattern. Hildegard, Charles’s third wife, was entombed at Metz, near the relics of St. Arnulf. Charles’s fifth wife, Liutgarda, was buried in Tours, where she and her husband were praying to St. Martin.

Charles himself was not buried at St. Denis. Rather, he was interred in a basilica at Aachen.

Scants written sources, all of them biased, have researchers searching for clues and reading between the lines, but we should take into account which clues are valid.

Sources

“Paul the Deacon’s ‘Gesta Episcoporum Mettensium’ and the Early Design of Charlemagne’s Succession,” Walter Goffart, Traditio

Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne, translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel

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

A History of Charles the Great (Charlemagne), Jacob Isidor Mombert

‘Wonders of the X-ray’

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In this installment of the history of atom theory, physics professor (and my dad) Dean Zollman discusses how x-rays were discovered and later explained. – Kim

By Dean Zollman

Dean ZollmanIn the last decade of the 19th century, many researchers in addition to J.J. Thomson were using cathode ray tubes to conduct research. Before Thomson established that the cathode rays were electrons, several researchers had investigated their properties. Philip Lenard, a German physicist, had measured the range of the “rays” in air. In 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen was following up on that research by looking at what happened when the cathode rays struck some metals. In the process, he made an astonishing observation.

Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen

Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen by Nobel Foundation

Roentgen had recently moved in the University of Würzburg in southern Germany. He was a professor of physics and had been appointed rector of the university, the equivalent to a president of an American university. However, in those days the university leader had time for research. So, Roentgen had a laboratory where he was studying the properties of cathode rays.

As we discussed last time, the location of cathode rays could be determined because light was emitted when the rays struck a fluorescent material. This process is the same as the way a pre-flat-screen TV creates a picture on it screen. So, Roentgen had some fluorescent material in his lab. A small amount of this material was placed a rather long distance from the cathode ray tube. Yet, Roentgen noticed that the fluorescent material glowed when the tube was operating and the cathode rays were hitting a metal. By this time, cathode rays were known to travel only a few centimeters in air, but the distance between the tube and the glowing material was much greater than that.

Roentgen was motivated to undertake a series of careful experiments. On November 8, 1895, he made sure that no extraneous light could reach the fluorescent material. The lab was dark; the cathode ray tube was covered with black cardboard. Even in this environment Roentgen saw a faint glow on the fluorescent material. Something was traveling through the cardboard and causing light to be emitted from material. Roentgen gave the name x-rays to these new type of radiation.

Early Crookes x-ray tube

An early Crookes x-ray tube from a museum dedicated to Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen in Würzburg, Germany (image used under the terms of GNU Free Documentation License

Why the Professor Didn’t Notice His Dinner

For the next six weeks, Roentgen neglected his students and his duties as university rector to investigate his discovery. (A luxury university administrators do not have today.) He kept his research to himself and talked to very few people about it. The intensity of his work even put some strain on his marriage. This situation was described by a story related on the 35th anniversary of the discovery.

“One of the few persons who knew about the discovery before the announcement was made [on December 28, 1895] was Roentgen’s wife, Bertha. One evening in November 1895, she became very angry with her absent-minded husband because he did not comment upon the excellent dinner she had prepared for him, and he did not even notice that she was angry until she asked him what was the matter. He finally took her downstairs to his laboratory, which was in the same building, and for the first time presented to her astonished eyes the wonders of the x-ray.”

This story, which sounds like it could be an outline for an episode of The Big Bang Theory, is contained in a paper by Otto Glasser and appeared in the American Journal of Roentgenology in 1931. It is verified by a letter which Frau Roentgen wrote to her husband’s cousin.

Bertha Roentgen’s hand

Bertha Roentgen’s hand x-rayed by Wilhelm Roentgen

In his six-week marathon research, Roentgen discovered that x-rays could penetrate materials such as wood, flesh, and a 2,000-page book. However, more dense materials such as metals and bone allowed much less, if any, penetration. He also discovered that photographic plates could be exposed by the x-rays. Three days before Christmas 1895, Roentgen took his wife into his lab and recorded the first (and perhaps most famous) x-ray of part of a person. The bones in Bertha Roentgen’s hand are clearly visible, as is the ring on her hand. Both of the Roentgens’ exposure to x-rays while this picture was being taken must have been tremendous. Today, x-ray machines carefully aim the rays so that only the area of interest is exposed. Over the years, special film and digital detectors have been developed so that only a very small amount of exposure produces the desired result. Roentgen had none of that. He had, at best, a very crude point and shoot x-ray device.

