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?


, , , , ,

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



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


, , , ,

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.


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


, , , , , ,

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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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


, , , , ,

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.


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


, , ,

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)

A Vast Forest That Vanished


, , , , ,

It’s hard to imagine. More than 1,000 years ago, the Charbonnière forest was so vast, it was a border between kingdoms, just like the River Rhine. Today only a remnant is left, about 11,000 acres near Brussels.

A few of my characters in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar stop at the edge of the forest after taking a wrong turn on the way to Le Mans. Actually, they are far off course.

In their time, the 8th century, the forest was too dense to be worth clearing for agriculture. Called Silva Carbonaria in Roman times, it probably was a source for charcoal, a valuable fuel for heating homes and smelting iron.

The extent of the forest is difficult to determine. Roughly, it lay between the rivers Sambre and Scheldt.

Deorlaf, my heroine’s teenage son, doesn’t know about the forest’s prior history—that it stopped a Frankish invasion from the north side. Nor is he aware the Roman road that crosses the Meuse at Maastricht skirts the forest. With winter approaching, he and his companions face a more urgent matter: where to wait out the season before they resume their travels.

Long after Deorlaf’s time, aristocrats claimed portions of the forest for hunting grounds, thus preventing anyone from settling in it. Elsewhere within the woods, religious communities established themselves—the wilderness provided a retreat from the world. But in the 18th century, landowners who needed money cut down many trees for their timber.

It’s easy for a 21st century American environmentalist to judge our ancestors’ decisions. If my children were hungry, would I cut down and sell centuries-old trees? Maybe. Still, I must admit some melancholy when I think that this enormous forest has mostly disappeared. We humans indeed can change our environment. It’s up to us to make sure it’s for the better.

I am thankful someone had the foresight to preserve the remnant for the Charbonnière, the Sonian Forest, for future generations.

Sonian Forest

The Sonian Forest (photo by Donar Reiskoffer, GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0, or CC BY 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


Forêt de Soignes

A History of Belgium from the Roman Invasion to the Present Day by Émile Cammaerts

La Forêt Charbonnière by CH Duvivier

Hessians: Reluctant Soldiers


, ,

The Hessian soldiers who fought for the British in the American Revolution did not come to the New World of their own free will.

The troops comprised conscripts—school dropouts, servants without masters, bankrupts, idlers, drunkards, the unemployed, troublemakers, and any other “expendable” man who was healthy and under 60. Their societies saw them as anything but the best and brightest.

“Hessian” is catch-all term for soldiers rented out to the British by Frederick II, the landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, and five other German rulers. In Hesse-Kassel, the fee was the equivalent of 13 years of tax revenue, and Landgrave Frederick used it for the public good. He left a full treasury, founded museums and schools, and had a taste for expensive buildings.

About 30,000 soldiers crossed the Atlantic between 1776 and 1783. At first, they were well trained and well equipped. As the war dragged on, it became harder to find men who would make good soldiers.

Hessian Soldiers

Although the soldiers received wages, military service was dreaded, and sometimes recruitment was really kidnapping. Once the recruit was pressed into service, the officer needed to get him to the garrison. Desertion at this stage was common enough that the officer had his charge under constant guard and followed complicated procedures such as avoiding large towns and places where the recruit had previously served.

The officer was armed with a sword and gun and might have had a dog. He kept his captive in front of him and warned that a misstep would cost him his life—the captor would be excused for a dead recruit but not a living deserter. If the pair stayed at an inn along the way, the officer chose an innkeeper he knew was on his side. When conscript and guard retired for the night, both of them undressed, and the guard’s weapons were stored in a different room so that the conscript wouldn’t use them against his captor.

The local populace might sympathize with a captive, but they paid a high price if they helped him. If the conscript escaped in a certain village, its inhabitants would be forced to hand over one of their own as tall as the deserter or they might be extorted to pay a fine. Anyone caught assisting a deserter lost their civil rights and faced death or prison and flogging.

Once part of an army, soldiers were subject to harsh discipline. Thirty lashes was the most common punishment. A man guilty of a more serious offense, like participating in a failed mutiny, was forced to run through a gauntlet and be pummeled with cudgels—repeatedly. Ringleaders of such a plot were hanged, unless the prince showed mercy and imprisoned them indefinitely.

The months-long crossing of the Atlantic could be horrific. One conscript describes soldiers being packed like herring, with the taller men unable to stand upright. They were served rotten pork and biscuits with maggots, and their drinking water stank and had filaments.


Among the Hessians, there might have been varying attitudes. They probably didn’t know what the Americans and British were fighting about. The officers might have believed anti-American propaganda and thought Congress to be despotic. Common soldiers might have seen their stint in the New World as job to do on behalf of their country. Others might have wondered why they were fighting in a war that had nothing to do with them. Frederick of Prussia, also known as Frederick the Great, said as much to his nephew, Margrave Charles Alexander of Anspach, when refusing to let troops pass through his lands: “My astonishment increases when I remember in ancient history the wise and general aversion of our ancestors to wasting German blood for the defense of foreign rights, which even became a law in the German state.”

Perhaps, my ancestor Johann Gebel, a common soldier, shared Frederick of Prussia’s sentiments. Born in the Principality of Waldeck, he turned 20 the same year the colonies declared their independence. If I am to believe family lore, Johann didn’t want to fight.

