A Vast Forest That Vanished


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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


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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


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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

Real-Life Ship and Plantation Inspire Pirate Trilogy


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Today, I am thrilled to welcome author S.K. Keogh to Outtakes as she relaunches her debut novel, The Prodigal, about a young man who resorts to piracy to rescue his mother and avenge the death of his father. Here, Susan talks about where she turned for research for her excellent books.—Kim

By S.K. Keogh

When I first set out to write The Prodigal, I knew the story would require considerable research, particularly in setting. I needed to take the reader back to the 17th century, both on land and sea. The main character, Jack Mallory, needed a sailing vessel to accomplish his goal of hunting down his nemesis, a pirate by the name of James Logan, who had kidnapped Jack’s mother and murdered his father. So, discovering exactly what type of vessel Jack might sail was first and foremost on my research list.

Most pirate vessels were not large ships but instead smaller, nimbler vessels, often with a shallow draft, which came in handy when seeking refuge in inlets, etc. from naval frigates or privateers, so I knew Jack’s craft would be something with less than three masts. I came across the Niagara’s website and quickly realized a brig would be the perfect vessel to star in my story.

The Niagara

By Lance Woodworth (CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I was thrilled to find that the Niagara allowed passengers on day sails, so in no time I had myself booked aboard her and traveled from Michigan to Erie, Pennsylvania, to meet her. What followed was one of the most memorable days of my life. I was fortunate enough to sail upon her two other times as well, once as a member of the crew. My biggest thrill that day, of course, was climbing the rigging.

My experiences aboard the Niagara gave me a great feel for the Prodigal (the name of Jack’s ship). Although the Niagara is two hundred years “younger” than the Prodigal and thus has many differences, including sail plan, being aboard her still helped me understand how square-rigged vessels feel and behave. The brig’s captain at that time, Walter Rybka, connected me with Patrick Claxton, a former crewman. Pat not only shared his knowledge of sailing with me but also read The Prodigal during one of its early drafts to help ensure accuracy.

Having decided upon Jack’s vessel, I then needed a land-based setting in Colonial America, a place to which Jack and his family are sailing at the beginning of the story. I considered Virginia but decided on South Carolina (back then, North and South Carolina were one province known as Carolina), specifically Charles Town (known today as Charleston).

Leighlin Plantation only makes a brief appearance in The Prodigal but figures more prominently in the next books in the series (The Alliance and The Fortune). It wasn’t until I visited Charleston on my first research trip that I decided what Leighlin House definitively looked like, both inside and out. I visited three plantations, one being Drayton Hall, which is a National Trust Historic Site and a place I strongly recommend any traveler to Charleston to visit. After touring the house and the grounds, I knew I had found Leighlin House.

Drayton Hall

Drayton Hall is a magnificently preserved plantation house, originally built in the early 1700s, its architecture inspired by Andrea Palladio. Symmetry is in all things. One can virtually cut Drayton Hall down the center and find equal halves in each side. Each of the two floors has a central room—the Great Hall on the first level and another on the second, each with two rooms leading off each side. Every room is almost a mirror image of another. On the outside, the house seems immense, but the interior somehow provides a feeling of a much smaller house, of a certain intimacy and charm.

Drayton Ballroom

The grounds of Leighlin House were inspired by another Charleston-area plantation, Middleton Place Plantation. Beautiful vistas and a sprawling, intricate garden designed with the same symmetry as Drayton Hall’s house leave any visitor breathless.

While I didn’t include Middleton’s gardens for Leighlin (I incorporated a much smaller one inspired by another plantation), I knew I wanted to use many of the other features of the land, like the butterfly-shaped ponds and terraces. One of the vistas I wanted to use in my story was the view of the Ashley River from atop the bluff where the house sits.

Middleton Place vistaHow could this place not inspire a writer? Or any visitor, for that matter. It impressed Hollywood enough for it to be used in Mel Gibson’s Revolutionary War movie, The Patriot. Who knows … maybe one day it can be used again, perhaps in a movie called The Prodigal. One can dream, huh?

All photos are by S.K. Keogh (unless otherwise notes) and used with permission.

The Prodigal CoverAbout The Prodigal

A story of relentless pursuit, betrayal, and revenge:

As a young boy Jack Mallory knows horror and desolation when James Logan and his pirates murder his father and abduct his mother. Falsely accused of piracy himself, Jack is thrown into jail. He survives seven years in London’s notorious Newgate prison and emerges a hardened man seeking revenge.