See Your Bones Everywhere, Even in Shoe Shops

On December 28, Roentgen submitted a paper, “Ueber eine neue Art von Strahlung” (On a New Type of Rays) to the Proceedings of the Würzburg Physical-Medical Society. It included the picture of Frau Roentgen’s hand and quickly became a sensation worldwide. The medical implications were immediately recognized, and by May 1896, a handbook Practical Radiography had been published. However, it took a while for the value of x-rays to be fully understood. Tragically, it also took quite a while for the dangers of x-rays to be understood. Many people suffered damage and even death because their exposure to x-rays.

X-raying hands

X-raying hands in the late 19th century (from William J. Morton and Edwin W. Hammer, 1896, The X-ray, or Photography of the Invisible and Its Value in Surgery)

The picture above from an early handbook on using x-rays shows the cavalier ways in which they were treated. Here, two images are being created. The sitting man has his hand on a photographic plate. He will obtain a picture much like the one of Frau Roentgen’s hand. The standing man is holding his hand in front of some fluorescent material. He will be able to see bones move as he changes the position of his hand. The x-rays for both of images are coming from one Crooke’s (cathode ray) tube which is the glass bulb above the sitting man’s hand and in front of the standing man’s hand. X-rays are being emitted in all directions, and neither person has any protection from them. A far cry from your dental hygienist leaving the room when he/she take an x-ray of your tooth (with a machine that focus the x-rays very narrowly on the tooth.)

To show how slowly some of the dangers were addressed, consider buying shoes in the 1950s. When I got new shoes both the salesperson and my parents wanted to be sure that the shoe fit correctly. I, of course, just wanted them to look cool. So, the shoe store had x-ray machines. I would stand on a platform with my feet in this machine. X-rays were directed up from below my feet. There were viewing places with fluorescent material for me, my mother, and the salesperson. We could see how well the shoes fit. Even better, I could wiggle my toes and watch the bones move. So, I had “motivation” to stay in the machine longer than necessary. This “innovation” did not last long, but it did expose us to unnecessary radiation. Maybe that explains why the 1960s were so weird.

So, What Causes X-rays?

Roentgen’s scientific contribution was quickly recognized. The first Nobel prizes were awarded in 1901. The first physics prize went to Wilhelm C. Roentgen “in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by the discovery of the remarkable rays subsequently named after him.” (Roentgen called his discovery x-rays. But in many parts of the world, x-rays are called Roentgen Rays.)

Explanations for what x-rays were and how they were produced took further research. Earlier in the 19th century, James Clerk Maxwell had shown that whenever an electrically charged particle was accelerated, it emitted or absorbed electromagnetic radiation. (For a physicist, acceleration means increasing or decreasing speed or changing direction. The change in direction will haunt us in a few blogs.) To create the x-rays, Roentgen had directed the cathode rays (electrons) into pieces of metal. As the electrically charged electrons slammed into the metal, they slowed and thus lost energy. This energy was emitted as x-rays.

Further research also showed that x-rays had the properties of light. They were much shorter wavelength and higher frequency than visible light. Maxwell had also concluded the light was a form of electromagnetic radiation. So the overall conclusion was that x-rays were the same physical phenomenon as visible light and radio waves. They were much higher energy and thus could pass through some materials that other forms of electromagnetic radiation could not.

Of course, the overall effect of x-rays on society has been much more positive than negative. And eventually they could be explained by models of the atom. In the meantime, other discoveries of the late 19th century were adding to the mystery of the structure of matter. We will look at a really big one – radioactivity – next time.

All images are from Wikimedia Commons. They are in the public domain unless otherwise noted.

Dean Zollman is university distinguished professor of physics at Kansas State University where he has been a faculty member for more than 40 years. During his career he has received four major awards — the American Association of Physics Teachers’ Oersted Medal (2014), the National Science Foundation Director’s Award for Distinguished Teacher Scholars (2004), the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Doctoral University Professor of the Year (1996), and AAPT’s Robert A. Millikan Medal (1995). His present research concentrates on the teaching and learning of physics and on science teacher preparation.

Previously

What Are Things Made of? Depends on When You Ask.

Ancient Greeks Were the First to Hypothesize Atoms

The Poetry of Atoms

Atom Theory in Ancient India

Religion, Science Clashed over Atoms

Medieval Arabic Scholarship Might Have Preserved Scientific Knowledge

Rediscovering a Roman Poet – and Atom Theory – Centuries Later

Reconciling Atom Theory with Religion

Did Atom Theory Play a Role in Galileo’s Trouble with the Inquisition?

Did Gifted Scientist’s Belief in Atoms Led to His Obscurity?

