Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Emile Signol's Dagobert I and Clovis II

(I cannot stop mentally appending "of that name" after every "so and so the nth".)

I came across these lovely paintings last night, around one AM, when I should have been well asleep:

Emile Signol (1804-1892) - Dagobert Ier roi d'Austrasie de Neustrie et de Bourgogne (mort en 638)

Dagobert I, king of Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy, AD 603-639, painted by Emile Signol in 1843.

Emile Signol (1804-1892) - Clovis II, roi d'Austrasie, de Neustrie et de Bourgogne, mort en 656

Clovis II, king of Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy, AD 637 – 627, painted by Emile Signol in 1843.

Obviously these paintings probably look nothing like the folks they ostensibly depict, given the paucity of quality Dark Age portraits Signol had to work from (that is, none). These folks were Frankish kings, Merovingians, not particularly important ones, footnotes in French history.

It is not the history I wish to discuss, but the art. These paintings reminded me strongly of the Saints Cards I used to collect. I am in love with the deep shadows of Clovis's eyes; his downcast, almost sad expression; his slight and delicate features. Clovis died young, a child for most of his reign, and Signol has captured here the essence of fragile youth.

The portraits owe much, it seems to me, to traditional depictions of Jesus, eg,

Christ pantocrator daphne1090-1100

(11th century mosaic from the Church of Daphne near Athens.)

Though perhaps it is just the beards. I see in it either the force of habit, continuing to depict divinity even when occupied with other subjects, or a purposeful attempt at implying that these obscure kings possessed some divinity or connection to the divine, through which their rule was blessed or French history itself was blessed.

They are not the most dynamic portraits, but their quiet simplicity is pleasant enough.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Arthur's Britain

Amusing post from Guy Halsall, Ten ways to rethink Arthur's Britain.


Why has poetry (not set to music, anyway,) fallen into such disfavor in modern (American, at least) society? Society once idolized poets like Shakespeare and Homer above all others; now the market for poetry is almost nil. What changed?


Lacrosse Ball players by George Catlin

I do love the tail.

Monday, October 28, 2013


I have been reading this evening about the Cagots, a persecuted minority group from France/Spain.

According to the Wikipedia and other folks, the Cagots don't appear to have any unifying ethnicity or origin, were not linguistically or religiously different from anyone else and were identified as Cagots primarily by virtue of being born Cagots. Cagots were excluded from mainstream French and Spanish society, lived in their own towns, were restricted to certain professions and churches had segregated Cagot and not-Cagot sections.

The Cagots do not seem to have done anything to deserve their treatment; even if they were descended from lepers (which seems highly unlikely) or later Christian converts, or an assortment of originally ethnically distinct folks clustered in/around the Pyrenees, this hardly justifies matters. The only accusation I have seen levied against them is drinking, and that hardly differentiates them from everyone else in Europe.

Today, the Cagots have all but disappeared, most likely into the general French and Spanish populations (and New World colonies.) The historical record is probably unlikely to make a lot of sense on this subject any time soon, but it just serves to show how much conceptions of ethnicity and group and belonging can change over time, and how un-monolithic things generally are.


Once upon a time, when I was a child, my parents took me to Loch Ness, in Scotland. I was surprised to find it not nearly so touristy as I had expected--if anything, the home of the famous Nessie was remarkably low-key. It led me to wonder if maybe the Scots didn't actually care that much about Nessie--similarly, I live in Washington State, and don't give a fig about Big Foot.

I once asked a Puerto Rican friend about the chupacabre. He unexpectedly grimaced, and it became quickly obvious that he found the whole business terribly embarrassing. "Probably just a dog, or someone's escaped monkey."

These legends seem to persist more vividly in the world of TV than in our real world. We want to believe that mysteries still haunt some other part of the world, even if our own personal bits are quite dull and un-mysterious.

Well, at least we still have fiction.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

It is a pity no one ever thinks to go back in time and shoot Lenin. And Stalin.
I have to keep telling myself that no one responds to queries on the weekend.