His obsession with finding his mother’s kidnapper drives him to the West Indies where he becomes entangled with a fiery young woman named Maria Cordero. With a score of her own to settle with James Logan, she disguises her gender and blackmails Jack into taking her aboard his pirate brig, Prodigal, in his desperate search for Logan. Their tumultuous relationship simmers while Jack formulates a daring plan to rescue his mother and exact revenge upon Logan for destroying his family. But Logan has no intentions of losing what he now treasures more than life itself—Jack’s mother, Ella.

The Prodigal and other books by S.K. Keogh are available on Amazon and other vendors. You can connect with Susan at her website skkeogh.com, Facebook, and Twitter (@JackMallory).

The Alliance Cover

A Medieval Pharm in a Garden Patch


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Walafrid Strabo’s 9th century On the Cultivation of Gardens, commonly called Hortulus, is a gem. It stands out among early medieval accounts of royal conquests and saints’ lives.

Most writers of Walafrid’s time would have thought gardening too mundane. If you read only this poem, you might not guess Walafrid was a scholar, a tutor to one of Charlemagne’s grandsons, the abbot of Reichenau, and a diplomat. He was a Swabian commoner who had been at Reichenau since age 8 and apparently had a lifelong love of gardening.

He tells his readers if they’re not afraid to get calluses on grubby hands, haul cow manure to parched soil, and work hard, they can make even gravel and sand yield herbs and produce. Some of his verses have a familiar feel. The plot he wants to cultivate is overtaken by weeds, stinging nettles in fact, and mole tunnels need flattening.

Walafrid describes the plants’ looks and fragrances, refers to Roman mythology (and is sometimes confused), and goes off on a tangent about free trade. He has special praise for the lily and the rose. But most of this poem is about the healing properties of the plants. From the ninth century point of view (pretty please with sugar on top note the disclaimer), horehound is an antidote to poison an evil stepmother might slip into food. Agrimony with sharp vinegar can be used to heal open wounds. Poppy causes oblivion and heals a bad ulcer in the chest. Catmint mixed with rose oil can restore skin and hair. Lily will counteract a snakebite and treat bruises. Various herbs can help with digestive problems and coughs.

If you want to read this delightful poem, I highly recommend James Mitchell’s 2009 translation.

9th century manuscript page from Salzburg

Detail of 9th century manuscript page from Salzburg (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Solved: the Origin of Images of a Lombard King


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When I first encountered these illustrations of 8th century Lombard King Desiderius and his world, I wondered where they came from.

Desiderius at Court illustration

Desiderius Lombard camp illustrationAdalgis illustration

Oh, I knew they weren’t historically accurate, but I gave up on that when I started blogging in 2011. Blog posts are better when they have images. They add interest to the text and help when writers are promoting their work on social media.

My problem as a 21st-century author: 8th century artists were more interested in saints and other religious figures. Even contemporary images of Charlemagne are hard to find. Since then, artists have been more interested in the story they’re trying to tell than being true to the facts. The one who created these images is no exception.

These images appeared to be from the 19th century, and it turns out I was right. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons, I finally know their origin. They are indeed illustrations for Alessandro Manzoni’s 1822 tragedy Adelchi (which also take liberties with the facts). The book they appear in was published in 1845. Here is one of the full pages, via Wikimedia Commons, with all its lovely flourishes.

I felt a thrill as I (virtually) turned the pages and beheld the images. At least one mystery was laid to rest.

Re-creating St. Riquier before the Famous Abbot


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Charlemagne’s friend Abbot Angilbert transformed the monastery of St. Riquier into an early medieval center for learning. He donated 200 manuscripts, acquired a lot of relics and set up altars for them, and bought expensive lighting, among other things. Too bad my characters in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar visit the place in 778, 12 years before Angilbert’s appointment.

There is little information about the monastery before Angilbert ruled it and its origin compounds my dilemma on how to portray it.  Influenced by Irish missionaries, Saint Richarius founded it around 625, which meant he likely followed the Rule of Saint Columbanus rather than the Rule of Saint Benedict. Columbanus was more austere, and the Celtic practice had a different tonsure and a different liturgical calendar.

As a novelist, I had questions to answer. Whose rule do the monks follow? What relics do they use? What does the reliquary for their founder look like?

Authors of historical fiction have more than one right answer. Because a novelist is not a scholar, I side with those who think it’s OK to play with facts. If making the monastery a center for learning 12 years earlier best serves the story, a writer can do so and disclose that liberty in an author’s note.