Does Atom Theory Apply to the Earthly and the Divine?

A Duchess Inspired by Atoms

Separating Atoms from Atheism

Isaac Newton: 300 Years Ahead of His Time

Issac Newton and the Philosopher’s Stone

When Chemistry and Physics Split

Redefining Elements

Mme Lavoisier: Partner in Science, Partner in Life

With Atoms, Proportionality and Simplicity Rule

Despite Evidence of Atoms, 19th Century Skeptics Didn’t Budge

Mission of the First International Scientific Conference: Clear up Confusion

Rivalry over the First Periodic Table

The Puzzle of Dark Lines amid Rainbow Colors

The Colorful Signature of Each Element

Light Waves by the Numbers

Even Scientific Dead Ends Can Contribute to Knowledge

Discovery of the Electron Took Decades and Multiple Scientists

It’s Not Me; It’s My Characters: Why People Get Sick

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Medieval people would look at you askance if you said the reason they were ill was that creatures too tiny to see had invaded their bodies.

Detail from 1910 illustration by Arthur Rackham (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Detail from 1910 illustration by Arthur Rackham (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

They knew to stay away from poisonous plants, rotten meat, and polluted water. Christian doctors attributed illness to an imbalance in the humors – blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Beyond that, medieval folk turned to the supernatural for explanation.

And here is where Christian Franks and Continental Saxon pagans would argue.

To Christians, the cause for illness could be sorcery or punishment from God. A Saxon pagan might blame an evil, capricious dwarf. At least, I think the pagan would blame a dwarf, based on an Anglo-Saxon charm. So little is known about the Continental Saxons’ beliefs, I had to look for clues in other Germanic religions.

The tension over why people get sick comes into play in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. My heroine, Leova, a Saxon peasant sold into slavery, accepts baptism, but she still holds on to many of her pagan beliefs, as you will see in the excerpt.

Sharing a pallet with Sunwynn, Leova caressed her sleeping daughter’s hair. Three weeks ago, the dwarves had sent fits of coughing throughout the house, and Leova had sung a charm to protect Deorlaf and Sunwynn. The dwarves’ magic had cracked the charm the way a spear cracked a shield. Leova and her children had coughing and a slight fever but were well after a few days.

But the charm had not worked for Ragenard. What did I do wrong? She had chanted the spell first in the left ear, then the right, then above the head. In the light of the night candle and glowing embers of the hearth, Leova stared at the bed, where Ragenard rested. Helewidis was kneeling on the floor, repeatedly murmuring, “Ave Maria, gratia plena.”

But Ragenard, a Christian Frank, has a different explanation for why he was sick for months and what he must do when he has recovered.

“I almost died this spring. The Lord punished me for my sins but spared my life so I could atone.” Ragenard leaned forward and pressed his fingers to his forehead. “I cannot live with you as brother and sister. It is torture to see you every day and not touch you.”

Leova gasped and smiled. He desired her! He cared for her! “So marry me. Then our lying together won’t be a sin. You said so.”

“I am supposed to do penance, not ignore my sins and enjoy pleasures of the flesh.”

Leova’s jaw dropped. “Are you saying you cannot marry me because we would be happy? Why would the Church frown on your happiness with your wife?”

“All I know is that God healed me of this illness years ago, but He let me become sick again after I lay with you.”

Today, we would call Ragenard’s illness tuberculosis. Before antibiotics, this bacterial disease could go into remission for years but come back suddenly. Yes, those invasive creatures too small to be seen made him sick, and he didn’t know it.

When There Might Be More to a Martyrdom Story

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Sometimes I am intrigued by what a story doesn’t say. Such is the case of the martyrdom of Saints Ewald the Fair and Ewald the Black in seventh-century Saxony.

It would be easy to see the pagan Saxon killers as my Frankish characters do – that they were nothing more than a bunch of brutes who hated Christians. Don’t get me wrong: nothing justifies the murder of the two priests. But when we put the story into the context of history and what the Saxons might have believed, it becomes more complex.

The story says the Saxons were convinced the Ewalds were trying to convert their lord and they feared the destruction of their temples. Such an act could offend the gods, the very beings who decided whether you had a bountiful harvest or famine, whether you had victory or defeat in battle.

To the pagan Saxons, the Ewalds might not have been two oddball priests but threats to their community. For more, see my post in English Historical Fiction Authors.

Martydom of Saints Ewald the Fair and Ewald the Black

Stained glass window depicting the martydom of Saints Ewald the Fair and Ewald the Black (photo by Raymakers, public domain image, via Wikimedia Commons)

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