It's not helping.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

At the End of Misery: More Misery

Reading about the emancipation of Russian serfs today. Interesting that this happened about the same time as the US abolished slavery (the 1860s)--Russian serfs, after all, were not all that different from slave. Unfortunately, it seems that emancipation actually led to lower standards of living and even more poverty for many Russians. It's as if... as long as the serfs were someone's property, those someones had some economic interest in their property not dying. But once the serfs were no one's property, then no one cared if they lived or died.

Sometimes history is sorrowful.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Columbus Myth

Incidentally, educated folks in Columbus's day didn't think the world was flat. This is actually a myth, spread first by anti-Catholic groups, and later by folks seeking to discredit religion in general by claiming that those Medieval folks were really dumb. But folks have known the world was round since the ancient Greeks (who calculated the size of the earth by measuring the different angles of the sun at different latitudes on the same day.) Certainly the Spanish monarchs wouldn't have given him a bunch of ships just so he could sail them off the edge of the world. The technical debate Columbus had to contend with was about the size of the Earth--he believed it was much smaller than we now know it is (due to a translation error). He really did think eastern Asia lay somewhere in the Caribbean, and that he could make it to Japan with the little bit of food he could carry on those tiny boats. His crews were mutinous not so much because they feared the edge of the world, but because they were facing actual starvation... So it's quite lucky for them that they found land. Not so lucky for the people they met, of course.

Goethe is Worried

I love Goethe, but this portrait just makes me laugh. It is like someone has just handed him something he's supposed to read out loud, and he's just taken a look at it, and it's awful, and he's giving them this look like, "You cannot be serious."

America is one of the World's Oldest Countries

This is one of those little factoids which so violates expectations, that people often flat-out refuse to believe it. (Then they become defensive, sarcastic, and angry.)

Our expectation in this case stems from knowledge that Europeans lived in Europe long before they moved to America, and probably from a generally fuzzy picture of the world outside of Europe.

Your history class probably didn't dwell very long on it, but most of countries on the map today are the products of European colonialism. The vast majority of African countries were given independence post-WWII, as well as many nations in southern Asia, like Israel, India, Pakistan, and Vietnam. Many Eurasian countries received independence after the breakup of the USSR/fall of communism, like Bosnia and the Czech Republic, or came into being as part of the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian and Turkic Empires in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Most of Latin America became independent of Spain and Portugal sometime in the 1800s, well after the US's founding in 1776.

A few European countries, like England, have been basically autonomously sovereign for centuries (since William the Conqueror in 1066, I suppose.) Other European countries, like Italy and Germany, actually did not exist until the late 1800s. Other polities, like the Italian city states, the Holy Roman Empire, the Frankish empires, Prussia, etc., ruled areas which did not exactly translate, territorially or legislatively, into modern states.

We can quibble over what exactly is a "country", and when they come into existence, but as far as independent polities which continuously control a piece of territory, America is one of the oldest.

History did not look like today.

More thoughts on Diversity: The Paekchong of Korea

This post is a follow-up to my post, Diversity in Medieval Europe/Euro-based Fantasy Worlds, particularly the point that,
"...ethnicity is relative--if you grew up in a small, isolated community in northern England, those folks in southern England might as well have been in a different country as far as you were concerned. They'd speak with substantially different accents, perhaps be on the other side in a civil war, might practice their religion differently, etc. But at least they're still kinda English, unlike those Irish over there, who even in the 1800s were depicted by non-Irish as subhuman. Unusual hair or eye color for one's area could really stand out, for better or worse."

Now, Korea is obviously about as far from Europe as you can get, but the principles of human interaction, movement, culture, etc., are basically the same--that is, people have culture everywhere.

I read about the Paekchong of Korea over on Peter Frost's anthropology blog.

"Like Japan with its Burakumin, Korea used to have its own outcastes: the Paekchong (or Baekjeong)... As late as the mid-20th century, however, they still numbered over 50,000, with most living in segregated ghettoes."