We don’t know for certain what happened to him while he was a soldier, but he likely deserted when he was a prisoner of war, especially if he was offered land in addition to his freedom. This also was a chance to escape the beatings in the military and not to endure another crossing of the Atlantic. In America, he had an opportunity to be a respectable citizen in a German-speaking community, quite a contrast to an expendable conscript.

Whatever his reasons, Johann was among the Hessians who decided to make their home in postwar America–where people who once fought each other had to learn to live together.

Images are by Charles M. Lefferts (1873-1923) and are in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This post was originally published June 16, 2016, on English Historical Fiction Authors.


Hessians” by David Head, George Washington’s Mount Vernon

The Hessians and the Other German Auxiliaries of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War by Edward J. Lowell

The Hessians” by Russell Yost, The History Junkie

The Fight over Who Gets the Martyr’s Relics


, , , , , , , , ,

St. Boniface would have never wanted the dispute that followed his martyrdom in 754. Two of his disciples, Sts. Lull and Sturm, wanted his remains.

The stakes were high. Martyr’s relics were attributed with miraculous powers, and churches that housed them attracted pilgrims and their alms.

Lull, the Wessex-born archbishop of Mainz, and Sturm, the Bavarian-born founding abbot of Fulda (who makes a brief appearance in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar), had been close to the martyr.

Sturm and Boniface had met in Bavaria when Sturm was a boy. With his parents’ permission, Sturm traveled with Boniface to Fritzlar, where he was left in the care of that abbot and became a priest in the 730s. At Boniface’s urging, Sturm spent nine years in the wilderness, seeking the perfect site for a new monastery. Boniface then persuaded the Frankish mayor of the palace to donate the land and blessed the site for Fulda in 744.

Lull had met Boniface, also a native of Wessex, in the 730s while Lull was on a pilgrimage to Rome. Lull had been a monk at Malmesbury but was persuaded to join the monastery at Fritzlar, which Boniface had founded. Boniface must have been impressed with Lull, who rose through the clerical ranks. He was a deacon in 745, priest in 751, and bishop in 752. Boniface chose Lull as his successor as the archbishop of Mainz. Boniface went out of his way for Lull to be accepted and even wrote to Fulrad, the influential abbot of St. Dennis, to convince Pepin to look favorably on Lull’s new position.

Boniface left the safety of Mainz for the dangerous mission to Frisia, where pagans slaughtered him and his companions. If we are to believe Eigil, Sturm’s hagiographer, Boniface weighed in a couple of times on where his body should rest. As always, I leave to the reader to decide the veracity.

Saint Boniface

The 11th century Sacramentary of Fulda shows Boniface baptizing converts and being martyred.

When Boniface and his slain followers were taken to Utrecht, the companions’ bodies were buried, but the locals were unable to lift Boniface’s bier. They took that as a sign to send the martyr elsewhere. Once they made that realization, the body was easily moved and loaded onto a boat that went to Mainz.

At Mainz, Lull claimed the relics for his city, but Sturm had rushed there and argued that Boniface had said during his life that he wanted to be entombed at Fulda. The two places were very different. At the time, Mainz was almost 800 years old, dating back to the Romans. Fulda was only 10 years old, founded in the middle of nowhere.

Boniface again stepped in. Appearing in a deacon’s dream, he asked why his journey to Fulda was delayed. Lull refused to believe it until the deacon swore on the altar.

So Boniface was taken to Fulda, and the monastery thrived.

Lull gave up the fight on the relics, but he retaliated. Three of his supporters told Frankish King Pepin that Sturm was disloyal. The abbot of Fulda didn’t defend himself, saying he would put his trust in God.

Sturm and some companions were exiled for two years to the abbey of Jumièges and treated well, but the monks at Fulda were unhappy, especially with their abbey now under Lull’s jurisdiction. When they rejected the abbot he appointed, the archbishop conceded and let them choose one of their own. They did so with the sole purpose of bringing Sturm home. Soon monks, along with nuns at convents and the faithful at other churches, were praying.

The prayers worked. Pepin summoned Sturm and said he had forgotten what they were quarreling over. When Sturm affirmed his loyalty, he returned to Fulda, which was no longer under Lull’s authority, and oversaw construction and decorated Boniface’s tomb.

Boniface’s Tomb

Boniface’s tomb at Fulda.

The relics were the monastery’s greatest treasure. They were so valued that when the monks feared an attack from pagan Saxons in 778, they removed the relics and fled to the forest. After three days in tents, they got word that the locals had fended off the attack and it was safe to return.

Perhaps, Boniface would have been heartened by what Sturm said on his deathbed in 779. “Pray to God for me,” he said to his brothers, “and if I have committed any fault among you through human frailty or wronged anyone unjustly, forgive me as I also forgive all those who have offended or wronged me, including Lull, who always took sides against me.”

This post was first published at English Historical Fiction Authors in 2014. Public domain images are via Wikimedia Commons.


Eigil’s Life of Sturm

Athelstan Museum

St. Boniface” by Francis Mershman, The Catholic Encyclopedia

Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73).  Volume VI: June. The Lives of the Saints, 1866

Mainz” by Joseph Lins, The Catholic Encyclopedia