My illiterate characters in Ashes don’t care if St. Riquier is a center for learning. They know books are valuable and will pray before relics, but all they really want is to trade goods with the abbot and have a safe place to sleep and rest their animals. For Ashes, I decided to make my best guess of what the monastery was like at the time. So St. Riquier doesn’t have all those books in the library or so many relics or the silver and gold rings to hold candles. Eighth-century monasteries likely followed the Benedictine rule, so St. Riquier does, too. The founding saint rests in a tomb rather than a golden reliquary.

The relic my characters swear upon for a trial is not entirely made up. A tree Saint Richarius like to rest under existed in the 8th and 9th centuries, and it was not to be chopped down. Twigs and branches fall from trees, and one of those pieces of wood is perfect for what I and my characters need.

St. Riquier

A 17th century illustration (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

A Visit That Changed a Life and Led to Sainthood


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What did those Irish missionaries say to Richarius that made him give up what he knew and devote his life to Christ?

As with many early medieval saints, information about the seventh century Frank also known as Riquier is scant and contradictory, but the stories are tantalizing. Whether they’re true is up to the reader.

Richarius was born in a village then known as Centula in today’s France. Either he was working class guy who pursued rustic occupations or he was a nobleman, depending on which source you consult. With the events that follow, I think he was an aristocrat. Whatever his background, the visit of the two Irish missionaries, Caidoc and Fricor, changed his life.

When the visitors arrived in Centula, they were mistreated by the locals. Except for Richarius, who offered his hospitality. After listening to their preaching, Richarius repented of his sins. So much that one story has him surviving only on barley bread strewn with ashes and water often mingled with his tears. Another has him offering protection to his guests so they could preach freely – something a nobleman could do.

Richarius later became a priest providing relief for the sick and poor and redeeming captives. He spent few years as a missionary in Britain, then returned to Centula, where he founded a monastery around 625 and served as its first abbot. Such an accomplishment would be easier for a nobleman, especially if he already owned the property to give to the Church.

 St. Riquier Abbey

A 17th century illustration of St. Riquier Abbey (public domain)

Apparently, Richarius remained close to Caidoc and Fricor. They joined him at Centula and spent the rest of their lives there.

As an abbot, Richarius would be in a position of influence. He had control over land, which was power in early medieval times, and could make alliances among fellow noblemen, both lay and clergy. In addition, the medieval populace believed that prayers from the monks could sway events here on earth, including who won the battles.

During a visit from Frankish King Dagobert, Richarius impressed the monarch by giving him good advice, especially not to listen to flatterers, and the king rewarded him with a generous gift.

Richarius could have kept his place as abbot for life. Or if illness prevented him from performing his duties, he could retire in relative comfort at the monastery. Instead when his health was failing, he traveled 15 miles away to a forest and lived in a hut with only one companion, Sigobart.

Shortly before his death, believed to be April 26, 643, he told Sigobart to make a coffin. His grieving companion felled an oak in whose trunk the body was placed. The monks at Centula must have guessed that Richarius would soon be declared a saint, a decision of local bishops at the time, and took his relics back to the monastery.

St. Riquier’s relics

St. Riquier’s relics in the abbey he founded (by Paul Hermans, GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0)

About 150 years later, that monastery, named St. Riquier, became a center for learning with Angilbert as its abbot. His close friend, Charlemagne, provided a golden shrine for the founder’s relics.

I had to research the monastery for The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, which has a few scenes taking place there 12 years before Angilbert becomes its abbot. During a trial, the characters swear on a piece of wood from a tree the monastery’s founder liked to rest under.

This post was originally published on English Historical Fiction Authors on Oct. 19, 2014. Images are via Wikimedia Commons.


Lives of the Saints, Omer Englebert

A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects and Doctrines: Naamanes-Zuntfredus Sir William Smith, Henry Wace

The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Alban Butler

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Pierre Riché (translated by Jo Ann McNamara)

An Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, from the First Introduction of Christianity among the Irish to the Beginning of the 13th Century, John Lanigan

Medieval Easter Was Not Joyous for Everyone


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What would Easter mean to an 8th century Saxon peasant who converted to Christianity with no education whatsoever? Especially if she was a slave in a foreign land and still learning the language? These are among the questions I explore in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar as my heroine, Leova, experiences the holy day for the first time.

Her children are the only thing she has left. During Charlemagne’s first war in Saxony the previous summer, she lost everything—her husband, her home, her faith, her freedom.

At this point in the story, Leova and her children have wound up in Nevers, where her master, Ragenard the merchant, lives. In that time, the folk spoke Roman, a form of Latin but not the language of the Church and very different from the Germanic Saxon language.