"'Being an alien people from Tartar, the Yangsuchuk were hardly assimilated into the general population. Consequently, they wandered through the marshlands along the northwest coast. They were engaged in the making and selling of willow baskets. They were also proficient in slaughtering animals and had a liking for hunting. Selling their wives and daughters was part of their way of life.' (Rhim, 1974)"

"By the end of the 15th century, this attempt at integration was recognized as a failure...“they were left pretty much to their own devices, just so long as they did not disturb outsiders” (Passin, 1956). They were allowed to run their own communities and resolve internal disputes, except for serious crimes. They were also exempt from taxation, compulsory labor, and military service. Finally, they were given a monopoly over occupations that involved the taking of life (and which were considered ‘unclean’ by Buddhists), like butchery, leather making, dog catching, and capital punishment (Passin, 1956). These occupations often paid well..."

The article goes on, with some very interesting observations on the potential boringness of "normal" life and the culture of nomadic hunters, of relevance to anyone trying to get their head inside personality-culture interactions (personally, I think any good storyteller must have some understanding of the relationship between their characters' personalities and traits and the things their culture/s value (or denigrate). Our relationship with everyone else in society has a pretty big effect on our lives, after all. It is also a good idea for writers to remember that multiple cultures can (and generally do) exist within one society/nation/geographic territory, and the people in those groups often have complex and sometimes troubling relationships with each other.

Kings and States

I confess I have generally thought of the European past, excluding the classical era, as filled with 'kings' (occasionally queens) ruling what we might call 'states'. Of course I maintained some vague awareness that Odysseus, King of Ithaca, might be better called a baron, but I didn't give it much thought beyond that.

Anyway, so I'm reading Historian on the Edge's essay, The Crisis of State, about W. Europe in the late classical/early Medieval period, not very far in, and he says two things which strike at my ignorance:

" call western polities after 600 'states' is to rob the word state of any analytical value."
Not states. The political entities we are dealing with in this period are not states--and that from a guy who seems to know his stuff.

"There will be a weak and a strong thesis to this paper. The weak thesis is that a crisis of the state occurred around 600; that changes took place which compelled a real shake up in the ways in which central and local power interacted, a critical moment which, whether or not it did, at least could have produced a breakdown of the state. A supplementary to the weak thesis is that these changes killed off the ‘Roman World’ that is still so visible in, say, 525-30.3 One might entitle this ‘weak thesis’ ‘the end of the late antique state in the West’. The ‘strong thesis’ is that the result of these changes was the end of political formations that can usefully be analysed as states in any way. With a slight but important change in the word order, the strong thesis can be entitled ‘the end of the state in the late antique West’.

"As a corollary, it is probably not surprising that government continued in recognisably Roman fashion. For all that we are used to conceiving of them as ‘Germanic’ kingdoms in this period, it is very difficult indeed to find much that can cogently be called Germanic or even barbarian. Certainly there were new elements in western rulership but these developed within a distinctively late imperial framework. It is worth remembering how new kingship was and the extent to which it was being made up by political actors as they went along. It may also be that even as late as the early sixth century it was not regarded as a permanent or even ideal solution to the problems thrown up by the fifth century, even by those occupying royal thrones."

Kingship was new.

Goodness. I'd never thought of it that way before. I mean, were there kings in the pre-classical era? Significant ones? Surely nothing on the scale of Queen Elisabeth I or Louie the XIV. I suppose most areas were governed by tribal chieftains, though some places (Ireland comes immediately to mind, having not been significantly influenced by Rome or the barbarian invasions,) had "high kings". What exactly makes one a king, and not a chief or a sultan or an emperor? Does the terminology matter, other than perhaps denoting something about the size of the territory under governance?

I suppose I should read on.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Jasper's Dad

Has horns rather like these.