I chose to call the holiday Pasch for a couple of reasons. The word Easter is close to Eostre, a pagan goddess of spring. Pasch is similar to the French name for the holiday, and it comes to us from Anglo-French and Latin.

Johannes Gehrts' 1901

Johannes Gehrts’ 1901 “Ostara,” another name for Eostre (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

With all this in mind, here is my imagining of how a new Christian and foreigner would perceive the Feast of the Resurrection:

The Christian rites continued to puzzle her. The week before a holy day called Pasch, which Sunwynn explained was the day Jesu rose from the dead, chanting monks and priests led a procession through the city and received long, thin leaves. Leova and her children followed with the rest of the faithful holding yew and willow twigs.

Two days later, a priest visited the house, and for the next few mornings, Ragenard managed to dress and come to the hall. Yet it seemed as if even that small effort exhausted him. He spoke only a few pleasantries to Leova before returning to bed.

Will he ever show fondness for me again?

On the feast day, Ragenard attended Mass along with everyone else in the city, and the crowd overflowed down the steps. As the priests gave altar bread and wine to the faithful, Ragenard seemed barely able to stand. Another procession with priests holding crosses, censers, and several golden jeweled boxes followed. Ragenard looked like he would collapse.

In the procession, the Roman buzz of gossip deepened Leova’s loneliness. On the temperate days like this in Eresburg, she and other wives had talked about their husbands and children and the upcoming Feast of Erda. The return of spring was empty here without the goddess. Leova longed for Derwine. He would have comforted her. Even if she and Ragenard were speaking to each other, Ragenard would not have understood.

Saint Christopher: A Tough Guy Protecting Medieval Travelers


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Travel in medieval times was often slow, unpleasant, and dangerous. At any time, someone could break a wheel, a person or animal could get sick, a storm could arrive suddenly, or brigands or demons could attack. You needed all the protection you could get and who better than Saint Christopher, a giant of a man so tough that only God was a worthy master?

Belief in Christopher was so strong that just seeing his image assured the viewers that they would not die that day (or at least not faint or fall). He was popular everywhere, but churches in medieval England had the most murals with his image.

Yet the one certainty about Christopher is that he was a martyr in Asia Minor, probably in the third century. The image in my mind is of a huge man who goes by a name that means Christ-bearer in Greek and decides that he will not stop preaching. He would rather die and go to heaven than renounce his faith and condemn his soul to hell. (Reports that the Church ruled in 1969 that he didn’t exist are wrong. Christopher is still a saint, but his feast was reduced to local cult rather than universal.)

Saint Christopher

Saint Christopher, from the Westminster Psalter, circa 1250 (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

Like many early saints, most of what we know about Christopher comes from legend. Originally named Offerus, he was a big guy and vowed to serve only a master who feared nothing. First, he served a king, but the king was afraid the devil. Then Offerus served the devil until the devil admitted he frightened by the cross.

Offerus decided Christ was the master for him and met a hermit who instructed and baptized him. Renamed Christopher, he decided to serve God by carrying people to safety across a raging stream.

One day, a child asked to be carried. No big deal, right? Well, the kid got heavy, so heavy Christopher feared he would drown. On the other side, Christopher asked the child why it felt like the world was on his shoulders, and the child revealed he was Christ and yes, he was carrying the whole world. To prove it, he told Christopher to plant his staff in the ground, and the next morning, it was a tree bearing flowers and dates.

Christopher then decided to travel and preach and perform miracles, winning a lot of converts. But that’s when he got into trouble. The authorities were unhappy and had him tortured and executed.

Over the centuries, the story has variations. As early as the fifth century, a church was dedicated to him, and in the eighth century, his legend was written in Greek and Latin. Its final form appears in the 13th-century Golden Legend.

You could argue that Christopher’s story is an allegory of what it means to bear Christ in your heart and endure the trials of following the faith. But I suspect Christopher’s legend was true in the minds of medieval folk. Although Christopher wasn’t a knight and dragon-slayer like Saint George, he was a brave and strong man, one who helped ordinary people in the travails of travel. Perhaps that is why he captured the medieval imagination and is so beloved.


St. Christopher” by Francis Mershman, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, 1908

The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Fifth Edition Revised, by David Farmer

The Life of Christopher,” The Golden Legend, from the Medieval Sourcebook

Butler’s Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler

St. Christopher was demoted but remains a saint,” by Ellen Creager of Knight Ridder Newspapers, Abilene Reporter-News, June 6, 1998

EWTN, Fr. John Echert answering a question about St. Christopher

This post was originally published at English Historical Fiction Authors on Aug. 5, 2014.