Research Notes: Prisons

In one of the earlier drafts, Lyta spent a bit longer in the prison, giving her a chance to look around. Which led to the question: What were prisons like in the late 1700s?
Of course, different places have different prisons. But Naveenian culture is drawn from British, French, and American culture of the day, we can limit our research to those countries.
The short answer is that prisons were AWFUL. Like rats-eating-you-alive awful. No wonder Europeans had to devise such spectacular ways of dismembering and killing people--what's the point of capital punishment if it isn't any worse than imprisonment?

Peter Frost has an intersting post on the history of imprionment and execution in Europe, Making Europeans kinder, gentler.
"When the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century, so did its system of retributive justice... In 511, the bishops of France greatly extended the right of sanctuary. If a man committed murder, he could now ask for and receive sanctuary in any holy place.
The new barbarian rulers also disliked the death penalty... every adult male had a right to use violence and to kill, if need be. This right was of course reciprocal. If you killed a man, his death could be avenged by his brothers and other male kinsmen.
As the barbarian kingdoms developed... steps were taken to limit male violence... The punishment for murder was thus monetized. If you killed a boy under 10, you paid 24,000 denars. Killing a free pregnant woman would cost a bit more: 28,000 denars... Capital punishment existed only for the murder of the king, for whom there was no wergild, or in the case of a slave killing a free man.
Thus, for a long period, murder was normally a personal matter to be settled by the victim’s family, through vengeance or a cash settlement. This situation began to change in the 12th century... The State no longer saw itself as an honest broker for violent disputes that did not challenge its existence. Jurists were now arguing that the king must punish the wicked to ensure that the good may live in peace...
From the 12th to 17th centuries, capital punishment became steadily more prevalent. We see this in an increasing willingness to use it not only for murder but also for other crimes (rape, abortion, infanticide, lèse majesté, theft, counterfeiting, etc.). We also see this in the use of ‘exemplary’ punishment: drawing and quartering, breaking on the wheel, and burning.
Then, after the 17th century, the war on murder began to go into reverse... In England, the homicide rate fell by over a hundred-fold between 1300 and 1900."

By Lyta and Jasper's time, serious movements were afoot to reform the prisons and make them less horrible, but they were still wretched. The Enlightenment concern for the rights of the accused can be seen in the American Bill of Rights: "excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted," and in the principle of Innocent until Proven Guilty, providing for a justice system which differed significantly from the torture-them-into-confession systems which formerly prevailed.

Some more information on prisons in colonial America: Cruel and Unusual: Prisons and Prison Reform, by Jack lynch.
"Early American prisons were not conceived as houses of punishment. In English and American law, political prisoners and high-ranking prisoners of war were occasionally incarcerated, but few common criminals could expect such treatment. Almost the only time commoners were locked away was while awaiting trial—once a verdict was delivered, they were punished on the spot or released...
In England... between 1688 and 1815, the number of capital crimes rose from about fifty to more than two hundred. The theft of a silk handkerchief or a pocket watch might lead to execution. ...but there were ways to escape a sentence to the gallows. English courts could show mercy by transporting convicts first to North America, then, after independence, to Australia, for sale as servants. [Avery's note: 'servant' here is a fancy word for 'slave'.] The medieval "benefit of clergy" allowed priests to avoid the harsh penalties associated with the secular courts; North America, and in the years after the Revolution... State after state began reducing the number of death-penalty offenses: in 1786, for instance, Pennsylvania eliminated the death penalty for robbery, burglary, and sodomy. ... The death penalty, they said, was a distinctly monarchical punishment; reformation, on the contrary, was compatible with republican ideals. To resist the death penalty, then, was a political gesture...
Being incarcerated even briefly could be tantamount to execution. Corruption was rampant; prisoners were expected to bribe their keepers for minimally adequate treatment, and those without money were often allowed to die of neglect. The buildings, too, could prove fatal... Hygiene was appalling—open sewers often ran through the facilities—and rarely were there fresh provisions or clean water.
Dangerous settings like these led to calls for more humane houses of detention... [Unfortunately,]Prisons quickly became overcrowded, expenses mounted, and taxpayers were unwilling to make convicts' lives more comfortable. High recidivism led many to question whether reformation was possible after all. Worse still, many of the lessons learned in developing an efficient system of incarceration were applied to chattel slaves in the South, who were subjected to the same kind of surveillance and control that jailers had learned to use on criminals: the two systems reinforced each other."

Quotes: John Locke and Adam Smith

Education begins the gentleman, but reading, good company and reflection must finish him.

The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings capable of law, where there is no law, there is no freedom.

New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.

The patrimony which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable. The patrimony of a poor man lies in the strength and dexterity of his hand; and to hinder him from employing this strength and dexterity in what manner he thinks proper without injury to his neighbour is a plain violation of this most sacred property.

Parents wonder why the streams are bitter, when they themselves have poisoned the fountain.

There is frequently more to be learned from the unexpected questions of a child than the discourses of men.

Where all is but dream, reasoning and arguments are of no use, truth and knowledge nothing.


All money is a matter of belief.

As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce.

Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

Labor was the first price, the original purchase - money that was paid for all things.

Resentment seems to have been given us by nature for a defense, and for a defense only! It is the safeguard of justice and the security of innocence.

Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.

The theory that can absorb the greatest number of facts, and persist in doing so, generation after generation, through all changes of opinion and detail, is the one that must rule all observation.

Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience.

--Adam Smith

I find Smith more interesting, personally.

Never start a land war in Asia--unless you're Genghis Khan

I drew this during a Mongolian history binge. Someday I should figure out what spears actually look like (also, I'm pretty sure they didn't use spears.)

The military achievements of the Mongol army (especially under the famous Genghis,) are really quite impressive.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Viewing the Past (and Present) Through Tinted Lenses

I just cracked open Cipolla's Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000-1700. I'm only a few pages in, don't mind me, but the discussion of wealth distribution and poverty in pre-industrial/late Medieval European society struck me as a very good example of how much our perceptions matter.

Cipolla cites numerous studies of the wealth/income distribution in various parts of Europe prior to the industrial evolution, as evidence of the unfairness of the system and the poverty of the majority of those in it. The funny thing is, America today is less fair--we have an even more extreme divide between our rich and poor--than the vast majority of Copolla's examples, by an order of magnitude.

Myself, I'm rather worried about modern society.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Post-it-note Dragons

An old photo

I have been told that the photo is of Russian Jews in New York, taken in 1876. The fellow in the center I find particularly striking--he looks like he could easily hail from the central Asian steppe, from Mongolia or another nomadic tribe.

If anyone has any other information about the picture, I'd be very happy to hear it.

Art Post

They seem happy together.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Vita Nostra

I'm currently reading Vita Nostra, because it was recommended as "like Harry Potter, if Harry Potter were written by Tolstoy." That was enough for me to actually buy it, because the Kindle edition was cheap and it probably wasn't available at the library.

Turns out it's nothing like Tolstoy. Tolstoy, as many of you probably already know, loves his characters. (At least most of them.)

This is like Harry Potter, if Hogwarts had been created and run by Gendo Ikari, and Gendo were Russian.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Bedtime Stories

There is an amusing irony, a conflict of interests, in reading to my children before bed. I want them to fall asleep, but they want to hear the rest of the story.

I have convinced my 4 year old to let me read him The Hobbit by changing Bilbo's name to that of his favorite stuffed animal. Well, great, only now he listens with rapt attention. Last night I read for two hours, and he still wasn't asleep. Finally I went and got myself a midnight snack, and by the time I got back, he was out.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Lyta and Jasper in the Garden

Lyta waited until the coachman had fallen asleep, then pulled on her cloak and ducked into the night. She slipped away from the carriages and revelers at the palace gates, the dancing fires and liveried guards, into the snow-clad gardens. Tonight was the eve of the Grand Masquerade, and she would not miss the whole affair just because Father insisted that fifteen was much too young to attend.

Music drifted from the balconies above her, accompanied by the rustle of voluminous petticoats, the patter of snappy shoes, the whispered affections of new lovers. She peered through the great glass windows at the twirling guests in their sparkling gowns.

The snow crunched behind her. Lyta startled and spun away from the window.

A masked stranger stood in the shadows beneath an elm, barely visible, watching her. "You've lost your disguise." His voice was young and reedy, his accent nearly French.

Lyta retreated toward the lamplight. "I'm not here -- I mean, I'm not at the masque. I'm just waiting for my sisters to come out so we can leave." Father had granted that one concession, that she might accompany the carriage when it came to fetch her family.

The corner of his mouth crooked into a smile, and despite her better judgment, Lyta smiled back.

--A Midwinter Night's Revolution, chapter one.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


A Midwinter Night's Revolution is finished! Now I just have to finish my query letter, and off it goes!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Deleted Bits: Chapter 52, Deception

Lyta paced. She had tried to sleep, but when nightmares hadn't woken her, the trolls had. There had been fighting and screaming, the army trying to drive them back and the trolls surging forward, again and again, until she thought she would never escape the memory of the men crushed beneath her tower.

Nuala had brought her lunch -- she'd picked at it -- and tried to dress her. She didn't know what to do next. Horse had disappeared, and though she had tried whistling out the window and calling his name, he hadn't appeared. Now she waited for nightfall, for news of the queen's death, for the castle to sleep and let her sneak into the dungeons and find her husband.

Nuala had returned with dinner and tried to brush her hair. The serving woman seemed concerned for her, and prattled endlessly about the trolls. Lyta slumped on the bed, exhausted.

The door opened.

"Jasper!" She flung her arms around him and kissed his broken lips, his dirty cheeks and blackened eyes. His arms were chained and he stared at her, his eyes hollow and distant, until his demeanor cracked and black misery flooded out of him like a river that had cracked its dam. He scooped her up and laid her on the bed, kissing her with the desperation of a man who had thought he would never see his wife again, and still might loose her yet.

He clutched her against himself and buried his face in her hair, kissing her neck. "Lyta." His voice was hoarse. "Why are you here?"

"I came for you. You knew I would." Lyta caught Jasper's hands, tugging at the manacles. "What have they done to you?"

The guard cleared his throat and glared at them.

The color drained from Jasper's face. "I must do something terrible." He turned away and picked up her satchel, slipping a hand inside.

Lyta helped him with the strap, which he couldn't manage with his hands bound. "What is it?"

His expression hardened. "Come with me."

She swallowed, then took his arm.


Lyta couldn't help but stare at the queen, rendered so commonly mortal by a simple dose of poison. Her head lolled against the pillow, a line of blood staining the silk. Her eyes flicked back and forth, and as she returned to herself, she grunted and gestured for all but her dead guards to leave.

Jasper knelt, staring at the floor. "I have brought her."

Lyta's heart began to pound.

The trolls outside had begun to roar, beating their fists against the castle, demanding kaolinite and retribution. They stomped and rumbled and shook, and the castle shook with them, chunks of mortar falling from the cracks between the bricks. "Give her..." The queen's voice was a whisper, rough and hoarse.

Jasper picked Lyta up. "Don't worry," he whispered, "this won't hurt." He kissed her forehead, and the world went black.

Conla, King of the Golden Isles

"The king smiled. There was fire in his eyes, but also kindness; summer and age had browned and crinkled his cheeks, and a full beard hung nearly to his chest. His hair was gold flecked with grey. The resemblance between him and his son was striking, even if Jasper stood a foot shorter, and had much more reasonable horns. She wondered if the king had a tail."

Poor Jasper's dad. He was a nice guy in the first few drafts. He had to become an antagonist to create more conflict, but Jasper still loves him.

'“And yet you tax those who can least afford to pay!” said Jasper.
The king waved away his objections. "It is a privilege to live in the Golden City. If they cannot afford it, they must go elsewhere."
"But where? You know very well that they have been expelled from their homelands."
“Only because they were lazy! The lords' estates are more profitable without them.” '